Authors: Susan M. Boyer
Tags: #Cozy Mystery, #mystery books, #female detective, #detective novels, #murder mysteries, #murder mystery books, #english mysteries, #murder mystery series, #women sleuths, #private investigator series, #british cozy mysteries
After dinner that night, in my favorite pajamas, I curled up in the oversized chair in the sunroom with a glass of pinot noir and a Harlan Coben novel. White lights twinkled on the Christmas tree, illuminating crystal and clear glass ornaments collected over the years, many of them angels. Gold mesh ribbon spiraled from the bow on top all the way down. Here and there, magnolia blossoms rested on the branches. A pile of wrapped gifts waited for me to put on ribbons and bows. I’d been waiting until I finished my Christmas shopping, and I had yet to think of something for Daddy.
Nate had built a fire in the fireplace before heading out for a bit of surveillance related to the Andy Savage case. I snuggled under my favorite quilt. Rhett, my golden retriever, snoozed by my side. I was settled in for the night, is what I’m saying.
Naturally, the phone rang. Nicolette, the wedding planner. I sent her to voicemail. I’d spoken to her five times that day already, and Mamma six. I picked up my book.
The phone rang again. Sweet reason. I needed a few minutes’ peace. I reached for my iPhone and glanced at the screen. Olivia Pearson.
. Maybe she had additional outrageous ideas for my bachelorette party.
Or maybe she’d found out her husband had tried to hire me that afternoon to suss out what was behind her recent behavior. If so, even though I’d turned down the job, knowing Olivia, she would have an earful for me on the subject. She was notoriously high-strung.
I gulped down a long drink of wine and tapped the green button. “Hey, Olivia.”
Oh, thank God. Come quick.” She was in high-drama mode.
“Where are you?” I was on my feet. Rhett hopped up, immediately on alert.
“On lower Church Street in Charleston. Near the end. A few houses up from White Point Gardens. You’ll see my car. I’ll be waiting inside it.
I moved towards the mudroom with Rhett fast on my heels. “I’m on my way. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I…oh sweet Lord.” Her voice broke with a sob. “I’m in trouble. Bad, bad trouble. Robert…I’ll explain when you get here. Just please come. Alone. Don’t tell a soul. Not even Nate.”
“Are you hurt? Did you call 911?” My adrenaline kicked in. I shoved my feet inside the only shoes in the mudroom—my Crocs—and grabbed a trench coat to cover my pajamas.
“No. And don’t you dare either. Promise me on your mamma’s life.”
“Are you crazy? What—”
you,” she sobbed again. “Please come. I can’t do this alone.”
“I’m on my way. Stay put.”
Rhett barked once, as if demanding to know what was up.
“Stay. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
He huffed his displeasure.
“Colleen!” I glared at the ceiling and headed down the steps to the garage.
I made the eight o’clock ferry by the skin of my teeth, only because the captain saw me speed into the parking lot and held the gate. I put the car in park, cut the engine, and took a few deep breaths, tried to clear my head. Curiosity and guilt battled for the upper hand. What in this world had Olivia gotten herself into? Should I have taken the case Robert practically begged me to take earlier that day? If I’d been following Olivia, could whatever this was have been avoided? During the interminable ferry ride to Isle of Palms, through Mt. Pleasant, and over the Cooper River Bridge, these thoughts swirled through my mind.
I pushed my luck and sped through Charleston, zipping around traffic where I could. I took East Bay all the way down the peninsula to Atlantic Street. I made a right, and half a block later turned left on lower Church, a narrow, one-way brick lane. Olivia’s red Lexus crossover sat in front of a Charleston single house on what appeared to be a double lot. The house was dark.
I pulled my green hybrid Escape in behind her and got out of the car, easing the door closed as I scanned the street. It was eight forty-five, but owing to the cold, stiff breeze and the off-and-on rain, not even a dog-walker was in sight. The sprawling live oak in the backyard, its gnarled limbs overhanging the street, heightened the eerie quality of the evening. My Escape blocked the gated drive, but I didn’t aim to be there long.
I stepped around to the passenger side of Olivia’s car. She unlocked the door and I climbed in. She didn’t look at me. Arms wrapped around herself, she rocked back and forth. Even in the dim light from a streetlamp, I could see her shivering. Several locks of blond hair had escaped her French twist. She was disheveled and appeared to be in shock.
“Olivia?” I spoke softly. “Honey, tell me what’s happened.”
She turned towards the house, then looked at me. “It’s Robert.”
“Robert is here?”
“He’s in there.” Her voice was a whispery stutter. “He’s dead.”
?” A jolt of electricity stunned me to the core. “Oh my God, Olivia—what happened? Did you call 911? How do you know he’s dead—for sure?”
“He doesn’t have a pulse.”
I pulled out my phone.
“I’m calling 911.”
Quick as a snake strike, she snatched my phone right out of my hand. “You can’t do that.” She stared at me all wild-eyed, like maybe she was on the brink of full-on crazy.
“What is wrong with you? We have to do precisely that. Right this second. Give me my damn phone.”
She shook her head. “No. Absolutely not. You don’t understand.” Her voice rose with each word. She put my phone in the left pocket of her blazer.
I had to check on Robert one way or another.
“Do you know who lives in that house?”
She seemed to deflate, then nodded, subdued.
“My Aunt Willowdean. She’s my great aunt.”
“Let’s go see about Robert. Then you can tell me what happened.”
“O-okay,” she said. But she didn’t move.
I got out of the car, dashed around to the driver’s side, and yanked open the door. “Will you come on, Olivia? We’ve got to see if we can help him.”
“We can’t help him. I told you. He’s dead.”
After a moment, she swung her legs around, and I pulled her out. She guarded her pocket with her left elbow.
I linked my left arm through her right and dragged her towards the street-side door. Charleston single houses were situated on a lot with the side of the house towards the street. The door in front of us would lead to the end of the front porch.
Olivia pulled out a set of keys, fumbled for a minute, then inserted a large, ornate key into the lock.
“You have keys to your great aunt’s house?”
She shuddered. “I own half of it. Great Aunt Mary Leona left it to me a few years back.”
I squinted at her. We climbed the steps to the front porch. During my extensive research into Robert and Olivia’s affairs back when Gram passed, I hadn’t uncovered anything about this property.
“Long story,” she said. We passed a pair of large windows to our left and stopped by the front door. She held a finger to her lips, then opened the door.
We crossed into a wide foyer. My eyes were adjusting to the dark. I made out a staircase on the far side.
Olivia nudged me left. She was shaking so hard I was afraid she was going to fall.
The parlor we entered was pitch dark. I couldn’t see a thing except large lumps I took for furniture. “This is ridiculous. Where’s the light switch?” I felt around on the wall with my left hand.
. Do you want to wind up dead, too?”
I pushed the dimmer switch up and light gradually flooded the room.
Olivia gasped. She covered her mouth with both hands.
The parlor doubled as a library. It was tastefully decorated in neutrals. Heavy gold and cream drapes framed the windows and pooled artfully on the heart pine floors. The furniture looked expensive but comfortable. The Christmas tree by the front window was at least twelve feet tall and appeared to be designer-decorated. Bookcases lined the wall on either side of the fireplace.
I turned to Olivia. Neither Robert, nor anyone else dead or alive, occupied the room.
“He was right there!” she whispered, pointing to a spot on an ivory and taupe rug.
I looked closer. That rug looked to me like no one had ever walked on it, much less dropped a body on it.
“Olivia, you said you knew he was dead. How could you tell?”
“I felt for a pulse, on both sides of his neck.”
“I don’t understand why you didn’t call 911 right then.”
She crossed the room to the fireplace. A large, carved wooden pineapple sat on the end. She picked it up with both hands. “This was on the floor beside his head. It had blood on it. There was blood on the rug. I am telling you, someone hit Robert with this and killed him.”
What in the name of sweet reason was going on? I studied her for a long moment. Her eyes were a bit crazed, but to be honest, that wasn’t all that unusual for Olivia.
A board creaked. Then another. Someone was coming slowly down the stairs.
Olivia froze, a terrified look on her face. Her eyes dropped to the pineapple. She returned it to the mantel and stepped away.
“Who’s they-ah?” a woman’s voice called out.
Olivia took a deep breath, seemed to compose herself. She crossed the room quickly and stood by me. “It’s me, Aunt Dean.”
“Olivia? I thought you’d left dahlin’.”
“I decided to sit a spell in the parlor. The Christmas tree is so lovely, I was just enjoying it. Have you finished your shopping?” She crossed back into the foyer, tugging me along.
I stopped at the doorway to the parlor, disentangled my arm from Olivia’s, and grabbed my iPhone from her pocket. I snapped a series of photos, making sure to get overlapping images. Then I videoed a panorama for good measure before sliding into the foyer behind Olivia.
Aunt Dean descended the last three steps slowly, holding the banister. I pegged her at mid-eighties. Her snowy hair was in a single braid that lay across her shoulder. A long, thick gold robe covered whatever she wore underneath all the way up to her chin. Her monogrammed slippers matched the robe. When she reached the floor, she looked up at us.
Olivia said, “Aunt Dean, do you remember my friend, Liz Talbot?”
“I can’t say that I do.” Aunt Dean studied me.
I could only imagine what she thought, with me in a trench coat cinched tightly over pink and grey polka dot pajamas, with lime green Crocs. But Aunt Dean was clearly a lady. Her face betrayed no dismay.
“I’m certain you’ve met,” Olivia said. “Several times, in fact. Don’t you remember chatting at the Poinsett wedding last summer?”
I marveled at Olivia’s flair for improvisation under stress. Not only had I never met her Aunt Dean, I didn’t have the first idea which of the Poinsetts had gotten married last summer.
“Now you know, my dear, my memory isn’t what it once was. So nice to see you, Liz,” she said, as if nothing whatsoever was amiss.
“Nice to see you too, Miss Dean.” I offered her a sunny smile. Whatever Olivia was into, this sweet old lady couldn’t be involved. My protective instincts stirred.
“Would you girls like a sip of something? I had a mind to pour myself a glass of sherry.”
“No ma’am, none for me—thank you,” I said. “I’m driving.”
“We need to be heading on out.” Olivia crossed the floor and hugged her aunt. “Good night, Aunt Dean.”
“Good night, dahlin’. Good night, Liz. Y’all be careful out there now. The streets are a dangerous place for young ladies. Nothing good happens this time of night.”
I glanced at my watch. Nine twenty. Surely Miss Dean had been out past nine. Perhaps owing to the early dark this time of year and the weather it seemed later.
“Yes ma’am,” Olivia said.
“Good night, Miss Dean,” I managed to get out while Olivia pulled me out the front door and closed it behind us.
Once outside she fell apart all over again, rocking and shaking. I put my arm around her waist and guided her into the passenger seat of my car. Once I had her settled, I climbed into the driver’s seat.
“What have they done with Robert?” Olivia said. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” She seemed to be praying. It wasn’t like her to take the Lord’s name in vain.
Being an Occam’s Razor enthusiast, I liked to eliminate the most obvious answers first. I pulled out my iPhone and dialed Robert Pearson.
He answered on the first ring. “Liz?”
I went weak with relief. “Robert? Are you all right?”
Olivia gaped at me.
“Of course I’m all right.”
“Where are you?”
He sputtered. “At home, of course, with the children. But I have no idea where Olivia is. If you had only listened to me this afternoon, at least—”
“All right, all right, all right. I’ll take the case. But only with Olivia’s full knowledge and cooperation.”
“How the hell is that going to work?” His frustration erupted through the phone.
“I’ll explain it when I see you. And Olivia is fine—physically, at least. She’s with me. We’re in Charleston. We’ll be on the ten-thirty ferry back to Stella Maris. See you shortly.” I ended the call and turned to Olivia.
“Robert is fine. He’s at home with Campbell and Shelby.”
Relief battled disbelief on her face. “But whose body was on the parlor floor?”
Just then I was thinking Olivia was likely having some sort of psychotic break involving hallucinations. “Is your aunt safe in that house tonight?”
Olivia laughed harshly. “Of course she is.”
“How can you be sure of that if you think someone was killed in there? That doesn’t make a lick of sense.”
“Trust me. No one is going to hurt Aunt Dean. She is well-defended. She’ll likely never even have to use the twenty-two she carries in her robe, or whatever else she happens to be wearing. She sleeps with it under her pillow. Has for years.”
I felt like I was missing too many pieces to this puzzle. “Olivia, who do you think killed
body in the parlor with the pineapple?”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t Professor Plum.”
I closed my eyes and drew a breath for strength. “Olivia.”
“It had to’ve been Seth.”
“Who is Seth?”
“Seth Quinlan. He’s my second cousin on Daddy’s side. We don’t talk about him much. He’s illegitimate.”
“Did you see him here tonight?”
“No, but he lives in the guesthouse. It had to be him.”
“Why is that?”
“Liz, you have to promise me you won’t breathe a word of any of this.”
“I can’t promise you any such of a thing. What I can and do promise you is that I will do everything in my power to help you. You know I will.”
She grabbed my hand and squeezed, then nodded. “Seth has been blackmailing me for years.”
I squinched my face at her. “We’ll come back to that in a minute. Who would he have killed, and why?”
“It could’ve been anyone.”
My frustration was building. “Olivia. What do you mean by that? Clearly, it couldn’t have been
“Well it damn sure could’ve been a lot of people. That…” she gestured towards the house, “…is the classiest bordello in town. Patronized by gentlemen from some of the most prominent families in Charleston. And Aunt Willowdean is the madam.”
I took a moment to process that information. “It’s time for us to go home. Give me your keys. I’m going to move your car over to South Battery. You can pick it up tomorrow.”