the extinguished guest (a lexie starr mystery book 2)

 

 

 

 

 

The Extinguished Guest

A Lexie Starr Mystery

Book Two

 

by

 

Jeanne Glidewell

 

 

 

 

 

THE EXTINGUISHED GUEST

Reviews & Accolades

 

"Jeanne Glidewell’s Lexie Starr mysteries are fast-paced, complex… and have just the
right hint of romance."

~Jill Churchill, author of the Jane Jeffry and Grace and Favor series

 

 

 

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Please Note

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
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Copyright © 2010, 2013 by Jeanne Glidewell. All rights reserved under International
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Thank You.

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to my Grandma Dolly, aka Mary Van Sittert,

who passed away in 2009 at 94 years young.

I miss her greatly.

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

I'd like to thank my friend and editor, Alice Duncan, of Roswell, New Mexico, and
my friend and writing mentor, Evelyn Horan, of Temecula, California. I'd also like
to express my gratitude to Five Star Publishing for releasing this novel in hard cover
and large print paperback in 2008, and thank my friends and family for their support
and encouragement, and especially my husband, Bob Glidewell, and sister, Sarah Goodman.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

I turned over for at least the hundredth time in my quest to find a comfortable sleeping
position, but the mattress had less give than a concrete runway at Chicago's O'Hare
Airport. I'd have to convince Stone Van Patten, my boyfriend and proprietor of this
recently renovated inn, to buy featherbed mattress pads for the beds. Harriet's Camelot
B&B in Schenectady, New York, where Stone and I'd become acquainted, had down-filled
mattresses and to me, sleeping on a down-filled mattress was like sleeping on a cloud.
I'd seen this kind of mattress pad selling on the Internet for less than a hundred
dollars, and if Stone wanted repeat customers, his investing in comfortable bedding
would be money well spent.

I'd be lucky if I didn't end up covered in bruises from all the flopping around and
flipping from side-to-side in my attempt to fall asleep. I just knew I'd be groggy
and out-of-sorts while trying to perform my duties as Master of Ceremonies at the
induction dinner, honoring Horatio Prescott III, the new president of the Rockdale
Historical Society. The induction ceremony was being held in conjunction with Alexandria
Inn's grand opening. Stone had been thrilled when approached with the idea by the
club's secretary, Patty Poffenbarger.

Having no luck in falling asleep, I considered taking one of the four sleeping pills
I'd been carrying around and hoarding for nearly twenty years. But like every other
time I'd thought about taking one, I talked myself out of it. Instead I opted to save
them for a more critical occasion—when getting a good night's sleep was of life-altering
importance—even though my pills were on the verge of disintegrating into dust.

"What am I saving them for?" I asked myself, feeling disgusted with my neurotic tendencies.
I hated to admit it, but I'd fried pork chops with more sense than I sometimes exhibited.
Could I be saving the pills for the restless night before I gave my presidential inauguration
speech, or perhaps on the eve of my wedding day when I was to marry a foreign prince?
Was it so I could be well rested and alert before blasting off in a space shuttle
to orbit some far-off planet in a distant galaxy? For goodness sakes, I was Lexie
Starr, a widowed forty-eight-year-old, Midwestern library assistant. I led a normal,
sedate life in the suburbs of Kansas City, and mine was a life not exactly riddled
with important, life-altering occasions. I wasn't apt to be accepting an Oscar, an
Emmy, a Pulitzer Prize, or even the neighborhood award for "Lawn-of-the-Month."

I sighed and turned over once again, knowing that should I meet with a situation worthy
of one of the antiquated sleeping pills, they'd be less than useless, anyway, and
totally ineffective from being several decades past their expiration date, if not
merely little piles of powder. I might just as well have flushed them down the toilet
immediately following their acquisition many years ago. That was shortly after the
unexpected death of my husband, Chester, when I was not yet thirty years old. He died
suddenly of an embolism when our only child, Wendy, was seven years old. It'd been
her and me against the world for the next twenty years, but we'd persevered and survived.

I was thinking about the transition I'd made back then, to being a single mom following
my husband's death, and I was finally drifting off to sleep when a loud noise broke
through the night's silence. The resounding thud came from the ceiling directly above
my bed. I sat straight up in alarm. It sounded as if someone had dropped a sixteen-pound
bowling ball on the floor above me, or perhaps had fallen out of bed while flopping
around, as I'd been doing most of the night. I was quite sure whatever caused the
sudden loud noise could not be a normal occurrence.

I glanced over at the alarm clock on my nightstand. There were less than two hours
before I had to be up and about if I were to be dressed and ready to help Crystal
prepare breakfast for our guests by seven-thirty. Falling asleep now might be worse
than not sleeping at all.

I considered going upstairs to investigate the loud noise, but like with the sleeping
pill, I talked myself out of it. It was never a smart idea to go waltzing into a stranger's
room at 5:08 in the morning. That would be a good way to find yourself waking up dead—from
being shot as an intruder with questionable intentions.

I rolled over, forcing the curious thoughts about the predawn thud from my mind, and
soon fell into a light slumber.

* * *

My fear of being shot as an intruder must have been prophetic because as it turned
out someone did wake up dead that morning, even if that someone wasn't me. And the
"deadness" was indeed the direct result of a gunshot wound. The victim was our distinguished
guest of honor, Horatio Prescott III. But Mr. Prescott couldn't have been accidentally
shot as an intruder because he was found murdered in his own room. After he'd failed
to show up for breakfast, Stone and I went upstairs and found him, face down on the
floor, next to the window overlooking the flower gardens outside. I assumed he'd been
killed at approximately 5:08
A.M.
and was surprised to see he was already dressed for the day in a dark gray, pinstriped,
three-piece suit. As it drained from a single bullet hole in the back of his head,
a pool of blood had formed beside his body. It was a gruesome sight, forever imprinted
in my memory.

While I studied the scene, I saw a ballpoint pen in the victim's right hand. There
was a look of amazement frozen on his face as rigor mortis set in. I surmised the
killer had utilized a silencer on his weapon. I'd heard a distinctive thud-like sound
that would have been made by Prescott's stout, compact body hitting the floor. But
I was positive there'd not been an audible bang preceding the thud, like the sound
of a bullet being fired into the back of the man's bald head. I couldn't recall any
other sounds, such as two men wrestling over possession of a weapon. I had a hunch
that Horatio Prescott had been taken completely by surprise and was dead the second
after he realized he was about to be killed.

Looking down at the rigid, prostrate body, I felt a moment of guilt and regret. Perhaps
if I'd gone upstairs to investigate the noise as I'd considered doing soon after I'd
heard the thud, Mr. Prescott could have been saved with the assistance of emergency
medical technicians. Perhaps, even, the killer who'd offed Mr. Prescott could have
been apprehended, or at least identified, had only a mere minute or so been allowed
to pass following the fatal shot. But then, perhaps the killer who'd offed Mr. Prescott
could have panicked and also offed the middle-aged library assistant who, out of idle
curiosity, was schlepping up the stairs in an oversized K.C. Chiefs' football jersey
she called a nightshirt. Seems it may have been a damned good thing I was able to
persuade myself to ignore the noise and stay under the covers in my rock-hard bed
for another two hours!

I looked around at the roomful of people standing with their mouths agape, stunned
expressions showing on their faces. They were the other Historical Society members,
and all were obviously as shocked as I. This was certainly not included on the copy
of the schedule of events I'd been given the night before.

From across the room, Stone caught my eye and shrugged in disbelief. After checking
Mr. Prescott's neck for a pulse for the sixth or seventh time. Stone lifted the phone
from the night-stand and punched in nine-one-one on the handset. He motioned for me
to herd all of the guests out of the room that had now become a crime scene. He may
have been afraid the Historical Society was about to become the hysterical society,
once the severity of the matter sunk in.

Stone instructed everyone to refrain from touching or disturbing anything in the room.
I wasn't sure if Stone was trying to protect any evidence that might be present from
contamination or protect the reputation of the Alexandria Inn he'd recently purchased.
It was an antebellum mansion located just north of St. Joseph, Missouri. Stone had
restored and named the historic inn after me. The inn had just opened for business
the previous day, and a murder was not a particularly auspicious beginning for the
lodging establishment. It was memorable, maybe—but probably not conducive to enticing
hordes of customers to register at the inn, taking their chances on being shot dead
in the middle of the night. The exalted guest-of-honor, Horatio Prescott, had been
assigned the most luxurious suite the inn offered. Unfortunately, I feared, the impressive
suite would forever after be known as "site of the murder" and not deemed very desirable.

"Come on, Cornelius," I said softly, as I nudged Mr. Walker toward the door. Nearby,
I tapped the bony shoulder of the regal and sophisticated-looking Rosalinda Swift.

"Let's go make some coffee, Ms. Swift, while we wait for the police and coroner to
arrive. We're obligated to preserve the purity of the crime scene, I'm sure. There's
nothing we can do now for Mr. Prescott, anyway."

I nodded at the Poffenbargers as I watched Patty Poffenbarger absentmindedly bite
the end off a chocolate long john dangling from her right hand. I was amazed she could
even think of eating at a time like this, although she probably ate out of habit most
of the time, without much thought about the food she was ingesting.

"Humph!" Patty said indignantly after she had licked the icing from her fingers. She
glared at Stone with a look of accusation. "If I'd known something like this was going
to happen, I would've made arrangements for the Society to stay elsewhere. What kind
of establishment is this?"

I wanted to defend the Alexandria Inn because I realized Horatio Prescott could have
been killed at any lodging facility in town. Actually, what I really wanted to do
was slap a piece of duct tape across Patty's mouth. Instead, I counted silently to
ten, took her by the elbow and led her across the room, with her husband trailing
behind us. By my estimation, Patty would tip the scale at three hundred pounds, while
her six-foot tall husband, Otto, couldn't have weighed over a hundred and twenty pounds,
even wearing a heavy winter parka with its pockets full of rocks. It's not that I
have anything against people who are heavier than they really ought to be—I was a
bit on the pudgy side myself—I just didn't like anyone making negative remarks about
the Alexandria Inn, a business we had worked hard to make successful.

Harry and Alma Turner were standing in the corner of the oversized room. Gesturing,
I caught Harry Turner's attention. Trembling slightly, Harry leaned against the wall,
as Alma stood next to him and dabbed at her eyes with a pink, flowery handkerchief.
I waved the dumbstruck Turners out the door behind Rosalinda Swift, Cornelius Walker
and the Poffenbargers, and as a group, we marched woodenly down the hallway to the
staircase.

We passed Robert and Ernestine Fischer on our descent downstairs. I explained the
situation and quickly turned the elderly couple around to go back to the parlor with
the rest of us. The only guest unaccounted for was the overbearing and pompous man
I'd met yesterday, Boris Dack, whose room was across the hall from mine on the first
floor. Mr. Dack must have overslept, I concluded, as we passed his closed door on
the way to the parlor. Like Mr. Prescott, Boris Dack hadn't appeared for breakfast
at the appointed time of seven-thirty. His "Do Not Disturb" placard still dangled
from the doorknob of his room. No one claimed to have seen him yet that morning.

As the ever-gracious host, I was helping Crystal dole out croissants and pour fresh
cups of coffee a few minutes later. I wondered who'd want to kill Horatio Prescott
III on the very day of his induction as president of the Rockdale Historical Society.
Was the killer someone who coveted the honorable position and was determined to have
another crack at it? I found it hard to fathom why anyone would actually want the
position. I couldn't imagine nominating anyone for the position except out of spite
or pure orneriness. I'd rather sit through a root canal than be thrust in that position.

Did the killer have an entirely unrelated grievance against the dead man? Could it
have been a stranger who'd clandestinely entered the Alexandria Inn in the wee hours
of the morning, shot the prestigious Mr. Prescott, and then exited the building unobserved?

Or was the killer, instead, one of the nine other guests registered at the Alexandria
Inn? All the guests were acquainted with Horatio Prescott III and, in fact, had been
specifically invited to be a part of the induction ceremony. All but Alma Turner,
who was attending the event with her husband, were members of the Historical Society.
Could one of them have a reason to despise the man enough to kill him? Could one of
them have convincingly faked surprise at finding Mr. Prescott dead in his room? Would
the killer be identified and brought to justice? I knew I couldn't rest easy until
these questions had been answered.

My first impression of Horatio Prescott had been that he was a refined, fastidious
but unassuming gentleman. But I really knew very little about him or any of the other
nine guests making up the small, local Historical Society. However, I had a sneaking
suspicion, somehow, in some way, this was all about to change.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

"Ms. Starr, are you certain you read the clock and remember the time correctly? You'd
have been barely awake, alarmed, and possibly disoriented," Detective Wyatt Johnston
said as I poured a refill into his coffee cup. In my severely anxious state-of-mind,
I sloshed coffee over the edge of the cup onto the kitchen counter. The detective
absentmindedly wiped the spill with the sleeve of his blue shirt and gazed at me with
unwavering eyes.

"I was completely awake at the time, Detective Johnston, I assure you. I have occasional
bouts of insomnia, and last night it was kicking in at full force."

"Any particular reason for your insomnia? Were there unusual noises keeping you awake?"

"Like an argument or a life-and-death scuffle in the room above me?" I asked.

"Uh-huh, something of that nature." Detective Johnston shrugged and nodded with an
expectant expression, as if convinced I'd heard such things and was suffering temporary
amnesia. I knew he was going to be disappointed if I didn't have something more sensational
to add to my statement.

"No. Sorry Detective, but I heard nothing of the kind."

"Okay," he said, obviously not convinced. "We'll come back to that later."

"I think she couldn't sleep because she needed a man beside her," came from a squeaky
male voice behind me. "She was no doubt frustrated and unsatisfied."

I was flabbergasted by the remark as I looked up into the rheumy eyes of Cornelius
Walker. I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly. Was he unaware that the proprietor
of this inn was my boyfriend? Then he winked at me through his thick, horn-rimmed
glasses, with one of his bloodshot, watering eyes, and I nearly dropped the carafe
of coffee on the floor. I started to make a sarcastic reply, but he spoke again.

"I think Dr. Walker has just the prescription she needs to make her sleep like a baby,
Detective," the innocuous-looking, sixty-something-year-old man said, totally oblivious
to my revulsion.

I glanced over at the policeman's amused expression and then back at Mr. Walker, who
winked at me again and crossed toward the parlor. He was a short man, just a couple
of inches taller than I, maybe five-four or five-five at the most. He wore plaid polyester
slacks and had thinning, greased-back hair, large, prominent ears, and a slender build.
I thought he looked more like a library assistant than I did.

As Cornelius walked out the kitchen door, Stone walked in, nodding politely at the
slightly older gentleman as they passed.

"Stone, did you hear what he just said to me?" I asked, in complete astonishment.

"Who?" Stone asked with a chuckle. "Horny Corny?"

"Horny Corny?"

"I've heard several guests call Cornelius that, but not to his face, of course. Late
yesterday evening, I heard him ask Rosalinda Swift if she'd like to 'participate in
some passionate parlor games' with him. He suggested 'tonsil hockey' or 'spank the
monkey' and for a moment I actually thought she was going to pass out 'with the vapors.'
" With the last few words, Stone had raised his voice in perfect imitation of Rosalinda's.
I laughed at his mockery.

"Horny Corny's a very fitting moniker, but he looks so, so... well, so harmless."

"Oh, I'd imagine Cornelius is harmless enough. He's just desperate to draw attention
to himself. A man like Mr. Walker tends to blend in with the wallpaper if he doesn't
make a substantial effort to be noticed. I'd bet if some woman was to go along with
one of his off-the-wall sexual comments and respond in a positive manner, he'd be
the one on the verge of fainting," Stone said.

"You might be right, but just in case you aren't, I don't think I'll test your theory.
Is the guy really a doctor?"

"No," Stone said, as he laughed louder this time. "He's a fertilizer salesman or something.
That's why he's so full of it."

Detective Johnston, who'd been silently drinking his coffee and listening to the exchange
between Stone and me, started laughing, too. I'd almost forgotten the policeman was
in the room. He leaned back in his chair and said, "Actually, he's a floor manager
at the Farm and Ranch Supply store in downtown Rockdale, but he does sell fertilizer
in his department. I had to pick him up once on some kind of charge for 'lewd and
lascivious' behavior. We found out later that the woman he'd been groping was actually
a man—a transvestite in drag. Talk about rubbing salt in a guy's wound. The charges
eventually got dropped, but all of us guys down at the station got a good laugh out
of it."

"I'm sure you did," I said, somewhat annoyed at the detective's attitude. "Sorry,
I never did answer your question, and by now I've forgotten what you were asking me
about earlier."

"I believe I was asking you about the exact time you heard the loud thud and if there
was a reason why you were awake at the time. Most people are sound asleep at five
in the morning." Detective Johnston was like a pit bull gnawing on a bone.

"Didn't hear a thing, other than the victim hitting the floor, huh?"

"That's right. That's all I heard. There's no particular reason I was awake, other
than the mattress on my bed is harder than my last batch of cookies."

Officer Johnston nodded as he fiddled with the squelch control on his police radio.
Stone looked at me with an apologetic expression and said, "Sorry, Lexie. I've been
meaning to buy some new mattress sets for all the beds, but I've had so many other
irons in the fire, I just haven't gotten around to it. The one on my bed's pretty
uncomfortable, too."

"No sense buying entire mattress sets, Stone. All you really need are featherbed mattress
pads to place on top of the existing mattresses. I noticed some nice ones on the Internet
for about ninety bucks apiece. The mattresses are even baffled."

"Baffled?" he asked, with a comical expression of confusion on his face.

"Quilted in such a way to keep the feathers from bunching."

"No kidding?" Stone considered the idea for a moment. "Can you order some for me if
I give you my credit card number?"

"Sure. I'd be more than happy to order some for you."

"Thanks for the suggestion. It would save me a bundle. A king-sized mattress and box
springs can run over five hundred, easily."

"Easily," I said, in agreement, before turning back toward the other man in the room.
Somehow we had gotten distracted from the pressing matter of Prescott's murder. "By
the way, Detective Johnston, has Mr. Prescott's next of kin been notified?"

"I'm not sure. I know he's not currently married, and his parents are both deceased,
but he does have a daughter named Veronica, from his first marriage. Still lives out
in Utah, last I heard. She was in my graduating class. She was drop-dead gorgeous,
but she always acted like she thought she was better than the rest of us and never
had much social interaction with anyone in the class. She always looked at me as if
I was something her cat hacked up. I'd heard she married a guy from a Mormon family
in Leavenworth, but I never met him."

"And she moved to Utah with her husband?" I asked.

"Yeah, just outside Salt Lake City," Wyatt said. "Hey, I noticed Rosalinda Swift's
name on your guest list. I had to arrest her recently, too; it was on a DUI a couple
of weeks ago. She was three sheets to the wind and just missed running over a small
child on a bike. It was only about four in the afternoon when I pulled her over."

"Rosalinda Swift? Are you sure it was the same Rosalinda Swift from the Historical
Society?" I couldn't quite picture her behind the wheel of a car, three sheets to
the wind, as the detective put it. "She was drinking and driving?"

"Uh-huh. She was weaving all over the road, from one shoulder to the other."

We chatted with the police officer about Rosalinda and Horatio's daughter Veronica
and also the unfortunate and mysterious demise of her father for about ten more minutes
before the officer had to leave to respond to a domestic abuse call. Before he left,
he asked Stone if he'd inform all of the guests that it would be appreciated, but
not necessary, if they could all stay at the inn for a few days while the investigating
team took statements and collected evidence. He'd already taped off Mr. Prescott's
room as a crime scene and had assigned a couple of detectives who were busily dusting
for fingerprints and searching for clues and potential DNA evidence. One slim young
recruit was fingerprinting everyone who was on the premises when the murder occurred.
I noticed Rosalinda Swift was quite agitated by this indignity. She finally agreed
to the "humiliating procedure," but not without significant complaining. Only Patty
Poffenbarger appeared more offended than Rosalinda by the request.

Stone was completely cooperative with the detective squad and readily agreed to speak
with his guests about staying over a day or two—at no expense to them, of course.
As Wyatt Johnston backed his squad car down the driveway, Stone answered his ringing
phone. He listened to the caller for a moment and shook his head in bewilderment.
After a few brief comments, he re-cradled the phone with more force than normal.

"News travels fast in a burg like this, doesn't it?" Stone gave a sigh of disgust
and ran his fingers through his silver hair. "Now I know what they mean by a small
town's 'grapevine.' That was a reporter with the
Rockdale Gazette,
wanting details on the murder and my opinion concerning who might have committed
it. Does he really think I would open myself up to slander and libel charges by naming
names? I told him I couldn't make any comments at this point, but I can see it now
on the front page of the paper tomorrow, the headline 'Local inn opens with a bang.'
"

I knew Stone was discouraged and dejected. It was a matter of personal pride to him
to see the Alexandria Inn be successful. He'd paid a handsome price for the rundown
old mansion and had pumped a lot of money into restoring it.

I'd met Stone while I was on the east coast last fall, investigating the unsolved
murder of my son-in-law's first wife, Eliza Pitt, a case in which my son-in-law, Clay,
was a prime suspect. I'd had no investigative background or training, but I felt it
was necessary to do whatever I could to protect my daughter, Wendy, from possibly
suffering the same fate.

Stone, an online jeweler whom I'd contacted to help me replace a charm bracelet and
charms that Wendy had recently lost, offered to assist me in my investigation. The
two of us had formed an instant bond and found we had much in common.

We'd both been widowed for years—he's fifty-five, and I'll turn forty-nine soon—and
we'd met at a time when we were both finally ready to consider having another "significant
other" in our lives.

We decided to pursue the relationship, and after his father, suffering with Alzheimer's,
died in December, Stone sold his jewelry business to an employee and moved to the
Midwest to be near me. Before heading west, he'd also resigned his volunteer position
as a reserve police officer for the Myrtle Beach Police Department, a service he'd
chosen to help fill his idle time.

Lacking serious hobbies, Stone wasn't the kind of man who could sit around and do
nothing. He became interested in operating a bed and breakfast after staying at the
Camelot B&B in Schenectady and helping the owner, Harriet Sparks, make some repairs
around the place. In Missouri, he discovered the old deteriorating mansion in nearby
Rockdale by accident, while scanning the classifieds in the
K. C. Star
newspaper. He quickly made the decision to purchase it and restore it to its original,
elegant condition. The project was a massive undertaking, but Stone appeared to enjoy
the challenge immensely.

Once the job was completed, he succeeded in having the mansion listed on the National
Register of Historic Places. Then he hired a young woman named Crystal to serve as
combination cook and housekeeper and opened it as a fully functional and operating
inn. He christened it after my given name, Alexandria Marie, which pleased me immensely.
The Alexandria Inn, located in the small town of Rockdale in northwestern Missouri,
was about an hour's drive from my home in Shawnee, Kansas. It was ideally situated
in the heart of the heavily populated historic district, with homes built during the
late 1800s, but the inn was only a half dozen blocks from the business district.

Stone enlisted my help in decorating and furnishing the inn while he supervised the
crews doing most of the actual restoration. Between us, we managed to give the home
its original dignity, charm, and beauty. Stone stayed busy at the inn during the week,
but we spent the majority of the weekends with one another. So far the arrangement
had worked out perfectly.

Stone was not a classically handsome man. He was of average height and carried a few
extra pounds on his waist, but it was his personality more than his looks I found
so attractive. He was attentive, witty, and considerate. His smile lit up his face,
despite the small gap between his two front teeth. His silver hair and almost translucent
blue eyes added an air of refinement. He was a "glass half full" type of guy, and
his optimism was contagious. Being with him tended to give me a more tolerant attitude,
too. And tolerance wasn't a trait I came by naturally.

Wendy, my twenty-seven year-old daughter, had moved back home with me following the
annulment of her marriage to Clay Pitt. Living with me was a temporary arrangement,
she said, while she saved money on a down payment for a place of her own. She worked
with the local coroner, primarily assisting with autopsies. To me, the job seemed
a bit gruesome and depressing, but she appeared to enjoy it. She'd managed to put
a few extra pounds on her too-thin body and was looking more relaxed and contented
than she had in many months.

I took special pains to prepare all of Wendy's favorite dishes since she returned
home and was sleeping in her old childhood room once again. In the process of eating
such meals, I put on seven or eight pounds myself and was now about fifteen pounds
heavier than I should be for my height, despite my good intentions to lose weight.
I carried the weight well and wasn't fat, by any means, but I was on the verge of
becoming plump. And "plump" and "chubby" were not adjectives I liked to have tacked
on to my physical description.

Stone didn't seem to be concerned about my increasing weight—would probably not even
notice until I got to be the size of Patty Poffenbarger, which I vowed was never going
to happen. Never mind gastric bypass, I'd personally sew my lips together with monofilament
fishing line before I'd allow myself to swell to that extent. To me, being grossly
overweight was as self-destructive as smoking, and I'd been able to wean myself off
cigarettes after years of the lethal habit. I didn't want diabetes, heart disease,
or hypertension any more than I wanted lung cancer or emphysema. There was no reason
I couldn't lose the extra pounds and get back down to my normal, desired weight if
I set my mind to it. Wendy, on the other hand, had to fight to keep weight on her
slim frame.

I was relieved Wendy had formed an instant affinity with Stone. She talked frequently
on the phone with his nephew Andy, whom we'd both met in New York. Andy was a pilot
who owned a five-passenger Cessna and flew private charters. He lived near Stone's
former home in Myrtle Beach, but he'd recently mentioned a desire to move to the Midwest
to get away from the hustle and bustle of the east coast. He yearned to live out in
the country and told Wendy he wouldn't be totally contented until he had to kick manure
off his cowboy boots before entering his ranch house.

I knew Wendy was attracted to Andy. She was doing all she could to encourage him to
make the move to the Midwest. He was a good-looking young man, as thoughtful and admirable
as his uncle, and I hoped, in time, something more permanent would develop between
the two of them. I would be proud to have Andy as my son-in-law.

I looked over at Andy's uncle, Stone Van Patten, who was now deep in thought.

"Stone?"

"Yeah?" he said.

"I have an idea."

"Uh-oh. Go ahead, I'm listening."

"Why don't the two of us do a little investigating ourselves?"

His light blue eyes gazed into my light brown ones for several seconds before he smiled.
"Well, it's an intriguing idea," he said. "We do make a pretty good team, don't you
think?"

"Detectives Smith and Wesson," I said with a nod, teasing him about the fictitious
names he'd given us during a subterfuge encounter we'd had with a bar owner in Boston
during our previous investigation into the murder of Eliza Pitt. "It couldn't hurt
anything, I guess. We don't have anything to lose, do we?"

"No, not really."

"And if we can help figure out who killed Horatio—and why—it could only be advantageous
to the success of the inn."

"I agree, honey," Stone said, after a few moments. He reached out absentmindedly and
tousled my short, brown curly hair. It was a reminder I needed to make an appointment
for a fresh perm sometime in the next week or two. I had worn my hair in the exact
same style since I was a senior in high school, and there was no reason to switch
to a more "en vogue" style now. Stone put his hand back on his lap and continued talking.

"I don't want people to be afraid to stay here. The fact that Prescott's death occurred
here is just a coincidence. But it'll be difficult to convince people not to associate
the inn with the murder."

"Well, then, I say let's go for it. If nothing else, it should make for an interesting
experience."

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Staying on at the Alexandria Inn for a few more days seemed to be no problem for the
Historical Society guests, aside from Boris Dack, who had urgent business matters
to attend to but could still spend the majority of his time at the inn. It was Monday,
and most of the guests had planned to stay for several days and depart on Wednesday
or Thursday. Even though the induction of a new president had been postponed for obvious
reasons, they had nothing else on their schedules.

Most of the guests lived within minutes of the inn but were treating the occasion
as a mini-vacation, an opportunity to let others cook for them, wait on them, and,
in general, treat them like visiting royalty. Although they certainly had vastly different
personalities and temperaments, they all seemed to have one thing in common—they enjoyed
"putting on the dog" and being made to feel like first-class dignitaries. They liked
the feel and the illusion of importance. They wallowed in it, in fact.

Crystal, Stone, and I went out of our way to assure our guests continued feeling as
if they were celebrities because they found it a satisfying arrangement. Satisfied
customers were repeat customers—and word-of-mouth was the best, most cost-effective
kind of advertising. After all, it was hard to beat free when it came to being cost-effective.

We learned quickly, however, to succeed in the accommodations' industry, we had to
be accommodating. Being polite was expected, and necessary, no matter how much it
irked us to be treated as subordinate minions by people with no higher perch on the
caste totem pole than our own.

Thank goodness for Crystal, a professional hostess, who didn't appear to resent being
ordered about by a bunch of hoity-toity old snobs. She scurried among the guests with
a tray full of refreshments in one hand, a coffee carafe in the other, and the pockets
of her apron filled with sugar packets, napkins, spoons, and toothpicks. She provided
everything guests could need before they even realized they needed it. She kept everyone's
coffee cup filled, and encouraged the ingestion of far too many doughnuts and pastries.
Patty Poffenbarger seemed quite fond of the young woman, or at least, she was seldom
very far from her. When Patty wasn't running off at the mouth about her own accomplishments
as a concert pianist, which were probably greatly embellished, she was filling that
mouth with refreshments from Crystal's ever-present tray of goodies.

At least Patty's husband, Otto Poffenbarger, didn't appear to have an inflated opinion
of himself. He was, in fact, almost abnormally self-deprecating, similar to a child
who is told daily how stupid or worthless he is. He stuck to his wife Patty like a
postage stamp, as if he were afraid if he lost sight of her he'd immediately dissolve
into nothingness. He followed her around like a shadow, so closely I feared if Patty
ever made a sudden, unexpected stop, Otto would become a human wedgie. I thought if
I looked up the word "hen-pecked" in the dictionary, there might be a picture of this
poor, pitiful man.

Boris was on the other end of the spectrum. He was the most irritating, overbearing
individual I'd ever had the displeasure to meet. Stone discovered from Boris Dack,
that Boris was Horatio Prescott's business partner, the "D" in " D and P Enterprises,"
a business involving investments, both foreign and domestic.

Boris's body reminded me of a bowling pin; bottom heavy with sloping shoulders and
wide hips. He had thick, bushy white hair on the sides of his head, but only about
seven strands of hair on top. The hairs on top were several inches long and had a
tendency to stand straight up like a flag mast. His large, bulbous nose reminded me
of Jimmy Durante's, and his eyes were a piercing charcoal color.

Boris also had an ego the size of Mount Rushmore, and if you didn't agree with something
he said, he would repeat it over and over, and louder and louder, until you finally
gave up and agreed with him. He spoke with great authority about anything and everything,
occasionally using words that even Noah Webster wouldn't recognize. I'm certain Boris
thought they made him sound more intelligent, more respectable. I thought they made
him seem childish—like a young girl trying on her mother's makeup and clothes.

Boris was the only guest who found it necessary to leave the inn, but just for a few
hours, he promised. He had several business-related obligations to take care of early
Tuesday morning, he'd told Stone, but he would return later in the day. With the death
of his business partner, there'd understandably be many details he'd need to handle
in the near future. Stone assured Boris he'd be allowed to come and go as needed.

"Pardon my soliloquy, but I am appalled by the iniquitous deportment evinced by a
member of the Society. It's execrable!" Boris said.

Later I asked Stone to decipher the statement. He thought a moment and said, "Boris
was thinking murdering Prescott was a shitty thing for someone to do."

"Now that's putting it in layman's terms," I said.

"The question is, why did Boris indicate it was one of the guests who killed Horatio?
Does he know something, or is he just making natural assumptions?"

"I wondered about his implication, too. And his attitude seems odd to me."

Boris Dack's behavior seemed too unfeeling for a man professing to be devastated by
the loss of his friend and associate. I placed him high on my list of suspects and
was eager to delve deeper into his business "relationship" with Mr. Prescott.

* * *

"Lexie, can you come into the kitchen for a minute?" Stone asked. "I've got something
I want to discuss with you for a few minutes. Crystal can take care of the guests
while you take a much-deserved break. You'll wear yourself ragged, if you aren't careful."

I was pouring Earl Grey into a dainty little teacup, like a well-trained servant,
and as I turned toward Stone's voice, I was haughtily dismissed by a wave of Rosalinda's
blue-veined hand. She and Mrs. Poffenbarger were enjoying brunch in the parlor, away
from the distasteful discussions about the dreadful murder that had occurred right
under their upturned noses that morning. Ms. Swift was sipping her fourth cup of the
fragrant tea. I noticed she'd added something to it from a small, sterling silver
flask she'd extracted from her sequined purse. Patty Poffenbarger, dressed in something
resembling a purple, polka-dotted pup tent, was preoccupied with stuffing the last
of a half-dozen poppy-seed muffins in her mouth.

"What's up?" I asked Stone when I entered the kitchen.

He handed me a cup of espresso, which he knew I preferred over tea or weak coffee.
"Have a seat," he said. "You're still serving 'your highnesses,' I see."

"Yes," I said. "And what a couple of snooty old windbags they are. If I hear about
that damned encore at Rosalinda's last recital one more time, I'm going to—"

"I know, I know. I'm sorry, honey. I really didn't intend for you to have to serve
and wait on these people. Crystal's doing her best—"

"—I know. Crystal's terrific, but she can't be in six places at the same time. And
I don't mind, Stone. Really I don't. I find their high-faluting behavior kind of amusing,
in a way. And besides, I owe you a favor for all you've done for me."

"Lexie, you don't owe me anything. I can hire another—"

"No, that's not necessary, and I didn't mean it quite the way it sounded, Stone. But
let's just say I'm enjoying myself and I want to help and leave it at that. Now what
did you want to discuss with me?"

"Well, okay, if you're sure. It was never my intention to have you serving as Crystal's
assistant. Anyway, I spoke with the investigating team upstairs and found out a few
interesting details that I thought you'd want to hear."

"Like what?"

"First of all, the only fingerprints they could find in the room besides the victim's
were the expected ones—yours, mine and Crystal's. So that's of no help. But they did
make an observation that might prove useful."

"What was that?"

"As you may have noticed, we got about two inches of snow last night. The snow fell
between midnight and three
A.M."
There was a certain quality of smugness in Stone's voice I'd never heard before. I
knew he was enjoying the resurgence of our sleuthing partnership. He enjoyed a challenge
as much as I did.

"And?" I prompted.

"There were no footprints in the snow between the house and the street. Just a few
incidental prints between here and the house next door, leading up to the front porch
from the side yard rather than the sidewalk. The investigators took a few photos of
the prints, but don't feel too strongly they have anything to do with the murder.
They think the footprints may have been from the shoes of an officer who reported
to the scene when I called nine-one-one for assistance."