Unexpected death has a way of drawing attention to itself. Death calls on Jania Yewbanks when she accepts a delivery for her husband. Her obituary attracts the attention of Hannah Clare who has decided early retirement is boring and she returns to work as a P.I. Her first case is to find how Jania Yewbanks died. The investigation leads her to a murder-for-hire ring that advertises itself as a gift service in the local newspaper.
More than one murder, more than one murderer cross Hannah's path as she tries
to discover the identity of the person or persons behind the murder-by-mail
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|Publisher:||Day to Day Enterprises|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Jania Yewbanks shut the sweeper off with a nudge of her pink-slippered foot. The knock came again, an urgent summons over the sound of the early autumn rain.
"Whoever that is better have a good reason for bothering me," she muttered on her way to answer it. "Ellie's quitting like she did--girl never did half of what I told her. Left me with a real mess."
Patting her blonde hair into place, she peered out the window before answering the door. These days one had to be so careful.
On the stoop, with rain running in broken streamlets over his unprotected head, stood an unfamiliar delivery man. Jania sighed in annoyance. They were always inconvenient in their timing.
Opening the door just a crack, she looked out at him over the safety chain. His colorless hair was plastered over his high forehead. He leered at her through the narrow gap.
"Who're you?" She glared at him.
"Got a package fer Mr. Yewbanks, lady," he told her, his voice sounding as if someone had him by the throat. "Hunnert an' eighty dollars due." Water dripped off the end of his prominent nose, the only notable feature on his otherwise unremarkable face.
"Yes, yes. He left the money for it," she said impatiently and disappeared behind the solid oak door.
With the cash in hand, Jania cautiously removed the latch. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the quick movement of lace curtains next door. Old Nosy was watching the house again.
Disgusted, Jania hastily counted out the bills and handed them to the man.
He shoved his clipboard inside, his sleeve dripping onto her freshly waxed floor.
Exasperated, she scratched her name illegibly on the extended sheet beside the package number.
Giving a toothy grin,he bade her farewell.
Behind the closed door, she turned the package over in her hands. The brown, water-spotted wrapping paper bore no return address or postmark. She toyed with it, wondering at the contents. Ted's idea of a bonus for his secretary was probably something entirely unsuitable. If he had bothered to consult her, she could have advised him. So much money. He had no business buying gifts for the woman. He paid her well for her time.
Thick tape held the heavy paper securely. After some grumbling over a broken nail, Jania cut through the tape with her sewing scissors and stripped away the packing. Inside was a small blue box of imitation leather. The gold clasp opened easily to reveal a pair of pearl earrings nestled in gray crushed velour. "Mable doesn't have pierced ears," Jania muttered to herself, shaking her head at her husband's foolishness.
Jania fondled the pearls admiringly. The slender gold stems were tinted with a greenish glaze. Rubbing didn't remove it.
Must be a protective coating.
At the large hall mirror she fitted the earrings into her dainty lobes. They were lovely. What would a woman with an aged mother to support do with such an extravagant gift?
I'll get Ted to let me keep them, she decided. Mable could do with some new gloves. Jania was certain her husband would agree. He always did.
She admired her reflection proudly. She still had the beauty of her youth that had first attracted Ted. All these years and not a wrinkle or line. A woman had to work at keeping a husband's eye from roving.
At the thought of her husband, her blue eyes filled with disdain. She made a face as she considered his unfulfilled promises. Empty talk to get her to marry him.
Suddenly, her reflection swam, a strange weariness assailing her. At first she tried to dismiss it. Probably all the bending in this heat. I'd better sit down.
Movement was difficult. Her legs were unusually heavy. She staggered, frightened, into the living room where she stumbled over the vacuum cleaner and fell. Sobbing, she pushed the mahogany coffee table aside and pulled herself up onto the soft blue sofa to lie gasping. After a few seconds she summoned the strength to reach for the telephone. It slipped from her nerveless fingers.
Ted Yewbanks entered the house, slapping the rain from his coat. He came into the room where Jania lay, approaching the sofa slowly. He stared down at her. Dripping water soaked into the gray carpet.
She reached out with a limp hand. An unintelligible croak escaped her lips as she tried to form his name.
"I see the earrings came," he said smiling as he leaned over her. "Yes, they are beautiful. You just couldn't resist trying them on, my greedy darling. An excellent choice." His voice hardened.
Jania shuddered, exhaling like the last air escaping from a deflating balloon.
He waited to see if she drew another breath and when she didn't, felt for a pulse. Finding none, he then closed her eyelids. "I'd better call the doctor," he remarked. "It's not every day a man finds his wife dying."
Ted picked up the portable red telephone to punch in the doctor's number. Stroking his thin mustache with long fingers, he waited as the distant ringing echoed over the wires.
The receptionist's cool professionalism greeted him. "Dr. Zimmer's office. May I help you?"
Ted was ready for her. "Get an ambulance over here!" he shouted with panic in his voice. "It's my wife! She's unconscious!" He spoke rapidly, urgently.
As he talked, he studied his reflection in the nearby mirror. Yes, he had the proper amount of fright in his expression.
"Now, now. Calm down." The receptionist assumed the role of practiced superiority. "Who is this?"
He smiled, pleased with his acting. "Ted Yewbanks. Dr. Zimmer has to come at once!" Again, he put urgency into his voice.
"Where do you live?"
"Eight-oh-four Maple Lane. Please hurry!" He hung up. Of course, she'd send the paramedics.
Looking down at his wife's still form, he added, "I guess it was worth ten thousand, Jania. Just think how fast you could've spend that." He shrugged and turned away. "I'm free of you at last."
Hannah Clare scratched her graying head, puzzled by the disorganized appearance of the obituaries in Thursday's issue of the local rag, The Ladies' Daily. The portrait of a pretty blonde should not be at the top of the page. It was a face that not long ago had adorned the society page of Penn Crossing's other paper, The Morning Sun, recently acquired by a publishing firm in nearby Philadelphia.
"Jania Yewbanks, local society matron, aged thirty-three, died Tuesday at her home on Maple Avenue. Cause of death is undetermined. Survived by husband, Theodore Yewbanks, and sister, Leah Wills."
Over a curl of cigarette smoke, Hannah read aloud to her daughter. "That's at least four in the last year," she mused. "Wonder the police don't check them out." She uncrossed her stout legs. "Darn trouble with getting old, one gets stiff so quickly."
"Now, Mama, you're supposed to forget that sort of thing. You promised Danny and me. Remember?" Hurrying to finish folding the wash, Carole Enderby shook her head in perplexity at her mother's odd habit of reading obituaries.
"You'd rather I become a doddering old woman?" Hannah crushed her smoke, smearing the ash on her broad forefinger. She studied Carole's serious face with gray-eyed intensity. "You have no idea what this sitting around is doing to me. In a few months I'll be ready to join your Dad." Already, her retirement palled. Useless idling killed many before their time and she had no intention of being one of them.
"When Papa died, you said it was best. We don't want you to be unhappy, but can't you find something else to do? Something respectable? This snooping into other people's affairs--" Carole let the sentence hang unfinished. She bent to retrieve a dropped toy car.
"Your Dad died in harness, a good detective. I helped him with many cases over the years." Hannah stood up to pace the spacious living room. "And I get so bored. Those women's programs talk as if we're congenital idiots. I retired too soon." She stooped with a grunt to pick up scattered alphabet blocks from the gray carpet to deposit them in the small wooden chest sitting behind the sofa.
Carole wiped the nose of her son who ventured past, pulling a train. Then she disappeared up the carpeted stairs with the freshly folded clothing.
"One of these days you'll know what your old ma means. When Bobbie is grown and Danny can afford a maid to do your work, you'll know," Hannah said to her daughter's retreating back. A sweet girl, but not at all like Lazi or me. More like my sister, Nellie.
Carole resembled Nellie with her blonde hair, oval-shaped face and her trim figure. Hannah smiled at the thought of her younger sister. Both Nellie and Carole contented themselves with building a life around their homes. They were fabulous wives and Carole was a wonderful mother, something Hannah feared she hadn't been.
She grabbed up the telephone and punched in a familiar, but recently unused, number. Patiently, she dropped onto an armchair to wait for an answer.
Her grandson, Bobbie, crawled into her generous lap. "Hanan, sing me?" he asked hopefully.
Softly, she hummed a tune of ancient vintage. "Poor Bobbie. Him gots a cold," she whispered in sympathy.
"Uh-huh," he nodded, big blue eyes serious.
Poor Carole. I know she worries. And it's so useless-- Hannah started as a masculine voice broke into her thoughts.
"Cole Investigators." The tone was clipped, neutral.
"Well, well. Brom Cole. How are you?"
The voice on the other end warmed immediately. "Fine, you old battle-ax. Fine." She could feel his grin. "And you?"
"Can't complain." She hoped he'd take the hint.
He did. "Thought you'd be calling soon." A short burst of laughter came through the receiver. "Retire? You? Hah!"
"Well, I tried, didn't I?" How well he knew her.
He grunted. "Lazlo said you never would. Remember?"
She smiled into the mouthpiece. Brom refused to call her husband anything except Lazlo, his given name. He'd always objected to Lazi as a nickname. He said it sounded too much like lazy.
"Yes. Lazi was right about me." A tear formed over the smile. Hannah wiped it away. Still missed the old boy. Always would. Thirty years and forever, she vowed.
"When can you start? I need someone with your talents."
"I'll see you in the morning."
"Fine," he said, sounding pleased.
Hannah put the white handset on the nearby table. Bobbie slept in her arms. She caressed his head, gently running her hand over his soft blond curls. His fever was down. Getting up slowly so he didn't waken, she put him on the plush green sofa and shook out her gray skirt.
Carole returned. "Where's--? she began.
"Asleep." Hannah motioned toward the sleeping child and lit another cigarette. The smoke snaked upward. "I wish you'd get some decent reading material." She picked up the copy of The Ladies' Daily. "Those sweetsie stories--no guts."
Carole conferred with the ceiling, slim arms akimbo. "Honestly, Mother."
"Don't you 'mother' me. Listen," Hannah read aloud, pacing, "'Joey, she breathed. I love you, but I want to experience life.' Such slush." She flicked a long ash into a just-emptied tray, then thumbed through the pages rapidly. "A body can't survive without decent literature. And these ads--'Beauty treatments at home. In five weeks you'll be ravishing'." She raised her eyes to Carole. "Do you really believe that junk?"
"Now, Mother." Carole seemed to experience difficulty with her self-control. "You know I get the paper to read the articles and cut out recipes."
Hannah continued, "'Lose weight. I lost five dress sizes in six weeks and my husband's in love with me.' Garbage!"
Abruptly, she retreated to the padded wooden rocker, trying to find some readable article in the paper. Bobbie awoke and clambered onto her lap again. Pages of ads rippled past her frowning gaze as she rocked slowly. Not one with any depth. Appeal to the senses, to weaknesses. Like this one. "Are you looking for the perfect gift for a certain someone? Send for our gift brochure today." Encourage laziness, too. Soon women would be too feeble to lift a broom. Angrily, she heaved the paper aside. The local supermarket carried such printed trash. She wouldn't be getting back to work soon enough.
Hannah tossed the paper aside impatiently. Her room, where she'd gone to puzzle over the death of Jania Yewbanks, resembled London on a foggy day, so thick was the smoke. She rose to open a window, then reached over to the ashtray to kill the lone butt smoldering there. Pacing, she tried to call up from memory other unexplained deaths. This type of thing nagged at her, demanding a solution.
No sense in sitting here, trying to figure it out. She pulled on her gray cloth jacket. I need to get out where I can think.
Stuffing her purse into one of her roomy pockets, she smiled as she remembered how large pockets had saved Lazi and her on one occasion. They'd been trailing a dangerous embezzler who'd killed a hostage to make his getaway. He'd led them on a long chase to a cheap hotel. They'd cornered him in the hall and Lazi had immediately stuck his hand in his pocket. "Stick 'em up," he'd said. To their great surprise and relief, it had worked. Just like an old B movie.
At the foot of the stairs, she called to Carole, "I'm going out. I'll be back soon." And made good her escape before her girl could protest.
The outside heat greeted Hannah with a steamy embrace and immediately her clothes went limp. She stifled an urge to return to the comfort of the air-conditioned house and hurried to the battered old Volkswagen that stood like an aged mount at its curbside rest. The little car's faded gray shape was just the sort of car an old woman would drive. Few people would think anyone driving such a car a threat.
As usual, the VW balked at starting. After much grinding of gears and cussing on her part, it roared to life with an uneven thronk-clink from the rear. Hannah rolled down the windows to release the pent-up heat, then put the car in motion.
Without really considering her destination, Hannah found her way to Maple Lane, located in a tree-lined suburb where most of the old homes were smugly segregated from the newer by tight, well-shaped hedges. Nice neighborhood. Peaceful. Quiet. Not a place to die without cause.
Slowing to a crawl, she searched for the place where Jania Yewbanks might have lived. In some yards, children played, pausing to shout or racing in seeming disarray. In others, women lounged in the late afternoon sun, obviously trying to darken their late-season tans.
From the corner of Maple Lane and South Chestnut Street, Hannah spotted a house with the closed, introspective air of mourning. It sat primly behind a low border of severely trimmed rosebushes, gold drapes drawn against prying eyes.
Hannah eased her little car to the curb beside what looked like a section of recently poured sidewalk. She let the motor idle a moment, then cut it off with a sigh, readying herself for a long, hot wait. Wait? For what? Who? She had no idea.
Twisting like a pretzel, she yanked her clinging skirt free of her legs and struggled out of her jacket. Perspiration dribbled down her back, gluing her blouse to the plastic seatcover. At times like this, she wished for a larger car or a smaller self.
Out of the corner of her eye, Hannah saw someone at a window of the white house next door. The figure watched with a certain determination. Proverbial nosy neighbor who might know something. They usually did.
Abruptly, the person vanished behind a swish of white curtain and Hannah turned her attention back to the newer house. No sign of movement within and no telling when anyone would show up. Undecided as to how long she should continue her vigil, she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel impatiently, aware of a growing discomfort in her backside. She wriggled, seeking comfort, the car bouncing.
A large, flashily-chromed, blue automobile rolled into the driveway. Must be the new widower, coming home from a hard day at the office. Then, she wondered why she was so sarcastic toward the unknown man.
The driver got out, retrieved a laptop computer from the rear seat and slammed the door. He paused to wipe unseen dust from the hood.
Hannah made hasty mental notes. Tall, getting a paunch. Desk jock. His tan probably came from a lamp. He didn't look like the athletic type. In a hurry to get inside to his air conditioner.
As the door closed behind him, she switched the ignition on. Once more, the little gray car balked before starting. As she checked the traffic, Hannah saw a plump female figure exit the white house next door. A little green hat bobbled precariously as the woman scuttled away. A twinge of pity for her flickered through Hannah's thoughts. That walk meant fear, a fear that one could never quite conquer.
She pulled onto the street, passing the woman who plodded along, head bowed. Once she was out of sight, she was out of mind. Hannah was already focused on how the death of Mrs. Yewbanks might fit into the pattern of unexplained deaths.