The Sayers Swindle (A Book Collector Mystery)

BOOK: The Sayers Swindle (A Book Collector Mystery)
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Praise for
The Christie Curse

 

“Deftly plotted, with amusing one-liners, murder and a dash of mayhem. There’s a cast of characters who’d be welcome on any Christie set.”

—The Hamilton Spectator 

“With a full inventory of suspects, a courageous heroine and a tribute to a famous writer of whodunits,
The Christie Curse
will tempt her legion of devotees. Even mystery lovers who have never read Christie—if any exist—will find a pleasing puzzle in Abbott’s opener.”

—Richmond Times-Dispatch

“The mystery was first class, the plotting flawless.”

—Cozy Mystery Book Reviews

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Victoria Abbott

 

THE CHRISTIE CURSE

THE SAYERS SWINDLE

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

THE SAYERS SWINDLE

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2013 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices,promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorizededition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning,or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writersand allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarksof Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62720-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market / December 2013

 

Cover illustration by Tony Mauro.

Cover design by Jason Gill.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the productof the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactlyas written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needsthat may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for anyadverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Version_1

 
Contents

Praise for
The Christie Curse

Also by Victoria Abbott

Title Page

Copyright

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

 

Recipes

Acknowledgments

 

First we would like to thank the late Dorothy L. Sayers, who peered over our shoulders, whispered in our ears and whose own words inspired this mystery. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are characters that enchant us still. Hats off to all the legion of readers who, like us, still treasure the books from the “Golden Age of Detection.”

We are grateful to the many people who let us know that they enjoyed the first in the Book Collector Mysteries and were waiting for the second. It is delightful to learn that you connect with our characters and that they bring you as much fun as they bring us.

Where would we be without the on-going support of our agent, Kim Lionetti; the cheerful good counsel of Tom Colgan, our editor at Berkley Prime Crime; and the help we receive from Amanda Ng, and, of course, our mysterious but long-suffering copyeditor? Any errors are our own.

We’ve appreciated the willingness of booksellers, librarians, bloggers, readers and reviewers to help us get the word out. The Ottawa Public Library was a terrific and efficient source of material for the research that went into this book.

Thanks to our family and friends for putting up with us when the going gets tough and the deadlines loom, especially Giulio Maffini, and that man of words, John Merchant, and our friend Linda Wiken, who has been in our lives for many years, and may have developed some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, because she has long since stopped trying to escape. Even with her own flourishing career as Berkley Prime Crime author Erika Chase, Linda always takes the time to read our work and cheer us on.

The writing life is more fun for being part of Mystery Lovers Kitchen (mysteryloverskitchen.com) and Killer Characters (killercharacters.com) and of course, those dangerous dames, the Ladies Killing Circle.

Then there’s the real “Real Candy,” aka Candice St. Aubin, Victoria Maffini’s thirty-three-year pillar of strength, transept of trust and flying buttress of mischief. She keeps Victoria in stitches, trouble and dogs.

Last but not least, we owe a debt to Irma Maffini and Lina Arno for exposing us to the tasty secrets of their great Italian kitchens, or as much of them as they were willing to divulge. These women know their way around a kitchen and have created a legacy of heavenly food.

Eat! Yes! You!

Chapter One

I
WAS FALLING
for an older man. He was blond, sophisticated and wealthy, an English aristocrat. In fact, he was far too aristocratic for someone like me, but still, I wasn’t ready to give him up. Or the idea of him, anyway. I hadn’t bothered to share this with anyone, as it was just a matter of time until some friend or relative remarked that I was twenty-six years old and the first person in the history of my family to go straight. Of course, someone else would point out that while Lord Peter Wimsey was indeed the son of a duke and a great detective, he was also pushing one hundred and twenty one. I’d have to snap back that he was aging well. On the other hand, he
was
a fictional character, which is really the kiss of death for a relationship.

I wished he were real. I could have used his skills and insights with the serious challenge I was facing in my job. One that could mean the end of it.

It was a fall day with a nip in the air and the kind of wind that rattled the windows and sent you hunting for an extra sweater. It was always too hot or too cold on the main floor of the historic Van Alst House where I lived with my employer, the noted book collector and grouch, Vera Van Alst. One of the windows in the conservatory had been removed to be repaired, which meant we were having lunch in the formal dining room. I didn’t stir the pot by asking how they had finally found someone to repair that window. After all, my employer was the most hated woman in Harrison Falls and the surrounding towns. Van Alst House could crumble to the ground and most people wouldn’t lift a finger to help Vera Van Alst, regardless of how much they were paid. Property maintenance was a big issue. I fully expected to find myself wielding a hammer one of these days.

At the other end of the long Sheraton table, the sound of Vera growling penetrated my consciousness. I blinked and came back to reality. Mind you, my reality was pretty unreal. I could imagine Lord Peter feeling quite at home in this splendid room with its priceless antiques.

Vera was in the seat of power, her wheelchair parked by the side. As usual, she was a vision in a dusty beige sweater, with frayed wristbands and a matching moth hole on each elbow, the kind of thing that doesn’t make the cut at church bazaars. Vera’s high standards for her spectacular collection of mysteries did not extend to her all-beige wardrobe. I’d had one minor triumph in getting her spruced up, but one blue silk blouse does not make a new way of life, and she backslid immediately. Still, I was happy to spot one of her Art Deco pins nestled in the blandness. I’d learned to pick my battles about the clothes, but I was truly envious of Vera’s jewelry collection, and I was content when any of her pieces saw the light of day.

In her inimitable gravelly voice, she said, “Miss Bingham, will you consider joining us?”

Us? What us? There was only Vera Van Alst, currently growling, and me, Jordan Bingham, lost in another fantasy of Lord Peter Wimsey and emerald-cut sapphires set in sterling silver. I hate sarcasm, unless I initiate it.

I’d learned not to say “sorry” to Miss Van Alst, as it conveyed weakness and was sure to breed contempt on her part. Life was complicated enough without that. I worked for a wealthy woman who couldn’t care less that she was despised by most people. She despised them too. Rare books and first editions—that’s what mattered to Vera.

I kept my “sorry” to myself.

“Just thinking about your missing Dorothy L. Sayers first editions,” I said. That was the truth but nowhere near the whole truth.

“Oh yes, you mean the biggest disaster that has ever befallen my collection. The disaster that coincides with your arrival in my employ, Miss Bingham. I would hope you’d be concentrating on that during your every waking hour. That’s what I pay you for. And I pay you well to get what I want. I want those books back.” She kept tugging and straightening the cuffs of her tattered cardigan. Clearly, the loss of a chunk of her collection weighed heavily on her.

This might be a good time to mention that what Vera wants, Vera gets. And when Vera wants something, she wants it the way she wants it and she wants it yesterday.

Unfortunately for me, things weren’t working out quite that way. Vera was deliberately ignoring my role in solving a murder and stopping the total plunder of her collection. She seemed to blame me for the theft of her Dorothy L. Sayers very fine firsts. This was unfair, even for Vera, and under normal circumstances, I would have set her straight. Maybe I was mellowed by thoughts of Lord Peter. Or lunch. Or generally how much I liked my life.

I found Vera’s collection of rare books irresistibly appealing. I adored the endless corridors of historic Van Alst House and the cozy attic accommodations that came with my position. The food was to die for. It
was
looking good for me to be the first person in my family to go straight. That was my plan and I was sticking to it.

Really, Vera was the only fly in the ointment. Too bad the fly controlled the checkbook and owned the ointment.

“A bit of thought before action usually pays off,” I said. I didn’t mention where fantasizing fit into the equation.

“Where are you with the so-called thought and action in that case?”

“I know you are anxious to get the Sayers books back.”

“Miss Bingham, I do not get anxious.”

No, but you’re a carrier, I thought.

She pointed a bony finger at me. “Perhaps you mean to say ‘eager,’ as that is correct usage. If your education is as you insist, I shouldn’t have to remind you of that.”

I did know the correct use of “anxious” and “eager.” Vera can make people, even me, experience anxiety, although with my relatives you’d think I’d be immune.

She rattled on, “That is a valuable and irreplaceable collection. I must have the books that were stolen from me. That is your job. And at your salary and benefits, you should be
more
than eager.”

I smoothed my silky vintage Pucci print scarf against my collarbone, took in a deep cleansing breath and let that go. “The books will be located. Count on it.” I didn’t mention that the missing first editions were hardly a matter of life or death. I’d found out the hard way that there were dangers in dealing with Vera’s rare book collection. Vera hadn’t been the only danger by a long shot.

“You have them in your sights?” There was that obsessive gleam in her eye. She paid no attention to the blue point Siamese that leapt onto the table and was making its haughty way toward her. There was an identical one under the table at my end too. I was taking no chances and as usual wore a pair of boots to prevent new scars. Vera reached out absentmindedly and stroked the cat.

“I repeat, do you have them in your sights, Miss Bingham?”

“Not yet, but I have a strong lead.”

Even from the other end of the long table, I could see that wasn’t quite doing the trick.

“Strong leads will not fill gaps in shelves,” she snapped.

“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” I said with totally unmerited confidence. “The person who sold them—in good faith, might I add—is trying to track down the buyers.”

“In my lifetime, Miss Bingham.”

At this moment the swinging door from the kitchen banged open and Vera’s cook, Signora Fiammetta Panetone, advanced bearing a fragrant mountain of seafood linguine on a giant platter. The signora is somewhat startling the first time you see her: small, round, dressed in black with a wide white apron, pushing eighty, with her unlikely ebony-colored hair pulled back so tightly it seemed to be painted on her head. The signora is unclear about what constitutes a lunch for two.

“Eat,” she said firmly to Vera, as she does during every meal. Didn’t someone once say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the outcome to be different? If so, the signora was out of her gourd, but she’d made some delicious soup out of it first.

Vera accepted what looked like three strands of pasta and a breath of Parmesan cheese and waved the platter away.

I, on the other hand, smiled the smile of the successful locator of lost and stolen books. I was about to have a tasty treat that would make up for having Vera Van Alst as an employer.

“Who is this lead?” Vera said. Any superhero would have been jealous of her penetrating glance. X-ray vision couldn’t compare.

I hated to offer my friend up as a sacrifice, but I said, “Karen Smith seems to have sold them. In good faith, as I said. When she acquired them at the Cozy Corpse, she had no idea they’d been stolen from your collection.”

This was not the entire story, but Karen was truly sorry for her lack of attention to the provenance of the Sayers volumes.

Vera snarled, “So get the name from her. What’s the holdup?”

The signora lurched toward my place and said, “You eat, now.”

No problem with that. As usual I said, “Sure thing,” to the signora. I added, for Vera’s benefit, “Karen’s memory is still iffy since she was attacked. It’s not even five months, as you know, and brain injuries take time.”

Of course, Vera was well aware of all that, but most days Vera is all about Vera.

I added, “Karen and I are working at reconstructing the sale. I know it will come back to her. It’s really just a matter of time.” I managed not to remind Vera yet again that Karen Smith had come close to death because of that same attack and that we should all keep our sense of perspective. I hadn’t completely lost my marbles.

Lest I forget my place in the pecking order, Vera said, “Don’t take forever, Miss Bingham. I have other projects I need you to work on.”

Yes, there was an ever-growing list of titles I was tasked with finding, and I couldn’t wait to roam freely in the musty back rooms of flea markets and bazaars. It was also fun to poke about online.

Vera added, “You don’t get paid to lie around. Remember, you’re not the only person who can do this job.”

Idle threat?

More likely just mean for the sport of it, but with Vera, who knew?

It wasn’t the first time I regretted loving this job so much, not to mention needing it desperately if I was ever to save enough to get back to grad school.

I resisted the urge to defend myself and let the linguine work its magic. The dreamy look on my face was not only because of Lord Peter.

A girl’s got to eat.

• • •

 

SIGNORA PANETONE PACKED
me off to Karen Smith’s home with a coffin-sized container of seafood linguine, a bowl of washed crisp green leaf lettuce, a jar of homemade
maionesa
and enough almond cookies to fill a suitcase. I hesitated because Karen had a tiny, cluttered kitchen in the flat over the Cozy Corpse mystery bookstore. Would there be room? She didn’t have a microwave either. But as usual, resistance was futile.

“For Signora Smith! Sick! Head hurt! Must eat!”

No problem.

“And this.”
This
turned out to be a baggy of wine-sautéed chicken livers for Karen’s dog, Walter the Pug, currently residing in style with my uncle Mick and my uncle Lucky until Karen could manage to care for him again.

I piled it all into the powder-blue ’61 Saab that had been my mother’s and drove off into the brilliantly colored swirling leaves on that windy October day. I love the fall and love Halloween. Unfortunately, I couldn’t imagine any children in Harrison Falls trick-or-treating at Van Alst House. I’d have to spend the evening with my uncles.

With that thought, I changed direction in order to drop in on those uncles. For one thing, I figured I could pick up a microwave for Karen, resolving the coffin-load of linguine problem. For another, I was happy to ditch the chicken livers quickly. I figured Karen would already have eaten some lunch and would need a bit of time to build up an appetite for the signora’s food.

Uncle Mick and Uncle Lucky were in the kitchen in back of Michael Kelly’s Fine Antiques, the family business. As you know, I am a Bingham, but the Kellys are my mother’s people and they are mine too. This kitchen had been the heart of my home, and nothing much had changed since my childhood. As much as I loved my digs at Van Alst House and enjoyed being out from under my uncles’ watchful eyes—I
am
an adult now—I always got a warm feeling sitting around the vintage chrome and Formica dinette table in the safe haven my uncles had created for me. Before they unexpectedly became my guardians, they would have been footloose and fancy free, to use Mick’s words. Enjoying travel, cars, clubs, whiskey, cigars and, to hear him tell it, clouds of glamorous women. My uncles claim they never regretted taking me in as a small child and didn’t miss their old lives for a second. Even so, I sometimes caught a faraway look in Uncle Mick’s eyes.

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