“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
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.”