Jordan works hard to improve Vera Van Alst’s collection of classic detective stories. So when Chadwick Kauffman—heir to the Kauffman fortune—offers a very good price on a fine collection of Ngaio Marsh first editions owned by his recently deceased stepfather, she is thrilled to meet with him at his fabled summer estate, Summerlea.
The next day, Jordan and Vera are shocked to read that Chadwick has died in a fall from the grand staircase at Summerlea. But when the picture in the paper is of a different man, it becomes clear that the ladies are victims of a scam. And they’ll have to unmask the imposter fast, because someone is trying to frame them for murder…
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CAST OF CHARACTERS
Jordan Kelly Bingham—assistant to wealthy book collector Vera Van Alst
Vera Van Alst—a reclusive bibliophile and collector
Chadwick Kauffman—heir to the Kauffman fortune and owner of the Country Club and Spa
Lisa Troy—his personal assistant
Lisa Hatton—office administrator at the Country Club and Spa
Miranda Schneider—receptionist at the Country Club and Spa
Tyler “Smiley” Dekker—police officer, Harrison Falls Police
Sammy Vincovic—pricey but effective barracuda lawyer
Kevin Kelly (Uncle Kev)—handyman and groundskeeper at Van Alst House, among other things
Signora Fiammetta Panetone—cook and housekeeper at Van Alst House
Michael Kelly (Uncle Mick)—independent “entrepreneur”
Lucky Kelly (Uncle Lucky)—another independent “entrepreneur”
Cherie—Uncle Kev’s special friend
Karen Smith—Jordan’s friend and Uncle Lucky’s new wife
Lance DeWitt—Harrison Falls’s hottest reference librarian and Jordan’s friend
Tiffany (Tiff) Tibeault—Jordan’s usually absent best friend
Poppy Lockwood-Jones—artist friend of Lance’s
Shelby Church—an actress
Detective Drea Castellano—new lead detective in Harrison Falls
Detective Rob Stoddard—her partner
Larraine Gorman—former actress, now teacher
Doug Gorman—her husband
Lucas Warden—an actor
Braydon—young employee at the Country Club and Spa
Mysterious dark-haired man
Various actors hamming it up
BE CAREFUL WHAT you wish for, as they say. Whoever “they” are, they’ve also been known to mutter that the heart wants what it wants. I was desperate to visit Summerlea. That’s what my heart wanted.
Wanted it bad.
When the first call came, I wondered if it was a mistake. We had an invitation to a very special luncheon at Summerlea, a famous and usually inaccessible grand summer estate that was nothing if not worthy of daydreams. This chance to peek inside a robber baron’s extravagant country home would be a treat. And it would be a first for me aside from seeing it in photo spreads in Elle Decor and Vanity Fair. I was revved up about the invitation to the traditional getaway of the Kauffman family. The family was down to the last member: Chadwick Kauffman, heir to whatever was left. Even if the Kauffman name didn’t conjure up what it once had, it still screamed A-list in our part of the world. I was way beyond intrigued, imagining the treasures, art, books and antiquities. I hoped I’d manage to snoop around.
Full disclosure: The invitation was to Vera Van Alst, the curmudgeonly book collector and allegedly wealthy recluse I work for. I had merely handled the details with Chadwick Kauffman’s staff.
Although Vera wouldn’t admit this, an invitation of any sort was very good news. She continued to be the most hated woman in Harrison Falls, New York, and surrounding communities, although you’d think that people would be getting over that now. It definitely limited our collective social life.
Now Vera was invited to inspect and purchase a collection of Ngaio Marsh very fine first editions. I’d be there to assist her, while perusing and drooling over yet unknown items. I launched into my Web research immediately after the first call and learned that Summerlea was a massive and rambling building with groomed lawns that sloped down to a sparkling lake. This would be the kind of country home full of family retainers—and monograms on the ornate silverware. Would the Kennedys stop by? Would we have champagne? Probably not at noon. I wasn’t really clear on the rules for that. Did I need a petticoat? I almost hoped so.
The deckle-edged invitation came in the third week of March. We were summoned for the beginning of April, the first slot that Chadwick Kauffman would have time for us. So there’d be no strawberries in the gardens and no stroll on manicured lawns through the leafy grounds. Not here in upstate New York anyway.
The big question: What to wear?
I’d popped over to Betty’s Boutique, my favorite funky vintage shop in Harrison Falls, and scored a raspberry wool day dress, a perfectly preserved prize from nineteen sixty-three. That was one good reason to enjoy spring’s slow arrival. Jackie O would have worn this little number with white gloves. I might not be able to resist wearing a pair. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to sport those.
Summerlea was getting closer. I pictured the new spring grass, peppered with early blooming crocus.
Only two more sleeps to go.
I was interrupted in my happy thoughts by Vera, who rolled her wheelchair into our own grand foyer looking even grumpier than usual. Good Cat and Bad Cat (not their real names), her identical Siamese, sidled along beside her. I kept clear of Bad Cat, although it was always hard to know which one that was.
“Are you excited?” I chirped.
Vera had a voice like crunching gravel. “Miss Bingham, I expect that by now you would be aware that I do not get excited. And is it really necessary for you to sound quite so much like a budgie?”
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
I had been fully aware that Vera didn’t get excited, but it had slipped my mind that no one else was supposed to either. I made a mental note never to chirp again. I lowered my voice a half octave. I also moved away from Bad Cat’s outstretched claws and said, “But Summerlea is historic. It is magnificent. It’s—”
She kept rolling, barreling down the endless corridors of Van Alst House, past the ballroom and the portrait gallery festooned with ugly oils of her relatives. Have I mentioned that all the Van Alsts seemed to have suffered from serious constipation and bad teeth? I always try to avert my eyes, as the overflow relatives are displayed all along that hallway. You can’t miss them no matter how hard you try.
Vera muttered, “I have my own magnificent historic home, Miss Bingham. I do not have to seek others like an overeager tourist.”
Maybe I won’t wear the gloves, I decided, breaking into a canter to keep pace with her.
“Of course, Van Alst House is wonderful, Vera. I love it here. But you’ve been cooped up for months, if you don’t count the Thanksgiving event and Uncle Lucky’s wedding and . . .”
I decided not to mention the various murders that had disrupted Vera’s stay-at-home policy. “And Summerlea has quite a history too. They say that FDR and—”
The wheelchair stopped abruptly. “My grandfather entertained governors and visiting royalty here in Van Alst House. We have our own history. I don’t need to leave here to feel part of that.” Vera pivoted abruptly and headed into the study, one of my favorite rooms. I hustled after her.
True enough. Van Alst House had a rich past. But Summerlea had welcomed presidents and world leaders, society’s finest and Hollywood legends. Where Van Alst House had been built from the profits of a shoe factory, Summerlea was made of steel money and rail money and manufacturing money. The Kauffman heritage was more like a collaboration of robber barons on steroids. Never mind that the Kauffman family had dwindled and shrunk in influence over the years. Summerlea remained.
I knew I was being ridiculous. But I loved the whole idea. Was it a Cinderella thing? I was, after all, the motherless girl who grew up in the rooms over her uncle’s “antique” shop. I would have been better adding the cash for that raspberry wool dress to the savings that would one day fund my return to grad school. Never mind. Summerlea would be so much fun. And really, it wasn’t like anything could go wrong.
Speaking of wrong, Vera had continued sputtering.
I said, “Of course you don’t need to leave here. I couldn’t agree more. However, you have been chosen and invited to another wonderful place and given first dibs at one of the finest Ngaio Marsh collections in the world. At a very reasonable price, may I add. I’ve done my homework on this one. This is a very rare collection.”
We never admit out loud that money is a factor for Vera, but it is. Anyone with a sharp eye would notice that there is less sterling silver every year and that several key antiques are now making someone else happy. Sometimes I worried that the Aubusson rugs would vanish next.
Vera couldn’t ever simply agree. It’s not in her. “Humph. We need to knock back that dollar figure a bit. And cash only? Who ever heard of that? Maybe this Chadwick has squandered what’s left of the family fortune.”
I couldn’t let Vera bring me down. “I got the impression the price was firm. Anyway, you love Ngaio Marsh. You’ve been trying to upgrade your Marsh collection as long as I’ve been here. You know how hard they are to find, especially those early ones.”
“Be that as it may, what kind of man only collects one author?”
I shrugged. What did I know about the late Mr. Kauffman and his collecting habits? “I don’t know why he collected only the one author. It’s working for us though. We’ll be lucky to get these books. All thirty-two in fine condition. It could take years to locate the same quality any other way. Count your blessings. If they’d been part of a bigger collection, the whole shebang might have been sold off. It’s to our advantage that this was it.”
Vera sneered. “Still can’t imagine it.”
“When I spoke to Lisa Troy, his assistant, she mentioned that Mr. Kauffman liked Ngaio Marsh because of her New Zealand connection. Apparently, he had a thing for the place.”
“Then the man’s a fool. Marsh is a giant of the Golden Age, but it’s not because of New Zealand, even if she did hail from there. I think she’s the best of the British writers of that era.”
“Well,” I said, calmly. “This should all make an interesting discussion when we have our luncheon at Summerlea.”
Vera snorted. “I’ve met him more than once. Kauffman’s no prize, if you ask me. Anyway, I’ve heard that the old coot is practically gaga. Collecting only one author is probably a symptom.”
“Um, the old coot,” I said as tactfully as I could, “is dead.”
“Magnus Kauffman is dead?”
“As a doornail, apparently. That’s why the invitation came from Chadwick Kauffman. He’s the heir and the person we’ll be meeting.”
“So old Kauffman’s dead, is he? When did this happen?”
“Late this past year, Miss Troy, the assistant, told me. In the fall.”
She assumed her scowliest expression. “I thought I would have heard something.”
For sure Magnus Kauffman’s death would have made news, certainly the New York Times, but we’d been otherwise occupied.
“If you remember, we had a lot on our mind around Thanksgiving.”
Vera’s brow darkened. We never speak of the events of last November. I’ll say for the record that the weeks before Thanksgiving brought bad times to Van Alst House and a close call for Vera and her entire collection, as well as for my job and the life we all love. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.
I kept going. “Mr. Kauffman left everything to his nephew, Chadwick, his only close relative.”
“Really? You mean all those fine old families intermarrying are now reduced to one impoverished relative?”
“Um, hardly impoverished. I checked him out. He has a number of businesses, including the Country Club and Spa, an exclusive establishment over in Grandville. I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen coverage of his charity events in the New York Times Sunday Styles.”
“I must have missed that, Miss Bingham.” Vera glowered.
Silly of me. As if Vera—who took the New York Times every day for the crossword—would ever read the Sunday Styles section. What was I thinking?
I didn’t try to explain that it had been a charity event at the Country Club that had been covered, with women in gorgeous gowns and men in formal wear. “The point is that Chadwick has made a name for himself and he took an interest in the, um, elder Mr. Kauffman.”
“I bet he did. I guess it paid off for him, then. But why is he selling off the Marshes?”
“Not sure. His interests lie elsewhere, as I said. Maybe he wants the collection to go to a good home, say, for instance, here.”
“Maybe there’s not much left of the estate and he’s starting to sell it off. Anyway, not sure I want to meet him at all,” she sniffed. “He sounds like a drip. What kind of man finds himself in the Styles section? I am sure he doesn’t have any interest in us.”
Oh no. It would be just like Vera to turn her back on this wonderful opportunity and cancel the lunch. After all, she couldn’t care less about other people’s historic houses, and she’d only wear one of her hideous and bedraggled beige sweaters to the event, possibly a cardigan that had been donated to the Goodwill by a retiring goat herder. I clung to my dream of wearing my raspberry dress to Summerlea.
“Chadwick Kauffman is interested in you, Vera—”
I hate it when she harrumphs. It’s a sound that haunts my nightmares.
The only selling point was getting our mitts on the books. I stuck to that. “He specifically mentioned that you were chosen to have first dibs on his uncle’s world-class collection.”
I didn’t mention that Vera’s own collection of Marsh novels was barely adequate. She had twenty-three of the books—nice enough, mostly paperback reprints in decent but not pristine condition. If this new collection was as described—fine first editions, practically untouched—she would be over the moon when she took possession of it. Not that she’d admit that. I knew I’d be finding buyers for the books she had, and if I was patient and businesslike, we’d collect quite a bit to offset the cost of the “Kauffman Find,” as I thought of it.
While I was at college, I’d discovered the Marsh books one rainy weekend at my best friend Tiff’s family cottage. I read quite a few during the summers. Now I wanted to get back on top of the series, as part of the whole Summerlea adventure. I would never dare try to read Vera’s collection. I’d been hunting for cheaper secondhand copies for myself. Even with my nose for a bargain, I’d found that a challenge as many of the Marsh paperbacks were out of print.
Vera wasn’t letting go of her reluctance. She’s not the type to be enthusiastic about anything, except maybe bursting my bubble. “Why me?”
We’d been through this already, but I took a deep breath and recapped. “Miss Troy said—if you remember—that as you are a preeminent collector, Mr. Kauffman believes the books would be in good hands and this would honor his uncle’s interests and memories.” I may have put some words into the mouth of Chadwick Kauffman. I had never spoken to him directly. But it was all in the service of a greater good, and there was an excellent chance that this would turn out to be true. Plus I wanted to enjoy my bit of anticipation and, most likely, Vera wouldn’t remember the details of what I’d claimed he’d said.
Even so, she shot me a suspicious glance.
I returned her glance with my most innocent expression, smoothing my hair to the side, a horrible tell, my uncle Mick would say. “I really love those books. I haven’t read her in a few years. But I’ve found myself a few paperbacks.” I tried to pretend that my interest was purely professional, but then that Roderick Alleyn was really delicious.
I have a weakness for fictional males, and Inspector Alleyn was as aristocratic and intelligent as Lord Peter Wimsey and as entertaining as Archie Goodwin, my two all-time heartthrobs. He was better looking than Wimsey, and I was sure Roderick Alleyn had never looked even slightly foolish. He was more elegant than Archie, although maybe not quite as good in a fight. But what I liked best was that he had a foot in two worlds: his upper-crust origins and the much grubbier world of policing. Welcome to my life, living large at Van Alst House. I totally understood that. I was the first person in my entire family to go straight. And hadn’t the inspector and I both stumbled into more than our share of murders?
I thought he’d get me.
Vera made another face that didn’t do her any favors. “You really should stop mooning around, Miss Bingham. It’s all such a waste of energy. I don’t see why we can’t do the transaction by phone or e-mail.”
I felt Summerlea and my great adventure slipping away. Without chirping, I said, “We’ve already accepted and they’ve welcomed us. We’ve already arranged with the bank to get the cash. You know that, Vera. We can’t back out now. Think of your status in the community.” Okay, that was a stretch. It would be hard to imagine anyone who cared less about the community than Vera. Or anyone whose status was more compromised.
“Miss Bingham! Please stop squandering my time. Weren’t you supposed to be finding a new supply of acid-free boxes today?”
“It’s done, Vera.”
“What about reordering our white cotton gloves for handling my books?”
“Twelve dozen should arrive by Friday. But back to Summerlea. Would you like to come with me in the Saab? It could be fun.” I love my vintage blue Saab. It runs like a dream even though long before it was mine, it belonged to my mother. No wonder I’m so attached to the nineteen sixties.
Fun is to Vera as a big box of snakes is to others. She barely suppressed a shudder as she turned into the study. “Fine, we will go, but not in that silly blue vehicle. We will all go in the Cadillac. Mr. Kelly will drive.”
What was so silly about my car . . . Wait, what? Uncle Kev? Coming to Summerlea?
“Mr. Whoozit’s assistant called and asked that we bring him to assist.”
I’m afraid that I wailed. “But I’m the assistant. I will assist!”
“Miss Bingham. I do not comprehend why you are behaving like a petulant child. Mr. Kelly will do the heavy lifting.”
I couldn’t imagine that there’d be that much lifting. Uncle Kev was our official groundskeeper, maintenance guy, bouncer and court jester. He was also the relative most likely to make Guinness World Records as the planet’s most adorable walking disaster. Maybe Kauffman’s assistant had spotted him while checking out Vera Van Alst on Google and had been drawn to the man in the “WHERE’S THE BEEF?” T-shirt.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
“But, I can lift a box or two. I schlep heavy items every day. I’m very—” Sometimes that heavy item is Kevin.
Vera raised her eyebrow, usually a declaration of war. “Mr. Kelly will come along. He certainly merits a special occasion.”
What? And I didn’t? This bit of Kev news gave me a shock. I couldn’t imagine that there’d be anything for Kev to do. And when had Vera been talking to Lisa Troy?
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like most women, Vera had a weakness for Uncle Kev. Maybe it’s the chiseled cheekbones, the brilliant blue eyes, the uninhibited smile and the fine head of red hair that my Kelly uncles owe to Olaf the Viking, who was a hot commodity around Dublin in the ninth century.
My mother had been a redheaded Kelly too. I have the dark hair of the Binghams. Good thing, I wouldn’t want to clash with my dream dress. But I digress. My original point was that Vera and our cook, Signora Panetone, think the sun shines out of Kev’s—
Vera reached her desk and whirled. “Why are you still hanging around, Miss Bingham? I have work to do. I believe that you do too, as I pay you enough for it.”
“But don’t you need Kev here to—?” I paused, trying to think of something that would be improved by Kev’s presence on the home front. It was a short list.
But what if something needed lighting on fire?
“Miss Bingham.” Vera snapped open a file. I knew I was taking a chance, but I predicted a world of trouble if Kev came with us. Why couldn’t Vera see that too? Of course, I’d always kept Kev’s biggest disasters secret from her in order that he could stay on as live-in staff at Van Alst House. I couldn’t fault her not understanding the degree of risk involved. At that point, I decided I wouldn’t ride in the Caddy with them. I’d follow them in the Saab. I’d deal with any arguments if and when they arose at the time of departure.
Uncle Kev chose that moment to stop whatever crisis he’d been creating elsewhere and pop into our conversation. That’s when the entire thing first took on its surreal appearance.
There he was: lovable, handsome and enthusiastic. You could cut fabric with those cheekbones. His blue eyes were mesmerizing. And he was kind. It wasn’t his fault that so much went wrong so soon after he walked onto a scene. To my great surprise, he’d fit in quite well at Van Alst House. “Hey, Jordie. Did you hear? I’m going to . . . wherever it is that you’re so excited about.”
“Summerlea.” I smiled tightly before my attention was caught by movement through the tall study window.
“Kev! What’s that?” I pointed through the window to a wisp of mist, or was it smoke?
He whirled. His ginger eyebrows lifted. His chiseled cheekbones pointed. His blue eyes gleamed and his freckles added emphasis to his entire face. “What? Nothing! Nothing at all.”
I turned back to confront him and stared at Kev’s denim backside as he vanished through the door and presumably down the endless corridor toward the back door of Van Alst House.
“Miss Bingham,” Vera said with a sniff. “You really should get a grip. You are entirely too high-strung today.”
Actually, I was entirely too high-strung about the miniature mushroom cloud of smoke that I had spotted through that window. The puff had emanated from the wooded grove at the edge of the property. The evergreens, mostly spruce and cedar, provided a much needed pop of green where our majestic maple trees stood, still bare. I wanted them to remain standing.
“You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I’ll go and calm down now.”
In my family, we have an expression: “Where there’s smoke, there’s Kev.”
I hurried along the corridor, stuck my feet in my glossy red Hunter rain boots and shot out the back door. I headed straight for that wooded grove. Kev, of course, had beaten me to it. He was emerging, radiating innocence, when I reached the edge of the grove.
“Beautiful evening, isn’t it, Jordie?”
“No, it is not. It’s a miserable end-of-winter day. And if it had been a beautiful evening, the sight of that trail of smoke would have been the end of it.”
Kev took my arm and propelled me back toward Van Alst House. “Jordie, Jordie, Jordie. Don’t let your imagination get away from you.”
“First of all, that doesn’t make sense, Kev, and second, I saw smoke and I want to know what that smoke was all about.”
“It’s a long story. Shall we have a snack in the conservatory and talk about what you thought you saw?”
“I didn’t think I saw anything, Kev. I did see something and—”
“Oh, look. I think Vera wants you.”
“She doesn’t want me, and you are trying to deflect my attention away from—”
But Vera was there at the back door of Van Alst House gesticulating. A gesticulating Vera is never a good thing, just as a puff of smoke in the vicinity of Kev isn’t.
“We’ll sort this out later,” I grumbled, stomping my way to the back door.
Vera, it turned out after all, had decided she was ready to plan our trip. She needed Kev in on the action, as he would be taking her in the Caddy. I wasn’t sure what was worse: Kev in Summerlea or Kev left behind with whatever he had going on in the grove at the edge of the property. I really didn’t want to return to find Van Alst House a charred and reeking ruin.
Never mind, we were heading off on an adventure. But Kev was a Grade A blabbermouth and, knowing him, he’d already been on the phone to his brothers with the news. As his brothers were also my uncles, I’d been expecting to hear from them.
My phone gave the unique ring assigned to Uncle Mick, probably my favorite person in the world. I answered and found a barrage of suggestions.
“When you’re there at that Kauffman place, make sure you scope out the silver. The grandfather had a collection of Georgian sterling. Not what everyone keeps at their so-called summer home, but the rich are not like us, as they say.”
“Sorry, Uncle Mick, I—”
“And watch the walls. I hear there’s some good stuff by Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and—”
My uncles all had an appreciation for the finer things. Helping them scope out potential plunder is not part of my plan to get away from the family “business.” It doesn’t matter how many times I mention that I am going straight; it never seems to sink in. I’ve learned to save my breath.
I said, “Sorry, Uncle Mick. You’re breaking up.”
“Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. And I heard there might be a Colville,” he bellowed.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with the signal. I’ll call you later.” I rang off. I imagined poor Uncle Mick standing there, baffled, lusting after that silver and those artworks. He’d be as appealing as ever with the gold chain glinting in his curly chest hair, the match to his eyebrows and full head of ginger hair. I loved him to bits, but I did not intend to facilitate any pillaging of the Kauffman holdings.
I hustled after Vera and Kev. I wanted to be part of the planning. That was pure self-preservation.
Vera turned back to me as she rolled down the hall toward the study, “By the way, a package came for you, Miss Bingham. I signed for it. It’s at the front door.”
“Yes, flowers. A delivery of flowers.”
“I wish you wouldn’t parrot, Miss Bingham. It’s most annoying. It’s even worse than chirping.”
“What kind of flowers?”
“How would I know? It’s a long white box. Go find out for yourself.” Vera radiated irritation.
“Who would be sending me flowers?” I mused out loud. Flowers were a good thing, but I wasn’t used to having them delivered.
“Go look at the card,” she muttered. “Mr. Kelly and I can plan without you.”
I hesitated about leaving them together alone. “I’ll be right back,” I said, hurrying toward the front door.
It was indeed a long white box, with a lovely red satin ribbon and a note.
Especially for you, Jordan.
They must have been from Tyler Dekker, the object of my affections, even if he was a police officer and that wasn’t a such good fit with my family, given their “business.” Who else would send flowers? Lance, my longtime friend and favorite librarian? Maybe. He likes flowers and loves a romantic gesture. But Lance would never miss the opportunity to observe their impact. So Tyler, for sure.
I was almost dizzy with anticipation as I removed the ribbon and flipped the top off the box. Roses. Deep-red roses with long stems. They were once beautiful, but now they were very dead. The cloying scent of must and old roses wafted up.
I stared at the desiccated blooms and then at the box. Someone had taken the trouble to arrange to deliver a dozen long-stemmed roses to me.
I turned the box over. No indication of who they’d come from. The box said Flora’s Fanciful Flowers. Never heard of them.
Oh well. I headed toward the utility room to stash them in the box that would make its way to our compost when Kev got around to it. I figured the paper box would break down too.
Kev scurried up behind me. “All systems are go. I’ll tune up the Caddy for tomorrow.”
“Wear something respectable, Kev. No jeans, no Hooters T-shirts, no runners. Dress up.”
“Make sure, Kev. It’s important.”
“I won’t mess up, Jordie. This is going to be fun. You coming in the Caddy with us?”
Not a chance. “I’ll ride solo.” I figured I’d be calmer that way. I decided it would be great. More than great, wonderful. I couldn’t wait.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for the two-dozen dead long-stemmed roses, I would have had only one thing on my mind.
“DEAD ROSES?” TYLER “Smiley” Dekker said, in a slightly strangled voice when I called him. I got him just coming off duty that evening “Well, no. I didn’t send you dead roses. Why would you even think that?”
Tyler Dekker, despite being a police officer, was one of the kindest people in the world. I knew that. He also seemed to genuinely like me. You can bet that’s caused me a world of grief, but not from him. I pretty much genuinely liked him right back.
In an attempt to gain Brownie points, since he’d been so unavailable during my last brush with murder, he’d been working hard to make sure I knew he cared. We’d had romantic dinners, long walks, longer talks and a promise to always be there for me. No flowers though, except for Valentine’s Day and a shamrock on St. Paddy’s.
I said soothingly, “Obviously, they were live roses that took the scenic route. I’m letting you know, so you can get a refund.”
A silence drifted over the phone. Then Tyler said, “Is there some occasion this time of year that requires roses? The Ides of March?”
“The Ides of March? Not what I would consider a festive occasion. Anyway, that was two weeks ago.”
“No special occasion at all? Not some anniversary I might not have been aware of. Our first ice cream cone or something?”
I had to laugh at that. “I thought you were being romantic.”
“I do try to be . . .” He cleared his throat. “But, I really didn’t send them.”
“Well, no worries. Just so you know, you don’t ever need to send me roses, alive or otherwise. And I won’t spring silly and previously unmentioned anniversaries on you either.”
“But who did send them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was there a card?”
“Yes. It said Guess who?”
“Maybe they were intended for someone else.”
“Well, they had my name. So that’s weird.”
He said, “Huh. That’s expensive and usually implies, um, an intimate, um, involvement.”
“There is no intimate involvement with anyone else, Tyler, even if it was implied.”
“Well, I guess you’ll figure it out. But it wasn’t me and you can cross me off your suspect list. But I’m still sorry you got them.”
I knew he’d been blushing to the top of his cute blond head. I felt like a heel. “Thanks,” I said. “It’s some sort of screw-up. I’m not the only Jordan in the world, and possibly they got the addresses mixed up at the florist.” But that didn’t wash, as the roses had clearly been addressed to Miss Jordan Bingham at the Van Alst House address, correct down to the zip code. Nobody had sent me flowers in all the time I’d lived in Harrison Falls. I’d been given some, but delivered? Never.
“The box is from Flora’s Fanciful Flowers, but I’m not sure where they are. The label’s smudged.”
“Nobody would purposely send you dead roses, Jordon. You’re absolutely sure I didn’t miss some kind of special event?”
“Nope. You did a great job on Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s, and there’s been nothing since.”
“Want me to try and find out who they came from or who was supposed to get them? I can contact the florist. They’d remember a delivery to Van Alst House.”
“I don’t think there’s much point.” But I knew Smiley and I also knew he’d be on that case. I was pretty sure it would boil down to one of those weird things that happen.
I was lucky to be going out with Tyler, even if my uncles thought it was the worst idea ever for one of the family to be romantically linked to a cop. They’d much prefer that I was arrested.
“I’ll call you,” Tyler said. “When are you back from wherever you’re going?”
“We’re just there for lunch. And it’s at Summerlea, that secluded estate on the far side of Harrison Falls, near Grandville.”
“I don’t know it.”
“That’s right. I keep forgetting you’re new here. If you check a map, you follow County Road 36 and the property is not far from where the ravine cuts through that beautiful stretch of woods. The woods and ravine are all part of Summerlea. And there’s even a lake, although I haven’t seen that yet.”
“Sounds pretty fancy. No wonder you’re so excited. Not that Van Alst House isn’t fancy.”
“It’s only for lunch and it is business for Vera. And I am not ‘so excited.’” I was almost hovering in anticipation, of course, but it did sound goofy when he put it that way.
“My mistake.” I could feel his cute smile through the phone. “Be careful. You know how you seem to attract trouble.”
* * *
THERE WASN’T MUCH chance I could attract trouble, despite Tyler’s teasing. All I was trying to do was catch up on my reading of Ngaio Marsh. No need to be careful there.
My friend Lance is a genius reference librarian. He’s easy on the eyes too, as is evident by the crowd of patrons in the reference department on any given day. As usual there was an octogenarian contingent. They’re protective of their moments with Lance, and I knew I’d have to take my place in the lineup. I could have texted or called, but I wanted not only to see him, but to look him straight in the eye.
“Beautiful lady—” Lance always talks like someone out of an old-fashioned romantic melodrama, but today I was having none of that.
“Before you say another word, did you by any chance think it would be très amusant to send me a bouquet of dead roses?”
He actually flinched. “What? Ew. Dead roses! That’s horrible. Why?”
Well, that was an honest reaction.
“I’m ruling out suspects.”
“Suspects? I can’t believe you would even say that.” Lance feigned injury and put his hand to his heart. He’d missed his calling.
“I didn’t really think you were a suspect. I thought there might be something going on that I wasn’t aware of. Something really hip or . . .”
“Nobody says ‘hip’ anymore, Jordan. And I have never heard of this trend.”
Somehow the smell of his Burberry cologne made the fact I was no longer hip—or even allowed to say “hip”—a bit less painful.
“So, did someone actually send you dead roses?”
“Anonymously, I take it.”
“Well, Guess who?”
“What do you think that means?”
I shrugged. I really had no idea.
“Maybe someone didn’t realize they’d be dead when you got them. A secret admirer?”
“We promised not to keep secrets anymore.” I winked.
Lance looked embarrassed. We’re still getting over a certain secret from Thanksgiving, but this wasn’t the occasion to revisit that.
“Can’t imagine who,” I said. “Or why. But if there’s one thing I hate, it’s an incompetent secret admirer.”
“I get that.”
It’s always good to ask a librarian, and Lance was pleased to check out the Kauffman family background and a history of Summerlea too, before our trip. Vera had asked questions, and I wanted to know that everything about Chadwick was on the level. Although I’d been madly researching, Lance always uncovers so much more detail than I can online, and usually it’s all vastly more interesting too. As an extra I got a couple of flirty cheek kisses and a serious hug from him.
As I sashayed out the door, feeling the dirty looks from his reference room posse, I had a big, silly grin on my face.
On my way back to Van Alst House, I couldn’t resist driving to the farthest reaches of Harrison Falls and sailing along the tree-lined road and the ravine to pass the entrance to Summerlea. I was smiling all the way, cruising slowly. I gave a cheerful smile and wave to three gray-haired ladies who were ambling along the side of the road, before heading home.
They looked to be in their late seventies. The little one reminded me of my Grandmother Kelly. That meant you’d probably never want to get on her bad side.
* * *
AS I PULLED into the driveway at Van Alst House, my pocket sprang to life with a text from Tiff. In typical Tiff fashion, she had offered to fill in for a colleague as a nurse on a cruise. This was what I loved about Tiff. You could count on her to save the day if you, say, broke your ankle in an ill-advised attempt at roller derby and needed someone to cover your eleven-day shift. On the phone before she’d left for Miami she was excited. Tiff collects adventures the way Vera collects books, only with more passion and far less caution. She’d never been on a cruise or to the Panama Canal. And the pay was going to be decent, considering all her accommodations and food were covered. Although the sun was starting to get stronger here in New York State, our late-coming spring was a far cry from the balmy tropical breezes Tiff would have tousling her hair. I felt a twinge of envy. My pale Irish skin had reached an almost translucent level of white over the long winter.
Getting on board now. Tiny room, but at least I don’t have to share! ;) I guess once we get out to sea, texting gets pricey, so I will check in when we get to Aruba in two days. Be thinking of you as I work on my tan. LOL
I replied in faux jealous rage.
You are a horrible person. I hope a dolphin steals your wallet.
;) Have fun!
* * *
I WAS BACK barely in time to accompany Vera and Uncle Kev to the bank to pick up the money for the exchange of the Marsh collection. We’d arranged to have the cash on hand. Vera must have had a stash of cash somewhere in Van Alst House, because she was able to keep the withdrawal amount under ten thousand, which is the point where transactions attract all sorts of unwelcome attention from the IRS and other government bodies. I did wonder about the need for cash. I was beginning to think that Vera was right and maybe the Kauffman estate was shrinking. However, we were the buyers, not the sellers, and it was up to Chadwick to report any income. Once again, no need to worry. I might have been going straight, but it wasn’t like I worked for the government.
From the moment we got out of the bank, scanned articles and links kept appearing from Lance on my iPhone. Bing! Bing! Bing!
Lance had found lots of new stuff. I loved that boy. Soon I’d be immersed in more than I could ever absorb about the Kauffmans and Summerlea.
A last text from Lance:
Found a lot of info about art, but nothing about books. Chat later.
* * *
AS SOON AS we got home, Vera zoomed to the study to take care of some hospital board work. Kev muttered something about cleanup around the property. That reminded me about those puffs of smoke. I’d been too distracted to follow up. “Whatever you’re doing, Kev, make sure it’s inside. Stay away from the woods and forget whatever project you have going there.”
“Sure thing, Jordie. You know you can trust me.”
Trust him? Not so much. I had to keep an eye on him.
My attic space is one of the best things about living in Van Alst House. I had an hour to spare before dinner, so I curled up on my bed to do a thorough reading of the material from Lance. The ornate iron bedstead might not have looked comfortable, but the feather bed sure was. I snuggled under the well-worn comforter with its pretty green sprigged pattern that matched my curtains. Good thing the pattern was small and delicate, because the faded cabbage roses on the ancient wallpaper could still flatten any competition. I loved them too.
A cat pounced on the bed. Luckily it was Good Cat. Bad Cat seemed to have declared a truce of sorts, but that could end with no notice. Maybe he was under the bed waiting until I put my ankles within reach.
I turned my attention to the background information Lance had sent and did my homework on the Kauffman family, skimming the articles and clicking the many links. I stroked the cat as I read.
Even though Summerlea was not that far away, the Kauffmans had never really participated in the life of Harrison Falls. Magnus Kauffman had done his best to avoid attention. But despite this, the family had made it to the national news from time to time: weddings and funerals, mostly. It was fun reading up on the Kauffman family, even though I found no juicy scandals or investigations. The Kauffmans hadn’t lent their name to a world-class university or concert halls. But there had been society weddings a few generations back, linking the Kauffmans with some of the really great American families. There had been grand European tours and expeditions to exotic locations. And there continued to be charitable activities and stylish fund-raisers. Magnus Kauffman had held the annual Summerlea Night’s Dream as well as a fall jazz festival and a winter cotillion. He had apparently enjoyed having his name and image appear in the society pages. In recent years, Magnus grew more reclusive, and the society fund-raisers appeared to be managed by Chadwick Kauffman on the grounds of his Country Club and Spa. Chadwick wasn’t one to seek the limelight, and while the big patrons and donors appeared grinning for the cameras, he rarely stuck his mug into the group shots.
It didn’t take long before I felt I knew all about the Kauffmans. Chadwick was indeed the end of a scandal-free line. That was good, because I wanted to like him. And I wanted our visit to Summerlea to be perfect.
* * *
I was glad to hear Tyler’s voice again. “I thought you were on duty.”
“I was checking out Flora’s Fanciful Flowers to find out who sent your dead roses.”
“And there doesn’t seem to be a Flora’s Fanciful Flowers in Harrison Falls or anywhere else in the world.”
“Oh. But the label . . .”
“Trust me. There isn’t one.”
“A practical joke, then.”
“Yeah. And a creepy one.”
“Who would have done that?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you still have the box?”
“It’s on its way to the compost. I could dig it out.”
“Do that and hang on to it. I’ll see if I can get any information from it.”
“It was a joke. Thanks, but does it really merit a police investigation?”
“Humor me. You know I want to be a detective when I grow up.”
“Never grow up, Tyler. I like you the way you are. Tell you what, I’ll drop the box off the next chance I get.”
“And I’ll see what I turn up.”
* * *
I FOUND THE box of dead flowers, fished it out and put it in a large plastic bag. The signora had been happy to provide the bag. The signora, small, black-clad and round, followed me. She kept clucking over the flowers, muttering in Italian and shaking her head.
Unlucky? No kidding.
“Thanks,” I said, “I hate them too.”
* * *
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Book Collector Mysteries
“The books continue to delight…[a] celebration of the classic mystery genre.”—Kings River Life Magazine
“A courageous heroine…a pleasing puzzle.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Great fun for all fans of puzzle plots.” –Toronto Globe & Mail
“Amusing one-liners, murder, and a dash of mayhem.”—The Hamilton Spectator
“The mystery was first class, the plotting flawless.”—Cozy Mystery Book Review
“If you are a book lover of any kind, you will love this series.”—Debbie’s Book Bag