Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-reporter Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins no longer chases hot stories all over the world, but murderous mysteries seem to find her. This time, a frantic phone call from an old and dear friend on the other side of the world sends Henrie O rushing to the fabled city of San Antonio to check out the baffling disappearance of her friend's devoted granddaughter, Iris Chavez. Iris, employed at the Tesoros Gallery on San Antonio's famous River Walk, has suddenly dropped from sight without a word.
Soon Henrie O discovers that amidst the exquisite objects in the prestigious gallery and among the family members is hidden a dark secret--one Henrie O must uncover if she is to find Iris. Late one dark night on the River Walk, Henrie O sees a sprawled body...and realizes that treachery and disgrace lurk in the shadows of an old and respected business...and death awaits anyone daring to uncover the truth.Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-reporter Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins no longer chases hot stories all over the world, but murderous mysteries seem to find her.This time, a frantic phone call from an old and dear friend on the other side of the world sends Henrie O rushing to the fabled city of San Antonio to check out the baffling disappearance of her friend's devoted granddaughter, Iris Chavez.Iris, employed at the Tesoros Gallery on San Antonio's famous River Walk, has suddenly dropped from sight without a word.
Soon Henrie O discovers that amidst the exquisite objects in the prestigious gallery and among the family members is hidden a dark secret--one Henrie O must uncover if she is to find Iris. Late one dark night on the River Walk, Henrie O sees a sprawled body...and realizes that treachery and disgrace lurk in the shadows of an old and respected business...and death awaits anyone daring to uncover the truth.
About the Author
An accomplished master of mystery, Carolyn Hart is the author of twenty previous Death on Demand novels. Her books have won multiple Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards. She is also the creator of the Henrie O series, featuring a retired reporter, and the Bailey Ruth series, starring an impetuous, redheaded ghost. One of the founders of Sisters in Crime, Hart lives in Oklahoma City.
Read an Excerpt
I glanced at the computer printout that rested on the passenger seat of the rental car, a casual picture of a grandmother and granddaughter, arms linked, faces aglow with laughter and love. The bright photograph had been scanned into a computer half a world away and the resulting crisp picture that had issued from my daughter's computer was one of the small miracles that no one remarks in today's technological wonderland. The grandmother, Gina Wilson, was one of my oldest friends, a shining memory from the happiest years of my life. The granddaughter, Iris Chavez, was a child I'd come to know because she spent much of her growing up time with Gina. Iris was near in age to my own granddaughter, Diana.
The faces in the photograph were sharply different, despite their laughter on the day the picture was snapped on a sunny summer afternoon at Laguna. It wasn't simply a matter of age. Gina's short-cropped white hair and Dresden china pale skin and Iris's richly raven curls and creamily dusky complexion made a lovely contrast. Gina's sharply planed features were arresting, her light green eyes curious and skeptical, her smile amused yet with a sardonic undercurrent, as befitted a woman who'd been one of the cleverest political reporters of her time. Iris's face was cherubic, still so young there were no lines. Her eyes were also green, but there was no challenge in Iris's gaze. Instead eagerness vied with uncertainty. Iris's bow of a mouth was marked with brilliantly red lipstick, but the vivid color couldn't hide vulnerability.
The two sets of green eyes were the only realresemblance in the photograph. What had Gina once told me? She'd looked out the window at Iris playing in the yard and smilingly observed, "Iris is the image of her father, except for her eyes."
Iris. The name brought to my mind the vision of a slim blonde with startlingly blue eyes. But not this Iris. Not Iris Chavez, whom I remembered as a giggling little girl with a mop of curly black hair and later as a plump, eager-to-please teenager. A sweet, bouncy, cheerful girl. I'd not seen Iris or Gina in several years. Yet when the phone rang yesterday at my daughter's home in east Texas, I'd immediately recognized Gina's voice and just as swiftly known there was trouble. Or, to be precise, realized immediately that Gina was terribly afraid.
I hoped that soon, very soon, I could call Gina and say everything was okay. I slowed for a red light, checked my map. Although San Antonio streets often change names, I was finding my way without difficulty. Gina's directions had been clear and careful. Almost there.
Gina hated to ask for help, but there is nothing you won't do, no mile you won't walk, no mountain you won't climb, no effort you won't make for a grandchild. I understand that. I have two grandchildren of my own.
I didn't blame Gina for being frightened. Even though Gina was half a world away, Gina in Majorca, Iris in San Antonio, they kept in close touch by E-mail. At least once or twice a week, they exchanged messages. It was their custom to chat on Saturday morning Iris's time, Saturday afternoon Gina's time in Majorca.
"Nothing, Henrie O, nothing since last Wednesday. And Iris never misses E-mailing on Saturday mornings without telling me in advance that she will skip. I've sent message after message. I've called and called. There's no answer. I thought of contacting the police. But what could I tell them? That I haven't received an E-mail? That I can't get her on the phone? That's not enough to report her as missing." She paused. "And maybe she's just out of town with a friend. Oh, there could be many reasons. I don't want to embarrass her. But I can't wait any longer." Gina's voice quavered.
E-mail. It links us to the world no matter where we live. It was through a casual E-mail that Gina knew I was visiting my daughter, Emily, and that I was only a three-hour drive from San Antonio, where Iris lived. And yes, my days were free. I was no longer teaching, though I'd decided to keep my home in the Missouri college town where I'd been on the journalism faculty for several years. And yes, I could easily go to San Antonio and yes, I would do that for my frightened friend.
I'd received Gina's call early this morning. Now, the answer was near. Perhaps I would find Iris at her apartment. If I didn't find her, I would go to the store where she worked and perhaps we'd both laugh andafter she'd called her grandmother, assured her she was fineIris would offer to buy me a cold raspa, the shaved-ice confection so dear to San Antonians, and I would stay a few days in this lovely citywhat better place to do some early Christmas shopping?then resume my visit at my daughter's.
I turned to my left, my right, and found the apartment house at the end of the street. I locked my car and stood in the shadow of a palm tree. I hated leaving the windows up. September marks fall in the north. In San Antonio, sunny warm days continue. Oh, an occasional cold front will drop the temperature into the low eighties. Sweat beaded my face. My soft cotton dress clung to me. I took a deep breath of moist air softer than skin lotion.
The two-story stuccoed apartment building, La Casita, was bordered by dusty flower beds with a few stalks of parched impatiens. A narrow parking lot abutted the building. I stepped into the lot, shaded my eyes. I spotted Iris's car immediately. A fifteen year old coupe with a battered left fender and one headlight lower than the other. Gina had described the car perfectly. "A rattletrap, but that's all she can afford. She had it painted pink and green, said it made the car laugh. Oh, Henrie O, I can see her now, giggling and pointing to the car. She gave the car a name, tooWhiffle." That's when Gina choked back a sob.
It was easy to see the car. Not only was it spectacularly, jauntily painted in swirls, bright even by San Antonio standards, it was one of only three cars in the small lot. I walked to the car. The windows were down. Was Iris habitually careless? Had she parked the car expecting to return shortly? Or did she figure nobody would steal a dilapidated old car painted in pink and green swirls? A candy striped beach towel was crumpled in the front seat. A couple of paperback books were on the floor, the latest by Nora Roberts and Merline Lovelace. On a pink sheet, oversize printing reminded: "Cinnamon rolls, eggs, rum. Pick up cleaning. Buy sugar for pralines."
I hoped the sudden constriction in my chest was nothing more than the press of heat and humidity. The car worried me. I'd called Iris's apartment before I left Emily's house, called again on my cell phone when I reached the outskirts of San Antonio. No answer. Sighting Iris's car, after my last fruitless phone call, worried me. If her car was in the lot, why didn't she answer her phone?
The neighborhood was quiet, somnolent. An ordinary, unremarkable, pleasant Sunday in a modest neighborhood off Broadway, not far from Incarnate Word College.
I stepped through an archway, welcoming the shade. The apartment house was built around a bricked courtyard. Once there had been a central fountain. No water pulsed now. The tiles were chipped, some were missing. But a huge magnolia flourished, dappling benches on either side of the fountain with shade. Glossy leaves had drifted into the fountain. The ground floor apartment doors opened to the courtyard. On the second floor, they opened to a narrow exposed corridor.
On the second-floor corridor, an elderly man shuffled to an end apartment, unlocked the door, closed it behind him. Otherwise, there was no one about. A wooden arrow with faded red letters"Manager"pointed toward the back of the courtyard.
I walked up the stairs. Apartment 26 was halfway up the corridor. Two windows looked out to the courtyard. The slatted blinds were closed. I knocked sharply. The sound was loud in the Sunday quiet. Behind me, the magnolia leaves suddenly rustled. A crow erupted into flight, his strident caw startling.
I knocked again, bent my head to listen. No sound. No movement. I rattled the knob. I stepped to the nearest window, gave a tug. It didn't budge. Iris might be casual about her car, but as a young woman living alone she wasn't foolish enough to leave her windows unlocked. A little thing. It made me feel better. There could be a dozen reasons why her car was in the lot. Maybe the battery was dead. Maybe she was out with a friend.
Anything was possible. But that, of course, was why I had come. Please, God, let it simply be thoughtlessness, an energetic girl too consumed in living to remember that her grandmother looked forward to cheerful E-mail messages and waited expectantly every Saturday for a connection to bring them close despite the thousands of miles that separated them.
Please, God. This was a child dear to me and a child beloved to Gina. Gina, my dear friend, my old friend, the kind of friend you make when life is full of promise and the future is greater than the past. No matter how often or how rarely you meet, there is a bond that defies time and age. And IrisI remembered a visit years ago, oh, she couldn't have been more than ten or twelveher cheeks flushed with excitement, her eyes sparkling, Iris had bustled about Gina's small apartment, setting a table for tea, bringing us dainty finger sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly and pimiento and pound cake cut in slices and waiting eagerly to hear our cries of delight. A girl who always tried hard to please.
This morning, I'd reassured Gina that she was too quick to worry, that there could be many reasons why Iris hadn't E-mailed on schedule. Gina said, "I know. I know, but ..." I heard her sudden quick breath and knew the fears she didn't want to voice. Gina and I had both spent many years as reporters. We learned that all things were possible, and some of them were ugly indeed.
I gave one final demanding knock on the scuffed wooden door, then swung around, walked swiftly to the stairs and down. Brown-edged magnolia leaves crunched underfoot as I crossed the courtyard. When I reached the door marked "Manager," I heard the tinny sound of television. This time my knock was answered.
"Yes?" An imposing woman in a green-striped smock and black slacks looked at me without interest. She looked to be in her fifties, with dark salt-and-pepper hair and a stoic expression, a woman who no longer had great expectations of life.
"I hope you can help me." One advantage of age is the projection of a nonthreatening image. My dark hair is streaked with silver. I hope the lines in my face reflect reason and good humor. "I'm Henrietta Collins. I haven't been able to reach Iris Chavez in Apartment 26. I knocked on her door, but there was no answer even though her car is in the parking lot. Iris is the granddaughter of a close friend."
A thin black-and-gray striped cat edged inside the open door. The manager gave an exclamation of annoyance and waved her hand, shooing it back into the courtyard. "These cats. People leave them and think the good Lord will provide." But her dark eyes studied me.
"Iris's grandmother has been trying to get in touch with her for almost a week. She's concerned that Iris might be ill and I promised to check on her. May I come in?" I moved forward.
She hesitated, then stepped back to let me enter. The window air conditioner scarcely cooled the tiny apartment. Bright shawls draped two easy chairs. A silver-flecked German shepherd was splayed on the tiled floor. The dog's cool eyes watched me carefully. The television shared a corner with a shrine to Mary.
The manager looked me over, from my short-cropped hair, a new style, to my navy blue dress, comfortable for travel, to my well-worn but well-made leather purse, to my sensible navy flats.
She lifted her big shoulders in a shrug. "The rent has not been paid. It is due this morning."
I flipped open my purse, pulled out my checkbook. "How much is the rent?"
"Three hundred and twenty-five dollars."
I wrote the check, handed it to her.
She studied the check, then frowned, her face heavy and questioning. "You do not live here, I need a local address."
"I'm not sure where I'll be staying. You can get in touch with me through the store where Iris works." I was presuming, but that was my next stop. "Tesoros. On the River Walk."
She didn't write the name down. Perhaps she already knew where Iris worked. Or perhaps she had a good memory. Her glance had moved past me, to the television set and the drama unfolding on its small screen.
"When did you last see Iris?"
Her shrug was dismissive, uninterested. "I don't know. Some days ago. She was leaving."
"What time of day?"
On the screen, a woman sobbed, pushed away from the smoothly handsome man. An ad flashed.
The manager flicked an irritated look at me. "People come and go. I pay no attention. What does it matter to me? Oh, I think it was afternoon. Maybe Wednesday, maybe Thursday. She's a silly girl, always smiling and walking so fast."
I held out my hand. "I'd like a key to the apartment."
She glanced at the check in her hand, then moved heavily to a desk near the door. She opened a drawer, pulled out a ring of keys, thumbed through them, detached one.
"Thank you." I glanced back as I stepped out the door. I wished I could read the look on her face. Was it suspicion? Curiosity? Or something more? A quiet calculation, a conclusion?
I didn't like that last look she'd given me. But I was in a hurry to get into Iris's apartment. I was walking swiftly up the second floor corridor when I realized that she had not asked me to return the key. Did that indicate a knowledge that Iris would not return and therefore would not protest this invasion of her privacy, or did it simply indicate indifference?
When I reached the door, I knocked one more time, waited, then shoved the key quickly into the lock, turned the knob. As the door swung open, relief washed over me. The air in this small, scantily furnished apartment was hot, stale, and slightly sour, but there was no stomach-turning stench. Iris, dead or alive, was not here.
But I doubted Iris's apartment customarily looked this way. Books were tumbled out of their orange crate cases. The pink throw that no doubt usually covered the dingy mustard-yellow sofa straggled over one end. Sofa cushions were bunched on the floor, their covers unzipped, tufts of foam rubber protruding. Near the single closet, shoes and clothes were humped in an uneven mound. A black vinyl wheeled suitcase lay on its side, every zipper undone, exposing empty compartments. The dresser drawers had been dumped too, the drawers upended, their contentslingerie, cotton tops, shortsspilled onto the floor. The single bed along the back wall was askew. The mattress, stripped of sheets, lay on the floor. The box springs leaned against the metal frame. In the small bathroom, towels and washcloths made another untidy heap near the open cabinet. In the tiny kitchenette, cabinet doors were flung wide.
I stepped inside, closed the door. Skirting the helter-skelter piles, I crossed to the window air conditioner and turned it on. It would take a while, longer probably than I would be here, for the room to cool. And that was all there was, the one room, now littered with the bits and pieces of Iris's life.
I stood with my back to the air conditioner, welcoming the waft of chill air, and surveyed the chaos. Chaos but no destruction. This was not wanton vandalism. Moreover, there were odd exceptions to the disorder. Spices sat in order in a spice rack. Photographs on a pine end table appeared undisturbed. A thick swath of paper with a half-finished watercolor was clipped to an artist's easel. The box of watercolors was closed. Nearby, a small oil painting was propped in a wooden chair. When I walked close to the easel, I saw that Iris was copying the painting, a commonplace exercise for budding artists.
What is the children's game? Smaller than a bread box, bigger than an orange?
The searcher hadn't been looking for tiny itemswitness the undisturbed spicesor for pieces of paper that could be hidden, for example, behind a picture in a frame, or for anything larger than a suitcase might contain.
I studied the open suitcase. A box, say, could be a maximum of four inches deep, twelve inches wide, eighteen inches across. A box or an object. Or objects.
This was not the work of an ordinary thief. Such a thief, looking for items easy to pawn or sell, might have passed up the small oil painting even though it appeared to me to be out of the ordinary. But a thief would have taken the television set on a stand across from the sofa, the headset lying on the kitchen table, the mobile telephone, the computer on a card table. Or, for that matter, the answering machine. The red light winked on the answering machine. Fifteen recorded calls.
When I punched "rewind" and listened, I recognized Gina's voice on seven of the calls, but every so often there was a call and no voice; nothing, simply silence. Of course, it isn't unusual for people to call and decide not to leave a message. But that many? Was someone calling to see if Iris had returned? I glanced around the room. There was only the one telephone and the inexpensive recorder. But no caller ID. How nice that would have been.
I reached out, then let my hand fall. I must call Gina. But not yet. The news I could offer would only frighten her more. All I could say was that I'd not found Iris and her apartment showed the effects of a hurried but thorough search.
There was one last hope. A slender hope, but it staved off the moment when I must place a call to Majorca. I found the telephone directory, looked up a number, dialed.
"Tesoros. How may I help you?" It was a young man's voice, well educated and pleasant.
"May I speak to Iris Chavez, please."
It is well to listen to silences as well as speech. The pause pulsed with tension. I realized abruptly I should not have called first.
His answer was stiff. "I'm sorry. She doesn't work here anymore. Sorry I can't help you."
The line went dead.