While driving to her bridal hat shop on Great River Road, Missy DuBois accidentally sideswipes a Rolls Royce parked in front of Dogwood Manor. Of course, the car belongs to the much-reviled property developer Herbert Solomon, who is converting the antebellum mansion into a high-end hotel. But Solomon is too busy berating his contractor and interior designer to worry about a little fender bender.
When Missy returns to check out the mansion’s chapel—where her latest client will be married—she finds Solomon’s dead body on the property. With poison found in his system, Missy starts stitching the clues together. But then her shop is flooded right before it’s supposed to be featured in a bridal magazine. Now before everything becomes sheer disaster, she’ll have to clean house while training her sights on a killer.
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Kudzu vines hung over the mansion's chain-link fence like tattered green bath mats tossed there to dry. Nothing could obscure what lay behind the overgrown fence, though — a beautiful antebellum mansion left to crumble and fade in the Louisiana sun.
I'd driven by the 1850s showpiece on this Monday morning to see what all the fuss was about. I'd read about the mansion in the real estate section of the Bleu Bayou Impartial Reporter, and since my morning commute took me nearby, I'd veered from LA-18 for a peek.
I owned a hat shop in town called Crowning Glory, so I spent my days crafting custom wedding veils, fascinators, and whatnot for brides who got married on the Great River Road. But my nights? Those told a different story. At night, I dreamt about grand Doric columns, scrolled corbels nestled beneath pitched roofs, and elegant staircases that swept toward heaven.
All like the finishing touches on this mansion. Well, maybe not now, since cracks veined the two-story columns, paint flaked from the carved corbels, and even more kudzu covered the marble staircase. But, no matter.
Not even a scaffold on the eastern side could obscure its beauty. The second-story scaffold was new, since it wasn't in the newspaper photo. It looked like a giant Tinkertoy set had been clicked into place under the windows, and workers had erected another set over the front door. A Been There, Dump That trash container, layered with hunks of plaster, clumps of rotted wood, and discarded two-by-fours, held the refuse like an overturned box for the Tinkertoys.
I slowly cruised past the Dumpster on the empty road. The layers of debris stair-stepped to an old whiskey barrel, which caught my eye. The barrel lay on its side and fingers of sunlight reached through the broken staves, like the dying whiskey maker's outstretched hand.
The cask sparked a memory. A similar barrel had appeared about eight months ago, when I arrived for work on New Year's Day to find it in the parking lot behind my hat studio. A trickle of blond, blood-splattered hair spilled from the opening of that one, like dirty salt poured onto black, peppery asphalt. The scene had mesmerized and repelled me at the same time.
I immediately hit the brakes and my Volkswagen skidded to a stop. Sweet mother of pearl! A cloud of pea gravel and road dust swirled around me. I'd obviously slammed into something ... but what?
The only sounds came from the rush of blood whooshing between my ears and tanker trucks that rumbled down nearby LA-18.
And then I heard it. The unmistakable clunk of something hard falling on the road behind me.
Reluctantly, I dragged my gaze to the rearview mirror. Sure enough, I'd sideswept a car that was parked under an unusually robust clump of kudzu. The impact sheared the side mirror clean off its base, and the shiny metal orb rolled merrily along Church Street, end over end, as if happy to be free of the car.
And not just any car. I'd struck a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, which hulked by the side of the road like a shiny Marathon oil tanker.
Only one person around here could afford such a nice car, and only one person would park it so willy-nilly. Herbert Solomon, one of Louisiana's most notorious billionaires, had to be nearby.
Dagnabit! I'd had the distinct displeasure of meeting Mr. Solomon when I first moved to Bleu Bayou, more than two years ago now. It'd happened at Morningside Plantation, another grand old home not far from here, when a wedding planner hired me to make a custom veil for a bride.
The bride turned out to be Mr. Solomon's daughter, Trinity. Only, the girl never got to wear her custom veil, because someone murdered her the night before the big event. The crime rocked our little community, and it hardened Mr. Solomon even more, if that was at all possible.
Since then, he'd handled his grief in a most unusual way. While others might turn to exercise classes, support groups, or, unfortunately, copious amounts of alcohol to dull the pain, he chose a different path. He charged through southern Louisiana with his checkbook open and offered to buy any antebellum property an owner cared to sell, for twice its appraised value.
He didn't care about preserving these historic gems. No, his goal was to renovate them into high-end hotels and wedding venues and become the area's first gazillionaire. He didn't always succeed, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.
Apparently, he'd sweet-talked the owners of Dogwood Manor into selling it to him, since his car skulked on the property. Is nothing sacred? Why do people keep selling to him? Before long, this stretch of the Mississippi River would become known as "hotel row," and not a historic site like it was meant to be, where gracious antebellum homes paid homage to the best and worst parts in Louisiana's history.
If I didn't feel so guilty about knocking his side mirror clean off its base, I might charge into the mansion and give Mr. Solomon a piece of my mind. Or, as my granddaddy would say, I'd "lay down the country and lay it down good."
Instead, I pulled the Volkswagen to the side of the road and hopped out of the car. Once I slammed Ringo's door shut — I'd nicknamed my car for another, more famous, Beatle — I hightailed it to the mansion.
Heat radiated off the asphalt and warmed the soles of my ballet flats, even at eight in the morning, as I made a beeline for a massive iron gate left to stand between brand-new sections of chain link. A Master padlock held the original gate closed, which meant I'd have to come up with plan B to get inside the property.
I carefully threaded my face between two of the gate's rusty bars and gazed over the lawn.
Tools lay everywhere. A belt sander topped a pile of shutters; two wood sawhorses held what I guessed to be the front door, since a blue plastic tarp covered a hole over the entrance; and an industrial pressure washer suckled at a rusty faucet.
"Yoo-hoo!" While tools lay everywhere, the people who operated them were nowhere to be found. "Anyone here?"
A cicada in a nearby rosebush provided the only response.
I frowned and pulled away from the bars. I could leave a note on the windshield of Mr. Solomon's Rolls and explain what happened. Or I could call his office and confess my mistake, hopefully to an answering machine. Then again, I had a perfectly good Allstate insurance agent back in town who might be willing to bear his tongue-lashing in my place.
But none of those options sounded good. They all sounded cowardly, not to mention downright unneighborly. I paused, and in a moment, the problem resolved itself. Someone's voice rose above the cicada, loud and clear, and his sharp words roiled under the plastic tarp.
"We open in five days. Five days! Do you understand that?" The voice came from inside the mansion, and the speaker didn't wait for a response. "We're running out of time, gentlemen."
There was no mistaking Mr. Solomon's voice. While his tone made me rethink my enthusiasm for a face-to-face meeting, I didn't have much choice at this point, so I took a deep breath and grasped the brand-new padlock on the gate. Whoever placed it there forgot to engage the lock, bless his heart, and the shackle hovered over the locking mechanism. One twist and the gray chain slithered to the ground.
I waited for the last link in the chain to drop. Then I pushed on the massive iron gate for all I was worth.
Cccrrreeeaaakkk! Slowly, it yawned open, like every rusted gate in every low-budget horror movie I'd ever seen. The only things missing were a creepy butler in a tuxedo jacket and the minor chords of Beethoven'sSonata No. 17.
Thank goodness I'd opted to wear ballet flats today. I carefully stepped around dropped nails, shards of wood, and broken kudzu vines to reach the marble staircase and the makeshift front door.
The scaffold loomed above me. Is it bad luck to walk under a scaffold, à la a ladder? Since I guessed not, I ducked beneath the planks and emerged in a cavernous foyer with whitewashed walls and a stained-glass window at the tippy top. A floating staircase, with mahogany banisters, rose through the center of the foyer and split the house in two. One wing led east, while the other headed west. The scent of sawdust and turpentine tinged the air.
I didn't have much time to look around, though, since the voice returned.
"No excuses, gentlemen! Either meet the damn deadline, or you don't get paid."
As soon as he fell silent, footsteps scurried across the floor, as if Mr. Solomon's audience couldn't wait to escape. Someone quickly popped around the corner, and I nearly toppled back against the tarp.
"Whaddya want?" An older man in an orange vest and battered hard hat appraised me warily.
He appeared to be a supervisor, since he held a paint-flecked clipboard.
"I need to speak to Mr. Solomon. Can you tell me where he is?"
"Unfortunately, yes." The foreman rolled his eyes. "He's always hanging around here. We'd finish this project a hell of a lot quicker if he'd just stay away."
"I won't keep you, then. I just need to know where he is."
Little by little, the man's jaw untensed. "Yeah, okay. Sorry about that. Didn't mean to take it out on you. It's just that Mr. Solomon's paying me good money to oversee this project, but he won't let me do my job. The whole crew's ready to mutiny."
"Uh, that's too bad. Could you maybe tell me which way to go?"
He flicked the clipboard east. "He's over there, in the library. I'm warning you, though. You might be sorry you asked for him."
"Fair enough. And I'm sorry about your troubles, Mr. ..."
"Truitt. It's Shep Truitt. I'm the construction foreman here. Or so I like to think. To hear Mr. Solomon tell it, he's the one doing all the work."
Before the scowl could return, I carefully sidestepped the foreman. Apparently Shep Truitt had plenty to say about his employer, and all day to say it. "Thank you," I called over my shoulder as I hurried away.
After a few steps, I entered the hall to the east wing, which was covered in muslin to protect the hardwood from paint splatters. My feet slapped the runner, like a dry paintbrush hitting the side of a can, and I passed a jumble of paint rollers, tape, and caulk. The walls were primed, but not yet painted, and a raw-wood chair rail ran down the length of it.
By the time I reached a double-wide door at the end of the hall, after passing a half-dozen closed doors on either side, the construction noise resumed. Someone fired up a belt sander on the second floor, while hammers and nail guns took up the chorus. Before long, a symphony of clanks and whira and banga rang out.
The double-wide door lay open at the end of the hall. I stepped into the library, which was lined from floor to ceiling with glimmering mahogany bookcases. On each side of the cases sat elaborate end tables decorated with cut-glass lamps. A large ladder — its feet shod in shiny brass wheels — leaned against the bookcase nearest me.
That was where I found Mr. Solomon, standing under the fifth rung, as he gazed at a bare shelf. Apparently he doesn't care about bad luck and ladders.
He turned when I approached, no doubt alerted by my footsteps in the hall.
He'd aged since our last meeting. What was left of his gray hair was gone, and purple spots flared across his scalp.
"The hotel isn't open yet." He waved his right hand dismissively. "Come back next week."
"That's not why I'm here." I threw him a half-hearted smile as I entered the room, knowing full well he wouldn't return it. "We've met before, Mr. Solomon. I'm Melissa DuBois. I made the veil for your daughter's wedding."
"I know who you are. You shouldn't be here."
Although I didn't expect a hug, for goodness sakes, would it kill him to be civil? I inched closer. "I thought you might've mistaken me for a tourist."
"This is a construction zone, Miss DuBois. No one's allowed in here without a hard hat."
I glanced at his bald head but withheld my comments. Better to use honey than vinegar with this one. "I only want a minute of your time. I'm afraid there's been a little fender bender."
"What do you mean ... a 'fender bender'?"
"I kinda knocked the mirror off your car." My voice faltered. Admitting the mistake was one thing, but his icy stare was quite another.
"I'll be happy to pay for it," I quickly added. "The mirror's still okay. It's just not where it's supposed to be." I laughed, but it sounded as phony at it felt.
"You think this is funny?" He finally moved away from the bookcase and walked over to where I stood. "Apparently you damage my car, then you trespass on my property, and now you have the nerve to laugh about it?"
"No, no." I shook my head. "I'm not laughing about it. And I couldn't drive away without telling you. I fully intend to pay for the damages. I just didn't notice your car when I drove by."
"How could you miss it?" He scoffed, until something worse flickered across his face: doubt. "Wait a minute. You weren't texting, were you? By God, if you were on your cell phone, I'll sic my attorney on you!"
I shook my head even harder. "No, no. That's not it. I swear, I wasn't texting."
"Then why didn't you see my car?"
"I noticed something in your trash bin. It's a long story. I just didn't want you to think I hit your car and took off again."
He stared me down for a moment, until his gaze finally swept to the doorway. "Hank! Get in here."
A middle-aged man appeared. It was Hank Dupre, a local Realtor and my assistant's uncle. Everyone knew Mr. Dupre on account of his loud parties and even louder wardrobe. Today he wore an orange polo with red flames that licked across the front panel like wildfire.
"Hello, Mr. Dupre." I realized my mistake right away. "I mean, uh, Hank." I always forgot to call him by his first name, which drove him to distraction.
"That's better. Hello, Missy."
"What brings you out here this morning?"
"I handled the sale for this place," he said. "And I wanted to meet the interior designer today. She's supposed to be a real whiz."
I hadn't spoken to Hank Dupre since Ambrose and I discovered a dead body at a mansion not far from here, which happened at the start of the new year. That was the case that involved a whiskey barrel, which got me into this mess in the first place. "It's good to see you again."
"You, too." Hank turned to Mr. Solomon. "Is that the designer in the hall?" He jerked his thumb back to indicate a petite woman standing behind him.
She wore a beige linen pantsuit and sky-high stilettos. The shoes seemed a little unsafe for a construction zone, if you asked me, but she stood barely five feet tall, so maybe she needed every inch she could get.
"That's her," Mr. Solomon said. "Erika, come over here."
The woman quickly approached us when he called, then she extended her right hand. She held a clear Lucite clipboard in the other one. "Hello. I'm Erika Daniels."
"Melissa DuBois. Pleased to meet you." I returned her handshake, surprised by the strength of the woman's grip. And, unlike me, she wore a white hard hat over her hair.
I waited for her to shake Hank's hand before I spoke again. "I hear you're an interior designer."
"Yes. I got my degree at the New York School of Interior Design. I focus on old homes, like this one." She turned to Mr. Solomon. "By the way, the west wing is shaping up nicely, so now it's time to work on this wing. I think —"
"We need to talk about that." Mr. Solomon obviously couldn't wait to regain control of the conversation. "I thought you promised that the library would be done by now. We have our first wedding on Saturday, remember? I don't want you to slap it together at the last minute."
Her smile thinned. "I don't intend to 'slap anything together'. The books will be delivered this afternoon. All the classics, like you wanted. And, I found the perfect mirror for the hall bathroom. I just need your signature on the purchase order."
Mr. Solomon snatched the clipboard from her. Purple spots covered his wrist, too, and I wondered whether the stress of the renovation had caused the rash to spread.
"All right." He removed a pen from the hinge and hastily scrawled his name. "Here you go." He thrust the clipboard back at her. "Hope this purchase doesn't break our budget, like some of your other ones."
"Of course not. Well, it was nice to meet you two." She began to back away from us, as if she didn't trust Mr. Solomon enough to turn her back on him.
"As for you," Mr. Solomon returned his attention to Hank, "I need you to go outside with Miss DuBois and check on my car. Apparently she barreled into my side mirror."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death Comes to Dogwood Manor"
Copyright © 2018 Sandra Bretting.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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