grace under pressure

Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Praise for the White House Chef Mysteries
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State of the Onion
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Berkley Prime Crime titles by Julie Hyzy
The White House Chef Mysteries
A Manor of Murder Mysteries
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A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / June 2010
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This one is for you, Curtie
I am wildly excited to begin this new series and to introduce readers to Grace and her friends at Marshfield Manor. It is because readers like you have been so kind to Ollie (White House Chef Mysteries) and Alex (“Deadly” series) that I am able to launch this new adventure. Thank you so very much for all your e-mails, updates, and blog posts. You spread more sunshine than you may know.
Many thanks to my agent, Erin C. Niumata, for facilitating this new endeavor and for her unflagging good cheer. I am delighted to be working with Natalee Rosenstein of Berkley Prime Crime again. Thank you, Natalee, for taking another chance on me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Special thanks to George Pratt, illustrator extraordinaire, who provided artistic information on Raphael Soyer. Any errors in the story are mine.
As always, I couldn’t do any of this without the loving support of my family and friends. You guys are the best.
Chapter 1
THERE WERE AT LEAST SIXTY PEOPLE IN THE Birdcage room this afternoon but not one of them made a peep. The animated conversations, gentle laughter, and musical
from the harp had gone suddenly silent, as though a giant thumb had hit the mute button.
And that giant thumb stood in front of me.
“Please keep your voice down,” I said to him.
The big guy paced in circles, his untamed red hair ballooning like a lion’s mane. He stopped moving long enough to glare at the crowd. “What are you all staring at?”
Guests, who moments before had been nibbling finger sandwiches, now exchanged awkward glances. They tried, and failed, to shift their attention elsewhere. But who could blame them? The heavyset fellow with the ripped jeans, dirty shirt, and wild eyes didn’t belong in this serene setting. He made a show of looking around the room then shouted again, his voice echoing. “Huh? Whatcha all looking at?”
I tried to get his attention. “Sir, why don’t you tell me how I can help you?”
He shot me a dirty look. Resumed pacing.
Next to me, our hostess, Martha, took a half step back. She had called me down to help with a “problem guest.” I hadn’t expected 350 pounds of fury. The worst complaint we usually received about afternoon tea in the Birdcage was about it being too hot or too cool. Regulating temperature in an all-window room was always a challenge. I whispered to Martha to call security and she took off, clearly relieved to get away.
Trying again, I smiled at the big guy. “What’s your name?”
He stopped moving. “Why do you want to know?”
“My name is Grace,” I said, inching forward. “I’m the assistant curator here at Marshfield Manor.”
“Cure-ator? What does that mean? They sent you here to cure me?” His angry look was replaced by confusion. “And you’re, like, just an assistant? Where’s the important people? I don’t want to talk to some dumb assistant.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you need,” I said, more slowly this time, “and I’ll do my best to get the right person to help you.”
Teeth bared, he spread his arms wide and lifted his gaze to the glassed ceiling as though begging the heavens for patience. Whatever biceps he might have once had sagged out from short sleeves, seams shredded to accommodate his arms’ girth. He looked as though he’d slept in this outfit. All week. At about twenty-five, he was younger than I was, and a few inches taller than my five-foot-eight, but he outweighed me by at least two hundred pounds. A morbidly obese time bomb. I glanced over to the wall where we kept the defibrillator and hoped I wouldn’t need to use it.
Still staring upward, he asked, “What do I have to do to get a cheeseburger around here?”
A nervous laugh bubbled up from the back of the room.
Snapping his attention toward the giggler, the guy yelled, “What, you think this is funny?”
Two of our plainclothes security guards eased in. Older guys, decked out to look like tourists, they didn’t cut an imposing sight. I wished they’d sent a different team, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I moved into the big man’s view, distracting him. “We don’t serve cheeseburgers here, I’m afraid . . .”
“Why not?”
“This,” I gestured, “is our tearoom.” Maybe if I explained things, he might be encouraged to leave. “We serve light refreshments here, like savories and sweets. If you want a more substantial meal, our hotel offers a full menu.” Not that our bellicose guest would fit any better there than he did here. “Or maybe you’d prefer to try one of the great little diners off property? We have a shuttle that can take you into Emberstowne, if you like.”
He worked his tongue inside his bottom lip. “Don’t want that,” he said more to himself than to me. Grabbing the back of a nearby chair, he shouted, “I want a cheeseburger.” He lifted the chair over his head and leaped sideways toward the outside wall. “Or I’ll . . . I’ll . . . throw this through a window.”
He certainly had plenty to choose from. This room was called the Birdcage for good reason: Jutting out from the mansion to the south, the cylindrical room was a twostoried glass marvel. Each of the clear panes was framed by black support beams, which arched to meet at a buttressed central point. Though impressive, the Birdcage was just one more showstopper setting in this 150-room Gothic beauty. A giant museum as well as a home, each of its huge rooms showcased priceless artifacts. Stepping inside the manor always made me feel tiny, yet protected.
I kept my voice even and tried to smile. “Just put the chair down and we can talk.”
His arms faltered. He bit his lip and glanced from side to side. I could only imagine what he was thinking. I had my back to the rest of the room, focusing completely on this wild-eyed, crazy-haired man in front of me.
“Tell me your name,” I tried again.
“How come it’s just you talking to me? I mean, shouldn’t they, like, send security in here?”
I sincerely hoped the security guards would make their move soon. They must be waiting for backup. These two men were both over sixty, unarmed, and relatively small. The toughest assignments this team usually faced were stopping kids from entering roped-off areas or adults from using flash photography. I doubted these two could take down our sizeable guest. Not even working together. Not even if I jumped in to help.
The big guy waved the chair over his head again. I got the feeling his arms were getting tired.
“Come on,” I said, “how can I help you if I don’t know your name?”
He surprised me by answering. “Percy.”
“Nice to meet you, Percy. Now why don’t you put down that chair and we’ll talk.”
Without warning, he threw the chair to the floor and ran to my right. The two elderly security guards had rushed him but they were a half step too slow. Percy threw a fat arm against William, the smaller of the two guards, sending him sprawling onto the marble floor. When he hit the ground, I heard William
in pain.
Percy hustled along the room’s perimeter, arms pumping, his mane of hair blocking his view as he glanced back at the guard sprawled on the floor. The big man didn’t run out of the room, as I expected. Instead, he ducked between tables, grabbing the backs of patrons’ chairs as he dodged the other guard, Niles, who was trying his best to corner the big man all by himself.
I pulled up my walkie-talkie and called for assistance, requesting an emergency team to help the fallen William. He’d managed to sit up, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
People screamed. Some shouted. Those nearest the doors got out. Who could blame them?
Our young harpist, looking shell-shocked and too panicked to run, kept her arms protectively around her instrument. Nearby, an elderly woman with arthritic hands stared up at the big man. Her eyes were bright and wide. Just as I thought she might faint, she hurled her teacup at him. It bounced off his shoulder before crashing to the floor. Percy turned and ran past her, patting her blue-white hair more gently than I would have expected. “Good aim, lady,” he said. Then, waving his arms over his head he skirted tables with surprising agility, crying out, “My kingdom for a cheeseburger.”
Had this been a scene in a movie, I might have laughed. But this was Marshfield Manor. Outbursts like this didn’t happen here. Our guests must not be terrorized. This magnificent, extraordinary haven should not be compromised. Ever.
I was not amused.
The rest of security finally stormed in. Although Percy’s wild behavior had probably only gone on for about a minute and a half, it seemed ten times longer. Uniformed guards took positions at every exit and three tough officers—two men just hired by our head of security, and the top man himself—came in, hands on holsters. These men
armed but I knew they wouldn’t draw their weapons with patrons present unless it became absolutely necessary.
The chief of security, Terrence Carr, sidled up. “What do we got? Talk to me,” he said.
I gave him a quick rundown, adding, “I don’t think the guy is dangerous. Just a little unstable.”
Tall, black, and stunningly handsome, Carr had an Iron-man triathlete’s physique and—much to the disappointment of many female staffers—a wife and three kids. He didn’t take his eyes off our unwelcome guest. “Mr. Percy,” he called. “We will take you out by force if we have to. But I think it would be much better if you came out on your own.”
“Yeah, right,” Percy answered. A woman behind him leaned as far away as possible, the look on her face making it apparent she was too terrified to get up and run. As he backed up, Percy stumbled against her seat, knocking it sideways. She jumped to her feet, squeaking in fear. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He offered a quick smile. “My fault.”
An apology? This made no sense at all. I started feeling sorry for the big guy. Maybe he had just come in looking for a handout. Maybe he’d missed taking his meds.
When Carr’s two men got within striking distance, Percy took off, nimbly avoiding further collisions with patrons, tables, and harp. I stepped back, letting the professionals do their job, sad to see this beautiful room suffer as Percy threw empty chairs into the officers’ paths and knocked furniture to the ground. Abandoned meals crashed loudly and messily to the floor. I winced.
This was one of my favorite rooms in the entire mansion, and the only place in the actual home where guests could sit, relax, and grab a bite to eat. With its reproduction furniture—rattan chairs and settees with peach-, cream-, and pale green-striped cushions—potted palms, and a soaring ceiling, this was always the brightest place to be.
Sitting in this room, as I had as a young child with my family, always made me feel special. Like I belonged here. And now, as assistant curator, I really did belong here. I was as protective of the Marshfield Manor castle as I was of my own home.
I stepped forward instinctively as Percy grabbed another chair, using it to fend off the guards as a lion tamer might tease his quarry. I didn’t know what I could possibly do, but I felt a powerful need to do
. With Percy’s leonine appearance, watching him fight the guards with the upturned chair was a peculiar sight. Again, in another situation, I might have laughed. No one wanted to hurt this guy, but we couldn’t let him get away with this behavior. Carr repeatedly ordered him to put the chair down.
Instead, wiggling the chair like a sword, Percy grinned, pointedly ignoring the officer’s demands. Carr pulled out pepper spray. I hoped he was bluffing because pepper spray would affect everyone in the room if he used it. From the set of his jaw and the tension in his posture, however, I could tell he was itching to spring.
“Stop this nonsense!”
The unexpected voice, authoritative and deep, boomed from behind me.
I spun. Bennett Marshfield, owner of the manor, strode toward Percy with a bearing that belied his seventy-plus years. Bennett’s perennially tanned face was tight with anger, and his white hair glinted brightly in the room’s sunshine, making him look angelic and demonic at the same time. “This is my home and you will cease this ridiculous behavior at once!”
For a heartbeat, everybody stopped. Even Percy. The big guy’s mouth dropped open. He recovered long enough to ask, “Who are you?”
That was all Carr and his team needed. A handful of guards rushed up, and in a sea of arms and legs, amid gurgling, angry noises that I could tell came from Percy, they tackled the big guy and wrestled him to the ground. The moment he was turned onto his stomach and handcuffed, the room erupted in applause. People stood and cheered.
The little old lady who had thrown the teacup clapped gleefully, her aged face wrinkling into a wide smile. “That’ll teach you, you oaf!” she called.
As our patrons settled back into their seats, I called for attention. “Your afternoon tea is on the house today,” I said. Turning toward the doorway where some of the more skittish guests had disappeared, I welcomed them back in. “We are very sorry for the disturbance, and as our staff cleans up, we will refill your trays and bring you whatever you like. I hope our small treat this afternoon will help leave a sweeter taste in your mouth.”
My announcement was met with another round of applause.
Four guards flanked Percy as they led him past me. Head down, the big man no longer resisted, apparently resigned to his fate. I suggested to Carr that they escort him out through the service doors and he nodded. In moments, they were gone.
Bennett made his way over. “Good move.” He nodded toward the crowd. “Keeping the guests here for a little free food will help them remember the good and”—he glanced back the way the guards had gone—“forget the unappetizing.”
“I didn’t see you come in,” I said. “I thought you were out all day today.”
He grimaced in a way I didn’t understand. “My morning appointment was . . . unpleasant to say the least. I was just on my way to meet Abe upstairs but decided to detour when I caught the call on the walkie-talkie. I was curious to see how you would handle the situation.” His pale eyes were deep-set, but not too deep to dilute the power of his glare. “You are still within your ninety-day probationary period, you know.”
How could I forget? If Abe—my immediate boss, and head curator—wasn’t constantly reminding me, our assistant, Frances, certainly was. I had been hired two months earlier because Bennett Marshfield’s attorneys warned that he needed to inject fresh blood into the administration. Tourism was down, security was seriously outdated, and Marshfield, once the jewel of the South Atlantic region, had lost its edge. Exhibits had not been changed or refurbished in years. The current staff, most of whom had been with the manor for more than three decades, had grown complacent. If the estate were to retain its position as a vacation destination—moreover, if it wanted to increase its market share in the world of tourism—changes had to be made.
Head of security Terrence Carr was another new recruit, as were about a half dozen others. As new employees in key positions, we had been given a mandate: Bring Marshfield Manor into the twenty-first century. Not everyone was happy at our arrival. There were days I felt “Agent of Change” had been branded onto my forehead, causing staff members to either avoid me completely or go out of their way to explain just how important they were in the running of the mansion so I wouldn’t consider cutting their jobs.
My title of assistant curator had come with an understanding. When Abe retired—within the next year or so—I would be in the best position to be considered as his replacement. He not only served as museum curator, he was the mansion’s director. As such, all staff members reported to him. And in a little more than a year, they might all report to me.
As long as I made it through this probationary period, of course.
Bennett apparently expected me to reply to his reminder. Instead I deflected. “Abe received another warning letter.” I pointed upward, in the general direction of Bennett’s private sanctuary on the fourth floor. “I think he’s leaving it for you in your study right now, if you want to catch him.”
Bennett straightened, taking a deep breath. “Trying to get rid of me, are you?”
“More like trying to ensure the manor’s efficiency,” I said, smiling to take the sting out of my words. According to the attorneys who had interviewed me, Abe had lost touch a long time ago. But they also warned me that Abe and Bennett were tight, and until Abe chose to retire, all decisions rested with him. This issue was non-negotiable.
“Abe gets worked up about these letters,” Bennett said, waving his hand with a shoofly motion. “They’re the work of a crank. I keep telling him that. But he worries about me.” Casting a long glance around the Birdcage room, he added, “And about the manor.”
I watched as our maintenance team restored the Birdcage. They righted chairs, fluffed cushions, and placed tables back where they had been before Percy’s outburst. Waitresses carried out trays laden with sweets and savories, as busboys hurried out with replacement vases and fresh flowers for each of the distressed tables. While Bennett and I had been talking, the last of the fled guests had returned. Conversations resumed, china
, and I noticed a heightened, more jovial air than had been in the room before.
Danger as entertainment. Whatever worked.
I turned to Bennett. “A little excitement, and no one got hurt. I think we dodged a bullet here.”
He was about to say something, but our walkie-talkies crackled to life, interrupting him. “Private channel,” the dispatcher said, her voice strained. “All security switch to private channel.”
Bennett and I moved in sync, grabbing our walkie-talkies and heading out the door. Only security and certain high-ranking staff members were allowed access to the private network. Bennett and I both switched over, and I was the first to open the line.
The dispatcher’s voice was tense. “I repeat: Shots have been fired in the residence. Fourth floor. Private study. Authorities are on their way.”
Bennett blanched. “The study. That’s where I was supposed to meet Abe.”
Chapter 2
I WAS TEN STEPS UP THE NEAREST STAIRCASE when I thought about Bennett behind me. Although the man was in great physical shape, he
seventy years old. Running up four flights of stairs into possible gunfire was probably not a great idea. For him, or for me. But I hadn’t been hired to run away from crises. I’d been hired to handle them.
I took comfort from the dispatcher’s report: Shots had been fired. She hadn’t said shots “were being” fired. I was betting this was a false alarm. And so I raced upward into the fray, convincing myself that my actions would do my career a lot of good. Especially during the probationary period.
I worried for Bennett, though. Slowing at the first landing, I turned. “Why don’t you take the elevator?”
He growled an unintelligible reply. But I got the message.
“Okay,” I said, resuming my race up the stairs. Although these were considered “back stairs” in that they were not open to the public, they were nonetheless ornate. My feet crushed into the thick carpet runner that spanned each step. As I cleared the third-floor landing, the stairway narrowed. We were getting into Bennett’s private rooms here, an area of the mansion I was not privy to. Not yet.
My thighs burned as I hauled myself up the final set of stairs, panting. I wiped a thin bead of sweat from my hairline, thinking it had been too long since I’d hit the gym. Looking back, I wondered if I should wait for Bennett, but he was two flights behind me now. I pushed through the double doors at the top and walked into mayhem.
Rosa Brelke was sobbing. Our head of housekeeping sat on the floor of a wide wood-paneled corridor, her legs splayed out from her pale blue uniform skirt. She held her hands over her face, but there was no mistaking her cranberry red hair or her fireplug build. Next to her was one of our younger housekeepers. An attractive girl, her face was a pale mask of fear. For the life of me I couldn’t remember her name. She was trying to comfort Rosa, crouching next to the sobbing woman, rubbing her back. Every second or two, the woman whose name I couldn’t remember stole a glance across the hall. She looked as though she might throw up.
“Rosa,” I called, but she didn’t hear me. Her high-pitched wails went right up the back of my spine.
This was no false alarm. But I saw no blood. And except for her screams, she seemed unhurt. “Rosa!” I called again, as I crossed the floor toward her.
The crouching woman gently shook Rosa’s shoulder and pointed to me. Rosa peeled her fingers away enough to look up. Her blotchy face expressed pain—loss—terror—and intense grief. All at once. Her wails became deep-throated moans and she pointed to her left across the corridor. A door was open.
As I reached the room, a door far down the hall banged open and four security guards rushed in, Terrence Carr at the lead. “What happened?” he shouted.
I had no words. Inside the room—Bennett’s private study—Abe lay facedown in a puddle of blood. I started to move forward, but in the two seconds it had taken for my mind to process what I was seeing, Carr had reached me. He grabbed my arm. “No.”
“But . . .” I pointed toward Abe. He wasn’t moving. My words felt slow and hard to form. “We have to see if he’s okay.” That sounded stupid. He was definitely not okay. “I mean, if he’s alive.”
Carr met my eyes. “Stay here,” he said and pushed me back a step. I complied.
By this time, Bennett had made it to the top of the stairs. He was panting worse than I had been and as he ran a hand through his white hair, I noticed him shaking. Striding slowly across the hallway, he stopped to talk to Rosa and the other woman, who were still on the floor. “Are you okay?”
Rosa’s sobs had quieted to hard hiccups. She didn’t answer. The other woman kept her hands on Rosa’s shoulders, but her face turned toward the wall.
I backed away from the open door to allow security access to Abe. He lay in the room’s center, as though he’d had his back to the windows when he fell. He was wearing a charcoal suit, but I could see the wet shine of blood between his shoulder blades. Carr crouched beside the elderly man, and reached around, groping for Abe’s neck.
I held my breath.
The look on Carr’s face told me all I needed to know.
A moan bubbled up from somewhere deep inside me. My vision went bright and sparkly. The room around me buzzed.
Struggling to catch his breath, Bennett grabbed my elbow just as my knees gave out. “Grace,” he said. “Grace, what happened?”
The moment of weakness passed; I felt my body regain its strength. Still, I could do no better than Rosa had. I pointed into his study. “Abe,” I said.
He let go of me. “Abe?” he asked, and started into the room.
One of the security guards stopped him. “Please, sir. It’s best if you stay back.”
“But this is my study.” Bennett seemed more confused by an employee rebuffing him than by the body on the floor. “I must go in. Abe and I have a meeting planned.”
“Sir,” the guard said gently, stepping into the doorway to block Bennett’s path. “If you could just wait out in the hall for a while.” He flicked a glance at me and I tugged Bennett’s arm.
Carr shouted to me. “Take Mr. Marshfield to his room. But wait until my guys secure the premises.”
“Come on.” I walked Bennett down the long corridor, the opposite direction from Rosa. “Let’s let them do their jobs.”
My boss’s glower from earlier was long gone. He stared at me as though he had never seen me before. “Abe?” he asked. “Is he all right?”
Although I had never been in this part of the building, I figured I could find a place for Bennett to sit. Double doors at the end of the hall looked promising. “What’s in there?” I asked, to distract him. “Can we find a seat?”
He nodded. “My room.”
An officer jogged up behind us. “Wait,” he said.
I didn’t think Bennett would be steady enough to stand up much longer. “But—”
“Let me secure the area first.”
Dutifully, Bennett and I waited until the young man came out and gave us the all-clear. I nodded my thanks.
I didn’t care if I was breaking every level of protocol by escorting Bennett into his personal space. These were not ordinary circumstances. “Let’s get you settled in there, okay?”
Like a little kid, he obeyed me. I held on to his arm while I propped open one of the doors with my behind. My breath caught the moment we were inside. Even in the dim light, I recognized its abundant splendor.
Bennett Marshfield was a chronic collector who had amassed treasures from all over the world and had adorned every nook and corner of Marshfield Manor with his finds. But in here, his accumulating had gone wild. There was not a single empty spot in the room. Racing vertically, horizontally, and in wide circles to take it all in, my eyes could not find a place to rest. It was too much—even for me. Could that be an original Rembrandt? No way to tell—there were too many trinkets piled in front of it, including a vase that looked suspiciously like a genuine Egyptian canopic jar. Books, maps, and papers covered and surrounded what might have been a Louis XIV chair. Unable to help myself, I gasped.
I couldn’t leave him in here. There was nowhere to sit, even though this was clearly a sitting room. Two love seats placed opposite one another in front of a giant hearth were covered with . . . stuff. I glanced at Bennett and realized he wasn’t focusing. “What’s in there?” I asked. There were four sets of doors leading out of this room. I headed toward one of them.
He frowned. “What about Abe? When will they let me talk to him? I have to find out what happened.”
“Let’s get you settled,” I said, hoping I’d chosen well. Gripping the knob, I pushed the door open to find Bennett’s bedroom and breathed a sigh of relief. The clutter was minimal. There were places he could sit or even lie down. Bennett’s bed was clear. I walked him to its side. “Why don’t you just relax for a little bit. I’ll get someone to stay with you.”
As Bennett lifted himself onto his giant bed—a canopied monster with raw silk dressings in a muted butternut—I pulled up my walkie-talkie and requested medical assistance in the private rooms. The dispatcher asked if this was another emergency.
I spoke quietly, but Bennett had rolled over and had his back to me. I don’t know that he even knew I was still there. “No,” I said. “But Mr. Marshfield has suffered an enormous shock. I think it would be a good idea if the doctor looked in on him.”
“Roger that,” she said.
I was about to take a seat to wait for the doctor when I remembered the walkie-talkie Bennett carried. Fortunately for me, it was on his left hip and easy for me to slide off without his noticing. I had just gotten it pulled away when he twisted back, grabbing my forearm with both hands.
“Tell me,” he said.
I took a shallow breath. “Tell you what?”
Letting go of my arm, he tried to sit up. “Abe. Is he . . .”
I bit my lip.
At that moment, our walkie-talkies came back to life, still broadcasting the private channel. “Security alert. Emergency shutdown. Homicide confirmed. One dead. I repeat: Emergency shutdown. Initiate Level One security protocols.”
Bennett’s eyes sought mine. Swollen red, they leaked rapid tears. He swallowed. “Abe was my friend.”
I squeezed his hand. “I’m so sorry.”
Chapter 3
“WAS THERE A LOT OF BLOOD?” BRUCE ASKED He grimaced, exaggerating a shudder. “Except for my great-aunt Agatha, I’ve never actually seen anybody dead except in a casket. And definitely not bloody.” He placed a hand on Scott’s knee and turned to him expectantly. “Did you ever see a dead body? I mean, besides at a wake?”
On the love seat next to him, Scott nodded. “Yeah,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
I was extraordinarily grateful for my roommates right now. When I’d gotten home, still stunned from the day’s events, these two wonderful men had listened then comforted me as best they could. Leading me into the highceilinged parlor of our Victorian home, they sat me down on the sofa and pressed a glass of their finest Merlot in my hand, urging me to sip slowly. As the deep red liquid trailed down my throat and warmed my insides, I tucked my feet up under me and let the wine work its magic.
Handsome, buff, and tanned, my roommates could have played the Hardy Boys at thirty-five. A former Wall Street executive turned entrepreneur, Scott was surfer blond and had deep dimples that made women swoon. At least until they realized they were no competition for Bruce. For his part, Bruce was shorter, and though not nearly as elegant as Scott, he was no less handsome. He had broader shoulders, darker hair, and a nose that had been broken once. The two men owned and operated Amethyst Cellars, a darling little wine and tchotchke shop in town. Although always thoughtful and willing to help, right now they looked ready to leap into action if I so much as sighed.
Scott asked, “What happens now? I mean . . . your boss has been killed. Does that automatically make you the new curator?”
Down to the last drops of a second glass of wine, I’d calmed enough to converse without shaking. But I hadn’t relaxed enough to consider what Abe’s death meant for my career trajectory. “I doubt that,” I answered slowly. “It seems awfully cold to be thinking about that, doesn’t it?”
Scott leaned forward to pour me more Merlot, but I placed a hand over the top of my glass. “Come on,” he said. “You’ve had a bad scare. One more glass and maybe you’ll be able to sleep.”
“I’ve had two. I’ll sleep fine. A third would put me into a coma.” I shook my head. “Remember, I have to go back there in the morning. Can you imagine how it would look if I called in sick?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, sweetie,” Scott continued. “Somebody has got to take charge over there. Why not you? The place is going to be an insane asylum until they figure out who killed the old guy. You have to step into his shoes first thing in the morning, whether you feel ready or not. Show them what you’re made of.”
“It’s not a question of being capable,” I said. “For one, I’ve got more formal training than Abe had. And I’ve learned a lot about Marshfield Manor’s specific procedures over the past two months, so I can probably hold my own. No.” I shook my head again. “It just feels wrong to talk about taking over the job now. Abe was part of an extended Marshfield family. I’m still just an outsider.”
“Outsider or not, they’re going to need a steady hand at the helm,” Bruce said. “And let me tell you, kid, you’re the steadiest I’ve ever seen.” He made a
ing noise. “The stuff you went through last year would’ve killed a lesser woman.”
I upended my glass to finish my wine. “Thanks for the reminder, Bruce,” I said.
“What?” he asked when Scott shot him a derisive look.
“Grace comes home from finding a murder victim and you cheer her up by talking about . . .” Scott’s hands worked the air in front of him as though grasping for the right words, “. . . about
last year
“I was just trying to give her a compliment. It isn’t every girl who can lose her mother to cancer and her boyfriend . . .”
I held up a finger to correct him. “Fiancé,” I said.
Bruce nodded, but didn’t stop. “. . . her fiancé to another woman, and still be strong enough to build a life for herself in a brand-new town.”
Scott interrupted. “Grace was born here, remember?”
He waved Scott off. “Yeah, but she was in New York before her mother got sick.” Turning his full attention to me, he went on. “You had a whole life out there. An exciting life. And you left it all to care for your mom.”
When he smiled beatifically, I reconsidered that third glass of wine. The guy was on a roll and wasn’t about to let either of us thwart his dramatic narrative. Just what I wanted. To rehash all this. Tonight.
“Of course, with the benefit of hindsight,” he continued, “I think moving here was one of the smartest moves you ever made. I didn’t like that scummy Eric anyway. And Emberstowne didn’t like him. I think the town scared him off, if you want to know the truth.”
Emberstowne scare Eric off? I didn’t think so. I had my own suspicions about the mystery woman who had caused Eric to dump me just weeks after my mother’s funeral, but those feelings were too raw to put into words.
Scott sighed. “Let’s talk about something happier, shall we?”
I held up my empty glass in salute. “I agree. What can we talk about?”
The room went silent. Bruce looked at me, then at Scott. Scott lifted his chin as though expecting Bruce to jump in. Bruce shook his head.
Scott opened his mouth then shut it again. As for me, I had nothing to offer. My body and mind were sapped of energy and the wine was making me drowsy. But like the elephant in the room, the murder couldn’t be ignored. Nor could the memory of last year’s disappointments. We all strained to not discuss either. I knew I didn’t want to go through it all again. But what else was there?
Bruce was right about one thing: When Mom had first gotten sick, I’d left a plum position in New York to be with her in Emberstowne. My sister, Liza, claimed she couldn’t break away, but promised to come help just as soon as she could. That hadn’t surprised me. She’d finally made it into town a scant week before Mom died. And she’d stayed just long enough to collect her share of inheritance before she was off again to parts unknown. That hadn’t surprised me either.
The thought of where my sister was now and what she might be doing depressed me. Needing a distraction, I glanced at my watch then reached for the remote. As I turned on the TV, I said, “Let’s see if there are any updates on the Marshfield story.”
We all watched together as the newscast led off with Abe’s murder. From all reports there were no new leads in the case. The anchorwoman mentioned that the police were questioning a person of interest.
“You think they caught the guy?” Bruce asked.
“No,” I said. “I bet they mean Percy.”
“The fat boy who caused the ruckus? They think he’s involved in the murder?”
I nodded. “The police have to assume so. The timing was just too precise to be ignored. They’re keeping him overnight for questioning.” I made a face at the TV. “And here I believed he was just some random troublemaker looking for food. He had me fooled. I sure hope they sweat the truth out of him tonight.”
Scott and Bruce looked as convinced of that outcome as I felt.
When the murder news segment ended and the focus switched to that of the T. Randall Taft swindling scandal, I got to my feet. “I hate to break up this cozy evening,” I said, “but I’m going to bed.”
Bruce pointed to the TV. “Hey, look. Your boss. Twice in one night.”
I turned, half-expecting to see another photo of Abe on the screen, but was surprised by footage of Bennett Marshfield instead. He waved cameras away, looking annoyed. The anchor’s voice-over reported, “But the most incriminating testimony came from billionaire Bennett Marshfield, who took the stand first thing this morning. Marshfield told the jury how he began to suspect his former friend T. Randall Taft of creating a Ponzi scheme to lure innocent investors. Prosecutors are confident that Marshfield’s testimony will be what ultimately delivers a guilty verdict in this case.”
The footage continued following Marshfield as he stepped into a waiting limousine and the driver shut the door, effectively closing his employer off from the extended microphones and eager cameras. The anchor added, “Outside of the courtroom, Mr. Marshfield refused to comment on allegations against his former friend.”
“Whoa,” I said, half to myself. “I had no idea that’s where he was today. No wonder he said it wasn’t a good morning.”
“Taft took a lot of bigwigs down,” Bruce said as he started to clean up. “Marshfield is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Scott said, “I’ve been following this since the story broke. Marshfield
the iceberg. Taft had already gotten a lot of wealthy folks on board. It was Marshfield who was his undoing. He’s the guy who turned him in.”
When the news broke for a commercial, I was ready to hit the sack. The day had tired me out, but the evening had, too. At some point in the conversation, things had shifted from my roommates trying to cheer me up, to me trying to convince them I was sufficiently cheered.
Scott took my wineglass. “I’ll clean up. You take care of you.”
“Thanks,” I said, grateful to head upstairs and put my spinning head to rest. I couldn’t even blame it all on the wine. There was just too much in there for one brain to keep straight.
With a hand on my carved oak banister I took a moment to stare up the wide staircase, wondering if life would look brighter when I headed back down. Poor Abe. There would be no tomorrow morning for him. “I have to go in early,” I called over my shoulder. “Try to beat the reporters in, y’know. So I probably won’t see you guys until evening.”
Scott had two wineglasses in his hand and was just about to walk past me.
“Oh my gosh,” I said, suddenly remembering. “Today was the interview!” I felt like a jerk for forgetting. I often stopped by their Amethyst Cellars shop on the way home, but after today’s events, it just wasn’t possible. Spinning to face them, I spoke fast, as though to make up for lost time. “Did the woman like the store? How did it go?”
Scott’s face lit up and Bruce stepped up behind him, the two looking the happiest I’d seen them all night. Scott’s voice held unmistakable glee when he said, “It went . . . well.”
Bruce boomed, “That’s an understatement! The woman spent over two hours in the shop sampling things and asking questions. Good questions, too. She kept complimenting us on our displays and especially on our wines. She was pretty sure that she’ll be able to convince
Grape Living
to feature us. She said they would send out a photographer and everything.”
“That’s wonderful! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Scott shrugged. “We thought about it. But we didn’t want to step on Abe’s grave with our good news. Bad karma, you know?”
I smiled at the two of them. Having
Grape Living
do a feature on their wine shop was a coup beyond their wildest dreams. Such national exposure could drive lots of new business to their little store, where they were currently just making ends meet. A boost like this would be a godsend.
“No bad karma,” I said. “Good news is good news. Now let’s just hope it can carry us into a better day tomorrow.”
Chapter 4
MY WINDSHIELD WIPERS BEAT A SOLEMN rhythm as I made the early drive in to Marshfield the next day. Each blade swipe cleared the blurry window so briefly, I didn’t dare blink. I concentrated on the shadowy road as I drove—at half the speed limit—hoping for relief from this relentless rain. Dark gray clouds somersaulted overhead and I glanced at my dashboard clock just to reassure myself that it was, indeed, morning. The sky cracked with lightning, and thunder shook my little red car, the only vehicle on this twisty highway at five A.M.
I could have turned on my radio for company but at times like these I preferred to focus without distraction. How strange life was. Abe had been murdered in what should have been a safe place on a bright sunlit day, as different from this one as could be imagined.
Lightning zinged in front of me and I jerked away, swerving instinctively. The car’s back end fishtailed and its tires hydroplaned as I fought to steer out of the oncoming lanes. My heart beat louder and faster than the wiper blades and I was glad there had been no one else on this narrow stretch of road.
Today seemed more appropriate for murder than yesterday had. And this lonely stretch of forest seemed a far better venue. This was the sort of setting I might expect for so vile a crime. And yet I knew from personal experience that life was never exactly as we expected it to be. Why should death be any different?
Involuntarily, I shuddered. Emberstowne was a sweet, safe haven. At least, it had been up until recently. Among us, we now not only had a swindler who targeted friends. We had a murderer in our midst.
We all felt safe, I supposed, until we didn’t. When tragedy struck, it shattered everything. The trick was learning to put the pieces back together again.
By the time I pulled up to the employee gate, the rain had lessened enough for me to decrease my wiper speed. I reached up to press the remote clipped to my visor and the cyclone gate jerked to life, rolling open to allow me entrance. For the first time I saw this barrier for what it was: nothing. The Marshfield estate was so sprawling that a mere fence—even with its barbed-wire crown—was no match for an intent trespasser. Heck, whoever had killed Abe could very well have been a guest at our hotel. I hadn’t considered that last night when I gave my statement, but I imagined the detective I’d spoken with had. I hoped so.
I followed the employee road to the mouth of the underground parking lot. The red-and-white-striped barrier tucked between trees looked a lot like the entrance to the Batcave. I pressed my remote again and the arm raised to admit me. Years ago, when staff members no longer lived in and began driving themselves to work, this underground lot was created to keep the landscape clear of unsightly vehicles. Now golf carts, and the occasional limousine, were the only motorized means of transport allowed above-ground in the mansion’s perimeter.
I caught sight of several squad cars parked along the walking path. Well, today was an exception, I guess.
I parked and got out. A single tunnel ran between the garage and the house. I waved hello to Ned, a security guard standing at the tunnel’s entry. This was a change since yesterday. We all usually just came and went without notice. Ned nodded acknowledgment from his new station. The tunnel ahead, with its low, curved ceiling and concrete walls, reminded me of the ones in movies where rats scurry and the hero sloshes through puddles, a fiery torch his only means of illumination. The difference here, however, was though the tunnel was dank, the floor was dry. Fluorescent lights buzzed above, more than adequately lighting my path. My heels skip-tapped my nervousness as I hurried through. After yesterday, nothing felt safe.
Another new addition: a guard at the basement entrance. He stopped me long enough to check my ID. We planned to eventually install ID card readers throughout the mansion, but retrofitting such a system into an historical building took a great deal of effort and planning. I knew Carr had already begun seeking bids for the job, but the added security would come too late for Abe.
I made my way across the building to the far west wing, then up three flights to the anteroom I shared with my assistant, Frances. The room was dark and though the thunder was fading, rumbles from outside still shook the glass in the next room. There were no windows in this anteroom—we were landlocked here, with Abe’s quiet office just beyond the carved oak doors. At one time, this combined space served as sitting room and bedchamber for Marshfield guests and I appreciated the opulence that remained from that more genteel time. Winged cherubs floating in a pastel sky graced the ceiling. I wondered what the little chubbies thought when they looked down and saw the filing cabinets, the copier, and assorted business furniture that replaced the gracious living of yore.