Nightmare in Shining Armor (7 page)

BOOK: Nightmare in Shining Armor
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“Mama,” I said, just as calmly as if I'd been expecting her, “aren't you pushing it with the pink? I mean, isn't that a spring color? Why, today's the first day of November.” I know that was cruel of me, but people who take fashion so seriously, albeit four decades late, deserve to have their noses tweaked. Besides, Mama made me wear an off-white wedding gown, on account of walking down the aisle in snow-white would have been a lie.

Mama, who wouldn't be caught dead wearing white between Memorial Day and Labor Day,
turned the color of her pumps. She patted her pearls, a sure sign of distress.

“I'm planning ahead. Our Saviour,” she said referring to her church, “is putting together a new directory for spring, so I'm having my picture taken today. How would it look if folks see me wearing fall colors next April, when the booklet comes out?”

“Well—”

“Besides, Abby, I didn't come all the way up here to talk about fashion. I came to give you this.”

She handed me a
black
envelope.

I
stared at the strange packet. It appeared to be made out of black construction paper, folded and taped to resemble a business envelope in size and shape. A small rectangle of white paper had been glued to the front side, and upon it my name stood out in bold red letters.

“This was under the door, Abby. I thought you might want to have it.”

“Oh Abby, you look worried,” C. J. said. She turned to Mama. “I told you we should have opened it first.”

Mama thrust the letter at me. “I don't think it's a bomb, dear. I tried holding it up to the light but—”

“Mama! You
did
open it first, didn't you!”

She hung her head, which made her just my height. “I was just looking out for you, dear.”

“For shame,” I said.

“For shame,” C. J. agreed.

I snatched the strange black envelope from Mama and ripped it open. In the process, I ripped its content, a single sheet of typing paper. Not that it mattered. The message was written on only one
half. Red block letters, drawn with a felt-tip pen, spelled out three simple words.
You will pay
.

Dazed, I let envelope and papers flutter to the floor. I've already paid enough to last a lifetime. I paid when Daddy died. Mama didn't mean to take her grief out on me, but I was handy, and older than my brother, Toy. I paid when Buford and I got divorced. Never mind that he got custody of Charlie. In the kids' eyes, I was to blame for the fact that their father took up with a woman young enough to be their sister.

C. J. picked up my trash. “Oh, Abby, you don't think it's Buford, do you?”

“Buford?” Mama snapped. “Why Buford?”

C. J. shrugged. “Maybe because he thinks Abby is somehow responsible for Tweetie's murder. It happened at her house, didn't it?”

Mama gave C. J. a warning glare. “It
wasn't
Buford. He's a snake all right, but he's also the father of my two precious grandchildren. Buford would never hurt their mother. No, it's probably just one of those people who was bad-mouthing Abby at my house last night.”

I snapped out of my reverie. “Who was bad-mouthing me?”

“Why, everyone, dear.”

“Names,” I hissed. “I want names.”

“Well, there was Moses—I mean, Alan Bills. Said he'd never driven so far for nothing before. Said he had a better time the night he rented
Ishtar
.”

C. J. nodded. “I loved that movie. But I don't
think it was Mr. Bills who sent you this note. I think it was either Geppetto or Pinocchio.”

Mama scowled. She hates to be challenged.

“Why is that?”

“Because I heard them say they were so mad at Abby, they were never going to shop at the Den of Antiquity again.”

“Not them, too!” I wailed.

Mama sniffed. “They may have been mad at Abby, but they weren't half as mad as Neptune and the mermaid. They said they'd had to give up a party at the mayor's.”

C. J.'s eyes widened. “The mayor? Wow! Wait until Granny Ledbetter hears that I know someone who knows the mayor.”

“Lynne Meredith was lucky to have even been invited to my party,” I mumbled. “The mayor indeed!”

“What did you say?” Mama asked.

“I said that when she gets to heaven, Lynne Meredith will ask to see the upstairs.”

C. J. giggled. “Ooh, Abby, you're bad.”

“You're darn tooting. What else did my ungrateful guests have to say?”

“Does Irene count?” Mama asked. “I mean, she's your shop assistant, and she had to come.”

“Is
that
what she said?”

They nodded.

“Well, spare me the details.”

“You sure?” Mama asked. “Because I'd want to know if it was me.”

“Is it about my party, or work?”

“Both. But mostly work.”

I sighed and ushered them inside the Rob-Bobs' apartment. Their neighbors didn't need to know what a Scrooge I was—well, in Irene's eyes at any rate. I don't care what anyone says, I am not obligated to pay for my employee's Lasik surgery. Not at a thousand dollars an orb. Irene should pay for the procedure herself, or else content herself with the bifocals, for which my plan does provide.

“Spill it,” I said, closing the door behind me.

“Well, dear, Irene said it was no surprise Tweetie was found dead under your bed. Not after that fight you two got into last week.”

I clutched my chest and staggered backward until my thighs found the silk hassock. Only then did I allowed my knees to give out.

“Irene thinks I killed Tweetie?” I asked weakly.

Mama pranced over to pat my shoulder. “There, there, dear. She said you had a good reason.”

“Yeah,” C. J. agreed heartily. “She said Tweetie told you she showed Charlie some porn pictures. Of
her,
right?”

Was that it? Irene Cheng was going to have to do a better job of eavesdropping. What Tweetie said to me was that Charlie was surfing the Net and came upon some old pictures of Tweetie, taken in her pre-Buford days. My son had confronted his stepmother, who confessed immediately, and then came straight to me to clear up the matter. My response was a brief lecture about the far-reaching consequences of one's behavior. While my tone
might have conveyed my annoyance—no young man should have to see his stepmother topless, even if the underlying structure is manmade—by no means did we have a fight.

“Irene needs to spend more time with our customers, and less time exercising her ears. Tweetie and I did not fight.”

Mama clucked dismissively. “No one's blaming you, Abby. Well—except maybe for Irene. I'm not. I know if I were you, I certainly would have had a few harsh words to say. My poor grandson—”

The Rob-Bobs' phone rang, and was picked up in the salon after the second ring. A few seconds later the doors finally opened.

“Oh,” Rob said, his voice registering surprise at the sight of Mama and C. J. He couldn't possibly have heard the women. “Uh, Abby, it's for you.”

“Me?” I rolled my eyes desperately to indicate I'd like privacy.

Rob winked. “In here would be fine.”

In a strange way I felt grateful to Tweetie for dying. In the four years I've known the Rob-Bobs, I'd been inside the salon only once before. And that first time it was still an empty room. I couldn't wait to see the treasures of their inner sanctum.

 

I stared at the room in disbelief. Could it be possible I was hallucinating? Maybe a flashback to something ingested during my college days? Like President Clinton, I, too, had been unable to inhale. But brownies, now that was another story. Perhaps one of the so-called Alice B. Toklas brown
ies I'd scarfed down had contained something more powerful than marijuana.

The Rob-Bobs' Holy of Holies was a holy nightmare of decorating. The room, which had terrific possibilities, due to its ceiling height and a plentitude of floor-to-ceiling windows, was almost unrecognizable. The walls had been papered with a faux leather finish, and the windows shrouded with heavy brown velvet drapes. The main piece of furniture was a double La-Z-Boy recliner with a pine console connecting the two chairs. The upholstery was burgundy, a color not repeated elsewhere in the room's spare furnishings. The focus of the room was a large screen television that had its own black plastic cabinet.

Even more appalling than the decor was the fact that Bob was sitting in one of the two recliners watching
The Rugrats
. He turned to see me enter, and then turned away, blushing. From then on, although the television was on mute, Bob seemed intently interested in the cartoon kiddies' escapades. That was fine with me. I was going to have a hard time looking either of the men in the face again.

I picked up the receiver, which was lying on the console next to a bowl of Frosted Flakes. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Timberlake, this is Captain Keffert. Please don't hang up.”

I feigned surprise. “Why would I hang up? That would be rude.”

“Then you're not sore?”

“About?” Experience has taught me never to close the door on a customer. They don't have to
like you to buy something—although it helps. The reverse is certainly true. A fool's money is just as valuable as a friend's, and as the adage says, is soon parted.

“Heck, I'll come right out and say it. I was a bit rough with you last night, and I apologize.”

“Apology accepted,” I said brightly. “Does that mean you're not going to return the Queen Anne period secretary?”

“Absolutely. You don't think I'd let a little oversight like not being invited to your party get in the way of our doing business together, do you?”

I counted to ten, taking a deep breath with every digit. “Whatever, dear.”

“Yes, well, I'm glad we got that squared away.”

“So, to what do I owe the honor of this call?” Having raised two teenagers, I have fine-tuned the subtleties of sarcasm.

“Mrs. Timberlake—uh, do you mind if I call you Abby?”

“May I call you Richard?”

“Captain would be fine,” he said archly. “Mrs. Timberlake, I was watching the news this morning and—”

“Oh, no! Was it on?” Of course it was. It had to have been. Yet the Rob-Bobs, darn their considerate hides, hadn't said a thing.

“They didn't have many details, Mrs. Timberlake. They just said that the other Mrs. Timberlake had been found dead in a suit of armor. I was—”

“Did they mention it happened at my house?”

“Yes, of course. That's how I knew to contact
you. When I got your machine, I called the shop. Your assistant, Mrs. Cheng, I believe, suggested I call here.”

“What's she doing in on a Sunday?” I wailed. “We're closed!”

“Yes, well, I thought you would be. But I took a chance anyway.” He cleared his throat in an officious way. “Mrs. Timberlake, about that cuirass I saw on TV—”

I stifled a gasp. “Say what?”

“Mrs. Timberlake, a cuirass is a three-quarter suit of armor made for a cavalryman. A cuirassier. But then again, you already know that.”

I jiggled a pinky tip in my free ear to make sure it was hearing right. “Captain, are you some sort of armor expert?”

His laugh was a short bark, like that of a Doberman to which someone has thrown a steak. “Well, I wouldn't say that. But I do know a few things.”

“I see. And they were showing my—well, this cuirass on TV?”

“Only for a few seconds, but I thought I recognized the closed burgonet. It's seventeenth-century Italian, right?”

“How do you know—I mean, is it?”

“Mrs. Timberlake, I was hoping you'd tell me.”

“Uh, I think it's from that period.”

“Mrs. Timberlake, let me get right down to brass tacks. How much are you asking?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“For the damn suit of armor,” he growled. “Thirty thousand? Forty?”

“It isn't for sale,” I huffed.

“Well, I won't pay you a nickel over fifty. Not without some special provenance attached. Is there one?” He sounded hopeful.

“How should I know?” I practically shouted. “I never saw that armor before last night!”

“Okay, play hard to get. I suppose this is part of your fun. But one hundred thousand even is my last offer. And for that I expect authentication from at least two other sources. And those funny boys you call friends don't count.”

My shrieks made Bob jump. Rob, who'd been standing beside me the whole time, backed away as if he'd seen a living corpse.

“Captain Keffert! The armor is not mine! I don't know who it belongs to, and even if I did, it wouldn't do you any good. There's a body in it, for pity's sake!”

The Doberman, finished with his meal, had a good long laugh. “It's police evidence. I understand. All I want is first dibs on it. Isn't that what you young people say?”

“We young people slam down the phone when we're totally pissed off,” I said with surprising calmness. But slam the phone I did.

T
he Rob-Bobs, bless their hearts, were exceedingly understanding when I told them I didn't have the energy to deal with Mama and C. J. further. They reluctantly gave me the Widow Saunders's address, then they parted the heavy brown drapes, pried a window open, and watched protectively while I negotiated the fire escape. Later, they told me they made the women wait another half-hour before telling them I was gone.

You can bet the first thing I did was drive out over to my shop, the Den of Antiquity. It's located on Selwyn Aveune, just five shady blocks from the Rob-Bobs' condominium, and I could have walked. At any rate, I parked Wynnell's car in front of her shop and dashed across the street to mine. Irene hadn't even locked the door, and although there is a string of alpine cowbells hanging on it, I managed to reach behind and hold it in place while I sneaked in. I was upon my employee before she knew what hit her.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded.

Irene, who was seated behind my desk, a large book spread open before her, jumped. It would be an exaggeration to say her head hit the ceiling, but her knees really did clatter the middle desk drawer.

“Oh God, Abby, you scared the crap out of me!”

“I
said
, what are you doing here?”

Irene patted her chest and took a few dramatic breaths. “I'm improving myself.”

I grabbed the book and tilted it. The jacket had been removed from the heavy tome, but the gold lettering was still faintly visible on the green cloth cover.
Becoming a Successful Antique Dealer: Everything You Kneed to Know About the Business in Ten Easy Lessons.
The author was Eric von Dentheart, someone I'd never heard of.

“What's this?”

“A book.”

“I can see that. But why are you reading it here? And on a Sunday?”

“I'm teaching myself the trade.”

“Is that so? Well, you're not going to get that much from a book.”

“I think I am. This is a very thorough, well-organized book. It has practical lessons, but you need to be in a real shop to do them.”

“So you come here after hours?”

“But, Abby, I didn't think you'd mind. Lesson five is about how to sell slow-moving inventory. Remember that pile of antique Amish quilts you had sitting on that walnut table by the door? Well,
I sold all five of them this morning to the first lady who walked in.”

I whirled. Not only were the quilts gone, but so was the table. In fact, my shop looked entirely different. It was much emptier, and nothing was in its assigned place.

“What's going on?” I demanded. “Where is everything?”

Irene tapped the book smugly. “Sold a lot of it yesterday while you were home getting ready for the so-called party. But some of the stuff I just moved around to display it better. No offense, Abby, but you don't have the best taste.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, just look at you.”

I looked, but could see nothing wrong. I was still wearing the sweats I'd put on before the police arrived, but they weren't dirty or anything. On the other hand, Irene, when she's not dressed like the Statue of Liberty, always wears skirts. Sometimes the skirts have matching tailored jackets, sometimes color-coordinated sweaters. But she is, I'll admit, always neat as a pin.

“There was a body found under my bed,” I reminded her. “I don't always dress this way.”

“Oh, it isn't just your clothes, Abby. Why, take your house—”

“Leave my decorating style out of this,” I snapped. “Irene, how long have you been operating after hours?”

“Well, just yesterday and this morning. And
Tuesday night after you went home. Abby, there's no sense in turning away eager customers.”

“I don't see anybody beating the door down now.”

“That's because a lot of them are still in church. But the eight o'clock service is almost over at the Church of the Holy Comforter. Business will be booming in a few minutes.”

“No, it won't,” I said with perverse satisfaction. “Nobody knows we're open.”

Irene gave me a triumphant smile. Either that or she was fighting a bad case of gas.

“Yes, they do. I put an ad in this morning's
Observer.

“You
what
?”

“Don't get your knickers in a knot, Abby. I paid for it with my own money.”

I made her vacate
my
chair, and sat heavily. “Why?”

Irene waved her well-clothed arms. “Someday this shop is going to be mine. When that day comes I want a large and savvy clientele. Those ladies at Holy Comforter know their stuff. They buy more than just quilts.”

To squelch the beginnings of a headache, I dug into my temples with ten fingers. “What makes you so damn sure I'm going to sell this place. And why to you?”

“Don't be such a goofball, Abby. You know you weren't cut out to be a businesswoman. Anyway, as soon as you marry Greg you're going to want to
settle down and be the perfect little wife—no reference to your size intended. When you put the shop up for sale, I plan to buy it.”

“Oh, do you?”

She nodded vigorously, her long black hair rising and falling like the flapping of raven wings. I haven't seen that much self-confidence since Muhammad Ali's interview with Mike Douglas almost forty years ago.

“While you're making plans,” I said cleverly, “would you like to buy my house?”

Irene snorted. “Now you are being ridiculous. Who in their right minds would want a house where someone was murdered? Nobody, that's who!”

That irritated me to no end, especially since I felt the same way. To punish her for her observation, I resorted to an old trick. One I learned from my children. It's called Change the Subject.

“What business did you have telling Captain Keffert I was spending the night with the Rob-Bobs?”

Her eyes widened slightly. “He asked where you were. What was I supposed to do? Lie?”

“But how did you know my whereabouts?”

Irene is twenty-nine, but she arranged her features in a smirk worthy of any teenager. “I have my ways.”

I was tempted to fire her on the spot. But what would my grounds be? I couldn't fire her for laziness. Or incompetence. Surely opening the shop without my permission was an offense worthy of a
dismissal, but did I really want to live with the consequences? I was debating the ramifications of just such a move when the door opened with the clanging of bells and in trooped a bevy of eager females in Episcopal-length hemlines. Eight o'clock mass at the Church of the Holy Comforter was apparently over.

 

I promised the Rob-Bobs not to disclose the location of Widow Saunders' mansion, and I am a woman of my word. But if you continue on Selwyn Avenue north, turn right on Sherwood, then left on Hampton, you'll undoubtedly find it. If I gave you the house number, I wouldn't need to tell you that it was the enormous Georgian brick structure surrounded by a brick and wrought-iron fence, and that the driveway was guarded by a pair of snarling marble lions, perched atop pillars so large they might be gatehouses. A similar, but smaller, pair of brick posts guards the entrance to the walk. These support a wrought-iron gate in the shape of a lyre, and are topped by grimacing griffins. You really can't miss them.

Wynnell's '99 Grand Am is in good condition, but not in keeping with the manor. In order not to arouse undue suspicion, I parked in front of a more modest home a block and a half farther up the street. I always wanted to be an actress—my brother, Toy, claims he's an actor out in California—so acting casual under the circumstances was well within my capabilities. I strolled up the sidewalk and when I reached the pair of smaller pil
lars, I turned and nonchalantly tried the gate. Thank heavens it was unlocked.

Widow Saunders appeared to have a passion for gardening. The brick walk was flanked by impeccably trimmed dwarf boxwood hedges. Pansies filled boxwood parterres on either side with vibrant colors. Early blooming sassanqua camellias, limbed up as standards, punctuated the beds. On the steps, stone urns spilled fragrant whips of rosemary in all directions.

The front doors were solid oak and each bore a brass knocker in the shape of a lion's head. Not wanting to announce myself with a bang, I searched until I found the bell, hidden discreetly in the mortar between two bricks.

There should be a book of rules on door answering. Before the advent of voice mail, Ann Landers suggested we all wait ten rings before hanging up a phone. Taking that advice into account, I propose that one at least count to ten before assuming that an unanswered bell means no one is at home. Many is the time I've been indisposed, only to rush through my ablutions to no avail. Not everyone lives within arm's reach of their front door, you know.

Taking my own advice to heart, I counted to ten.
Three
times. Then I rang the bell again. Counting to forty did no good, so I started reciting those bits of Americana I had managed to memorize in school. It was during the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that the door to my left swung wide open. The sudden displacement of air created suc
tion and I found myself hurtling headlong into the maw that was Widow Saunders's foyer. Fortunately for me, my progress was stopped by the belly of a very tall man.

“Oh, excuse me,” I blurted as I struggled to get my balance.

“You rang?” he said.

I staggered back a couple of steps and peered up into the stratosphere that surrounded his face. He was a very handsome man. I'm terrible with ages, but I'll guess he was about thirty. His light brown hair was short, although longer in front, and was parted on the side. His eyes were magnolia leaf–green. His skin had the glow that comes from being outdoors upon occasion, but without overdoing it. His body was—well, it was simply divine. If the young man's abs had been any firmer, I would have suffered a concussion.

“I'm here to see Mrs. Saunders.” That's what I tried to say at any rate. About the fifth time I got it right.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I didn't know that was necessary. Say, who are you? Mrs. Saunders's bodyguard?”

“No, ma'am, I'm Caleb. Her secretary.”

I smiled ruefully. None of the boys in my typing class had ever looked like that. If Irene Cheng ever quit—or I got up the nerve to fire her—what were the odds I could find a replacement that looked like the beefcake in front of me? A straight beefcake, I mean. And this one was straight, believe me. Pheromones were bouncing every which way
in that foyer like lost dogs in a meat market. Okay, so maybe most of the pheromones were mine, but my body doesn't dispense with them freely unless it senses there is a chance for reciprocation.

Yes, I know, I'm engaged to be married, but what difference should that make? I'm constantly having to pick Greg's eyeballs off the sidewalk, so to speak. What's good for the gander is good for the goose, I say—just as long as the goose doesn't goose the gander she's not attached to.

“What's your name, ma'am?”

Ma'am
? In a perfect world a stud muffin like that would be calling me Abby, or baby. Not ma'am.

“Abigail
Timberlake
,” I said. I hadn't emphasized my last name like that in years. Not that I didn't have a perfect right to do so. Besides two children and a broken heart, a name is all Buford ever really gave me. If throwing his moniker around opened a few doors, then so be it.

The hunk peered down at me, as if noticing the Lilliputian at his feet for the first time. “You're not related to the woman on the news, are you?”

I tried to be patient. “That would depend on which woman you mean. But if you're talking about the one found dead in a suit of armor, the answer is yes, although in a roundabout way. She was married to my ex-husband.

“Anyway, as I understand it, Widow—I mean, Mrs. Saunders is supposed to have quite an armor collection. I was hoping I could get a chance to look at it, maybe make a few notes. I'm an antique
dealer, you see, and I thought I could help the police identify the armor you saw on the news.”

It took my voice a few seconds to carry up to his cute little ears. Another couple seconds were chewed up as his brain processed my words. I'm not complaining, mind you. Older men have put up with this minor inconvenience since time immemorial.

“Ah,” he finally said, “maybe you should speak to Mrs. Saunders.”

I bit my tongue. “Lead the way,” I said cheerily. I have learned from my friend Magdalena Yoder, up in Pennsylvania, that false cheer can be cultivated, and is an invaluable tool in marketing one's business. Or just getting one's way in general.

“Just a moment, please.”

It was a pleasure to watch Caleb trot off to find the mistress. He filled his tight jeans very nicely, and the views, both coming and going, were worth driving across town for. And lest you think I'm going too far in sharing this randy observation, allow me to remind you that we women have historically been on the receiving end of leers. It is time we gave tit for tat. Well, you know what I mean.

“She'll see you in the drawing room,” he said, and without further ado led me down a portrait-lined hallway and through a set of open mahogany doors.

I gasped.

BOOK: Nightmare in Shining Armor
3.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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