Authors: Cassie Page
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths
Armoires and Arsenic
A Darling Valley Mystery
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What Olivia liked best about moving to sleepy Darling Valley from LA was the absence of crime. No worrying about parking her car on a side street because it might get stolen. Nobody slipping sticky fingers into her purse and lifting her wallet while an accomplice distracted her at the sale rack at Neiman’s. Not having to trip over a dead body blocking the doorway of her office building while the LAPD took their sweet time locking down the crime scene. But the best part of living in Darling Valley was never having to find herself sitting across from Brooks at a dinner party while he romanced his new girlfriend and referred to Olivia as a client.
What she hated about Darling Valley was the 400 miles between its pristine mansions and gritty but happening LA.
Olivia sat in her office in the immaculately restored Queen Anne Victorian that housed her two bedroom loft, her design and antique business and a possibly illegal mother-in-law in the basement. The dream house compensated for leaving what she considered the center of the universe, Los Angeles, California.
The mother-in-law housed a regal, but reclusive little old lady who barely gave Olivia the time of day, but paid her rent on time. Wait a minute. If the apartment was not up to code, did that qualify as crime? Why didn’t she ask the previous owners when she signed the loan documents containing a contingency that Mrs. Harmon remain ensconced down there for life at the same ridiculous rent? When she thought about it, which she did now over coffee gone cold, that low rent was definitely criminal. And her own fault for overlooking the code issue when renovation was her stock in trade.
Olivia studied the dismal P&L statement that stared back at her from the Excel file on her MacBook. Darling Valley was breaking her bank. But enough S&M. She needed to finish up her impossibly long to-do list for the weekend sale before Cody arrived with the armoire. The success of the sale would determine her future, and the armoire would be the centerpiece of the well-publicized event.
The French boudoir phone rang, startling her out of her catastrophic ruminations. Her arm shot sideways into her coffee mug, splashing her favorite Jamaica Blue Mountain over her desk. This was becoming a cartoon of a morning going very wrong.
She barked, “Cody, you’re late,” while she sopped up the coffee with the sleeve of her hoodie.
“Only by an hour,” Cody replied in an offended tone that Olivia knew masked a grin spreading across his apple cheeks. “How’d you know it was me?”
“Cody, no customers call about a furniture order at 7:00 in the morning. So it was either you or Elgin Fastner from the bank harassing me about my about to be late mortgage payment if we don’t get to work.”
Cody was her twenty-one year old delivery guy and right hand everything. They both knew he got away with murder, but he was Olivia’s only true friend in this strange, new town. As Cody apologized for his tardiness in a nasal but passable Wolf Blitzer imitation, she fingered one of the three antique netsuke she had unpacked earlier, another source of disappointment. Because of her connection to Brooks, Edward de Waal, the famed ceramicist, had appraised them for her. After ignoring them in his studio for over a month, he finally returned the pieces yesterday with a note saying the inch-long, carved ivory toggles for a Japanese gentleman’s purse were indeed late 17th century, but would only command $1,500 each, tops. The shunga, an erotic figure with the iconic nine-tentacled octopus embracing the naked woman, might fetch $2,000. But only from a serious collector. Her dashed hopes for a number three times that raised the stakes on the sale.
“When are you getting here, Cody?” A committed multi-tasker, she checked the time on her laptop while she playfully harassed Cody and winced. Where did two hours go? “There’s work to do. I’m in big trouble if this sale isn’t a blowout. So get cracking, my friend.”
“Are you going to have the cat and nine tails waiting for me?”
She laughed. If she were fifteen years younger she could have a thing for Cody. But she wasn’t into boy toys.
“You’ll wish that’s all I have waiting for you if you don’t get those beauties over here. Like yesterday!”
She meant the French armoire, library steps and
chairs Cody had picked up from Blackman Furniture Restoration and Imports.
“Seriously, we need to get set up to push merchandise this weekend. Unless you’ve been doubling down on your Wheaties, it’s going to take us the rest of the day to sling everything around and make the showroom pretty.
“OMG! What are you worried about?” Olivia could hear the wind whistling in the open driver side window over his voice. “I can rearrange the goods in the showroom with one hand tied behind me. You gotta believe, woman. Believe!”
He said the last like a preacher at a prayer meeting, a place Cody had never frequented in his life. Then he added in all seriousness, “Of course, there is that one armoire that almost broke my back getting it into the truck. What do you have in there, O? Boulders?”
At first, Olivia winced at Cody referring to her stock and collateral, her beloved treasures as mere goods, as though she sold discount plastic patio furniture. Hers was an enviable collection of mostly 17th, 18th and 19th century French and English antiques she had transported up from Los Angeles earlier this year.
Cody racked up his share of screw-ups on the job, but he was her first friend in Darling Valley, and his loyalty to her soon convinced her to cut him some slack. Sure he marched to his own drummer. But so did she.
“What’s your ETA?” she asked.
“I’d say fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes.”
“Does that include stopping for coffee at the shop with the cute new barista? Or is that why you’re already an hour late?”
“Coffee and Danish,” Cody said, slapping his head so Olivia could hear. “I knew I forgot the most important thing. See you in less than an hour, O.
Cody called her O or OMG most of the time, and ma’am when he was innocently flirting with her—neither of them was interested in bridging the 10 year age gap, so the occasional sexy teasing was just fun. Cody reserved her full name, Olivia, though, for those serious times when he had gotten himself into trouble. Like spilling his coffee on the Aubusson carpet in the front of the showroom when he was gesturing about how he had maneuvered into Mrs. Gotrock’s driveway without hitting her prize peacocks who had suddenly decided to display right in front of his truck. Gotrocks. That’s how he referred to her few wealthy clients. If only she had more of them. Of course, he had nicked a lawn ornament when he swerved to avoid the birds, and Olivia had to replace it.
He said, “I’ll pick up the usual for you,”
and before Olivia could object, the line went dead.
She knew he wouldn’t answer if she called back to remind him to hustle. Oh well. It would give her time to get dressed, a ritual that could extend beyond Cody’s arrival if she wasn’t paying attention to the clock.
Wait a minute, she thought as she shut down her computer. What was that about boulders? And he never explained why he was so late. They had agreed on 6 a.m.
She stretched her neck to loosen tight muscles for a moment before she headed for the large loft over the shop, the main draw for picking this location on Angel Row, a side street off the highly trafficked Darling Boulevard. She had been at her computer since five a.m., right after her shower, but long before the sun broke through the trees outside her office. Normally, that wasn’t such an early hour for her, except she had turned off the computer at three. Now, at shortly after seven, the small space behind the showroom that she used as her office brightened with the natural light coming through the French doors and bay windows overlooking the Garden Center in her back yard. With chronically sleep-deprived eyes, she had watched the rising sun marble the sky with layers of pink and lavender. Traces of rose and ivory still streaked the clouds and cast a faint glow over the room. To get to the window to view the spectacle, though, she’d had to climb over the bedlam of sample books stacked to the ceiling, her enormous stock of gilt drapery hardware and plastic wrapped bolts of very expensive French toile.
She loved her little office, the paned windows and pine floors that she finished in a soft ash gray to compliment the putty walls and white woodwork. She felt at home in there, even though it was where she faced her most odious challenge, her P&L sheet. She’d left a lot behind in LA, but some of the best parts were still with her. The two framed illuminated manuscripts said to be from the book of hours of a forgotten Medieval duchess, a splurge when she earned her first commission; the old, cheap desk from her student days that she had hand rubbed one winter to a dark sheen, her photographs. The Belleek collection that had belonged to her grandmother. These things resonated with warm memories when homesickness and doubt chilled her to the bone. Not like the items on the showroom floor that she bought for a song from an antiques dealer under water on real estate investments. Beautiful pieces to which she was trying to have no personal attachment. But when it came to antiques, she had to admit, she was an easy bounce.
Before she headed upstairs, she entered the showroom through the French doors connecting to her office and arranged the three netsuke on an 18th century cherry wood table that had once resided in the Duchess of Devonshire’s bedroom, the scandalous Duchess, not the modern Mitford one turned shopkeeper. She ran her thumb over the satin finish on one of the ivory trinkets. Are you kidding? Only $1,500 each? Almost worthless, considering her financial needs at the moment. She might as well just add them to her personal collection. Still, fifteen hundred each was nothing to sneeze at these days. She put them back. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Grasping at a measly 5K.
Olivia’s closet was as organized as the rest of her life could be chaotic. She had given up a small alcove overlooking the back garden to have it made into a repository for her supersized wardrobe, the spoils from her once thriving design career in LA.
This morning she picked out an indigo lace top lined with nude chiffon that gave the illusion of exposed ivory skin. Next, a pair of skinny jeans—she grabbed one of the 7 For All Mankind first, then decided on Joe’s Jeans. 7FAM was becoming the Beverly Hills uniform, while Joe’s hadn’t made much of an inroad in Darling Valley. She just felt like taking the road less traveled today. And, because she would be moving furniture, she chose a pair of orange patent leather Valentino flats instead of one of the two hundred odd pairs of mile-high stilettos jammed into the still too-small closet.
Tuesday, the best friend she reluctantly left behind in LA, had said as she helped Olivia pack, that if the design business tanked, she could open a dress shop and sell off all the outfits, purses and shoes she owned but had yet to wear.
Olivia laughed and said, “I can’t help it. I like my threads.”
Olivia loved all beautiful things, man-made and Nature made. That was one of the reasons she chose Darling Valley when she realized she had to get out of LA or lose her sanity after the breakup with Brooks. Her first vision of the small, affluent village took her breath away. Nestled in the hills separating the town from the Northern California coastline, it also boasted a pristine lake big enough for boating in the summer.
It’s home, she had said to herself as she headed back to LA. And six months later, home it became, despite the hazing she took from her sophisticated LA friends about the name.
“Really, Olivia? DARLING Village? How impossibly Angela Lansbury.”
She corrected them. “Darling Valley.”
This morning she accessorized with four inches of bracelets and a clunky lapis and jade necklace, an original piece of wearable art for which she had traded a cut glass decanter of unknown provenance because it matched this particular Versace top. As a bonus, Xavier, a jeweler with a pricey shop on Darling Boulevard, had become a valuable reference in Darling that she not yet been able to sufficiently leverage.
Oh, yes. Earrings. In a flash, cascading loops of gold dusted her shoulders. Makeup was quick. She didn’t need more than a flick of the blusher, some mascara, and a pale gloss. Hair was even quicker. After her shampoo it dried into natural soft, golden waves women paid hundreds of dollars to have permed and colored into their tresses.
In grad school, where she had majored in art history before switching to architecture and interior design, one of her professors compared her to an obscure Botticelli in a private collection he knew of in Florence. She once swore to Tuesday that they would both visit it one day.
Cody’s truck crunched over the gravel driveway just then, earlier than expected. She’d better hustle. She took a quick glance at herself in the ornate wardrobe mirror before she headed back downstairs. All she could see was the small hook in her nose and too small chest that could make do with a pair of Band-Aids instead of a bra.
“If you’re so blinking gorgeous,” she hissed at the mirror, “why can’t you keep a man?”
She tiptoed down the wooden stairs so the click of her leather soles on the wood planks wouldn’t disturb Mrs. Harmon. She grabbed an oilcloth work apron from the hook by the back door, and tied it around her waist as she threw open the screen to greet Cody.
At the sight of his auburn floppy mop peeking out around his 49er cap and two-day beard, a look that to Olivia’s taste looked grubby even though young girls found it sexy—Olive Oyl style, she liked a clean-shaven man--her spirits lifted. She wasn’t alone in this cockamamie folly of hers, a feeling that often kept her awake at night. She had Cody, if only for moral support.
“What are you doing,” she said, puzzled as she watched him try to wrestle a French oak armoire down the ramp of the truck. Usually, Cody tied the bulkier pieces on his back with straps, a trick from his days as a furniture mover for a real estate staging company. He claimed it was easier than trying to lug it with his arms. But nothing was working for him this morning. The piece wouldn’t budge. Cody gave it a troubled frown, an expression that rarely crossed his typically grinning face.
“What did you do, O, tell them to pack this thing with pig iron?”
Olivia jogged across the driveway and hiked herself up onto the bed of the truck.
“What do you mean? I moved this armoire by myself when we dropped it off at Blackman's. It has pine shelves and backing. It can’t be that heavy. You’re not hung over are you, bad boy?”
She gave him a friendly jab on his arm, the rock hard biceps under his ratty leather jacket giving her an unexpected jolt in her belly. How long had it been since she had felt a man’s muscles? She refused to visit that house of pain and focused her attention on moving furniture.
“O, I’m not kidding. It killed me to get this onto the truck in the first place. The other stuff was easy, but this was like a dead weight.”
Olivia tried to rock the armoire to walk it over to the ramp. It barely moved, but she sensed a shifting weight inside.
“Something’s in there,” she said. “I wonder if they used it for temporary storage and forgot to empty it out. Let’s open it up.”
The armoire was tightly bound with heavy ropes secured with nautical knots. Cody scowled at the setup. “This rig would tie down a battleship. Why the overkill?”
The knots were so tight that Cody had to cut them off with hedge clippers Olivia dug up in the garage. Cody cleared the rope away, then tugged and pulled on the door, but with no luck. He threw up his hands.
“What are we going to do, O? I can’t use a crowbar or it will damage the doors. How we are going to open it?”
Olivia tried the door herself with the same result. “Are you sure it isn’t locked? Did you pick up the key?”
Cody pulled an ornate iron key from his jacket pocket and dangled it by its rose-colored tassel, then worked it into the lock. “Nope. I can get the lock to turn, but this old wood is all swoll up. This door won’t budge.”
Olivia had a light bulb moment. “Let’s tip it forward and see if whatever is inside pushes the door open. I’ll stand in front. Do you think you can tip it, Cody?”
“Worth a try. I’ll go easy so it doesn’t fall on you.”
Cody pressed his massive shoulder against the back of the armoire. It started to get away from him, so he grabbed the sides to guide it. Olivia held onto the front. Suddenly, she heard a loud thunk and something inside shift. The door flew open, smacking Olivia in the forehead. She jumped back and the door widened. It gained momentum on creaking hinges as the object inside pushed itself free.
A scream erupted from Olivia’s throat. “Oh my god, Cody! There’s someone in there.”
Cody resettled the armoire and ran around to the front. He stared openmouthed at a man in an expensive sport coat and slacks slumped half in and half out of the armoire. Cody reached over to catch him as he started to slide toward the floor of the truck. He touched him, then jumped back.
“Olivia, it’s Mr. Blackman! Holy shit. I think he’s dead!”