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Warner was too stunned to think clearly. He stumbled out of the bathroom in a frantic effort to reach his cell phone. His heart was pounding and his hands shook as he tried to dial 911.
"Come on, come on," he coaxed.
The call wouldn't go through. Why the hell was it so hard to get service in East Hampton?
He hurled his phone on the bed in frustration and ran out of the room. Warner knew he was in a race against time. He was about to make a left to try the landline in the maid's room when he heard the back door slam in the kitchen right below him. He paused and cocked his ear, his heart thumping wildly. Suddenly, he heard footsteps on the back stairs.
Shit. He's coming.
Warner changed tack and raced quickly down the hall towards the master suites. He made a left into Eleanor's room and his eyes searched frantically for a phone extension, before zeroing in on a portable phone on the desk. He grabbed the receiver and moved into bathroom, crouching down next to the toilet. His entire body was shivering with terror. He couldn't believe this was happening; couldn't believe what he had just witnessed.
The cold tiles felt like ice against his feet and his wet hands shook so violently that it was an effort to even punch the numbers. Warner only managed to press 9 before he sensed a presence at the door.
He glanced up in fear, raising his hands in an ineffective gesture of protection, calling out "No!" just before a massive blow landed on his head.
Then it all faded away.
East Hampton has come back to life; there is no doubt about it, thought Antonia Bingham with excitement, as she maneuvered her blue Saab out of the Main Beach parking lot. The morning sky was a palette of milky pastels. Soft shades of baby blue, faded pink and a blush of pale yellow smeared into each other like a child's water color painting that has been held up before it could dry. It made Antonia recall one of the first things someone had told her about East Hampton: the American impressionists had chosen it as their place of work and residence because the light so closely resembled that of Giverny, its European counterpart. Here, nature's sparkling hues came to life, shimmering and essential. The winter had been frigid — replete with temperatures hovering near freezing, gusty winds, and icy sleet. But now it was a distant memory, replaced by spring's burgeoning foliage blossoming on the trees. When she made the left onto Lily Pond Lane, Antonia was thrilled to see the bright yellow forsythia bushes blooming, speckling the landscape with much needed color. In a few more weeks the hedges would thicken, gradually making it more and more difficult to peek into the multimillion dollar properties that lined this notable road.
On this early morning, the still-bare branches of the sycamore trees waggled in the breeze and few people were out. That was to be expected on a Tuesday in mid-May. Most of the residents in this part of town ("South of the Highway") used their houses primarily in the summer or on weekends. Their six-to-eight-to-ten bedroom "cottages" were in fact second homes that were occupied less than half the year. Antonia didn't live in this neighborhood. She owned the historic Windmill Inn on Main Street across from the cemetery, and inhabited the cozy ground-floor apartment in the back. She actually preferred her location; there was something thrilling about being in the center of what was arguably the most picturesque village in the United States. Her street was dappled with historic windmills, lovingly restored century-old houses, small — mostly one-story — meticulously maintained storefronts, and two equally distinguished yet stylistically divergent churches — the regal stone Episcopalian with its traditional English gothic architecture and the white clapboard Presbyterian church whose spire loomed high above the treetops. In the center of the village green was a sparkling pond that permanently hosted a family of swans. Antonia loved the small town familiarity of her neighborhood and had grown accustomed to the everyday busy hum of people driving by on their way to and from work. This leafy enclave was the destination of power players in the summer, but in the off-season it was merely a quaint historic town where people led normal working lives with the occasional celebrity spotting.
This morning Antonia had just completed her morning walk along the beach. When she had moved to East Hampton roughly a year and a half ago, she promised herself to make it a daily ritual to do so every morning, and it was a definite challenge for her to force herself outside on colder days. At least it had been until she met him — but Antonia quickly erased that thought from her head. She couldn't think about her friend from the beach. It was a waste of time. A stupid fantasy.
She drove by a distinguished-looking older man walking a red-leashed Wheaten Terrier and waved. He gave her a nod and a look as if he were trying to place her before she sped by. Antonia passed him each morning but didn't know his name. At this time of year, she'd wave to everyone she saw, as the population dwindled in the absence of the summer people. But when the season commenced and the second homeowners and tourists poured in, waving at strangers on the road was no longer the norm. Everybody was rushing about, determined to get in their share of beach time, tennis, golf, biking or whatever was their fancy, and waving to strangers was not part of the plan. That didn't matter to Antonia; she still did it anyway. She refused to be "pocket friendly" as her mother would say, which was her funny way of describing the act of putting kindness deep in your back pocket rather than on your face.
In addition to owning the inn and serving as chef for its well-reviewed restaurant, Antonia also moonlighted as a 'caretaker' of sorts for two sprawling houses in East Hampton. Business could be slow at the inn during the off-season and she had enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to supplement her income. She also didn't mind looking after houses; the work was fairly easy. Her role was to visit each house once or twice a week and confirm that nothing was amiss. And it was always a pleasure to have a reason to visit this part of town, with the beautiful houses that mostly stood empty.
Despite the absence of cars on the road, Antonia clicked on her right blinker to turn into the Mastersons' gravel driveway. She was surprised to see that Warner Caruthers's BMW SUV was still parked in the driveway. Warner, a friend of the Mastersons' son Luke, was staying at their house while he filmed a documentary about the Hamptons. He was supposed to have left by now. He had even called her the previous evening to ask her what he should do with the keys, and she told him to leave them on the counter next to the telephone.
Hmmm, Antonia wondered. Why is he still here?
Antonia turned off the ignition and glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror as she applied some lipgloss. Big blue eyes reflected back at her. Her cheeks were flushed from the beach wind; red and rosy. If she were to analyze her looks, Antonia had always believed that a first, quick glance of her produced the best impression. She had glossy black hair (inherited from her Italian-American mother), creamy white skin (from her English father) and plump red lips. There was something youthful about her appearance, despite her thirty-five years. It was only when one took a further look that the cracks appeared. Lines were marching across her face, particularly on her forehead. Her nose did not produce the best profile. And she was a good fifteen pounds overweight, (okay, twenty) which she carried primarily in her mid-section, the part of her body that she ironically referred to as 'the bread belt'.
It is what it is, Antonia always told herself. She snapped her lip-gloss shut and exited the car. Time to find out why Warner hadn't left.
The Mastersons' house never failed to take her breath away. The mega-cottage had been built a hundred years ago, and was fitted with the standard design elements that were fashionable at that time — shingled façade, gambrel roof, wraparound terrace, multiple chimneys and functional shutters — features that have been heavily imitated along the Hamptons coastline in recent years. Situated one leafy road from the beach and enclosed by a weathered split-rail fence, the house glowed in the vibrant reflection of the well-manicured landscape that surrounded it. It was so lovely, and exactly the sort of architecture that appealed to Antonia. She was originally from Southern California, the land of schizophrenic structures and oversized eyesores. But it had never felt like home to her. So, at a particularly low point in Antonia's life when her friend Genevieve announced she was quitting acting and leaving L.A. to return East to the place where she had spent her childhood summers, Antonia decided to make a radical change and follow suit. It had paid off; she adored the place. Sure, it had been a little bumpy in the beginning, well, a lot bumpy with a homicidal bookkeeper who wanted kill her in order to take over the Windmill Inn, but that was in the past, thankfully.
When Antonia closed her car door there was movement in the side yard that caught her attention. Turning to her right, she scanned the grounds. She didn't see anything out of the norm. Perhaps it had been a deer. The town was now overrun by these brazen beasts who seemed determined to chew up everyone's landscaping.
After unlocking the back door to the house, Antonia stepped into the immaculate kitchen that was equipped with every possible appliance.
"Warner?" asked Antonia into the empty room.
The hum of the refrigerator was the only response.
Antonia flicked the lights on and looked around appraisingly. The room was spotless, as usual. Per Antonia's recommendation, the Mastersons employed two of the same cleaners that Antonia used at the inn: Angela and Rosita Diaz. Not only were they excellent housekeepers, they were also excellent people. Antonia's bond was greater with Rosita because they both shared an unfortunate marital history: they had kicked violent ex-husbands to the curb and survived. But that was part of the past that Antonia tried not to dwell on.
There was no sign of Warner in the kitchen or the mudroom.
"Warner? Are you here?" asked Antonia into the emptiness, knowing that she was talking to herself. "Are you sleeping?" Antonia had met him only on two brief occasions when he stopped by the Windmill Inn, and found him to be charismatic and charming. A tall, slight young man with a mop of strawberry blonde hair, an aquiline nose and thin lips, he possessed the same optimistic exuberance and naïve arrogance that she had found in most twenty-somethings fresh out of college.
With a sigh, Antonia hastily walked through the pantry towards the dining room. She stopped and abruptly retraced her steps. A white paper bag perched on the edge of the counter near the bar had caught her eye. She carefully opened it and found a cold untouched slice of sausage pizza.
"Interesting breakfast," murmured Antonia.
Unless it was a discarded dinner? In any event, it meant that Warner was still around. She was a little dismayed that he had breached his agreement with the Mastersons and overstayed his welcome.
She did a hasty sweep of the living room and dining room, which revealed nothing out of the norm. There was a tacit understanding between the Mastersons and Warner that he would not use the formal rooms on the ground floor or the family's bedrooms upstairs. As far as she knew, he had adhered to this agreement. She wondered why he hadn't adhered to the plan to be gone by yesterday.
Antonia stopped short at the foot of the grand front hall staircase. Her palm gripped the edge of the mahogany banister and instantly felt clammy. She wasn't sure why, but something gave her pause. She glanced around. The grandfather clock ticked softly. Its pendulum was the only movement in the room. Her eyes moved to the front door but she could see it was still locked. The outside lights were off. Shaking her head, Antonia continued up the carpeted front staircase to the second floor.
A clicking noise sounded. Startled, Antonia whipped around.
"Hello?" she asked.
She was met by silence. Then just as suddenly, a burst of hot air rushed forth from the vent above her. Antonia smiled. It was only the heating. The temperature was always set to maintain 60 degrees.
At the top of the stairs, Antonia took a left towards the guest quarters. If Warner were asleep, she would rouse him and send him on his merry way.
There was a hall door between the guest quarters and the family's bedrooms. It was closed, which was unusual. Joan Masterson liked to keep the doors open for air circulation. The door was somewhat warped from the sea air, so Antonia had to bang it on top to loosen it before turning the door handle. If he hadn't been awake before, he would be now, Antonia mused.
"Warner, it's Antonia."
She didn't want to surprise him. She glanced right into a maid's room and bathroom and confirmed that they were untouched. She made a left to enter the room Warner was staying in.
"Yoo hoo?" Antonia asked.
The bed was made, and with such precision that Antonia guessed Warner hadn't slept on it since the cleaners were here yesterday. She'd be very surprised if he could make a bed as well as Rosita. Antonia glanced left and noticed a black monogrammed duffel bag propped against the wall on the floor. It was unzipped, revealing a jumble of wrinkled and discarded shirts and pants.
Resting on the desk was an open folder. Antonia cocked her head to glimpse at it (a little peek never hurt anyone.) One side of the folder was stuffed with loose notes, pages ripped out of a white spiral notebook and scrawled mostly in a black ballpoint pen. On the other side was a typed cover sheet that stated in over-sized font: Too Rich To Behave: a documentary by Warner Caruthers (with Hayes Rutherford). Tantalizing title, thought Antonia. She wondered what it was about.
She left the guest quarters and made the long walk down the narrow hallway, past the framed family portraits, to check on the bedrooms.
"Warner?" Antonia asked.
But there was no response.
Antonia glanced into the bedroom that belonged to Eleanor, the youngest Masterson child, and at once felt something didn't seem right. Her eyes flitted past the king-sized bed to the lacquer desk that held a computer and a telephone. When she found nothing amiss, she glanced at the skirted vanity. Poised atop were the usual knickknacks: various makeup bottles; monogrammed jewelry boxes in varying sizes; an old watch in a ceramic dish alongside a Tiffany china piggy bank. Antonia wasn't quite sure what was giving her pause.
She ventured a step into the room and turned to face the back wall. She glanced around again; the bookshelves gave no indication of tampering. Everything in the room was the same as it always was. That is, until Antonia looked down at the pink carpet. Bingo. In the thick fluffy surface, there were impressions — footprints.
Warner's? Antonia wondered. What was he doing in here, when he was specifically told not to use the master suites? But then who else? Rosita, who was responsible for cleaning upstairs, was very particular about marks in the carpet. She would leave no trace of her existence after she vacuumed, in essence, vacuuming herself out of the room. Antonia's eyes followed the footprints to the door of Eleanor's bathroom, which was closed.
That was odd.
Antonia walked to the door and hesitated.
"Warner?" she demanded.
She was met by silence.
Antonia hesitated before turning the handle. She watched the brass knob twist, as if in slow motion. She pressed open the door cautiously, tentative of what she might find behind. Her eyes first met the rack of yellow towels hanging on the wall. Eleanor's initials were embroidered into them in a swirling white font. Antonia pushed the door open further and caught her own reflection in the mirror. She stared at herself before pressing on the door until the toilet was revealed, then the shower, and finally the bathtub.
It was there that she saw him.
Excerpted from "Death On Lily Pond Lane"
Copyright © 2016 Caroline M. Doyle.
Excerpted by permission of Dunemere Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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