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 (9 page)

23

Action!” Jacques Harlow cried to his assembled group of actors in the parlor of the Settlers’ Club.

Daphne was sitting in the corner, out of the way, looking longingly at her fellow thespians who had actually been hired to act. Being a stand-in helped pay the bills, but all you really did was stand around while they set up the lights and the camera. Then when they’re ready, they kick you out and the “first team” comes in.

It was dispiriting.

She stared at the sheep that had been in Nat and Wendy’s apartment for so many years. Even though Wendy had been twenty years older, she and Daphne had become good friends. They’d sit and knit together or take walks around the park or sometimes Wendy would come down to Daphne’s apartment for a glass of wine when Nat’s poker-playing group got rowdy When Wendy became ill, Daphne promised to look after Nat, which she was more than willing to do. But he only wanted to spend time with his poker buddies. And those sheep!

“Don’t talk to me like that!” the lead actress was yelling as she backed toward the fireplace. “It makes me really mad!” Her leg hit Dolly the sheep, and she lost her balance, landing in a heap on the floor.

Thomas, who’d been watching from the doorway, screamed.

“Get him out of here!” the director cried.

Thomas ran out into the hallway, down the front steps, and out the door. He thought he’d have a moment of peace, but cable-television producer Stanley Stock was standing right there, his camera aimed at all the movie trucks. Thomas had turned around to go back inside when he heard Regan’s voice calling him.

Five minutes later, it somehow came to pass in the way that things sometimes do even though you can’t really explain how it happened, that Thomas, Stanley, Regan, and Daphne, who had been given a break, were seated at a back table in the dining room, far away from the movie cameras.

“Don’t worry, Thomas, I’m on your side,” Stanley was saying as he buttered his bread. “I want to do a lovely piece on your hundredth anniversary here. I want to talk about how the club has in-house butlers, how it’s a place to meet people thanks to an in-house dating service, how even Hollywood has come calling.”

“Thank you, Stanley.”

“Of course, one of your neighbors out there sees it differently.”

“Who?”

“Archibald Enders and his wife think you’re dragging the good name of Gramercy Park through the mud.” Stanley took a big bite of the warm and crusty Italian bread. “They’re waging a campaign to oust you.”

“Miserable people!” Thomas growled.

“Thomas has been doing a great job,” Daphne said with fervor. “No one who lives here wants this club to close. Since Thomas has come in he’s worked very hard to improve things around here.”

“Thank you, Daphne,” Thomas said with a slight smile. “I know how hard this must be for you. You’ve lived here for a long time, and you were friendly with Nat.”

“I knew his wife better. But Nat was a good man.”

Regan felt a sudden restlessness. “ Stanley, you were here last night at the party, right?”

“Indeed. And now I’m coming back tonight. Lydia ’s having the whole group back.”

“So you were taping a lot of what went on last night?”

“Oh yes.”

“Do you think I could see those tapes?”

“When?”

“This afternoon. Do you have them with you?”

“No. They’re down at my studio.”

“Can I see them after lunch?”

Stanley ’s brain suddenly fixed on the idea that there could be some excitement in the fact that his tapes might hold the key to a crime. “Of course.”

If I can only find out who Buttercup is, Regan thought…

24

It didn’t take long for Janey to find herself standing outside the old brownstone that Ben Carney had lived in for thirty years. After his divorce, Ben had wanted to live closer to the club. He’d been thrilled to find an apartment just a few blocks south of the club, within walking distance of his home away from home.

Janey took a deep breath and pushed the buzzer labeled CARNEY. She waited. The air felt raw, and she shivered underneath her beige wool coat. She looked up and down the street. There was no one around. Janey pulled out the keys and let herself into the vestibule where the mailboxes were located. She could see that the one marked CARNEY had mail in it.

So far, so good, she thought. She unlocked the second door, stepped inside, shut the door behind her, and hurried up the staircase. Ben’s apartment was on the second floor at the top of the stairs.

Janey stopped at Ben’s door, unlocked it quickly, and pushed it open. It rumbled slightly. She ducked into the apartment, bolted the door behind her, and breathed a sigh of relief. I can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought.

The whole place was eerily quiet. Even though the apartment was neat, it seemed to Janey to have a neglected, sad air, as though it knew the owner wasn’t coming back. Just yesterday she had been here bringing food…

And now I’m coming to take it away! Janey pushed the thought from her mind and went down the hallway into the kitchen. It was big and old-fashioned, with a small butler’s pantry/closet off to one side. Janey placed her thermal carrying case on the floor next to the refrigerator, opened the door, and proceeded to empty the refrigerator of her home-cooked meal. Her chicken, potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, and pie safely tucked in her case, she opened the freezer to see what else she might salvage. Janey laughed. A Tupperware container full of lasagna. She grabbed it and bent down to place it on top of the vegetables.

Suddenly she felt a presence. In an instant a hand came from behind and sprayed her eyes with Mace.

“Aaaah!” Janey cried as she struggled with her attacker. But her eyes were burning, and she was thrown completely off balance. Within seconds she had been pushed into the tiny, dark closet, with the door slammed shut and locked behind her.

“Let me out!” she cried as she banged on the impossibly heavy door. But it was no use. She knew whoever threw her in here wasn’t going to let her out. She was lucky they hadn’t really hurt her.

She sank to the floor in the near darkness, just a sliver of light from the kitchen filtering in from the crack under the door. The reality of what had just happened started to hit her. Oh my God! she thought. This is humiliating! How can I ever live this down? If I’m ever rescued, Thomas will surely dump me! As her tears started to flow, she decided that if she did get out, Mrs. Buckland could cook for herself from now on.

25

Archibald Enders and his wife, Vernella, had long enjoyed living on Gramercy Park. Both in their seventies, they had traveled the world over but were always happy to come back to the town house where Archibald had grown up and give their staff a hard time. They weren’t happy if there wasn’t something to complain about.

The Settlers’ Club virtually falling apart right across the street from them gave them a lot of fat to chew on. Archibald made sure he knew every disgraceful thing that was going on there.

As a boy walking docilely in the park with his nanny, as a lad on holiday from prep school, as a Harvard-educated young broker in the family firm, invited to teas and formal dinners at the Settlers’ Club, Archibald could remember when the club had been worthy of its surroundings. But it had been in decline for the last quarter of a century. The rumblings of commercialism had become a stampede. Now its new president was turning the place into a tacky madhouse.

Home to a dating service! The setting for a third-rate film!

And all the hoopla last night, with the wailing of police sirens and the shrill of an ambulance. All the people out on the street stopping to gawk. Whispers of diamond theft and murder!

Not such good publicity for an old club that was trying to attract new members. The Settlers’ Club will close its doors, he thought. No doubt about it. It will soon be occupied by someone more worthy of the surroundings.

And come to think of it, I have just the one.

He put through his second call to England that day.

“Thorn,” he said into the phone. “I suggest you get over here on the last flight out tonight. We’ve got work to do this weekend.”

26

Regan and Stanley cabbed it down to the converted gas station.

Now I’ve seen everything, Regan thought as Stanley escorted her inside.

“What do you think?” he asked with a big smile. “Other people convert warehouses into palatial apartments. I turned a gas station into a cozy home.”

“You’re a genius,” Regan said.

“Thank you. Please sit down.”

Regan sank into the couch, still amazed at her surroundings. She’d seen a lot of crazy abodes in her day, but this one took the cake.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Stanley asked.

Fill ’er up, Regan wanted to say, but thanked him and accepted a cup of special herbal tea that Stanley assured her cleared everyone’s sinuses. I’m not really sure I want my sinuses cleared in this place, Regan thought. But the tea did taste good.

Stanley sat down and slipped one of the tapes from the party into the VCR hooked up to his big-screen television. The tape began with people milling around, chatting. The butlers were passing hors d’oeuvres.

“Pigs in blankets,” Regan commented.

“Some people consider them low class. But they always go over well,” Stanley said as he stared admiringly at the screen.

How did some of them end up in Nat’s garbage can? Regan wondered…“What did you make of the crowd?” she asked Stanley.

“Generally nice people. Not everybody wanted to be on camera.”

“How many didn’t want their faces shown?” Regan asked.

“About half of them. As you can see, I still got the feeling of a big party. There’s Lydia conferring with Maldwin and the other butlers in the kitchen…”

“There’s a female butler,” Regan observed.

“A hard worker,” Stanley said vehemently. “A hard worker.”

Now they were watching a man talking to a woman holding a Snoopy purse.

“That’s some purse,” Regan said.

Stanley sighed. “She hung onto it all night. As a matter of fact, she got very upset when the whole commotion started and we found out Nat Pemrod had died.”

“Did she know him?”

“She said to me that she had met him at one of the other parties. He told her he liked her purse.”

Could she be Buttercup? Regan wondered. Could one of these other women be Buttercup?

Regan didn’t have time to watch every minute of the nearly four hours of tapes, but what she saw acquainted her with some of the people she’d be meeting at the party tonight. “What happened when the police showed up?” she asked Stanley.

Stanley fast-forwarded to the end of the tape, which showed a policeman standing outside Nat’s apartment. Then it went blank.

“That’s it?” Regan asked.

“I ran out of tape.”

It figures, Regan thought.

“But they wouldn’t let me inside anyway.” Stanley pressed the OFF button on his set. “Was that helpful?”

“Yes,” Regan said truthfully.

“You know, I take a lot of footage and then boil it down to the most interesting sound bites.”

“I understand,” Regan said, then lowered her voice in a way that indicated she wanted to make Stanley a confidant. “Bring a lot of tape tonight, would you? I’ll pay for it. Your camera can be another set of eyes for us. You never know what we’ll pick up.”

Stanley beamed. Maybe I’ll get a network show out of this, he thought.

 

When Regan left, she hailed a cab uptown. It was four o’clock, and even though it felt cold and wintery, the days were getting longer and longer. Springtime was just around the corner.

Of course, April is the cruelest month, she thought. Although I think that for certain people March is a strong contender. Certainly for Nat and Ben.

I so want to help Thomas, she thought. But it seems as if he just makes things worse for himself. If someone from Lydia’s party stole the diamonds or killed Nat, it’s because Thomas allowed Lydia to invite strangers into the club.

But there was no sign of forced entry. Anyone who ended up in Nat’s apartment, Nat must have known.

Regan took out her notebook. She jotted down a few thoughts. Talk to Clara again. Find out if there was anything she saw in the apartment that might indicate the presence of another woman. Get a list from Thomas of everyone who lives in the club. Talk to the waiter who served Nat, Ben, and Thomas lunch. Find out who Nat’s lawyer is. Where is the will? Finally, she wrote: Talk to the owner of the Snoopy purse.

For some reason, I think she’s going to be pretty interesting, Regan mused as she leaned her head back and stared out the window.

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