Freelance writer Jaine Austen is feeling festive about spending Christmas house-sitting at a posh Bel Air mansion, accompanied by her friend Lance and her cat, Prozac. But when a grumpy neighbor gets himself iced, she’ll have to find the culprit or she may spend the New Year in jail . . .
Scotty Parker is a former child star who once played Tiny Tim, but now he’s grown up into the role of neighborhood Scrooge. He cuts the wires on his neighbors’ Christmas lights and tells local kids that Santa had a stroke. And his miserly, bah-humbug attitude lasts year-round—a fact known all too well by his current wife, his ex-wife, his maid, and many more.
Scotty thinks he can stage a comeback with the screenplay he’s working on (The Return of Tiny Tim: Vengeance Is Mine!), and Jaine’s been reluctantly helping him edit it. So when Scotty is bludgeoned with a frozen chocolate yule log and the police start making a list of suspects and checking it twice, Jaine’s name is unfortunately included. True, she’s been under some stress, with Lance trying to set her up on dates and her fickle feline taking a sudden liking to someone else—but she’s not guilty of murder. Now she just has to prove it, by using her gift for detection and figuring out who committed this holiday homicide.
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"What a palace!" I said, surveying Connie Van Hooten's hangar-sized living room, with its limestone fireplace, triple crown moldings, and cathedral-quality stained glass windows.
"Isn't it fab?" Lance gushed. "And check this out!"
He gestured to a wall-length étagère filled with Lalique crystal, Fabergé eggs, and other priceless doodads.
"Good Lord. It's like I'm standing in a branch of the Louvre."
"This vase," Lance said, picking up a blue and white porcelain beauty, "is Ming Dynasty. Fourteen grand."
"Holy cow!" I cried. "No wonder Mrs. Van Hooten didn't want any pets around."
I shuddered to think what havoc Prozac would have wreaked on that étagère.
"I'm thinking we'll put up a Christmas tree right here," Lance said, pointing to a space between the limestone fireplace and what looked like a Rodin sculpture.
"We can't put up a tree, Lance. What if we spill pine needles on the rug?"
I pointed to the heirloom Persian rug beneath our feet.
"Don't be silly," Lance said. "We'll put a lining under the tree and be super careful. You know how meticulous I am."
He was right about that.
From his headful of perfectly groomed blond curls down to his spotless white Reeboks, Lance was the poster boy for meticulous. I mean, this was a guy who ironed his undies.
"I brought all my favorite Christmas ornaments," he was saying, "and I found a fabulous article in Martha Stewart Living about ornaments we can make by hand. Pine cone Santas. Acorn garlands. Pipe cleaner elves. Won't that be fun?"
Oh, groan. There's nothing more exhausting than Lance in the throes of one of his creative jags.
"C'mon, let me show you to your room," he said, grabbing my suitcase and leading me up a flight of stairs straight out of Downton Abbey. I followed him up the steps, desperately trying to figure a way to get out of any future arts and crafts projects.
Upstairs, he ushered me down a hallway past a massive master suite to my room.
"Voila!" he said, showing me inside. "I gave you the room with a view of the garden."
I looked out the window at "the garden," a patch of green the size of a soccer field. Off in the distance, I could make out a pool and tennis courts.
"Isn't it stunning?" Lance asked, gesturing around the room.
Indeed it was: sumptuous down bedding, quilted silk headboard, thick-as-a-cloud carpeting, all done up in pale peach and dotted with antique furniture.
"That chair over there," Lance said, pointing to a delicately carved beauty, "is an authentic Queen Anne. And so is the matching dressing table."
I looked at the slender legs of the chair and thought how much Prozac would have loved using them as scratching posts.
Yes, it was all for the best that I'd brought Pro to the Fur Seasons.
And yet, I still couldn't help but feel a tad guilty about leaving her there.
True, she'd seemed perfectly content when I'd last seen her chowing down on her charbroiled salmon.
But what would happen tonight at bedtime? I suddenly pictured her all alone on her Fur Seasons bed, her big green eyes wide with fear. How would she ever drift off to sleep without my neck to nuzzle into?
How would I drift off to sleep, for that matter?
"Get your stuff unpacked," Lance said, "while I go downstairs to whip up a batch of hot mulled cider. Won't that be nice? Warming up with a glass of mulled cider on a nippy December day?"
"Lance, this is L.A. The Santa Anas are blowing in from the desert. It's eighty-one degrees."
"Oh, well. I'll just pump up the A/C and soon we'll have Jack Frost nipping at our noses!"
And off he dashed to run up Connie Van Hooten's electricity bill.
After stashing my things in my walk-in closet (bigger than my bedroom at home), I headed back downstairs, where Lance was waiting for me in the living room with the promised mulled cider.
"I just know this is going to be the most fantabulous Christmas ever!" Lance said, as we settled across from each other on two down-filled sofas flanking the fireplace.
"By the time our stay here is over, I'll forget that Justin ever existed. Yes, indeed," he said, sipping at his cider, "this is the perfect place to mend a broken heart."
"Lance, if I remember correctly, you and this Justin guy were dating for a grand total of three weeks."
"Yes, Jaine, but a lot of strong emotional ties can develop in three weeks, something you'd know if you'd had even a scrap of a love life of your own."
"Hey," I protested. "I've had my share of romance."
"A paltry dollop or two, but you've never experienced the depth of true love as I have," he sighed, plastering a soulful expression on his face, Romeo in Reeboks.
And he was off and running, yammering about his love affair gone awry.
As I often do when Lance goes rambling down romance lane, I quickly tuned out, my thoughts drifting back to Prozac, alone and lonely in her room at the Fur Seasons.
"Hey, what's with you?" Lance asked after a while, busting into my reverie. "You forgot the world revolves around me, me, me — and haven't been listening to a word I've said."
Okay, so he didn't say the part about the world revolving around him, but I bet my bottom Pop-Tart he was thinking it.
"I'm worried about Prozac," I confessed. "I'm afraid she's going to be miserable without me."
"Nonsense! I'm sure Pro has made a million kitty friends by now. If I know that cat, she's probably leading them in a conga line."
Lance continued to assure me that Prozac would be absolutely fine and ordered me to stop worrying. And somewhere in the middle of my second mulled cider, I did.
Lance was right. Prozac would survive perfectly well without me.
She was probably having the time of her life letting Lance's dog, Mamie, sniff her tush as she watched Animal Planet on her sixty-inch TV.
I was finally beginning to relax when the sonorous chimes of Mrs. Van H's doorbell filled the air.
"I'll get it," Lance said, springing up to answer the door.
"Jaine!" he called out after a few seconds. "It's for you."
I walked out into the grand foyer and saw the attendant from the Fur Seasons, the one who'd brought Prozac her charbroiled salmon, standing in the doorway holding Prozac's carrier.
Inside the cage, Pro was wailing like a banshee.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Austen," the attendant said, "but we cannot keep your pet any longer."
"Why on earth not?" Lance asked, as I scooped Pro out of the carrier and put an end to her wails.
"I'm afraid she attacked Kathy, our concierge."
"Oh, no!" I gasped.
"In fact, Kathy's in the emergency room right now, having surgery on her pinkie finger."
Lolling in my arms, not the least bit ashamed of what she'd done, Prozac gave a complacent thump of her tail.
I warned her not to call me Pwozie-Wozie.CHAPTER 2
"Prozac, how could you?" I cried, after the Fur Seasons gal had gone.
The little devil looked up from where she was nestled in my arms.
It was easy. I just chomped down on her pinkie and took a bite.
"Well, we certainly can't keep Prozac here," I said, thinking of the Ming vase and the Persian carpet and the Queen Anne furniture. "She's bound to break, scratch, or tinkle on something."
In my arms, Prozac began to squirm.
Lemme go! I wanna see all the stuff I can break!
"Let's put her in the kitchen for now," Lance said. "She can't do much harm there."
I wasn't so sure about that, once I got a look at Mrs. Van H's stainless steel and marble-countered kitchen, eyeing the fine stemware in glass-fronted cabinets.
"We'd better give her something to eat," I said. "That should distract her for a while."
And indeed, in spite of the charbroiled salmon she'd recently scarfed down, Prozac dived into the dish of caviar Lance had unearthed from the Van Hooten pantry with Olympian gusto.
Leaving her inhaling fish eggs, we headed back out to the living room to figure out what to do next.
"I know!" Lance said. "We'll just keep her in the kitchen all the time."
"Forget it, Lance. Prozac's the Houdini of cats. She'll figure out a way to escape before we've even shut the door."
"Okay, then," Lance said. "We'll box up everything valuable in the house and stow it away."
"Are you kidding? Everything in this house is a museum piece. By the time we box it all up, it'll be time to go home. Look, there's no way out of it. I'm simply going to have to take Pro and go back to my apartment."
"But you can't!" Lance moaned. "Not now, with my heart smashed to tiny pieces. I simply can't bear the thought of spending Christmas alone."
He slumped down in the sofa, all traces of his holiday high leeched out of him.
"Maybe I can call the Fur Seasons and beg them to take Prozac back."
I realized there was exactly zero chance of this happening, but I reached for my cell anyway.
And just as I did, it rang.
I didn't recognize the name on my caller ID, but I answered it anyway, hoping it wasn't one of the army of robocallers who seem to be tailing me these days like a swarm of particularly pesky gnats.
"Hi!" A woman's voice came chirping over my speaker.
Oh, hell. I just knew it was going to be someone trying to sell me solar paneling.
"Is this Jaine Austen?" the chirpy woman asked.
"Yes," I replied warily, waiting for her sales spiel to begin.
"Do you have a cat name Prozac?"
Thanks heavens! No sales spiel. I was off the hook for solar paneling.
"Yes, I have a cat named Prozac."
"I got your name and number from her collar," the chirpy woman said. "The adorable little thing just wandered into our house from our terrace."
"See?" I whispered to Lance. "I told you she's a world-class escape artist." And then, to the chirpy woman, I said, "I'll come right over and pick her up."
When she gave me her address, I realized she was on the same street as Connie Van Hooten. I told her where I was staying, and she told me she was right next door.
"We're the big beige house, just south of Mrs. Van Hooten's."
After hanging up, I charged into the kitchen with Lance and sure enough, one of the windows was slightly ajar. Obviously, Prozac's means of escape.
"I'll go get her," I said, scurrying out of the house, down the front path and over to the house next door.
Like Mrs. Van Hooten's, it was a magnificent piece of architecture. But I could see from the patchy lawn, overgrown bushes, and the water stains on the exterior paint that the house had seen better days.
Heading up the front steps, I spotted a large plastic Rudolph reindeer, lying on a patch of fake snow, fake blood oozing from its head.
Wow. Nothing says "Bah! Humbug!" like a dead Rudolph on your front lawn.
Across the path on the other side of the lawn a menacing mechanical snowman glared at me with beady black eyes.
I rang the doorbell, trying not to stare at my creepy companions.
Seconds later, the door was opened by a leggy blond beauty in baby blue sweats, her lush mane of hair cascading like a waterfall, a Victoria's Secret model come to life.
In her arms, she held Prozac, who was gazing up at her worshipfully, nuzzling her neck, purring in delight.
"You must be Jaine!" the blonde exclaimed. "Are you staying with Connie for the holidays?"
"No, my friend Lance and I are house-sitting for Mrs. Van Hooten while she's yachting in the Mediterranean."
"Well, it's super to meet you. I'm Missy Parker. Excuse the gruesome Christmas decorations," she said, gesturing to Rudolph and the snowman. "My husband thinks they're funny. C'mon in and meet him."
She ushered me into a living room that had many of the same spectacular features of Mrs. Van H's manse — triple molded ceilings, ornate fireplace, wide-planked hardwood floors.
But here the walls were dingy, riddled with settling cracks, dusty drapes hanging from unwashed windows. The only spot of color in the room was a portrait of a little boy in a sailor suit hung over the fireplace.
"Scotty, say hello to Jaine Austen."
I got my first glimpse of Scotty Parker as he sat in a cracked recliner — a middle-aged guy way older than his twentysomething wife — his eyes riveted on a bulky dinosaur of a TV, watching the Dow Jones ticker crawl across the bottom of the screen on CNBC.
When he finally tore himself away from the Industrial Average to look up at me, I was surprised to see — in spite of his burgeoning pot belly and thinning red hair — the freckled face of an impish teenager.
Think Huckleberry Finn after years of too much booze and not enough exercise.
"Jaine and her friend are house-sitting for Mrs. Van Hooten next door," Missy explained. "Connie's such a doll," she added, grinning at me.
"The woman's a royal bitch," Scotty snapped. "Had her face lifted so many times, her kneecaps are where her chin used to be."
"Oh, Scotty!" Missy said, rolling her eyes. "Don't be that way. He doesn't really mean it," she assured me.
"Yeah, I do," he grumbled.
"I'm surprised Connie's letting you keep a cat in her house," Missy said, eager to change the subject. "She's so fussy about her collectibles."
"That's just it," I said. "Prozac was supposed to be staying at a pet hotel, but things didn't work out."
I shot Prozac a look of rebuke, but she was too busy rubbing up against Missy's cascading curls to notice.
"That's too bad," Missy said.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to take Prozac and go back to my apartment. I can't possibly risk having her break something."
"And leave your friend to house-sit all alone?" Missy exclaimed. "What a pity."
Her silken brow wrinkled in dismay.
"I know! Why don't you have Prozac stay here! I've always wanted a kitty. And we don't have any valuables for her to break."
This spoken, I couldn't help but notice, with a tinge of regret.
And she sure wasn't lying about the paucity of valuables, I thought, eyeing the room full of mismatched furniture, decades old, each piece looking like it had been rescued from a second- rate thrift shop.
"I keep my valuables locked up," Scotty said. "Can't trust the help these days."
That last bit shouted at a tiny slip of a Hispanic maid walking by in the foyer, carrying a load of laundry.
Hearing Scotty's zinger, the maid stopped in her tracks just long enough to shoot him a death ray glare.
"So, how about it, Scotty?" Missy was saying, scratching Prozac behind her ears. "Can Prozac stay with us?"
Scotty looked up, assessing me and Prozac, and from the disgruntled look on his freckled face, I was guessing he found us both wanting. Which is why I was so surprised when he shrugged and said, "Sure. Why not?"
"That's wonderful!" I said. "Thank you so much!"
"And why don't you bring your friend and stop by for dinner tonight?" he added.
Wow. I'd totally misjudged the guy. I had him down as a grouchypants extraordinaire, and here he was turning out to be a real sweetie.
"We'd love to," I said.
"Good," he said. "It's pot luck. You two bring the entrée. Dinner for six."
Whoa. An entrée for six? As they say on the Champs- Élysées, quel chutzpah!
But he was, after all, taking care of Prozac, and I figured dinner for six was the least I could do to repay him.
"Bye, honey," I said to Prozac as I turned to go. "I'll see you later."
Wrenching herself away from where she'd been nuzzling Missy's neck, Prozac gazed at me blankly.
And you are ...?
What can I say? Loyalty's not one of her strong points.
Missy walked me to the door, assuring me I could come visit Pro whenever I wanted.
And then, just as I was about to leave, Scotty shouted out, "Don't forget that entrée! Steaks would be great! Preferably filet mignon."
Filet mignon for six? He had to be kidding! No way was this guy a sweetie. On the contrary, I thought, as I made my way past dead Rudolph and the malevolent snowman.
Ebenezer Scrooge was alive and well and living in Bel Air.
YOU'VE GOT MAIL!
To: Jausten From: Shoptillyoudrop Subject: Busy as Bees!
Daddy and I have been as busy as bees getting ready for our Holiday Caribbean Cruise. As I probably already told you, a whole bunch of us Tampa Vista-ites are going. Just think how lovely it will be not to have fuss in the kitchen on Christmas Day, listening to Daddy and Uncle Ed arguing over how to carve the turkey! Instead, I'll be basking in the sun with one of those cute rum umbrella drinks! Not that Daddy and I will have much time for basking. There's so much to see and do. All those beautiful islands with magical names. Barbados. Antigua. Martinique! I can't wait to see them all. Especially Martinique. I wonder if that's where they invented the martini.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge"
Copyright © 2018 Laura Levine.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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