Althea Stewart has had it with Holly-wood. Fed up with the dog-eat-dog life of a classical musician, her alcoholic ex-husband, and the shallow dating pool known as Los Angeles, Althea heads north to Washington State with nothing more than her violin, viola, and a quirky but determined attitude.
Althea soon convinces her best friend and colleague, cellist Grace Sullivan, to join her in opening a private music school in a rambling historic property in Kirkland, Washington. Anxious to uphold their outstanding reputations as hostess-es with the most, Althea and Grace are determined to pull oﬀ their ﬁrst holiday party in grand style. But instead, they unwittingly set the stage for the gruesome murder of a once-powerful Hollywood studio concertmaster. As a police investigation unfolds and one murder leads to another, Althea and Grace soon realize that their hopes for a quiet life in the Paciﬁc Northwest have been dashed.
In this mystery tale ﬁlled with a symphony of blackmail, cold-blooded murder, and the possibility of love, Althea and a group of eclectic characters must tune into their detective instincts in order to ﬁnd a killer-before another life is sacriﬁced.
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UNSTRUNGA Blanchard House Mystery
By Cynthia Morrow
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Cynthia Morrow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAll truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. —Galileo Galilei
While my ex-husband, Dennis Littleton, and I were still together and masquerading as the perfect Hollywood couple, we were invited to a swank dinner party based on a game titled "How to Host a Murder." My ex gargled stiff double scotches all night and topped off the evening by vomiting in our host's new koi pond. I, on the other hand, solved the virtual "murder" before we'd even tasted the hors d'oeuvres, curried cheese balls, if memory serves. It didn't seem fair that I was the one accused of ruining the evening for everyone. Needless to say, we were never invited back.
Shortly thereafter, things changed. I got dumped and took back my maiden name, Althea Stewart. Dennis got the house in Malibu and a rich new wife. Since then, I've avoided parties whenever possible; however, it's been years now since that hideous debacle, and I figured the statute of limitations was running out. Besides, I finally had something to celebrate.
Nobel Prize winners and poet laureates are probably charming company at cocktail parties and such, but if you're in the market for really good eaters, it's professional musicians all the way. That's why my best friend, Grace, and I invited a bunch of them. We'd just spent weeks planning a lavish Christmas tea, all for the satisfaction of seeing our cherished musical friends and colleagues eating their heads off and generally giving your average plague of locusts a considerable run for their money. This was our way of announcing our recent purchase of Blanchard House, a rambling old mansion in Kirkland, Washington. It was also a launch party for our newest venture, a private music school, a shared dream of ours ever since we'd met in LA almost twenty years before, two sexy, young, Hollywood studio musicians laying down string tracks for disco records. We're still considered pretty sexy, just not as young.
Anyway, the plan entailed me torturing the young on violin and viola, with Grace doing the same on cello and possibly voice. For the past month, we'd anguished over the guest list, the decorations, and of course, the food, making sure that everything was as close to perfect as we could make it. Althea Stewart and Grace Sullivan had their hard-earned reputations as formidable hostesses to uphold, and we were determined to pull off this latest shindig in grand style. Instead, it seems that we were unknowingly creating our own version of the same ghoulish parlor game that had been haunting me since my former life in LA. Believe me, hosting a real murder isn't as much fun as you might think.
At precisely five o'clock on that fateful Sunday afternoon in December, the doorbell chimed its melodious Westminster Cathedral greeting, and in poured a crowd of rain-soaked guests who had obviously arrived en masse at Blanchard House long before the appointed time. This unison entrance might have seemed eerie to others, but Grace and I were used to such highly predictable behavior by now. Classical musicians are punctual to a fault. We have to be. There are always so many people counting on us to be in the right place all together and on time, instruments tuned and ready to play, that we may easily be the most reliable group of professionals in the world. Studio hours and concert hall rental times are measured in hundreds of dollars per minute, so tardiness is never an option. I was pretty sure that most of our guests had been sitting in their cars, shivering and checking their cell phones for at least fifteen minutes, waiting until the exact time of the invitation to step onto the porch and ring the doorbell.
We'd managed to invite a number of local music teachers and freelance musicians to round out the guest list, one composed primarily of former colleagues, escapees from the LA studios from which Grace and I had happily fled, as well as a few Seattle Symphony members and their spouses.
Two young and aspiring violists, Tor Nordquist and his fiancée, Amy Lindal, led the parade across the threshold. They stepped inside briskly and shook themselves out, getting water all over the oriental carpet. Tor let out a soft whistle as he admired the grand staircase directly to the right of the entryway, which was draped with fresh fir swags and red velvet bows. All my friend Grace's efforts, I assured them. My dogs, Winnie and Bert, responded to that whistle immediately and dashed over to inspect the couple and sniff their outstretched hands.
Tor, tall and slim, appeared to tower over his short, plump girlfriend. Amy's pale blonde hair and blue eyes clearly bespoke her Nordic heritage. Both wore those knitted Norwegian hats with tassels and hanging earflaps that you see all over Seattle. The woolen, braided ties hung loose and bobbed when Amy spoke.
"This is the most elegant house I've ever seen, Althea! I hope you don't mind my asking, but how can you afford to heat it? It's tough just keeping our little rental house warm these days." Amy made a definite point, one that was constantly on my mind. We hadn't experienced our first power bill yet but were holding our collective breath. We also seemed to be going through our newly delivered cords of wood at an alarming rate.
"We'll probably start breaking up the kitchen chairs first and then move on to the coffee table and the smaller bookcases. You know the old joke about the difference between violas and violins," I said.
"Yup. Violas burn longer, but I think you should start with a cello or two just to be sure."
"Spoken like a true violist. Honestly, Amy, I have no idea what the utility bills are going to be every month if the weather stays this cold.
I shudder to think."
Still, Grace and I were both beaming with pride as Andrew and Marilyn Litzky, appearing appropriately festive in brightly felted woolen scarves and gloves, stepped through the door and oohed and aahed at the carved balustrade and the inlaid oak floors. As long as no one leans on one of those picturesque railings too hard, we'll be just fine, I thought. Andrew was in the first violin section of the Seattle Symphony, and Marilyn was a well-respected oboist who frequently played for the ballet and opera. I'd known them both in LA since before they were even dating. They'd been a beautiful pair back then, young and in love, lots of curly hair, his sandy blonde, hers a deep chestnut. To an outside observer, it looked as if marriage agreed with them.
"My mother is here visiting, so we left Amelia with her. I hope you don't mind us not bringing her along," Marilyn said, referring to Amelia, their adorable and always welcome toddler. I'd rather been looking forward to playing the fairy godmother role, but apparently, it wouldn't be tonight. "Last time we looked in on them, my mother was sitting on the floor cross-legged, building castles with the wooden blocks, and Amelia was knocking them over and screeching with glee."
"Yes, I believe that particular game has always been a big hit with the younger set," I said and nodded.
"The last time my mother sat on the ground was during her brief stint as a Girl Scout when she was a pimply adolescent, and even then she hated it. But dignity apparently counts for nothing when it comes to her first and only grandchild. I don't think those two even know we're missing."
"I just wanted Marilyn all to myself for one night." Andrew Litzky put an arm around his wife and pulled her closer. "My mother-in-law's been here for a couple of weeks already." He turned to face Marilyn and pushed a stray curl out of her eyes. "I know you love her, honey, and I like her. I really do. But we needed a break! At least, I do." Andrew took his wife's puffy down coat and hung it up along with his ski parka on the bentwood coatrack near the door. They left their wet boots in the hall, headed into the living room in their stockinged feet, and were soon talking and laughing with other colleagues from the Seattle music scene.
Bert and Winnie, who were intent on doing their doggie jobs as official greeters, dutifully sniffed each new arrival and then padded into the living room to sit in front of the fireplace. Lydia, the calico, was sizing up the crowd, looking for the one person there who might have a distinct aversion to cats. She would undoubtedly stalk her unsuspecting prey until she could manage to snuggle herself into her victim's lap, purring melodiously and giving it her seductive all. Many a cat-hater has been charmed by Lydia's methods, and it's always satisfying to see her work her feline magic. As I watched her sidle up to a macho- looking trombonist, rubbing herself around his ankles and staring up at him adoringly, I realized that this evening would be no exception. The poor man would undoubtedly be flattered by such lavish attention and eventually wind up the evening by telling anyone willing to listen how much he finds himself admiring this particular cat, although he's never been a big fan of the species in general. It happens all the time. Many a lonely woman could learn a few tricks from observing Lydia in action and copying her surefire approach.
"What a stunning Christmas tree! There's nothing like a real fir tree, is there? And I haven't seen antique glass ornaments like this in years! It smells absolutely delicious in here." Delilah Cantwell inhaled deeply with her well-developed singer's lungs, puffing out her magnificent double-D chest and smiling as she gazed around the room. Strategically placed jars of fragrant candles were exuding wafts of cinnamon and bayberry all over the house, so there was plenty of sniffing to keep her busy. Delilah, a Junoesque mezzo soprano, was wearing the regulation Seattle party regalia, no makeup, a dark, shapeless, woolen sweater over a long, rumpled, peasant skirt, heavy tights, and Birkenstocks. I'd bet anything that there was a fabulous figure hiding under all that, but it was a well-kept secret. James Cantwell, her tall, lanky baritone of a husband, was rakishly attired in long cargo shorts, dark woolen socks, and hiking sandals.
Grace and I had obviously wasted hours on hair and makeup for this crowd, I mused. Grace looked like something out of Town & Country magazine, lovely in a flowing paisley skirt and a soft cardigan over an ivory silk blouse. With her honey-brown hair piled becomingly on top of her head, she might have given any English duchess a run for her money. I'd pulled on a cashmere turtleneck sweater and long tartan skirt in honor of the season. At the last minute, I'd added a Christmas brooch with matching earrings, and now I felt overdressed at my own party. You just can't win.
"James and I wondered who'd buy good old Blanchard House. It was on the market a long time. We're so relieved that it was you two and not some greedy developers," Delilah Cantwell said, peering into the kitchen and admiring the well-preserved, original tile on the counters and backsplash. "They'd have knocked the place down or turned it into tiny upscale condos with granite counters and sleek, designer kitchens. If I see another hunk of polished granite on anything other than a tombstone, I think I'll scream! It's become the latest must-have item for Kirkland real estate. Every house on the market within fifty miles apparently has exactly the same kitchen. You'd think no one could cook a meal without a huge slab of polished granite and stainless steel appliances."
"You have no idea how happy we are to have you ladies in the neighborhood, Althea," James Cantwell said, interrupting his wife's rant, "and not just because you've saved Blanchard House from the wrecking ball. We've really needed string teachers desperately on the east side for some time now, especially viola and cello. I'm betting that you and Grace will soon find yourselves with more students than you can handle."
Delilah and James Cantwell both sang professionally in the area and taught orchestra and chorus at our local high school. They'd been after me to volunteer as a string coach one afternoon a week, and I was thinking about it. They handed me a warm bottle of Chilean Riesling along with a cellophane-wrapped bouquet of wilting supermarket flowers and proceeded to find a seat in the living room.
"Humph!" That all-too-familiar throat clearing of Marvin Pratt immediately set my teeth on edge. "Who would have thought you girls would be foolish enough to take on an enormous project like this? It's falling apart, you know. What a disaster! Fortunately, I have the phone numbers of several excellent building contractors you might be interested in consulting. We did an extensive remodel at our house on Queen Anne last year, and it turned out rather well, if I must say so myself. It wasn't inexpensive, of course. Nothing top-notch ever is, but the results were well worth it, weren't they, Annabelle? Feel free to use my name when you talk to those contractors. It will carry some real weight, I can assure you!" Marvin Pratt, former concertmaster of just about everything in LA, had arrived. He was blithely unaware of the comedic effect of that pronouncement coming from a man anyone would have to categorize as morbidly obese.
I struggled to stifle a laugh but only managed to turn it into a hacking cough. Annabelle Gardener Pratt, his long-suffering wife and an extraordinary violinist in her own right, hung back as Marv waddled in before her, taking up most of our hallway. He shrugged his enormous girth out of a black overcoat and cashmere scarf and tossed them at me, crushing the flowers I was still holding, not that those pathetic dyed carnations and bedraggled daisies didn't deserve a good crushing and then some, but I cringed nonetheless. Marv appeared to have gained even more weight than the last time I'd seen him, which hardly seemed possible. It must be quite a strain on his heart, I thought to myself, if he indeed had one, to be carrying that much extra poundage.
"Come, darling," he beckoned to his wife. "Let's get something to eat. You might want to grab us some seats over by the fireplace while I fill some plates. It's probably warmer there. It's drafty as anything in this old ruin, isn't it?"
Annabelle Pratt ignored him. She looked handsome, if thinner and more fragile than I'd ever seen her. Her classic Chanel suit hung limply on her petite frame. All the usual sparkle was missing from her amber eyes. Nevertheless, she was elegantly turned out, her makeup perfect, if a bit more heavy-handedly applied than usual, every hair of her now-graying chignon artfully arranged.
"It's so kind of you to invite us, Althea, darling." Annabelle leaned over to air-kiss my cheek. "We hardly ever get out anymore, except to restaurants and the symphony. We heard Hilary Hahn play at Benaroya Hall last month. Did you go? No? A pity. She was marvelous, and of course, Marv insisted on going backstage afterward. He always enjoys giving up-and-coming young violin soloists the benefit of his expertise, you know," she said without a trace of irony. She must really love the guy, I thought to myself. Annabelle handed me a large box of chocolates decorated with silver foil and the requisite holiday bow, a bottle of chilled and very expensive champagne. She hadn't forgotten my weakness for chocolates, and even though she herself has always been deathly allergic to them, she'd been kind enough to bring me a huge holiday box of See's Candies with Nuts and Chews, my absolute favorites. She extended her small, jeweled hand to Grace and gave her a gentle smile and another air kiss.
"I see you couldn't take it anymore," she murmured close to Grace's ear but loud enough for me to overhear. "You're very brave, and I know it wasn't easy, but I admire you for making the break."
"It was all Althea's doing really," Grace answered somewhat gaily. "She found this wonderful old house and twisted my arm until I promised to leave LA."
"Oh, I didn't mean that, my dear, although moving up here must have been quite a big step too. I meant leaving Rolfe. I'll bet you were relieved that you had the foresight to keep your maiden name. Grace.
Sullivan suits you perfectly, you know. You could never have been happy as Grace Kirchner. It sounds so terribly 'Swiss,' if you know what I mean. Brava!"
Excerpted from UNSTRUNG by Cynthia Morrow Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Morrow. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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