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 (6 page)

13

Georgette Hughes and Blaise Bowden sat in glum silence as they sipped their morning coffee at the tiny table in their dingy rented room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“I’m sorry!” she blurted.

“I didn’t say anything,” he growled.

On display in front of them were the four glass stones that Nat had removed from Dolly and Bah-Bah’s eye sockets.

“I can’t understand it,” Georgette whined. She was a short, ample-bosomed woman with long brown hair streaked with blond highlights who had a penchant for strong-smelling perfume and big earrings. Her brown eyes could display warmth, but her face could turn wicked in an instant. “I saw the diamonds the other night. When I rang the bell, Nat was surprised to see me. He had all the jewelry out. I’m telling you, the four diamonds were there.”

Blaise picked up the four glass stones and threw them on the floor. “You could buy these in the five-and-ten.” He was a large man, tall, sandy-haired, attractive and smooth, yet underneath it all, not as sly as Georgette. Georgette’s sister had dubbed him “the cardboard box.” But for Georgette he was the perfect match. They were partners in crime. Drifters. Opportunists. Two con artists who’d been together for six years, ripping people off all over the country. “I’m stuck in that idiotic butler class for another couple of weeks. I hate it.”

“Do you think those singles parties I go to faithfully are any treat? How many more times can I stand that horrible small talk? And how about all the time I spent wooing old Nat? He was a nice man, but he didn’t exactly ring my bell. And now he’s dead and I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Blaise stood up. “Look at this dingy dump. We haven’t had a score in so long it’s pathetic. You should have taken some of his wife’s jewelry.”

“I thought I had four diamonds worth millions, and besides, I happened to be carrying a very small purse. I went in to his apartment when I heard the gossip about him selling the diamonds. I was frantic. Did I know that last night was the night I’d have to grab them? If I had, I’d have carried a bigger purse, I’ll tell you that right now.”

“Well, what are we going to do?”

“For right now, you go to butler class. If you manage to graduate, that’s going to come in handy. You’ll have access to all those grand homes that are just aching to be robbed.”

“I can’t take all the pressure. And I can’t stand any more of Maldwin Feckles’s endless preaching about butlering hints and tips and do’s and don’t’s. ‘A butler should be eager to serve.’ ‘A butler should display good breeding.’” Blaise’s voice rose as he continued. “‘A butler should always greet his employer with the proper respect.’ ‘A butler shouldn’t question any requests.’ I want to yell
Shut up!”

“Please, Blaise, you’re giving me a headache.”

“And I hate it when you go on dates with other guys.”

“Don’t get me started,” Georgette protested. “You think I like it, going out with those losers to see if they have anything worth stealing? And if I didn’t accept any dates, Lydia wouldn’t keep on inviting me to her parties. That was the only way I got to sneak over and see Nat. I should have hit him over the head and taken the diamonds the first time I saw them instead of planning to replace them with fakes.”

“Don’t even joke about hitting him over the head. It looks like someone did.”

“You don’t have to tell me. I was there. When I heard the back door open, I nearly died. I ran out of there as fast as I could. And you have the nerve to ask me why I didn’t grab his dead wife’s jewelry.”

“You could be charged with murder.”

“Blaise! Stop it! I didn’t do anything to hurt him.”

“We’ve got to get back in that apartment and look for the diamonds. They must be in there.”

“Well, I can’t go back there until tomorrow night-for the club party. Lydia ’s next soirée isn’t till next week. You take the key. If you can get in there today, do it!” Georgette stood up and put her arms around her lover.

“You smell good,” he said as he buried his face in her neck.

Georgette stroked the back of his neck. “We’ll get those diamonds, you’ll graduate, and then we’ll go on a nice vacation.”

Blaise laughed. “Where I won’t have to polish the silver.”

“No, honey, your job is to
steal
the silver.”

They embraced, and then Georgette watched as Blaise put on his coat and gloves and headed out the door to butler school.

14

When he formed his butler school, Maldwin Feckles had decided that field trips would be an important part of his students’ education. There were cigar stores to visit, china shops, designer-clothing showrooms, wine shops, jewelry stores-so many places to go and learn about the finest things money can buy. And of course how to use and care for them properly.

Now Maldwin stood with his first class of four students in a crowded, dark, and dusty antiques shop in rural New Jersey. He had hoped to acquaint them with objects that are found in homes that reeked of old money. He also wanted to pick up a few serving pieces for Lydia ’s future parties. Last night three of her good plates had fallen off the kitchen counter and smashed to smithereens on the floor.

No one had taken the blame, of course, but Maldwin had tried to take it in stride. It had been right after one of the guests came running in to say there was a dead body across the hall.

Maldwin sniffed as he glanced around the shop, which turned out to offer mostly a hodgepodge of other people’s junk. But after careful exploration, with Maldwin picking up objects such as silver trays and odd-shaped forks and pointing out their usefulness, he had managed to find several items for purchase that he would put into service at Miss Lydia ’s apartment. One was a silver soup tureen with a tarnish buildup that must have taken decades, another was a set of espresso spoons that one of his students thought was for babies, and three were stained teapots that would require scrubbing with industrial strength denture cleanser.

They were now being packaged by the clerk, who seemed to think that everything in the shop was some sort of treasure.

“Students,” Maldwin said, pointing to a stack of china dishes. “These should never be stored without a protective pad between each plate. The pad can be made of bubble wrap, if need be, but the plates will scratch each other if they’re not-”

Maldwin’s cell phone rang.

Thank God, Blaise thought.

“I thought you said cell phones were rude,” Vinnie Checkers mumbled. He was clearly the troublemaker student. Maldwin wasn’t sure why he had even signed up for the class. He looked like an extra from
Grease.

“They are rude when they disrupt meals, entertainment, or if the cell phone user insists on carrying on his business in a loud voice on trains, buses, and in other public areas.” Maldwin sniffed as he pulled the phone out of his breast pocket. “Otherwise, they are most handy… hello… what?… oh my… another party tonight… we will return to the city at once… it should take a couple of hours.” He hung up the phone as fear seized his stomach and began a slow gnaw.

“What’s the matter, Maldwin?” Albert Ketler asked, his mouth hanging open in a most unbecoming fashion. It had occurred to Maldwin that he had a constantly befuddled look about him. Another one who was only accepted because the school is just getting started, Maldwin thought.

“We are returning to the city. Miss Lydia is having another party this evening.”

“Another party?” Vinnie asked. “I thought we were getting out early today.”

“You knew when you signed up for this course that it would be intensive. And flexibility is an important part of any butler’s life. You have to be ready at a moment’s notice to go with the flow, as they say,” Maldwin said as the clerk came back with the packages.

“We’re getting in some good pieces next week,” he said, peering owlishly through his glasses as he handed Maldwin his credit card and receipt. “Be sure to come back.”

“Serving plates are what I need.” Maldwin handed him his card. “If you get any good ones, let me know.”

“Everybody breaks them.”

“Tell me about it.” Maldwin turned to his assembled group. He raised the walking stick that he always carried on his excursions. “Follow me!” He led them out to the thirty-year-old Vista Cruiser station wagon that Lydia had had since she was a teenager.

“It’s the one part of my old life that I don’t want to give up,” she’d told Maldwin.

Vinnie opened the back door and climbed into the third row of seats, with Albert close behind him. The two had bonded quickly in the first week of class and wanted to sit as far away as possible from the teacher. It had been a late night last night, an early morning this morning, and they were both hungry and tired. And now it would be another late night. They were both hoping for a little nap time in the car.

No such luck.

Little Harriet, the only girl in the group, had jumped in the front seat with Feckles.

“Can we listen to the etiquette tape on the way back?” she asked hopefully.

Vinnie and Albert groaned as Blaise Bowden, the quiet loner, took a seat by himself in the second row.

“Of course we will,” Maldwin said as the station wagon bounced out of the bumpy driveway and past a big WELCOME sign. “But first we will go over all the mistakes you made last night. Vinnie,” he called, “how could you improve your performance of last night?”

“You mean after the party?”

Maldwin winced as Vinnie and Albert chuckled.

“No, I mean in your role as butler.”

Vinnie frowned. “I think I did pretty good last night.”

Harriet turned around and looked at him. “You’re not supposed to put ice cubes in red wine.”

“Don’t insult my mother!” Vinnie said. “She liked her red wine nice and cold.”

“Now, now,” Maldwin said. “We don’t ever want to insult anyone. That is not what a true gentleman or lady does. And many things are a matter of taste. But perhaps it was sangria that was your mother’s beverage? Sangria is best served chilled.”

“All I know is there was fruit in the bowl.”

Maldwin nodded. “Yes, Vinnie. That would have been sangria. When you are serving fine red wines, they are best served room temperature.”

Vinnie waved his hand at him. “I’ve got a headache.”

“Perhaps we could use some quiet time,” Maldwin agreed. And a Rolaid, he thought. “I’ll put in the etiquette tape. But first, does anyone have a helpful hint of the day?”

“A true gentleman or lady never jangles the change in their pockets,” Harriet blurted.

“Very good!” Maldwin cried. “Harriet, this all comes to you naturally.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “It annoys the hell out of people.”

Maldwin blinked, quickly shoved the cassette into the tape player, and tried to put out of his mind the sense that everything felt doomed.

15

Regan took a look down the hallway before unlocking the door to Nat’s apartment. Opposite the elevator at the end of the hallway was a steel door. High time to check that out, she thought as she walked down and opened it.

A small square area of gray metal and cement greeted her. A gray service elevator stood like a fortress a few feet in front of her. On the wall to her right was a metal door, on the wall to her left was a metal door, and just next to it was a staircase that went down. The air smelled dank. Two garbage cans for paper and plastic recyclables were positioned next to the elevator.

It didn’t take long for Regan to realize that the two doors were the service entrances to Nat’s and Lydia ’s apartments. She had seen Nat’s from the inside when Clara gave her a quick tour of his apartment.

So if anyone wanted to sneak into Nat’s apartment without being seen, this would be the better choice, Regan thought. Could someone have had a key?

Regan inserted the key she was holding in Nat’s back door. To her astonishment, it worked. The same key for the front and back doors? she thought. That’s unusual. She pushed the door open, stepped inside, and found herself in the little hallway just off the back of the kitchen. She locked the door. The apartment was still, except for the humming of the refrigerator.

Regan sighed. The kitchen was narrow and long, with cream-colored cabinets and appliances. Some of the cabinet doors were inlaid with glass, through which old-fashioned cups, saucers, and plates could be seen neatly stacked in rows. The room itself was old-fashioned and cozy, but seemed isolated from the rest of the apartment. It must hark back to the days when people who had these apartments didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. But their help did.

There was no table in the room. The only concession to modern-day eat-in-the-kitchen living was two stools at the countertop opposite the sink. A swinging door opened onto another little foyer just off the dining room, and a swinging door at the other end led to the hallway down to the bedrooms and the living room.

Did Nat spend much time in here? Regan wondered. Was he futzing around the kitchen yesterday at this time? It certainly looked neat and clean. Clara said she had cleaned the apartment on Tuesday. Today was Friday.

What about Nat’s dinner last night? Regan wondered. She opened the cabinet under the sink and pulled out the lined plastic garbage can. Coffee grounds, orange peels, cookie wrappers, and a paper plate were right on top. Regan lifted the paper plate and underneath it were several pigs in blankets.

Hors d’oeuvres.

What you’d serve at a party.

Not something you’d prepare for just yourself.

Oh God, Regan thought. I must remember to check out the menu at Lydia ’s get-together this evening. She rifled through the rest of the garbage and found eggshells, an empty vitamin bottle, and an empty men’s cologne bottle. Most people put on their cologne in the bedroom, Regan mused.

Regan shoved the can back under the sink and decided she desperately needed a cup of tea. She filled the kettle, then carefully reached in a cabinet for a cup and saucer. She located teabags in one of the ceramic canisters that had paintings of sheep on them. In the refrigerator was a carton of skim milk. It was the same brand she’d used that morning in her parents’ apartment. Somehow it seemed longer ago than that. I wonder how the crime convention is going, she thought. I would love to catch some of it.

Her hot tea in hand, she sat down at the counter in the kitchen and picked up the phone. She dialed the number of Nat’s brother in Palm Springs, California. A feeble voice answered at the other end.

Regan identified herself.

“Oh, hello, Regan. Carl Pemrod here.” The voice sounded a little more chipper.

“I’m so sorry about your brother,” Regan said.

“Me too. We weren’t that close, but he was blood. I didn’t grow up with him. He was my half brother.”

“Oh, he was.”

“Yes. My mother wasn’t too thrilled with our father after he left. So we didn’t have much contact with his second family.”

“I understand Nat didn’t have any other brothers and sisters.”

“Not that I know of.”

“As you know, I’m conducting an investigation-”

“About how he slipped in the tub? It happens a lot, you know. I broke my hip last year. Terrible thing, getting old.”

“It is,” Regan agreed. “Did you know anything about these diamonds he had?”

“Nope. Like I told ya, we didn’t have much contact.”

“Do you know Nat’s lawyer?”

“Nope. Like I told ya…”

“Right,” Regan said. “Well, Mr. Pemrod, first of all I want to thank you for allowing me access to the apartment here.”

“Oh, sure. Listen, Regan, it’s no problem. I know Nat wanted to leave everything to that club of his. He was always so proud of that place. Whenever I talked to him, that’s all he talked about. The club this, the club that. Truth to tell, sometimes I put my ear on automatic pilot when he went on about it. The members were his family, really.”

“I’m glad he was happy here.”

“I think he was.”

“Well, I’ll only be staying for a couple of days. I live in California, too, and I have to get back.”

“If you come to Palm Springs, drop by.”

“Well, thank you.”

“I met your mother at the library. Nice lady.”

“Thank you,” Regan said again. “I’ll keep you posted on what happens here. I understand you want Nat’s body to be cremated.”

“Cemeteries are getting too full. We all should be cremated.”

“Yes, well, apparently that was Nat’s wish as well.”

“Wendy was cremated. Nat took her ashes back to the countryside where she grew up, in England. Some of my friends have had their ashes thrown off cruise ships.”

“Uh-huh,” Regan mumbled. “Well, I have a lot to look into here, but as I said, I’ll keep you posted.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Well, you are Nat’s brother. And again, thank you for letting me stay here. In the next couple of days I hope to talk to his lawyer and get his affairs in order. We’ll get everything straightened out,” Regan promised in an optimistic tone that did not reflect her real feelings.

“Okay. If he left anything to his older brother, Carl, so much the better. Now I’m going out by the pool. It’s ninety degrees here today. What’s it like there?” Carl asked in a teasing tone.

“About sixty degrees cooler.”

Carl chuckled. “I always told Nat he was crazy to live in New York.”

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