Read Fleeced: A Regan Reilly Mystery Online

Authors: Carol Higgins Clark

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #detective, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery fiction, #Women Sleuths, #New York (N.Y.), #Reilly; Regan (Fictitious character), #Women private investigators, #Women private investigators - New York (State) - New York

Fleeced: A Regan Reilly Mystery (5 page)

10

The world headquarters of Biggest Apple Productions was based in the apartment of Stanley Stock, president, founder, and sole employee of the organization. The apartment was actually a drafty old gas station on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, but it did have a nice view of the Hudson River. Stanley had converted it into a home and office with two kitchen chairs set up in the corner for use when he interviewed studio guests for his weekly show on free-access television. Right above the set was a rack of spongy-looking tires left over from the good old days. A faint scent of gasoline still hung in the air, and there were those who said it affected Stanley ’s power of reason.

The station had actually belonged to Stanley ’s father, and over the years, Stanley had worked there on and off. Because he hadn’t inherited any of his father’s mechanical ability, Stanley had spent most of his fifty-eight years working in various out-side sales jobs. He’d sold everything from Fuller brushes to magazine subscriptions over the phone. An affable fellow, he didn’t mind being hung up on hundreds of times a day. He’d just dial the next number and go into his spiel until he heard the click in his ear. His coworkers always liked Stanley and usually ended up telling him their problems. Stanley always took their side, agreeing with everything they said.

“Right,” he’d say emphatically as they stood around the water cooler or coffee machine. “You’re so right!” Every conversation usually included a “That’s terrible.”

After his father’s funeral a year ago, Stanley decided that he had had enough. He’d quit his latest job, which he must have had for at least a month, and ceremoniously closed the garage doors of his inheritance to the broken down cars of the world, and moved in. He considered it to be a pretty hip move, the first hip move he’d made in his life. Other people in downtown New York lived in trendy lofts that had formerly been warehouses. What’s wrong with a gas station?

The question that hung in the petrol-smelling air was, Now what? What do I do with the rest of my life? Stanley asked himself over and over. He had enough money to get by, but he still felt he hadn’t made his mark on the world. He was certainly right about that.

Stanley discovered something that up till now had been totally unfamiliar to him. Ambition. It awakened in his soul when he finally discovered his true calling.

At night he’d lay his portly body on the slipcovered couch and aim his remote control at the television that he’d rigged to the lift that formerly raised sickly cars into the air. But no matter what was on, he’d always find himself switching back to the shows on Free-Speech television. It was a cable station that by law had to be made available to anyone who wanted access. As a result, many programs made their way onto the air that were astonishingly bad, with their poor production values, lame content, and wacky hosts. So bad they made you stop and look, like the scene of an accident.

Stanley found them entertaining.

“I can do better than that,” he finally cried. “I must go on the air!”

Armed with a video camera, he had hit the streets of New York. People took to him, just as his coworkers had. Everyone he interviewed told him their hard luck stories. I should have been a shrink, he often thought. Before long he had a segment called “Gripe du jour” that became very popular. There was no end to the number of people willing to stand in front of the camera and vent.

“The idiot at the deli handed me my coffee in a soggy brown bag and to make matters worse, the lid wasn’t on properly. The bag broke and the coffee went all over my coat,” someone screamed to him the other day. “I hate that!”

Finally, even Stanley had had enough. He thought of starting a show on healing but soon realized there were too many of those already. Then, walking home last week with a camera full of taped gripes, including those of a bunch of tourists in Times Square who did nothing but complain about the subways, Stanley was truly dispirited. He reached his front door, unlocked it, and gratefully walked inside.

He sauntered past the candy machines and put his camera bag down on the all-purpose table. Shuffling through his mail, he dropped the junk letters onto the table one at a time. The last envelope in his hand looked somewhat interesting. He had ripped it open and read the letter from Maldwin Feckles, heralding the beginning of his butler school. Hmmmm, Stanley had thought as he read. Maybe I can turn this into something interesting.

And he had. Just last night, he had filmed the student butlers at work at the Princess of Love’s party for quality singles. He was sorry that the party had ended so soon, after all hell had broken loose across the hall. He’d have to incorporate what happened into his story. Somehow.

Now, as Stanley sat drinking his second cup of morning coffee, he reflected on the fact that if he was going to cover the Settlers’ Club’s big party tomorrow night, if he was going to include it in his piece, then he should really go up and take some footage of Gramercy Park to use in his introduction. I’ll head up there and interview the man on the street, he thought. Maybe the butlers will be around and I can have them stroll around the park.

He took the tape from last night out of his video camera and reloaded. In a half-hour, Stanley was headed uptown.

11

I’m sorry,” the maid was saying. “I was only trying to help.” She turned to Regan and stared at her as if to say, Now what are you going to do?

“Are you all right, Thomas?” Regan asked as he clenched the red box that was stamped PEMROD JEWELERS.

“Regan, tell me this is a nightmare.”

“I’ll agree with you on that.”

“Regan!”

“Sorry, Thomas. You look white as a ghost. Maybe you should sit down.”

Back into the living room they went, the maid, Clara, close at their heels.

“I don’t think I’m up to going back in Nat’s bathroom right now. Clara, will you show Regan the rest of the apartment?”

“Of course,” Clara said with a bright smile. “Come this way. I used to clean Mr. Pemrod’s apartment every week. What a nice man. It’s a shame he’s passed over.”

Regan nodded. “Thomas, just relax here for a minute.”

“Regan,” he said quickly. “I’m having a panic attack. I think I’d be more comfortable in my office. Would you meet me there when you’re finished”

Thomas, don’t lose it, Regan thought. She felt a sudden rush of affection for him. He looked like a deer caught in headlights. “Of course. Go ahead,” she said. “I’m sure Clara will be very helpful.”

Clara beamed. “You know, being somebody’s maid means you get to know a lot about a person. Have I taken care of some slobs in my day. But Nat, he was pretty good. Ya know, sometimes he…”

“Hold that thought,” Regan said as she escorted Thomas to the door. “See you in a few minutes.” She took the red box from his hands and turned back to Clara who was clearly enjoying the drama.

“You were saying…?” Regan prodded.

“Oh, yeah, I had one couple. Always left a mess. Disgusting-”

“I mean about Nat,” Regan interrupted as gently as she could.

“Oh, yeah, Nat.” Clara raised both her hands and looked up to the ceiling as though she’d find some insight there. “So sad after his wife died. She had a thing for all these crazy sheep.” Clara started walking down the hallway toward the master bedroom. At the doorway she stood aside to allow Regan to step in front of her. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Regan noticed the dressing table that Thomas had mentioned, with all of Wendy’s toiletries still there. “Oh, and there is the bathroom,” she said, inching closer. Regan took a deep breath. In the absolute quiet, her senses were heightened, alert to catch every detail of this scene of death.

“I have the worst time keeping that marble clean,” Clara said plaintively. “I’ve tried all sorts of cleaners. But none of them was that great…”

It’s funny what people feel the need to talk about at times like this, Regan thought. But I know she means well. “That’s a big Jacuzzi to scrub,” she said in sympathy.

“Yeah,” Clara said. “But I’ve hardly had to touch it since Wendy died.”

“How come?” Regan asked.

“Because Nat hated baths. He only took showers.”

12

Thomas, now try to think happy thoughts.”

Thomas’s girlfriend, Janey, clad as ever in a cardigan sweater, straight skirt, sensible shoes, her outfit pulled together by her most cherished possession, a single strand of pearls, was doing her best to comfort her agitated boyfriend. They were in his office. She was standing behind him, massaging his temples.

“How could everything have gone wrong so fast?” he asked, his voice quivering. “We had so many plans for the club. Tea dances, brunches, ballroom dances, lectures, culture…”

“It’s not all over. And the brunch you had last Sunday was very successful,” Janey said as her fingers now disappeared into Thomas’s bushy hair and kneaded his scalp.

“Not really,” he whined. “When that group of college kids left, I heard one of them say he’d seen younger faces on cash.”

Janey shook her head from side to side. “We shouldn’t have invited kids on spring break. A gracious brunch is not what they were looking for. But everyone else enjoyed it.”

“The only two who didn’t complain about the food were Nat and Ben, and now they’re both dead.”

Janey sighed. “They were the two nicest people in the club.”

Thomas reached up and took Janey’s hands in his. “How do you think that red box ended up in my wastebasket?”

Janey came around and sat, very ladylike, on the edge of Thomas’s desk. “Someone threw it there,” she said with steely resolve. “Someone who was on these premises yesterday and stole the diamonds.”

“But who?” Thomas cried.

A knock on the door caused them both to jump.

“Yes, come in,” Thomas called as he sat up straight.

When the door opened, he saw that it was Regan Reilly.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“No, no,” Thomas insisted. “Regan, this is my girlfriend, Janey.”

“Hello, Janey.” Regan extended her hand.

“Hello.” Janey’s response was meek.

“Thomas, we have a lot of things to discuss,” Regan said.

Janey glanced down at her watch. “I’d better run.”

“You can stay,” Thomas said in an almost pleading tone.

“No, sweetness, I’ve got to get to work.” Janey grabbed her beige coat off the chair. It seemed to Regan that everything about her was beige. “I’ll see you both later.”

“She’s very nice,” Regan remarked when she and Thomas were alone.

“She is simply wonderful. The most wonderful woman that ever lived,” Thomas insisted.

How do you know? Regan thought, but asked, “Where does she work?”

“At home. She has a business cooking meals for people too busy to cook for themselves. People order up to a week’s worth of meals and then store them in the freezer. She’s so wonderful, she gives a discount to the elderly. And on top of that, she’s the biggest good-deed doer I’ve ever met.”

“That’s wonderful,” Regan found herself saying, thinking of a girl who lived down the hall from her in college who was always going around collecting money for some good cause or other. Regan spotted her years later at an airport with a shaved head, a fixed grin, and the same tin cup ready for donations. But Regan had to hand it to her. She was committed. Janey seemed like the same type.

“Regan!” Thomas suddenly blurted. “I have nothing to do with that red box being in my garbage.”

“I believe you,” Regan said simply. “But it makes it pretty clear that someone took those diamonds. I think the whole thing was well planned. Including Nat’s death.” She filled him in on what the maid had told her.

Thomas cocked his head. “I can’t imagine someone not liking baths.”

Inwardly, Regan groaned. “But if he didn’t, whatever the reason, it makes his death much more suspect. And it makes me question whether Ben had a heart attack because someone actually pushed him in front of that bus.”

“A murder in the club! It’s never happened before.”

“And I want to do my part in making sure it doesn’t happen again, Thomas. I have to talk to the woman across the hall who had the party.”

“The Princess of Love.”

“Whatever.”

“Right away.” Thomas picked up the phone and a few minutes later they were knocking on her door.

“Are you a quality single?” Lydia inquired with a big smile when Thomas introduced them.

“It depends on who you ask,” Regan answered.

Lydia laughed as though that was the funniest thing she had ever heard. Regan smiled in spite of herself. People who laugh at your jokes certainly do gain extra points, she thought.

“Well, come in,” Lydia said, stretching out her expensively bangled arm. With her jewelry and makeup and sexy lounging outfit, she looked as though she were about to pose for the cover of a romance novel.

Makes sense, Regan thought. She dresses for the job.

Thomas turned to Regan. “Your bags are still out by the front desk. I’ll bring them upstairs. Here’s the key to the apartment.”

Regan looked at her watch. “After I talk to Lydia, I’ll go in and call Nat’s brother.”

“I’ll be in my office,” Thomas said, and like a shot, he was gone.

Regan followed Lydia inside. The apartment was architecturally a mirror image of Nat’s, but the resemblance ended there. The living room contained six pastel love seats. No couches. No chairs. Just love seats. Pale pink carpeting covered the floor, and large murals of blooming floral arrangements brightened the walls.

“I like a happy feeling in a home,” Lydia explained, following Regan’s glance around the room.

“Very nice,” Regan said, thinking that the decor was oddly interesting. “I see you like love seats.”

“My singles parties are much more successful since I bought the love seats. People are forced to sit closer to each other. It either turns them off or on. Either way, you find out fast if there’s interest. It’s a big time-saver.”

“And what no one seems to have enough of is time,” Regan said as she took out her notebook.

“Look at Nat. His time is up. He’s on a different plane now. But he’s happier,” Lydia pronounced.

“How do you know?” Regan asked.

“I just have a feeling. I’m a little psychic, you know. He’s reunited with his great love, Wendy, and that’s what’s most important. And he didn’t suffer.”

Once again Regan asked, “How do you know?”

“If he slipped in the tub and hit his head, it was over fast. He didn’t have a long illness.”

“But he could have had several more good years,” Regan said. “He was full of plans.”

Lydia sighed. “He did seem to enjoy life. I didn’t know him all that well. I just moved in here last fall. My first party here was held on Valentine’s Day, and I invited him in, even though he’s way over my target age group. I wanted to be neighborly. He loved to tell jokes. They weren’t always the best jokes, but he was fun.”

“Did he come to any other parties?”

“Sometimes he’d knock on the door and just stay for a few minutes. Usually because he had a new joke to tell.”

Regan decided to get to the point. “ Lydia, do you think I could get a list of who was at the party last night?”

Lydia looked aghast. “I know there are supposedly diamonds missing. But if you go questioning my guests, you’ll ruin my business.”

“What did you hear about the diamonds?” Regan asked.

“My butler, Maldwin, told me that he’d heard there was going to be a big announcement about Nat and his friend Ben donating the money from some diamonds they owned and were planning to sell. The announcement was planned for the anniversary party on Saturday night. We were both so happy. Regan, we want this club to stay open. We’ve set up our businesses here.”

“And other people knew too?”

“Well, people were talking about it at the party.”

“Who?”

“There was a cameraman here who’s doing a story on us and the club. He had heard the news and was asking people if they might want to join the club now that it was going to get a lot of money. It was all done in fun. Everyone was in a good mood.”

“Then it’s in both of our best interests to get those diamonds back, Lydia.”

“I know but…”

“ Lydia, all I want to do is talk to the people who were here. They won’t think they’re suspects. I just want to see if they saw anything or heard anything. Believe me, most innocent people love to be involved in investigations. They think it’s exciting.”

Lydia cocked her head. “But a lot of people don’t want others to know they go to singles events. They get embarrassed.”

“Who’s going to find out? Besides, do you want to live across the hall from where a crime may have taken place and have it go unsolved? Or worse yet, have someone coming to your parties who is a criminal?”

Lydia sat up straight. “Of course not.”

“I’m here to help Thomas get this straightened out. He could lose his job over this. He told me that he made a deal with you to let you have these parties and the butler classes in this apartment. If he goes, I doubt you’ll find another manager who is so agreeable. And if this place closes down, you’re really out of luck.”

Lydia stared at her long, red fingernails. Finally she looked up. “Regan, I believe that everyone has a soul mate out there. It is my journey in life to help people find that special someone…?”

Oh, brother, Regan thought. As long as they pay you.

“I invite people into my home to open their hearts. To open their souls. To allow a little love and light into their consciousness, which was dark, dark, dark…”

“The list, Lydia?”

“I was getting to that.” Lydia cleared her throat. “Because confidentiality is a big part of my business-you know people like to tell stories about how they met their soul mate on a crowded train… it’s rarely true. Anyway, what I am willing to do is invite everyone back here tonight. It’ll be a free party. I’ll tell them it’s because of all the excitement last night. You can talk to them at the party. It won’t seem so much like you think one of them is guilty.”

“Will people be available to come on such short notice?”

“If it’s free, believe me they’ll come. At least for a drink.”

“What if someone can’t make it?”

“Then I’ll give you their name.”

Regan stood up. “All right, Lydia. Tonight then. I understand your butler had his students serving at the party. Can you arrange for them to all be here as well?”

Lydia jumped up from the couch and stretched out her arms. “We’ll re-create the evening.”

“Let’s hope it’s not a complete reenactment.”

Lydia laughed merrily.

“I’ll be in and out today. Let me know how many of the group you can round up.”

Lydia wiggled her fingers. “I’m ready to start dialing for dates.”

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