Vera Van Alst doesn’t normally receive visitors without appointment, but she agrees to see the imperious Muriel Delgado upon arrival. Shortly thereafter, Jordan is told that her position is being terminated. Evicted from the Van Alst House, Jordan is determined to find out what hold Muriel has over her erstwhile employer.
It seems Muriel has designs on Vera’s money and property—not to mention a particular interest in her collection of Nero Wolfe first editions. When Jordan discovers a deadly connection between Muriel and the Van Alst family, it’s up to her to put the house in order and stop a killer from going back to press.
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THE DOORBELL RANG. Now, this would be no big deal in most places, but at Van Alst House ten days before Thanksgiving, it seemed to create a collective panic. It was just after eight on a night that had already brought us some serious wind, making the unseasonably early snow flurries seem like a blizzard fit for the arctic. My boss, Vera Van Alst, and I were grumbling about the cold white stuff arriving in mid-November as we waited to be served our main course in the historic ruin that is the grand dining room. My Uncle Kev, the world’s oldest and largest child, was defending the fun factor of early snow.
When the bell rang, I thought I’d ignore it. It sounded again, a serious, rich and commanding ring, perfect for a massive historical home. It should tell you something that we all reacted with shock.
Everyone froze. Vera’s cook, Signora Panetone, put down her vast platter with the mountain of gnocchi and crossed herself. The signora won’t see eighty again, but usually that doesn’t stop her from heaping food on your plate. This time her black eyes bugged out and her unlikely ebony hair seemed to plaster itself a little closer to her scalp.
The doorbell ringing was not a regular occurrence at Van Alst House. Nor was it a welcome one.
Vera hulked unmoving in her wheelchair, her face like an Easter Island moai. Apparently her majesty was not amused. Kev—usually ebullient where food was involved—vanished like an ice cube in a bowl of minestrone. Even the Siamese cats took refuge under the mile-long Sheraton table. I felt their tails swishing against my ankles. Would claws be next? Why hadn’t I worn something higher than ankle boots? In the six and a half months I’d worked for Vera, lived at Van Alst House and taken my evening meals in this dining room, you’d think I would have learned, but sometimes fashion wins over feline, and then inevitably feline turns the tables and triumphs once more.
Another ring of the bell.
It was mildly eerie, because all the people brave enough to cross the threshold of this house were present and accounted for, except for Eddie, our recently retired postal carrier who was floating somewhere off Florida on a cruise with his ninety-year-old mother. Eddie wasn’t expected back anytime soon. As Eddie had been nursing a crush on Vera for nearly fifty years, I wasn’t sure how that would work out for him. But anyway, it wouldn’t be Eddie at the front door. He always came in the back.
So who could it be? A wrong address? Some poor wretch who’d braved the long lonely driveway to the large and pretentious front entrance to our crumbling Victorian pile o’ granite to ask for a donation to repair the church organ? A random serial killer about to have the worst night of his life? A stranded traveler?
I was prepared to wait it out. Vera broke the silence at last. “Miss Bingham.”
I responded with my eye firmly fixed on the platter of gnocchi. “The doorbell, I think.”
“Of course, it’s the doorbell. Don’t be ridiculous. Can you make whoever it is go away?”
I shouldn’t have been playful. “What if it’s missionaries? Will I give them something?”
“What part of ‘away’ is unclear to you, Miss Bingham?”
“Or they could be collecting to get gifts for the needy.”
“Not from me they won’t.”
I knew my place. Researcher and minion. Answerer of bells. Opener of doors. I rose, gazed longingly at the platter of gnocchi and headed down the endless corridor to the front door. I grabbed my handbag as I went. Vera might be grinchy, but I wasn’t. I could manage a donation if it came to that.
The doorbell pealed again as I reached the front entrance. I pushed it open, ready to drop a dollar into the palm of some forlorn waif while whispering, “Run for your life.”
I stared up at a tall woman dressed entirely in black, much of that a vast black cape, swirling like the snow behind her. I am five foot six, but I felt like a dwarf next to her. She was quite aware of that, I thought. She gazed down imperiously. “I want to speak to Vera Van Alst.”
What to say? It was a pretty safe bet that Vera would not want to speak to her.
I raised my nose and stared in her general direction, trying not to gaze at her capacious chest. “Miss Van Alst is not available. Perhaps you could call tomorrow and make an appointment.”
I could hardly wait to shut the door. The wind was whipping snow past our visitor and into the grand foyer. Even though the snow stung my eyes, I made a point not to blink first.
“I am here now. And I believe she will see me.”
I might have said, “Want to make a bet, lady?” but my uncles raised me right and I couldn’t quite utter those words. Instead I said, “I am sorry. As I mentioned she’s not available tonight.”
She took me by surprise and stepped into the foyer. Stunned, I lurched back and said, “Don’t make me call security.” Obviously, I’d been watching too many movies. Security would be Uncle Kev. He was also maintenance, gardening and soon-to-be snow removal. There was a good chance that right now he was hiding out under the dining room table with the Siamese. For some annoying reason, they never scratched him.
“Why don’t you tell her I’m here and let her decide if she’s unavailable?”
I stuck to my story. “As she is unavailable, I will be unable to accommodate your request.”
“Accommodate this, then: Tell her my name is Muriel Delgado and I have something she wants badly.”
I can dig my heels in with the best of them, and so I simply said, “Excuse me, but no.”
Behind me a voice said, “I’ll check.”
I whirled to find Uncle Kev. His wicked smile complemented his ginger curls and the matching expressive Kelly eyebrows. His Hooters T-shirt mocked me as he strutted off. How did he get away with that at the Van Alst table? I once wore flip-flops to lunch and was subjected to a lengthy talk about hygiene from Vera. But that’s our Kev, always where and when you don’t want or need him, charmingly inappropriate and apparently deaf.
“It’s all right, Kev. Under control.”
“I’ll check with Vera. Don’t worry about a thing, Jordie.”
That left me and Muriel Delgado—if that was really her name—facing off in the grand foyer. She gazed around, sending the message that she didn’t have time for the lower orders. I retaliated by not offering her a seat. To top it off, a Siamese appeared and rubbed itself up against her still-swirling black garments. Aiming for the ankles, I figured. I didn’t bother to warn her.
Half a lifetime later, Kev reappeared, flushed and triumphant and smelling of Axe.
“Miss Van Alst will see you now. In the study.”
What? I almost fell off my gray suede stiletto ankle boots, not for the first time, but my balance wasn’t the issue here. Vera was going to see someone? And in the study? During the dinner hour? Not even in the dining room where my delicious plate of gnocchi sat unattended?
Vera might not care about her food, but I was starving and now this woman was infringing on Vera’s privacy and my dinner. I had no choice but to follow them down the hallway. Kev’s notorious charm seemed to bounce right off the intruder. So that was good. At least she was immune to him. Things have a habit of getting out of control when Kev’s in high-charm mode.
The study is down a second endless corridor, parallel to the one that leads to the dining room. To reach it, you must pass the sitting room, the ballroom and the sort-of-gallery housing the portrait collection. I always try not to let my gaze rest on any of the formal images of Vera’s various ancestors. They all appeared to be suffering from serious constipation and major dental problems. Vera might have been born to wealth and influence, but life hadn’t done her any favors when she was fished out of that particular gene pool.
As I trailed Muriel Delgado down that corridor, my vertebrae stiffened to near the snapping point. This woman radiated negativity. She was all about power and not the good kind. I felt it. I could practically hear and taste it.
Kevin scurried back and forth, attempting to curry favor, I suppose. He can sense power. He always wanted to be on the right side of anyone who possessed it. That usually didn’t last long. I smoothed my cream tunic and adjusted my posture to center myself. I needed to pay close attention to this conversation.
A short time after, Vera propelled her wheelchair down the corridor from the opposite direction. Behind her, the signora fluttered, a panicky black bird. “Vera must eat! Come back. Gnocchi tonight! Eat now! No no no yes!”
I opened the door to the study. I’ve always liked that room. After all, this was where Vera first agreed to hire me. Vera rolled on through the open door, without so much as a glance at Muriel Delgado’s striking appearance and flowing black garb. She pivoted in the wheelchair. “That will be all, Miss Bingham. Mr. Kelly. Fiammetta, I will not be eating. Stop babbling. Please leave us.”
We stood there, frozen, although our bodies still indicated our intention to enter.
So, I wouldn’t be joining Vera and this strange black widow persona to soak up the atmosphere of the ten-foot walls, the tall Georgian windows with the timeworn silk draperies and the formerly red velvet sofa now faded to amethyst, not to mention the gorgeous Edwardian desk. My gut told me that I would be absorbing more than beautiful antique design if I had gotten my foot through the door. And now, I wouldn’t be there to cushion my boss from whatever negative intentions this strange woman had for her. My job was to make sure that bad things did not happen to Vera’s collection of rare first editions and to her investment in them. By extension, I felt that included making sure that bad things did not happen to Vera herself.
Vera’s eyes narrowed. “Go find something to do, Miss Bingham. I don’t require your presence.”
My mouth was still hanging open when the door shut behind the black-clad pile of drama that was our visitor. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have to avert my eyes from another batch of Vera’s ancestors staring down from the walls of the study in disapproval. Even so, I didn’t feel good about not being there.
Kev scratched his head. The signora let out an enormous sigh.
Kev was the first one to regain composure. “No reason to let our food get cold.”
He had a point.
The signora almost brightened, although she stared at the closed door with trepidation.
I didn’t like it, but then I didn’t have to like it. I wasn’t paid to like things. I was paid to do whatever Vera Van Alst wanted whenever she wanted it. And she wanted to be alone with this visitor who had arrived without an appointment and without an explanation.
“A bit of history there apparently,” I said.
The signora crossed herself.
Kev said, “No kidding.”
I wondered if there was a way that I could hear what was going on by pressing my ear to the door. Or the wall of the next room. That didn’t work. Whatever its other drawbacks, Van Alst House is well insulated with solid mahogany doors.
“Let’s go,” I said, after my failed attempt. “Gnocchi waits for no man. Or woman.”
“Dio!” the signora said. “No no no cold gnocchi! No! Come. Eat!
“Eat, drink and be merry.” Kev giggled.
For tomorrow we die. I shivered. I told myself not to be silly.
We ate. We drank. We were not merry and we wondered.
“What was that about?” Kev said, as he accepted a second helping of Pan di Spagna, an Italian sponge cake he had developed a weakness for. He layered on some whipped cream and a small lake of the signora’s homemade blueberry syrup.
“Nothing good,” I muttered.
Vera doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Her home is her castle and she needs us to achieve her goals, so she does suffer us, but not gladly in the least, come to think of it. Yet she’d gone into a room with a seeming stranger, closed the door and sent off her palace guard without a blink.
My intuition told me that something was up. Something bad. What was going on? We weren’t to find out that night. Vera never reappeared. Kev spotted La Delgado’s Grand Prix leaving in a swirl of snow around eleven. I heard the elevator creaking up to Vera’s second-floor quarters around the same time. But I learned nothing. It didn’t sit well, and heartburn flared on top of the uneasiness.
Trouble for sure.
* * *
IT WOULD HAVE been helpful to discuss this odd occurrence with someone. It’s never easy to talk to the signora, and Kev is a lost cause when it comes to sensible, or any other, advice. But I had options. My best friend, Tiff, was now living in Harrison Falls. I’ve been bouncing my problems off her since we were roommates in our first year at college. We’d bonded on so many things. I’d done my best to help her cope with her mother’s death from leukemia during our second year of studies. My mother died when I was a child, so I understood something of loss and devastation and survival. In turn, Tiff had been a shoulder to cry on when my cheating ex-boyfriend dumped me, after maxing out my credit card and draining my bank account.
We could always rely on each other. But Tiff didn’t pick up. I figured she’d have a good reason. Now that she was back from her stint in Africa and working in our neighboring town of Grandville as an ICU nurse at Grandville General Hospital, she pulled a lot of extra shifts. She hadn’t mentioned it, but perhaps she’d been called in to work. I sent her a text.
Strangely, my buddy Lance—arguably the world’s sexiest librarian—wasn’t answering his phone or texts either. Lost in a good book, perhaps.
Ordinarily, I would have called the would-be man in my life, Officer Tyler “Smiley” Dekker. He was an excellent listener, but I knew he was out of town on police training and not due back until the morning. He’d been mysterious about the “training assignment,” but apparently outside communication with cell phones or other devices was discouraged.
My uncle Mick was tied up with a “project” that involved being out late every night. He’d also been busy acquiring a few new properties near the shop including the building across the street, through a discreet third party, I understood. I couldn’t imagine what he’d do with a vacant dress shop and the apartment overhead. Better that way.
As I am the first person in my family to go straight, the less I knew about any of Mick’s activities the better. My uncle Lucky was still lost in the newlywed world with his bride, my good friend, Karen Smith. Their current activities were probably legal. The newlyweds were off on yet another little mini-moon, as Karen called their frequent trips. Still, after a month, you’d think they’d let their four feet touch the ground, I thought sulkily.
Speaking of four feet, I did have two sets of those. Walter, Karen’s pug, was spending the weekend with me, as was Cobain, Tyler Dekker’s large, shaggy dog of no known breed. I was in charge of him until Smiley’s return whenever from wherever. I loved the dogs and that was fine. Not that I was complaining. Not in the least; I was merely thinking that someone in my life might have answered their phone or texts.
As conversationalists went, the dogs were light on dialogue—if you didn’t count snorting and snuffling and passing gas—but on the other hand, they didn’t hog the conversation and weren’t prone to melodrama. They were curled up on my bed with the flowered comforter in the attic accommodations that I adored. Next to the books, my little garret was the best part of my job with Vera. It was relaxing to cuddle up with the dogs and stroke their fur, but it wasn’t enough to take my mind off the sense of doom that Muriel Delgado had brought with her. I felt a little shiver thinking about it. I had a feeling this visit was about money, as most things are. I spent a lot of time worrying about Vera’s money, her champagne tastes and what I knew was a beer budget. The Van Alst fortune isn’t what it once was. These days, there was hardly enough money to cover the basics around this vast estate, let alone take a hit from some con man—or woman, in this case.
At two in the morning, I was still awake worrying about Vera’s visitor and listening to the wind howl. The midnight walk in the snow with the two dogs hadn’t helped me get to sleep. All around me were signs that the Van Alst fortune was in decline. In the harsh floodlights and frosty air, every crack was clearly visible. The lifting tiles on the vast roof resembled an old reptile, lying down for the last time. I itemized the immense expenses Vera and her estate must have. The house needed a combination cook and housekeeper. It required someone to keep the extensive grounds and maintain the building. The signora was devoted to Vera. I wasn’t even sure if Vera paid her. The signora had her quarters and her food. What else would she want except to have Vera finish a meal for once? Kev was about the same. Mostly he needed a place to lie low where nobody would think to search for him, as a consequence of a small disagreement about a large amount of money with some impatient “colleagues” down in Albany. Kev had a “suite” of rooms above the garage. This suited him. The three monster-sized meals (minimum) a day suited him even more.
I had my dream attic, the run of the house, a job I loved and food to die for. Vera paid me a reasonable rate, but as I had no real expenses, that allowed me to save to get back to graduate school. In turn, while I did research, I also managed to find good books at good prices and sell many of these finds, which gave Vera a good return.
Although I believed she was getting some perks from having me on staff—such as keeping her and her collection from harm’s way—for the most part. In fact, I figured I was a bargain.
Vera’s growing collection was a big money drain. The estate was hemorrhaging cash. Her better artwork had been disappearing and there was a lot less sterling silver than when I’d first come on the scene. No one in their right mind would buy any of these portraits of the Van Alst ancestors, no matter who painted them. I thought I’d better try finding out about this Muriel Delgado woman in case we were about to say adios to our Francis I forks. Or worse, maybe she was making an offer on the book collection. I sat upright, sweating. Maybe Delgado was a real estate agent and Vera was thinking of liquidating the contents and selling the house. What would happen to us then?
How to dig up some dirt?
By now it was past two, so maybe Uncle Mick was back. I gave it a try.
I picked up the phone and called.
“What is it? Bail money?” he said.
I could imagine him sitting there, big Irish grin, ginger eyebrows and matching chest hair, an older, saner version of Uncle Kev, without a bounty on his head.
“Very funny. Just need a bit of information.”
“Anything for you, my girl. You know that. And while we’re talking, how’s our Kevin getting on?”
“As well as can be expected.”
“Always have a backup plan, Jordan.”
My family are masters of the backup plan, which is why they live free and happy days instead of breaking rocks somewhere without antiques and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
“I do, but I hope I don’t need it. Do you know anyone called Muriel Delgado?”
“It might ring a bell but I can’t say right off.”
“Any chance you can ask around? See what you can dig up?”
“For my favorite niece, the sky’s the limit.”
“Your only niece.”
“Even more so. I’ll inquire. But I should mention that your uncle Lucky’s kind of mopey since you don’t live here anymore. Don’t suppose you could drop in more often?”
“Uncle Lucky’s in Manhattan with Karen.”
I grinned. “I’ll come by tomorrow. I miss you too.”
* * *
“I SEE YOU have another Archie Goodwin book on the go, Vera,” I said cheerfully as I arrived in the conservatory the next morning. We breakfasted at eight every day. We were not late if we knew what was good for us. Vera had a passion for Nero Wolfe, because her father had introduced her to the Rex Stout books when she was a child. It seemed to have been the only interest they’d shared. Now as a collector, she had a thing for a lot of classic mysteries, but Wolfe held a special place in her icy heart. Today the book was Black Orchids. She wouldn’t read it, of course. It was for fondling only, being a deliciously fine first edition. Her father’s well-thumbed paperbacks were stashed between her bedroom and her office, where I’d found her reading and rereading them. The fact that she had this edition of Black Orchids with her in the conservatory, away from its normal, safe habitat in the temperature-controlled library, told me she was in her Wolfe-ish mode. Not that it mattered to me. Archie Goodwin was my man. The only one who counted.
Mind you, I’d had quite a literary crush on Lord Peter Wimsey not that long ago. It seemed that the minute I got my bearings again I had fallen hard for the suave, smooth, wise-cracking and well-dressed right-hand man to the eccentric Nero Wolfe. I was trying to keep up with Vera and while she was rereading Rex Stout’s works for the umpteenth time, I was just discovering these treasures. I’d now been luxuriating in the world and characters he’d created long enough to know that if I couldn’t have Archie Goodwin, I wanted to be him. I’d even considered a fedora. Maybe two-toned shoes.
I took a glance out the splendid windows of the conservatory at the snow-dusted Van Alst property. Picture perfect.
“Nero Wolfe book, you mean,” Vera sputtered. “Archie Goodwin is merely an adjunct, a sidekick, an also-ran.”
I raised an eyebrow provocatively and took my place at the table.
“The hired help,” she added with a hint of a sneer.
I grinned, the same way that Archie used to when he teased Wolfe. “Where would Wolfe be without Archie? Who would keep the cops from the door, drive the Cadillac or escort the suspects, strong-arm difficult clients and pull a gun on the villain? The great detective wouldn’t be able to function without him. All Wolfe does really is obsess over those flowers.”
Vera scowled. “Orchids. Hardly just flowers.”
Vera reminded me a lot of Nero Wolfe, without the charm. I did have the brains not to mention this. People can admire and even venerate the man, but did any of them want to be him? Of course, with Vera you never knew.
I said, “Right. Thousands of orchids. But without Archie that detective business would go down the tubes. Archie is absolutely necessary.”
“He’s absolutely replaceable,” she snapped. “Men like him were a dime a dozen in New York in the thirties and forties.”
“Unlike me,” I said with a straight face.
You could feel the temperature drop a good ten degrees. The signora’s eyes widened. Uncle Kev’s fork paused in midair. I smiled and accepted a Dutch baby pancake from the signora. It was puffy and delicious and loaded with pancetta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
“Even you, Miss Bingham, can be replaced.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, as if I didn’t believe a word of it. To tell the truth, I don’t know what had gotten into me. Maybe I was channeling Archie, picking up his glib speech patterns and cocky attitude. Come to think of it, I did have trouble leaving the garret without a fedora that morning. Whatever it was, poking this particular Nero Wolfe in a wheelchair was a death sport and I needed my job.
“Yes. You, whether you have enough wit to realize it or not,” she said, waving the signora and the Dutch baby away.
“I suppose,” I said, digging in. Again, I put my reaction down to the Archie factor. He probably needed his job too. Come to think of it, Archie also had his comfortable live-in digs and at least three of Fritz’s fabulous meals a day in the brownstone as part of his compensation. But he didn’t let Wolfe bully him. He stood his ground. He made his points. He wasn’t afraid to argue. Sometimes he had a little hissy fit, but in a manly way. Archie was definitely a good influence on me. And Wolfe was definitely a bad influence on Vera. Not that she needed any bad influences. She was already too much like the eccentric detective: wealthy, irascible, difficult, demanding, obsessive. I could go on, but I believe the point has been made.
In fairness, she wasn’t much like Nero Wolfe in appearance; she was bony and angular, as opposed to Wolfe’s bulky person. Of course, she used a wheelchair and he was mobile. But there the difference ended. Neither one of them ever left the house if they could help it. The homes they lived in were large and imposing, although Vera’s was in a small town in upstate New York. They both had cooks, although a bird feeder would probably have done for Vera. Wolfe had fine clothing. I grinned thinking about those vast yellow silk pajamas that Archie described in almost every book. Conversely, no one knew where Vera got her drab moth-eaten sweaters. Today’s was the color of old vomit, with fraying cuffs and a missing button.
Despite their having intelligence, self-focus, conceit and snobbery in common, I think even Wolfe would have trouble communicating with Vera. Wolfe had his ten (or was it twenty?) thousand orchids, Vera had her thousands of fine first editions, but she wasn’t so good with living things. Nero Wolfe might give Vera pointers on being more of a people person.
I wasn’t sure what Wolfe’s voice was like. Vera’s sounded like the crunch of gravel.
The gravel crunched. “Archie Goodwin. An errand boy, nothing more.”
“Agree to disagree,” I shot back merrily.
Signora Panetone swooped down with a refill of the Dutch baby. I wouldn’t say no to that.
Really, I should have been more sensitive to Uncle Kev. He actually needed his job even more than I needed mine. After all, no one with mob connections was actively hunting for me to my knowledge. Kev had landed on his feet here at Van Alst House. Even though he could turn practically any everyday situation into chaos or disaster, here everyone thought the sun shone out of his tight knockoff Levi’s.
“More snow coming,” Kev said. I think that was what he said. He had a pretty big mouthful of breakfast.
Vera didn’t like snow but she didn’t need to care if it snowed. She never went anywhere except to the bank and her quarterly meetings of the hospital board, driven by Kev in her ancient Cadillac. The signora didn’t care either. Between her two freezers and her pantry she had enough food stocked up to feed Harrison Falls through the coming winter. Kev was probably thrilled. He’d get to ride the tractor plow along the driveway and back once the serious snow arrived. And he’d be able to play with the snowblower in all the smaller, hard-to-reach areas. Toys for boys. Kev was in heaven. I could imagine him carving figure eights in the snow.
I said, “I sure hope the mail can get through.”
That got her. The mail and courier pickups were her lifeline. How else could she keep up her collection?
I went back to my breakfast. Life was good.
I knew darn well Vera would put me in my place one way or another before too long, but I wanted to savor the moment. It was just over a month to Christmas. The snow made me think of it. I pondered the idea of yellow silk pajamas for Vera. Despite her persnickety nature, I had actually become fond of her. So, that morning I was anticipating my first Thanksgiving at Van Alst House and then Christmas. Yes. Yellow silk pajamas for sure. I could manage that.
What for the signora? Thirty pounds of cheese? Bail money for Kev. Bound to come in handy sooner or later.
I shot a playful glance at Vera. “With luck Fer-de-Lance will make it safely through the blizzard conditions and past the coyotes.”
Vera quivered. She’d been waiting for this one: a first edition of Rex Stout’s initial Nero Wolfe mystery, published in nineteen thirty-four. It was what they called a near fine first, and an upgrade to her previous copy. This Fer-de-Lance would roll in at twenty-four hundred dollars, plus shipping. It was in lovely, but not perfect condition. I had tracked it down. Mind you, the copy she really wanted was going for twenty-three thousand dollars, but we’d have to wait for that. In the meantime, we’d settled for near fine. Both editions had the same pink orchid against a black background on the cover. The previous copy had netted us seven hundred in a private sale that pleased me and the buyer that snagged it. That had been one of my early finds for Vera and I felt proud that we’d turned a nice profit on it. I’m pretty sure that Vera had wanted to keep that copy too. But at the rate antiques were disappearing from Van Alst House, she would have to make some compromises. I’d felt lucky that I’d persuaded her not to sell the Georgian silver candlesticks that graced the table. In fact, I’d barely talked her out of it, citing family history.
Kev said, “Weather doesn’t bother me.”
Vera’s haggard face relaxed as she gazed at Kev. That was the closest she ever came to a fond smile. The signora beamed and headed straight for him with refills.
I glanced out at the snow dusting the lawn, as the signora filled my coffee cup with fragrant Italian roast. The day ahead consisted of hunting online for missing copies of Rex Stout books that Vera didn’t already own or better copies of the ones she did.
While I was on the hunt, I’d be flogging my own latest finds, a cute little collection of three Trixie Belden adventures that I’d found for a quarter each at a garage sale. It paid to be the one who got there at six in the morning. The family selling off the grandmother’s belongings were glad to get rid of those drab and faded children’s books from the forties and fifties. I barely stopped myself from shrieking with glee as I took them off their hands. Vera does not do children’s books. I am pretty sure she had never been a child. I expected to get about five hundred dollars for them. This close to Christmas, I was glad of a bit extra. Who knew how much those yellow silk pajamas would set me back?
“As I said, Miss Bingham, everyone is replaceable.”
I shook my head. “Not Archie.”
“Let me be clear. Not Archie Goodwin—although he most emphatically could be replaced—but I am speaking of you.”
“This discussion is quite timely. Our association must come to an end.”
I felt a buzzing around my ears. Perhaps that was why I had trouble making sense of her words. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you are fired.”
A JOKE, OF COURSE, I told myself. But Vera doesn’t joke. Not at her best moments. And this hadn’t been one of her best moments.
“What’s that, my girl?” Uncle Mick said when I reached him. Sounded like he’d just woken up.
“Let Uncle Lucky know he can stop moping in Manhattan. I’m coming home.”
“You quit? Well, how many times have we told you that those Van Alsts are too big for their britches?” There was only the one Van Alst and she didn’t wear britches, but Mick was still seething at some of the long-dead ones. He wasn’t alone in that view in these parts.
“Fired,” I said, clearly.
The line was silent. Finally Uncle Mick’s voice came back. “Thought you said ‘fired,’ my girl; nobody fires us—”
“I’ll need a van for my stuff. Kev will help me load it.”
Uncle Mick’s lovely tenor voice quavered. “Kev? Has Kev been fired too?”
“No need to panic. He’s still king of the castle here. Nope. It’s me and, as I said, I’m moving back.”
I was glad I hadn’t sniffled or wobbled when I was speaking to Mick. My knees were still weak as I packed my belongings in my beloved attic. “Replaceable. Fired.” Vera’s words ricocheted around my head. “No longer welcome at Van Alst House.”
The signora kept fluttering up the two flights of stairs and into my room, bearing cakes, toast, tea, coffee, cookies and what might have been veal cutlets.
“Eat! Yes! Yes! No, Vera will change mind.”
Nothing could stop the signora and I had given up, even before the cutlets. I had such a knot in my stomach that I thought I’d never eat again. Of course, aside from my bad feelings, it had only been an hour since breakfast. I emptied my wardrobe and the little walnut dresser. I had brought my own midcentury modern Lucite coffee table to Van Alst House, as well as my books and my collection of vintage clothing. Lately, I’d been collecting inexpensive vintage reprints of the Nero Wolfe (meaning Archie Goodwin) books. Now I’d have more time to read some more of them.
The two dogs lay on the flowered comforter, faces in paws, and watched me with concern. I tried not to sniffle and feel sorry for myself. There was no time to waste on that. I had until noon to be off the premises.
The most humiliating part was having to hand over my key to Vera. I noticed she didn’t meet my eyes.
* * *
UNCLE KEV WRESTLED all my gear down the steep stairs from the third floor to the back door.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered to me, “I’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“I’ll find out what’s going on.”
Oh boy. If Kev started getting involved anything could go wrong, and things were plenty messed up already.
“Please, Kev,” I said, firmly. “Don’t try to find out what’s going on.”
He wore his hurt feelings on his face. That usually worked for him, although not so well in our immediate family.
“I’m serious,” I added.
“But I’m in a position to find out—”
“Come on. You have a great job here and a good life. Don’t do anything to jeopardize that. Please.”
“Vera really likes me.”
“You know what? She likes me too in her own curmudgeonly way. But see what just happened?”
“I think that was because of this Muriel Delgado. Vera turned on you right after she barged in here.”
You mean, after you got her invited in, Kev. Luckily, I managed to keep that thought to myself. No point in rubbing it in. “Yes, I was just wondering about that myself. I’m pretty sure Vera was really happy with my services. I know my firing has something to do with whatever was said in the study. I wish I were as good at barging into rooms as Ms. Delgado.”
Kev opened his mouth.
“Don’t. This is Vera we’re talking about. She’s unpredictable and she can be vicious. My point is that she could turn on you too. Leave it alone.”
“She wouldn’t fire me.” Kev batted his ginger eyelashes.
“She could. And she would. Then you’d lose the best job you ever had.” It might have been the only job Kev had ever had. I couldn’t actually remember another one, unless a parole officer had been involved. Or unless there had been some awkwardness involving a getaway car, which wouldn’t be a real job.
“I really like it here. The food is amazing.”
“And there’s the lawn tractor and the snowblower and the plow,” I reminded him.
“It’s a great old place and the property is really special.”
“Yes, well, don’t question Vera or argue for my reinstatement or anything like that if you want to stay on. Promise?”
Kev moved his head in a way that could have meant anything from “Yes” to “No” to “I’m choking on a fishbone.”
I pressed on. “Keep in mind, Vera will be stuck here and whatever hold this Muriel Delgado has over her will get worse. I’m counting on you, Kev. Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed.”
I said, “We’ll keep in touch with each other and you can make sure I’m always in the loop.”
Kev brightened. “I won’t miss a trick. I’ll be your man on the inside. Don’t worry about a thing.”
I wished he hadn’t said that because, after all, he was Kev.
* * *
AT 11:58, UNCLE Mick showed up with a van that was big enough for my belongings, spraying gravel and scattering the flock of wild turkeys that had been hanging around in recent weeks.
As we loaded my possessions into the back and the dogs into the front, he grumbled.
“What are all these coolers?”
“Um. Food from Signora Panetone. Lots of stuff.”
“Why does she need to send food? We’ve got lots of good food. You never went hungry growing up with us, my girl. Good American food. You sure you want to take this?”
“We can freeze it for emergencies,” I said tactfully. An emergency would be any time Uncle Mick was out of the house. I knew for a fact he was planning Alphagetti for lunch, with Pillsbury rolls as a special treat. And chocolate marshmallow cookies for dessert. Of course, they’d be good.
He stared around truculently, watching out for Vera, but she didn’t show her face. Uncle Mick would have had a few choice words for her. Besmirching the honor of the Kellys and all that; even though I was technically a Bingham, I was definitely part of the Kelly clan.
“Bite your tongue, if you do see her,” I said. “Remember that Kev still has his job and we both agree that we don’t want him coming home.”
Uncle Mick’s cheerful pink face paled and he was uncharacteristically quiet for the drive home. I was glad. I needed the time to brood.
* * *
MY OLD BEDROOM in my uncles’ home was pink and white, the girliest place ever. Think of it as an oasis of frills in a houseful of Kelly green knickknacks and ginger chest hair. I sat on the bed and glanced around. Nothing had changed. This was my second time in eighteen months finding myself in my childhood digs. A herd of My Little Ponies gazed at me with pity. My uncles would always take me in. They’d raised me and they loved me, but ending up back where I started felt like failure to me. The first time was after my ex-boyfriend left me too broke and broken to continue grad school. At least I understood what had happened that time. Now here I was again. What was this about? I thought Moon Dancer shook her head a little in shame.
So I’d been fired. Big deal. People get fired all the time. Not in my family, of course, since all my uncles are what we like to call “independent businessmen.” Sometimes they call themselves “entrepreneurs” or operators of “creative start-ups.” But people who do get fired must get fired for a reason. I’d always supposed that as a rule, they’d done something wrong. I couldn’t think of anything that I’d done, except maybe tease Vera about Archie Goodwin.
Hardly a hanging offense.
I jumped when my iPhone sounded. Smiley!
“Hello, Officer Dekker,” I said trying to work a casual tone into my voice without much success. It would have been nice to cry on his shoulder, but we don’t really have a crying-on-shoulders kind of relationship. Anyway, he wasn’t there, was he?
His voice was low. “Sorry, I can’t talk long because we’re not supposed to be on the phone. I won’t be back for another week. Didn’t want you to worry.”
Didn’t want me to worry?
“I’ve been fired!” I wailed. It’s not like me to wail, but, in my defense, let me plead lack of sleep and extreme stress.
“Fired. I’ve been fired.”
After a brief silence, he said, “The line is pretty bad. I thought you said you’d been fired.”
“I did say that. I have been fired. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” This was like being stuck in a Three Stooges film in which I got to play Curly, Moe and Larry.
“There’s a lot of noise here,” he said. “But who would fire you?”
I didn’t mean to snap at him. “Vera. Who else? She’s the person I work for, make that worked for.”
“But you do everything for her. You put your life on the line. You—”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence, but she did fire me and I had only a couple of hours to get my stuff out of Van Alst House.”
“Really? That’s incredible.”
“Yes and that’s because I was fired, and the apartment was part of my compensation for working there. Therefore, no working, no apartment.”
“And no signora’s food.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Right now I’m back in my old bedroom at Uncle Mick’s. I don’t know what people do when they get fired. I don’t even know anyone who ever got fired.”
Smiley said, “I was fired once.”
“What? You never were!”
“For sure. From the ice cream shop the summer I was fifteen. Something about supplies running low whenever I was on duty.”
I laughed despite myself. “I don’t know what reason Vera had. Supplies weren’t running low, for sure.”
He said, “In the adult non-ice-cream world, people get fired because their jobs aren’t necessary anymore and they disappear, the jobs I mean.”
“My job didn’t disappear. In my position, I had lots to do.”
“Well, it’s not corporate downsizing, but she could be cutting costs. You said she sold some things lately, didn’t you?”
I thought about that reason. I knew well that the Van Alst pockets were not as deep as they once had been and Vera had been liquidating assets to keep her book addiction going. I said, “But even if that were true, I would have worked for less or worked less for room and board. I brought in money and I could have helped her bring in more. We could have arranged something that would have suited us.”
“Well, we can rule out any competency issues. You are one top-notch book hunter, Jordan.”
“Thanks.” He was right. I knew my stuff. I was valuable to Vera and I was getting better every day.
I said, “I suppose people get fired because they’re light-fingered. Vera would have had me tied to a chair and interrogated if that had been the case.” I take pride in my law-abiding life, so there was no chance that I had pilfered anything or otherwise crossed any legal or ethical lines.
He said, “Vera knows you’re not a thief.”
“I would have thought so too, but here we are.” I sighed. “How about down at the cop shop? What does it take to get handed a pink slip?”
“It’s pretty hard to get rid of us unless we start shooting innocent bystanders or sleeping with the chief’s wife. Even then—”
“Funny. So you’re immune?”
“Nope. Just hard to fire. But there’s lots of politics in policing, and people’s careers can take a beating because of departmental politics.”
“Like someone hates them and starts a rumor. Someone is jealous and turns other people against them. Someone wants their job and undermines their credibility or messes with their mind or their cases. Politics. It’s everywhere.”
“I don’t think I was in any political danger from the signora or from Uncle Kev. Vera can barely find someone to deliver her paper, she is so despised in this town, as Uncle Mick enjoys telling me. Let’s face it, no one wants my job.”
I sat on my little pink bed surrounded by the trappings of my childhood and an empty case of beer, a holdover from the brief period when Uncle Kev had been living in my room before he hit the jackpot and moved into Van Alst House. I scratched my head. Smiley was giving it his best shot, but I needed to know the real reason behind my sudden dismissal.
“Nothing explains it,” I said.
He wasn’t giving up. “Sometimes people get fired because someone more powerful influences their employer to dismiss them.”
Twenty-four hours ago, it wouldn’t have made a bit of sense, but that was before Muriel arrived and changed the rules of the game. Kev was right. And now Smiley had put his finger on it.
“You know what? Last night a woman came to the house and Vera made us let her in and shooed us all away while she met with her in private. We didn’t see Vera again until the morning, and at breakfast she fired me with no warning.”
“But who is this woman?”
Right. I hadn’t explained that yet. “Muriel Delgado. She walked into Van Alst House with more confidence than anyone has ever faced Vera with, like she had a handle on something that the rest of us didn’t.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Not a thing. I’ve been checking the Internet and coming up empty.” Of course, Smiley was an agent of the law, and who better to find out about Muriel than my own personal police officer? “And that reminds me, I really need you to—”
I thought I heard bellowing in the background.
He lowered his voice. “Gotta go. I’ve been spotted talking on the phone. Sorry.”
I said, “But—”
Naturally, the phone was dead.
I didn’t have the slightest idea why Muriel would want to get rid of me. None. But in the deepest fiber of my body I was now sure she was behind it. The question was, why? And not only why, but how? Even coaxing a smile out of Vera was impossible, but actually swaying her behavior? Vera was a mountain, never to be moved.
Was Muriel after the money that Vera paid me? It seemed a small amount for such a big presence. I couldn’t imagine her dancing to Vera’s tune or happily lounging in the attic room with the curling cabbage rose wallpaper while making deals for old mystery books. No. There was something bigger going on. And why would Vera even listen to her? Vera Van Alst was the least likely person in the world to tolerate a large imposing woman giving her orders and changing the comfortable facts of her existence. Perhaps Vera owed a debt to this woman and was too ashamed to share that with anyone.
From under the Care Bear lamp, I grabbed a Hello Kitty notepad with renewed purpose. I had to find out three things: Who was Muriel Delgado? What did Muriel Delgado want from Vera and Van Alst House? And why did she want me out of the way?
I felt Uncle Mick’s presence as he loomed in the door.
What People are Saying About This
“If you are a book lover of any kind, you will love this series.”—Debbie’s Book Bag
Praise for the Book Collector Mysteries
“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