Leaving my purse and jacket at my desk, I headed back out to the corridor, passing other similarly outfitted offices to get to the back stairway and up to the fourth floor.
One of Carr’s deputies—a young man of about twentyfive—met me at the top landing. “No admittance,” he said.
I held up my badge. “I’m . . . I
Abe’s first assistant,” I said. “Now that he’s gone, there’s no one to oversee management of the estate. Until they appoint someone else, that responsibility falls to me.”
He looked skeptical, until I added, “That means I’m your boss. At least for now.”
Carr had come up behind the young man and placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “She’s right, Cubbie. Let her through.” To me, he said, “I wanted to talk with you anyway. Glad you came early.”
“Cubbie?” I asked, when we were out of earshot. “Is that really his name?”
Carr’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Nah. We call him that because he’s this huge Chicago Cubs fan. His locker’s covered with stickers and he’s always wearing a jersey or jacket and talking about how many days until their opener.”
“What did you want to talk about?”
“We’re going to have people in and out all day. My team has been on duty overnight and they’re starting to fade. I called in everybody, but we’re still going to wind up shorthanded for this kind of coverage.”
“The mansion is closed to visitors today,” I said.
He nodded, as though he’d expected as much. Lowering his voice, he stopped walking. “This team wasn’t ready for an emergency of this magnitude. They need training, support, and . . .” he glanced around the area to make sure we weren’t being overheard, “. . . sophistication. I knew when I started here that I had a big job ahead of me, but I never expected this.”
I started to say that no one had, but he interrupted. “I got caught unprepared. My fault.” The smile was long gone. “And I’m going to need your help.”
“As the detectives clear my team for duty, I want to put them to work up here and in other key areas of the residence. We’re going to need all the eyes and ears we can get. I can only work with a skeleton crew at the moment; security personnel I can vouch for myself, but as soon as I get relief for them, I’m going to take it.”
“What about the local police? Aren’t they willing to help out?”
Carr frowned. “Their resources are limited, too.”
“I thought they were bringing in a task force.”
He started walking again, gesturing me to follow. “Did you see the news last night?”
“Part of it.”
“You heard about the bank robbery in Springfield?”
“No . . .”
“Five people shot.” His face was grim. “And the guy got away with less than ten thousand dollars. What a waste.” He shook his head. “Any task force we might have hoped for has been pulled away to handle that. We’re stuck with what we have. Between you and me, a little hamlet like Emberstowne doesn’t have the kind of police force you’d find in a big city because we don’t usually get big-city crime. The detectives assigned to us have probably never even investigated a murder before. Couple of robberies, some assaults, but nothing as big as this.”
“Well, just let me know what you need,” I said.
We stopped outside Bennett’s study, which was cordoned off with bright yellow crime scene tape. There were two uniformed officers standing guard at the door; inside the restricted area, two evidence technicians were cataloging samples and taking pictures.
“I thought this was supposed to be done last night.”
Carr gave me an I-told-you-so shrug. “Yeah, but it took this long for them to get here from the state crime lab.”
Two plainclothes armed men were down the hall, talking with another security guard. “Where’s the detective from last night?”
“I didn’t get his name,” I said. “Fifty-ish maybe? Average height. Maybe a little paunch?”
“You’ve just described half the people in here yesterday.” He grimaced. The long hours were obviously taking their toll on Carr. “Some of them are still here. Some of them went back to the station to sweat out that fat guy, Percy. You see what I mean? I haven’t been able to establish any sort of structure here. I don’t have any control over who’s coming or going.”
“We’ve got a lot of priceless antiques here.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
I knew Carr would do his utmost to protect the mansion, its people, and its treasures so I decided to change the subject. “Did they find the letter yet?”
Surprised the police hadn’t bothered to share this crucial piece of information with our head of security, I brought Carr up to date with regard to the threatening letters Marshfield had received. “I didn’t know anything about them until the most recent one arrived,” I said. “I opened it and took it to Abe. That’s when he told me he’d received several others before that one. He was taking the newest threat to show Bennett when he was killed.”
Carr swore under his breath. “No,” he said, his disgust evident. “I don’t believe any letters were found on Abe’s body. But I will look into this.”
“That’s the main reason I came up here this morning,” I said. “The detective I talked with said he had to wait until the evidence technicians cleared out.”
Carr’s brow tightened. “Hmph.”
I tilted my head toward the two plainclothes fellows down the hall. “I should probably go talk to them.”
Cubbie called to Carr.
“In a minute,” Carr said. Then to me: “You’re right. The local cops and the task force will need to talk with the entire staff. Even people who weren’t on-site yesterday. You’re going to have to make sure that everyone cooperates.”
“Got it,” I said. As he trotted toward Cubbie, I made my way to the detectives. They chose that moment, however, to head eastward down the hall toward Bennett’s room. That would be a tough interview. Deciding not to interrupt, I moved into the study’s doorway, my fingers skimming the slick, yellow tape as I stared in. Except for the large bloodstain on the area rug, and one small table that had been turned on its side, the room looked ordinary. They had removed Abe’s body last night after I’d left. The far windowed wall overlooked the south grounds, which were beginning to brighten. I sighed. Despite the low chatter of the professionals around me, I had never felt so lonely.
Shaking myself as though to dispel the melancholy, I headed toward the stairs, and my office. I had no doubt the detective I spoke with would be back for more today—which is why I’d gotten in so early. I wanted to be sure the mansion was running as smoothly as possible, before my time was no longer my own.
FRANCES OUR ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT, had arrived while I was upstairs. Wide-set, with a neck that cascaded over the top of her lavender turtleneck, she looked up when I walked in. Her carefully penciled eyebrows always reminded me of fat tadpoles. Right now they were raised high over half-moon glasses. Whether that was an expression of anticipation or annoyance, I couldn’t tell. “We’ve never closed Marshfield before,” she said by way of greeting. “This is a first. Except for Christmas and Thanksgiving every year, we don’t ever close the manor.” Making a clucking sound, she added, “There’s going to be trouble. You’ll see.”
I was perturbed, both by her tone and by her apparent lack of concern after yesterday’s murder. “There already has been trouble,” I said. “Didn’t you hear about Abe?”
For a woman who prided herself on knowing everything that went on at the mansion at any given minute, I’d pushed a button. She shot me a withering glare. “Who hasn’t?” Continuing to press her point, she said, “Just wait. I predict that by nine o’clock this morning we won’t be able to handle all the calls. People make plans, you know. They come here for their vacation. They spend good money. Why should we refuse to let them tour the mansion today? The murder didn’t take place in any of the public rooms.” She made another noise of disgust as she glanced at her watch. “Complaints to high heaven. Just as soon as we open the switchboard. Mark my words.”
She stared as though daring me to disagree. After two months of dealing with Frances’s roadblock attitude, I knew better than to continue this conversation. A Marshfield employee since before I was born, she was convinced it was she who ran the place, and that the manor would be lost without her. She had no patience for those who didn’t agree with her every proclamation. Abe had cautioned me that Bennett intended to keep her on until she retired. No negotiation. Surprise, surprise.
I scratched my head. How in the world were we new people supposed to bring this business into the twenty-first century with such millstones around our necks? Frances’s grimace warned me she was poised to strike if I dared open my mouth. Rather than grant her the pleasure, I smiled and crossed the room we shared. Instead of taking a seat at my desk, however, I changed my trajectory and headed for Abe’s office. I had my hand on the doorknob when Frances stood up, tugging the sweater down over her midsection where it had ridden up. “Where are you going?”
Last time I checked, Frances reported to me, not the other way around. “Lots to get done before all those phone calls start. We need a plan for making good on all the admission tickets issued for today. Why don’t you come up with a script for our switchboard?”
Her mouth set in a line and she sat back down behind her desk, spinning in her chair to face forward—pointedly away from me.
“Run it past me before you give it to them, okay?” I didn’t wait for acknowledgment, but mused aloud. “Today’s Wednesday.”
“Uh-huh. All day,” she said sing-song.
Ignoring her tone, I continued. “Good thing. Wednesday is one of our slower days.” Being early spring meant we weren’t in high season yet. That time would come just after Memorial Day. “Chances are, most of our guests are on multiday tickets. They can still have access to the grounds and enjoy all the amenities of the hotel and outdoor attractions. We can offer to extend their hotel stay by an extra day, or we can offer them entrance tickets again at any time of their choosing.”
Arranging her already neat desk—aligning paper corners and reshuffling pens—Frances made a show of not listening. But I knew better. Despite all her guff, she excelled at her job. If a detail needed to be remembered, you could be sure Frances remembered it. She spent the mansion’s money as if it were her own, and she guarded the place and its people with unsurpassed vigor. She was not, however, a woman prone to displays of sentiment and I wondered how much Abe’s death had really hit her. They had known each other since they both started here, almost forty years ago. She couldn’t be as unfeeling as she came across.
I started toward Abe’s office again.
Frances asked, “What about guests who can’t stay or can’t come back?” I moved closer to her desk and she finally looked up. “What if this was a family’s onetime trip and they can’t extend it an extra day. What then?”
“Let’s deal with those situations on a case-by-case basis,” I said. “In the meantime, do whatever it takes to keep our guests happy.”
.” Her mouth twisted downward. “They wouldn’t know happy if it came up and bit them. All they ever do is complain.”
I refrained from making a comment about pots and kettles, and entered Abe’s sanctuary without further resistance.
Closing the door behind me, I leaned against it for a long moment. Abe’s office was as spartan as Bennett’s room had been cluttered, but it was stunning nonetheless. Enormous mullioned windows spanned one wall, and I gasped in awe at the endless vista before me. I had been in this room before, of course, but today—for the first time—spring had taken hold of the estate, creating a feast of color as though to dispel the mansion’s overwhelming sadness. The rain had worked wonders, creating a panorama of shocking green. Grassy fields, ornamental gardens, and a maze of evergreens were brighter in hue than they had been since I began working here. As a child, I’d walked the grounds with my hand tucked firmly in my mom’s but I had never seen the change into spring from this vantage point before.
Just as I stepped away from the door it opened behind me, smacking me in the back. Hard.
Frances’s voice was high, agitated. “Why are you standing behind the door? You scared of getting too close to the desk? Afraid Abe’s ghost will come back and haunt you for messing with his things?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said, massaging my left shoulder.
“I hope you’re not expecting me to knock every time I come in. Abe never did. Of course, he never stood right behind the door either.” She made a face. “Were you spying on me?”
“What did you need, Frances?”
Thrusting a sheet of paper at me, she cocked one of her tadpole eyebrows. “Here’s that script you wanted.”
“But I asked you for it less than a minute ago.”
With an exaggerated shrug she turned back to her desk. “Guess maybe I knew exactly what you needed before you did, huh?”