Authors: Ritter Ames
Meg made a new pot of coffee while Kate spread jam on her toast and spilled her troubles. Fifteen minutes later the aromatic brew was forgotten, and breakfast sat stone cold, but all of the new skeletons had been trotted out of the McKenzie closet. Or in this case, the washing supplies cupboard.
"That's incredible." Meg shook her head, her gaze straying toward the mud room doorway. "You say the box is now in your office?"
"And you can't get it open?"
"I tried everything last night."
A glint appeared in Meg's green eyes. "Even a hammer?"
"Oh, I couldn't. It's not my property."
"You're being set up to take the fall for murder. The box's owner is dead. You're in no position to quibble about the care and handling of something whose presence may railroad you into a life sentence in prison."
Kate couldn't argue with her friend's logic. They needed to find out the contents and get rid of the thing, no matter what. "But it belongs to one of Amelia's heirs."
"One who, in all likelihood, probably killed her and is trying to frame you for the crime." Meg placed her hands resolutely on her hips. "Come on. Show it to me."
The ebony box remained inside its cardboard nest. At first, Kate felt relieved to find everything as she'd left it, but after withdrawing the object disappointment shot through her. "I keep thinking I must have dreamed everything. Hoping, I guess."
Meg turned it end-over-end, attempting the same techniques Kate had already tried to open the lid. "You're not dreaming, and something is definitely inside."
"But do we have to break it?"
"I would, but with two boys I'm used to more wreckage than you are. Broken items are a way of life in our house." Meg sighed, holding the box at arms length. "If what you say is true, though, we don't have the right. The person this thing goes to may not be the person we're looking for. No matter how much I want to smash the scary thing into a billion pieces. How about if I lock it up in my safe deposit box?"
"Too dangerous. I couldn't ask you to do that."
"Nonsense." Meg slipped the item into her jacket pocket. "I'll go by the bank on my way to lunch with Mother, leaving nary a clue to anyone I have it. Or that you don't."
Kate chewed her lip. "I don't know—"
"Well, I do." Meg smiled and gave her arm a squeeze. "You need a plan. Consider this a start."
"Actually, I already started one." She pulled out the list. "Task number five was going to be deciding what to do with it, but I guess that's covered."
Meg scanned the items on the page and nodded in agreement, adding, "Sounds like exactly the right plan, but I can almost guarantee no one came to your front door last night. I sat at my living room window all evening waiting for you to come home and doing cross-stitch until my eyes gave out during the late news."
Kate grinned, and the redhead added, "No, I'm not a nosy neighbor. Just a concerned one."
"Absolutely." Kate wrapped her newest best friend in a hug.
The moment passed, and Meg cleared her throat. "I'll find out what I can from Mother about Amelia. News of the murder has definitely hit every gossip circuit by now, so it won't be an unusual topic to bring up at a Hazelton ladies' luncheon. Two of her garden club members are joining us. We may have a real hen party by the time the salad plates get whisked away."
Meg's mother had owned a local dress shop for years, retiring the previous fall to grow hybrid roses and get reacquainted with an ex-salesman husband who'd traveled too much during their four decades of marriage. Lunch out had become a weekly event, chiefly to give Meg's mother a break from her father.
Talk of the midday mother-daughter event made Kate miss her own mom even more. Hers, though, had been more likely to plan an environmental protest than a ladies' day out.
"Great." She swallowed the lump in her throat. "We'll meet and trade information after school."
Wealthy Socialite Murdered
Hazelton, VT., (AP)—Authorities called a press conference to report the murder of millionaire heiress, Amelia Nethercutt, née Lane. Death is reported due to poisoning, and Vermont State Police Lieutenant Walter Johnson says authorities are pursuing a number of leads. Law enforcement spokespersons acknowledge the autopsy was put on expedited status by the governor and showed death was a result of poisoning. Johnson would not elaborate on suspects, however sources reveal a number of local residents already questioned as material witnesses.
Preceded in death by the recent demise of husband Daniel, the couple was known for strong ties to the arts and philanthropic work. A well-known local garden club supporter…
Meg left to prepare for her lunch mission, and Kate pulled the phone book from the desk drawer. Three Baxters made up the total listings for the area, but after dialing all three, she found herself exactly where she'd started. Nowhere. Men answered at two of the numbers, but neither had any idea who her quarry was. The third hung up before she'd had a chance to ask.
Kate grabbed the spiral notepad she'd mentally labeled her "casebook." No need to add the "put you-know-what in a safer place" chore, though she still felt guilty about letting Meg assume the responsibility.
"Darn it. I'm obsessing again." Another snap of the rubber band added to her weekly total, but it was still better than one would imagine under the circumstances. At least that was what Kate told herself as she took a couple of slow, deep breaths. Then she bit her lip and brainstormed on the blank lines.
a. Go by Amelia's mansion—see if someone is living in and can tell me how to reach Mrs. B.
b. Check with local employment services to see if Mrs. B signed on for a new position.
Of course, the last would be unlikely. The murder had occurred too recently. And who's to say the family planned to terminate Mrs. Baxter at all? One of Amelia's children might employ her. Yes, a mansion visit offered the better option, but what could she use as a cover story? A condolence call? Given the circumstances, wouldn't it be more appropriate for Kate to make her condolences at the funeral home?
Well, forget social convention, I need to know now.
She pulled off her hoodie and detoured into the bedroom. Her peach-colored, light wool suit was perfect for a Vermont spring day; pastel for the season, but warmer than it looked. A quick trip by Hazelton Flowers, and Kate was soon wending her way up and around the mountainous country lane. Dazzling sunlight played peek-a-boo behind the dense tree line, and no neighbors' homes were visible as the van moved in and out of the wooded switchbacks toward the Nethercutt gates. Kate frowned as she realized how isolated the mansion was, hidden from outsiders by its surrounding stone walls and forests of near fully-leafed hardwoods and evergreen pines. She knew other people lived on this mountain, along the fringes of the Nethercutt property, but neighbors obviously guarded their privacy as much as Amelia and Daniel had.
Kate set the hand brake and rolled her shoulders to relieve her stress, once more wishing she'd gotten something close to a full night's sleep. She stepped from the vehicle, potted gladioli in hand and words of sympathy running through her head. But she lost her train of thought when a man in a gray suit raced through the side yard and disappeared around the back of the mansion.
Who was that, and why was he running? Had something else happened?
She shoved the plant back onto the floorboard, and tore off in pursuit as fast as her beige pumps allowed. Rounding the corner of the house she almost collided with Gray Suit. A bit above six-foot, the middle-aged man stood arguing with Danny in front of a Deco-inspired greenhouse.
"Don't disappear while I'm talking to you, young man," Gray Suit ordered. He and the teen traded laser-fueled looks.
Danny's face flushed at Kate's sudden appearance. His arms were crossed tightly enough to meld together, but he wiggled a thumb in her direction. "Um, Dad, we have company."
The man whirled, his surprise at seeing her was replaced a split-second later by a calm that bespoke years of practice.
Danny made the introductions. "This is the lady Gramma hired to organize the place. Name's Kate something. I forget." He jerked his head in Gray Suit's direction and addressed Kate. "My father, William Nethercutt."
Extending a manicured hand, Danny's father said, "Nice to meet you. Kate McKenzie, right? Mother spoke about hiring you. Call me Bill."
Kate shook his hand. "Hello…Bill, I apologize for the intrusion. I just wanted to come by and say how sorry I am about Amelia. I have a plant…" She waved toward the front. "In my van."
Bill smiled, but Kate didn't like the look in his eyes. Not cold, exactly, but definitely calculating. His voice, on the other hand, could only be described as too-immediately-friendly. "Very nice of you. I'll walk you around. We have cake and coffee inside. The neighbors have been…" Then turning to Danny, he finished instead with, "Come along, son. We'll continue our discussion later."
They split up at the walk. Bill went to unlock the front door, and Danny followed Kate.
"I appreciate the help, but I really can manage." She opened the sliding door.
"No problem." The teen hefted the pot and grinned. "I've always been taught a Nethercutt man helps lovely ladies whenever he can."
Ooh, a player today.
Kate returned the smile. "Well, I do appreciate it. So, did your uncle give the MG a clean bill of health?"
His expression fell. "Dad said, uh, I gotta wait for a while."
"Oh, I am sorry. Is it because of your grandmother's death?"
Relief flashed across the young man's face. "Yes. Yes, but things'll work out soon."
"I'm sure they will." Kate placed a hand on his arm.
His response was anything but grieving, and Kate figured he'd better forget any hope at a career in poker playing. Danny was clearly not mourning the loss of his grandmother. True, Amelia had been his
grandmother, but given the fact she'd been in the family most of his life,
had gifted him a car, didn't that naturally presume some closeness between the two? On the other hand, it seemed as if he wasn't getting that car after all now.
Something else to dig into.
Danny moved ahead of her in a loose lope.
The teen was cool and charming. Talking with the person he'd fingered to the police the night before didn't seem to prey at all on his conscience. Kate caught up to him again on the broad steps and added, "I'd like to offer my condolences to the cook, Mrs. Baxter, too. It must have been horrible for her yesterday. You don't happen to know where she lives, do you?"
"Gatehouse." Danny used his free hand to point to a cottage near the east end of the property. "Gramma let her live there so she could walk to work. She can't drive."
"But how did she get to and from the grocer's?"
"Took a cab."
Yes, Kate remembered Mrs. Baxter saying a cab was waiting before she'd left for her errands. The neat little gatehouse seemed perfect for a single woman. At least she had the impression Mrs. Baxter was widowed. Where had she gotten that idea?
Kate turned back to Danny, as he added, "When she was ready to come home she called, and Gramma told Dad to go pick her up."
So, Bill was definitely around at the time the body was found. It didn't prove he was onsite as the poison was administered, but he could have added the water to the teapot on his way back through the kitchen after receiving his chauffeuring orders.
"Did your dad help check out the car with your Uncle Thomas yesterday?"
Danny shrugged. "He wasn't much help. Tax attorneys aren't really comfortable around motor oil. Not like he was in any hurry to get back to me and Uncle Thomas, either."
Warning bells sounded in Kate's head. "I'm sure he was helpful carrying in the groceries for Mrs. Baxter."
Another shrug. "Mostly Uncle Thomas did. We hadn't realized how close to five it was, and I reminded Dad about meeting Mom for dinner. She and Gramma don't…didn't get along. Divorce didn't change anything. Mom always made it a practice to schedule something to screw things up whenever she knew Dad and I were coming here. Anyway, we unloaded the bags to the side porch, and Uncle Thomas took stuff into the kitchen. Mrs. B's screams kind of made everything come to a halt."
"I can't imagine how horrible…"
Danny twitched one shoulder, shrugging off the thought, and ushered her inside. The interior seemed much as Kate remembered, but not quite. She tried to decide on the difference and realized a lighted display case was missing from the foyer. "Wasn't a collection of porcelain here?"
"Yeah, Aunt Sophia snatched that early this morning. She had two guys and a truck in the driveway at eight. Said it was Grandpop's, and he'd always promised it to her. Dad tried to argue with her, you know, wait 'til the will is read and all, but she didn't listen. Big surprise."
"Danny…" Bill Nethercutt exited the kitchen, tray in hand. "Let's not rattle the family skeletons." He smiled at Kate. "I'm sure you know the way to the parlor."
With an inward sigh, she headed back to the room of the damned.
Kate broke free from the Nethercutt men as soon as niceties allowed. As her tires bounced over the cobblestone drive she glanced in her rearview mirror and saw the pantomime of their argument resume. Too bad there wasn't any way to overhear without being obvious. Both father and son required further investigation.
The converted gatehouse sat nestled under tall hemlocks and could be a model for the grandmother's cottage in
Little Red Riding Hood.
At Kate's knock, Mrs. Baxter opened the door, her eyes huge and watery blue behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. It took a second for the plump woman to realize who Kate was, but she quickly recovered. "Oh, yes, you were the organizing lady at Miss Amelia's." Mrs. Baxter smiled and waved her into a seat, then left the room promising refreshment.