A summer of fun at a Catskills resort comes to an abrupt end when a guest is found murdered, in this new 1950s set mystery series.
It’s the summer of 1953, and Elizabeth Grady is settling into Haggerman’s Catskills Resort. As a vacation getaway, Haggerman’s is ideal, and although Elizabeth’s ostentatious but well-meaning mother is new to running the resort, Elizabeth is eager to help her organize the guests and the entertainment acts. But Elizabeth will have to resort to untested abilities if she wants to save her mother’s business.
When a reclusive guest is found dead in a lake on the grounds, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto is found in his cabin, the local police chief is convinced that the man was a Russian spy. But Elizabeth isn’t so sure, and with the fate of the resort hanging in the balance, she’ll need to dodge red herrings, withstand the Red Scare, and catch a killer red-handed.
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"My neighbor Mrs. Francesco heard him at a club in the city. Vulgar, unamusing, and all-around offensive were the words she used. As if that wasn't bad enough, he was even worse the second night!" Mrs. Brownville blew a plume of smoke into my face. I gave her my best professional smile, but it wasn't easy.
"She was so offended she went a second time?"
"They were taken by friends. Please keep up, dear. One doesn't refuse the hospitality of friends." Another plume of smoke lunged toward me.
I tried not to cough at the same time I struggled to keep my smile fixed to my face. Mr. and Mrs. Brownville were here for four weeks. They'd taken one of the best lakefront cabins in order to have room for a rotating roster of visiting friends and relations. At Haggerman's Catskills Resort we were not so flush with high-paying guests I could afford to offend one.
"Don't just stand there gaping, girl. What are you going to do about it?" Mrs. Brownville was in her sixties, and she was a woman not to be trifled with: approaching six feet tall, broad-chested, broad-shouldered, midnight-black hair sprayed into an unmovable object, small, dark intense eyes. She wore a powder-blue wool suit over a blue blouse with a floppy bow tied at the neck, and blue shoes with kitten heels. Not what most people would consider appropriate attire for a hot summer's day in the Catskills, but I'd never seen her in anything but a designer suit of one shade of pastel or another.
I glanced around, seeking escape. To my dismay, none was forthcoming.
"Elizabeth Grady, are you listening to me? Or must I speak to your mother?"
"No need to bother Olivia, ma'am," I said. "She trusts me to make decisions regarding the running of Haggerman's." I cleared my throat. "I'll have a chat with our entertainment director and with Mr. Simmonds himself to ensure he's fully aware that at Haggerman's Catskills Resort we're proud of our family-friendly reputation." We didn't actually employ an entertainment director, but I decided not to mention that the task of hiring entertainers, along with so many others, largely fell to me.
"You do that. I will, of course, be in the audience to be sure that his entire act is acceptable for young people and ladies."
Not a good idea. Charlie Simmonds was a rapidly rising comedian in the smoke-filled clubs of New York City and in the equally smoke-filled lounges of the Catskills precisely because he was, supposedly, cutting-edge and risquŽ. New York City comedians weren't normally hired as children's entertainers. Or to pass muster by the likes of Mrs. Brownville, always on the lookout for something to be offended about.
I shifted from one foot to the other. Mrs. Brownville had waylaid me on the lakefront path at midday. The hot sun beamed down, the air almost dripped with humidity, and I was dressed in work attire of stockings and a girdle under a blue-and-yellow-print dress that fell slightly below my knees, with a Peter Pan collar and long sleeves. I thought fondly of the pretty sundress I hadn't had a chance to wear yet. Too informal for a professional woman on a working day, my mother sniffed when she suggested (ordered?) that I change.
"I have to point out, Mrs. Brownville," I said, "that Mr. Simmonds will be doing two shows each day for the three days he's engaged to be at Haggerman's. A family-friendly performance at nine and a more . . . adult-oriented one at eleven, following the dessert buffet."
Surely Mrs. Brownville would be long abed by eleven. A day spent finding fault with everything and everyone had to be exhausting.
"Adults," she pronounced, "also need to be protected from filth. I will attend both shows this evening. Now, about the other matter I wanted to discuss with you." She dropped the end of her cigarette onto the path and rummaged in her cavernous handbag for the pack.
Attempting to be discreet, I moved my right foot and ground out the still-lit end before it could set the whole place on fire. I checked my watch. "Will you look at the time. I have to be off. I have . . . uh . . . something important to do."
"Won't take long." She popped a fresh Lucky Strike into her lipsticked mouth, flicked the gold engraved lighter, lit the cigarette, and took a deep breath.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Brownville can talk while smoking. I suspect Mrs. Brownville can talk while sleeping. Another smoky plume wafted my way. I held my own breath.
"I'll walk with you, Elizabeth," she said. "The exercise will do me good. Don't just stand there, girl. Let's go. About the chicken ˆ la king served last night at dinner. I myself am blessed with the constitution of my Scottish forebears. Hearty Highland stock the lot of them, but Mr. Brownville is not so fortunate. He-"
My heart leapt for joy as I spotted salvation heading my way. "Randy! Randy!" I waved my arms and called.
Randy Fontaine, the resort's aquatic director, swimming instructor, and head lifeguard, saw me, and who I was with, a second too late. He knew I knew he'd seen me and turning tail and fleeing would not be a good career move. His eyes stopped darting about, seeking escape, and he slapped on a big smile. "Good morning, Mrs. Grady, Mrs. Brownville. Beautiful day, isn't it? Don't let me keep you."
"Randy," I said. "It's almost lunchtime, so you have no appointments for the next while. Mrs. Brownville and I were chatting about the meals. You know that's primarily the domain of Chef Leonardo and Rosemary, but I'm always happy to hear what our guests have to suggest about the food we serve here at Haggerman's. Why don't you escort Mrs. Brownville to lunch and report back to me later?"
"Uh-" he said.
"Excellent idea." Mrs. Brownville grabbed Randy's bare arm and hauled him away. I couldn't help but notice they didn't take the most direct route to the main building. She'd want all her friends, and all her enemies, to see her hanging on the arm of our tall, blond, tanned, muscular swimming instructor. He'd pulled a shirt on over his bathing suit to take his break, but he hadn't done up the buttons.
A slim figure slipped out of the bushes lining the path and fell into step next to me. "I saw that. Nicely done. Let Randy earn his wages for a change."
"I think Randy more than earns his wages," I said. "I'm convinced some of the young women, and the older women, too, rent other people's kids so they can watch them taking Randy's swimming classes."
Velvet McNally laughed. "You're probably right about that. I've had a couple of the daughters ask me if he gives private lessons."
I didn't laugh in return. "I hope you squashed any mention of that. I do not need trouble from irate fathers."
"Even Randy, as confident as he is about his supposed appeal to women, knows better, Elizabeth. That is, I hope he does."
"'Supposed appeal?'" I asked.
Her eyes, the color of lake water on a sunny day, slid to one side. "I've been told women find him attractive. Can't see it myself."
We walked up the path together, taking our time, enjoying each other's company. Velvet had been my best friend all through school and into our adulthood, and I'd managed to lure her away from her dreams of stardom to join the staff here at Haggerman's. Velvet's ambition in life was to be a professional show dancer, like my mother. Like my mother, and totally unlike me, she was graced with the perfect dancer's body: all sharp angles and jutting bones atop endless legs. Unlike my mother, but exactly like me, Velvet had not one ounce of grace. She could, and often did, trip on a flat stretch of pavement. She worked here as the director of our outdoor recreation programs. When I offered her the job, she said it beat slinging hash in a Bronx diner while waiting for her big break, which she'd finally admitted to herself wasn't going to happen.
My desk was piled high with papers needing attention, but I was in no rush to get back to it. It was a perfect Catskills day: hot and humid, but the humidity was cut somewhat by a light breeze blowing off Delayed Lake, bringing with it the scent of fresh water and the forested hills surrounding us. Children's laughter came from the swimming pool enclosure and the small sandy beach. A woman called lunchtime, and a screen door slammed. One of the grounds staff nodded politely to us as he came out from behind a bush, straw hat low over his eyes, pruning shears gripped firmly in his hand.
I returned his nod, and then took a deep breath and looked around me, wanting to enjoy the moment before I headed back to my crowded, hot, stuffy office.
The yellow ball of the sun shone in a sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, and we were surrounded by every shade of green imaginable. The dark greens of the trees on the hills, the emerald green of the well-maintained lawn, variegated greens in the foliage of the flower beds and the iron pots lining the lakefront path. Even Velvet's lime-green exercise shorts and matching shirt. To our left the blue waters of Delayed Lake shimmered. Two paddleboats went past, the laughter of the passengers echoing through the hills. Further out, teenagers leapt into the lake from the diving platform, screaming their enjoyment.
"What are you smiling at?" I said to Velvet.
"You. You love it here, don't you?"
"I love it here, yes. I don't love all the work I have to do. When Olivia suggested I join her in running this place she so unexpectedly inherited, she neglected to mention that I would manage the entire resort and everything to do with it while she sips cocktails, looks gracious, and pops up now and again to charm the guests."
"Such is life." Velvet laughed. "Someone has to do the charming. Would you want your mother doing more?"
I shuddered. "Heavens no. Half the staff would quit the first week, and the other half would sit back, light a cigarette, and ask me to fetch them a cold drink."
"You have your aunt Tatiana."
"Tatiana." I felt a warm rush of pleasure at mention of the woman who'd been largely responsible for raising me. "And you. You both keep me sane." Enough lollygagging. I picked up my pace. "What have you got on this afternoon?"
"After lunch it's calisthenics on the dock for the women over fifty and then the teenagers. I'm not planning to play in the handball tournament, but I'll pop over to the court and make sure it's under control. This evening we have the nature walk."
"Be sure and let me know how that goes." The nature walk was a new idea for this year, and today was the first time. We'd invited a member of a local nature lovers' society to lead the walk and give a talk on flora and fauna of the area. Randy and Velvet would tag along, to ensure none of our guests got lost or, in the case of teenage couples, deliberately fell behind.
We stopped walking when we reached the spot at which the lakefront path branched out in several directions. A sign bristling with arrows pointing every which way was planted in the center of a small flower bed: to the swimming pool, to the tennis and handball courts, to the cabins, to the parking lot, to the main building. Behind us lay the guests' boat dock and the beach, at this time of day crowded with brightly painted wooden chairs, beach towels, sunbathing guests, and pail-and-shovel-toting toddlers. In front of us, a brand-new bright red four-door 1953 Hudson Jet pulled up to the steps of the hotel, and uniformed bellhops came running from all directions to help unload the luggage.
"I'm looking forward to hearing that comedian tonight," Velvet said. "The nature walk will be over in time for me to run back to my room and change and catch his show. I could use a good laugh."
"You're always laughing," I said, "and so you should. You have a great job, fresh air, and healthy exercise all day long."
"I always appear to be laughing," she said. "There's a difference." She settled her face into serious lines, but she couldn't hold the expression. With her porcelain complexion, huge cornflower-blue eyes, and long golden hair, Velvet attracted her share of male admirers. During the day, when she was in the water or leading exercise classes and games, she tied her hair into a bouncy ponytail.
"Okay," she admitted. "I'd rather have my job than yours, although I do have to worry that some of the older women in my classes are going to think they're younger than they are and do too much and have a heart attack in front of me."
She turned, saying "See you later, alligator" as she skipped down the path leading to the guests' parking lot and the staff quarters behind.
A teenage boy stepped into the flower bed and walked straight into the direction sign, so intent was he on watching her go.
I smiled to myself and hurried over to make sure he was all right.
Haggerman's Catskills Resort specializes in "heathy outdoor exercise during the day and the stars of entertainment at night."
Before my mother inherited it, Haggerman's didn't specialize in anything at all. It was just one of a hundred Catskills resorts New Yorkers flocked to all summer long.
The problem with Haggerman's had been that not many New Yorkers had been flocking here.
My mother, Olivia Peters, had been a Broadway and Hollywood dance star in her prime. The professional life of a dancer isn't long, and after one injury too many, Olivia hadn't been able to slip comfortably into straight acting or teaching dance. The daughter of solid Russian immigrants, she'd saved a lot of money over the course of her career and when she had to retire, she set herself up as a patron of the arts. Young dancers, singers, and actors flocked to her luxury apartment on East Sixty-Fifth Street near Central Park to bask in her fame and meet the directors and producers she also cultivated.
Unfortunately, as well as being taught to watch her pennies, my mother had been taught that a respectable woman let her husband handle the details of their financial affairs. Olivia's third husband, the cursed Jack Montgomery, emptied out her bank accounts and skipped town. She lost the Manhattan apartment, most of her jewelry, designer dresses, and fur coats, and would have been on the street had a longtime admirer not conveniently up and died and left her the only thing of any value he owned: Haggerman's Catskills Resort.