Authors: Victoria Abbott
The Sayers Swindle
“If you are a book lover of any kind, you will love this series.
The Sayers Swindle
is well thought-out and executed. The authors don’t leave anything to chance, they provide a great whodunit, and some really good humor. This is one you definitely want to pick up.”
Debbie’s Book Bag
“Another fun romp . . . Filled with black humor in the midst of tragedy.”
Lesa’s Book Critiques
The Christie Curse
“Deftly plotted, with amusing one-liners, murder and a dash of mayhem. There’s a cast of characters who’d be welcome on any Christie set.”
“With a full inventory of suspects, a courageous heroine and a tribute to a famous writer of whodunits,
The Christie Curse
will tempt her legion of devotees. Even mystery lovers who have never read Christie—if any exist—will find a pleasing puzzle in Abbott’s opener.”
“The mystery was first class, the plotting flawless.”
Cozy Mystery Book Reviews
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Victoria Abbott
THE CHRISTIE CURSE
THE SAYERS SWINDLE
THE WOLFE WIDOW
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
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THE WOLFE WIDOW
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2014 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14321-0
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / September 2014
Cover illustration by Tony Mauro.
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.
We are both grateful to Rex Stout for bringing to life the inimitable Nero Wolfe and the dishy Archie Goodwin, two of the great characters of modern detective fiction. No wonder poor Vera was besotted with those books.
Readers make the mystery world go round and we have loved hearing from you as we work our way through the book collector mysteries. Fans, librarians, reviewers and bloggers: Your reactions to
The Christie Curse
The Sayers Swindle
really gave us a boost. Walter appreciates your affection and we all enjoy the suggestions for the Kelly kitchen. Special thanks to Mare Fairchild for Cheez-Its. The Siamese are most appreciative.
Meanwhile back in the real world, Giulio Maffini offered endless support and made many excellent meals. At drop-dead deadlines, he got stuck with dishes too. Speaking of meals, the legacy of Irma Maffini and Lina Arno inspired the magnificent meals that the signora produces at the drop of a hat.
A shout-out to the rest of the family who keep our spirits high: G-Bird, Barry, Devan, Zlatka, Jesse, Julian, Sam, Cassandra, Jason, and the squid-lets, thank you!
Special thanks for our wonderful friend, Linda Wiken aka Erika Chase, who once again took the time to read this manuscript with good humor and on short notice, and to John Merchant for his eagle eye, time and advice. The staff at Odgensburg Public Library offered us a warm welcome and solid information.
Victoria would like to thank Dave and Connie Martin for their support and friendship over the past three books, and also the funky and fantastic Kelly Connolly whose bright, adventurous personality is the inspiration for Tiffany. She sends a big hug to all those at the Farm, especially Pat, Shawn McRae and Haley Mallory, our little Lady Gaga–in-waiting. Special thanks to Luc Lavigne and Candy St. Aubin, two of Victoria’s lifelong friends, for never letting her get bored or down on herself.
We are lucky to have the very patient and supportive Tom Colgan as our editor at Berkley and we really appreciate the rapid response to every question from Amanda Ng. We know that our agent, Kim Lionetti, always has our backs. Thanks for making time for us and taking our calls.
To our wonderful friends and colleagues at The Cozy Chicks, Killer Characters, The Ladies Killing Circle, and Mystery Lovers Kitchen, thank you for ideas, support and enthusiasm and for all you do to make this a more mysterious world.
Now, this would be no big deal in most places, but at Van Alst House ten days before Thanksgiving, it seemed to create a collective panic. It was just after eight on a night that had already brought us some serious wind, making the unseasonably early snow flurries seem like a blizzard fit for the arctic. My boss, Vera Van Alst, and I were grumbling about the cold white stuff arriving in mid-November as we waited to be served our main course in the historic ruin that is the grand dining room. My Uncle Kev, the world’s oldest and largest child, was defending the fun factor of early snow.
When the bell rang, I thought I’d ignore it. It sounded again, a serious, rich and commanding ring, perfect for a massive historical home. It should tell you something that we all reacted with shock.
Everyone froze. Vera’s cook, Signora Panetone, put down her vast platter with the mountain of gnocchi and crossed herself. The signora won’t see eighty again, but usually that doesn’t stop her from heaping food on your plate. This time her black eyes bugged out and her unlikely ebony hair seemed to plaster itself a little closer to her scalp.
The doorbell ringing was not a regular occurrence at Van Alst House. Nor was it a welcome one.
Vera hulked unmoving in her wheelchair, her face like an Easter Island moai. Apparently her majesty was not amused. Kev—usually ebullient where food was involved—vanished like an ice cube in a bowl of minestrone. Even the Siamese cats took refuge under the mile-long Sheraton table. I felt their tails swishing against my ankles. Would claws be next? Why hadn’t I worn something higher than ankle boots? In the six and a half months I’d worked for Vera, lived at Van Alst House and taken my evening meals in this dining room, you’d think I would have learned, but sometimes fashion wins over feline, and then inevitably feline turns the tables and triumphs once more.
Another ring of the bell.
It was mildly eerie, because all the people brave enough to cross the threshold of this house were present and accounted for, except for Eddie, our recently retired postal carrier who was floating somewhere off Florida on a cruise with his ninety-year-old mother. Eddie wasn’t expected back anytime soon. As Eddie had been nursing a crush on Vera for nearly fifty years, I wasn’t sure how that would work out for him. But anyway, it wouldn’t be Eddie at the front door. He always came in the back.
So who could it be? A wrong address? Some poor wretch who’d braved the long lonely driveway to the large and pretentious front entrance to our crumbling Victorian pile o’ granite to ask for a donation to repair the church organ? A random serial killer about to have the worst night of his life? A stranded traveler?
I was prepared to wait it out. Vera broke the silence at last. “Miss Bingham.”
I responded with my eye firmly fixed on the platter of gnocchi. “The doorbell, I think.”
“Of course, it’s the doorbell. Don’t be ridiculous. Can you make whoever it is go away?”
I shouldn’t have been playful. “What if it’s missionaries? Will I give them something?”
“What part of ‘away’ is unclear to you, Miss Bingham?”
“Or they could be collecting to get gifts for the needy.”
“Not from me they won’t.”
I knew my place. Researcher and minion. Answerer of bells. Opener of doors. I rose, gazed longingly at the platter of gnocchi and headed down the endless corridor to the front door. I grabbed my handbag as I went. Vera might be grinchy, but I wasn’t. I could manage a donation if it came to that.
The doorbell pealed again as I reached the front entrance. I pushed it open, ready to drop a dollar into the palm of some forlorn waif while whispering, “Run for your life.”
I stared up at a tall woman dressed entirely in black, much of that a vast black cape, swirling like the snow behind her. I am five foot six, but I felt like a dwarf next to her. She was quite aware of that, I thought. She gazed down imperiously. “I want to speak to Vera Van Alst.”
What to say? It was a pretty safe bet that Vera would not want to speak to her.
I raised my nose and stared in her general direction, trying not to gaze at her capacious chest. “Miss Van Alst is not available. Perhaps you could call tomorrow and make an appointment.”
I could hardly wait to shut the door. The wind was whipping snow past our visitor and into the grand foyer. Even though the snow stung my eyes, I made a point not to blink first.
“I am here now. And I believe she
I might have said, “Want to make a bet, lady?” but my uncles raised me right and I couldn’t quite utter those words. Instead I said, “I am sorry. As I mentioned she’s not available tonight.”
She took me by surprise and stepped into the foyer. Stunned, I lurched back and said, “Don’t make me call security.” Obviously, I’d been watching too many movies. Security would be Uncle Kev. He was also maintenance, gardening and soon-to-be snow removal. There was a good chance that right now he was hiding out under the dining room table with the Siamese. For some annoying reason, they never scratched him.
“Why don’t you tell her I’m here and let her decide if she’s unavailable?”
I stuck to my story. “As she is unavailable, I will be unable to accommodate your request.”
“Accommodate this, then: Tell her my name is Muriel Delgado and I have something she wants badly.”
I can dig my heels in with the best of them, and so I simply said, “Excuse me, but no.”
Behind me a voice said, “I’ll check.”
I whirled to find Uncle Kev. His wicked smile complemented his ginger curls and the matching expressive Kelly eyebrows. His Hooters T-shirt mocked me as he strutted off. How did he get away with that at the Van Alst table? I once wore flip-flops to lunch and was subjected to a lengthy talk about hygiene from Vera. But that’s our Kev, always where and when you don’t want or need him, charmingly inappropriate and apparently deaf.
“It’s all right, Kev. Under control.”
“I’ll check with Vera. Don’t worry about a thing, Jordie.”
That left me and Muriel Delgado—if that was really her name—facing off in the grand foyer. She gazed around, sending the message that she didn’t have time for the lower orders. I retaliated by not offering her a seat. To top it off, a Siamese appeared and rubbed itself up against her still-swirling black garments. Aiming for the ankles, I figured. I didn’t bother to warn her.
Half a lifetime later, Kev reappeared, flushed and triumphant and smelling of Axe.
“Miss Van Alst will see you now. In the study.”
What? I almost fell off my gray suede stiletto ankle boots, not for the first time, but my balance wasn’t the issue here. Vera was going to see someone? And in the study? During the dinner hour? Not even in the dining room where my delicious plate of gnocchi sat unattended?
Vera might not care about her food, but I was starving and now this woman was infringing on Vera’s privacy and my dinner. I had no choice but to follow them down the hallway. Kev’s notorious charm seemed to bounce right off the intruder. So that was good. At least she was immune to him. Things have a habit of getting out of control when Kev’s in high-charm mode.
The study is down a second endless corridor, parallel to the one that leads to the dining room. To reach it, you must pass the sitting room, the ballroom and the sort-of-gallery housing the portrait collection. I always try not to let my gaze rest on any of the formal images of Vera’s various ancestors. They all appeared to be suffering from serious constipation and major dental problems. Vera might have been born to wealth and influence, but life hadn’t done her any favors when she was fished out of that particular gene pool.
As I trailed Muriel Delgado down that corridor, my vertebrae stiffened to near the snapping point. This woman radiated negativity. She was all about power and not the good kind. I felt it. I could practically hear and taste it.
Kevin scurried back and forth, attempting to curry favor, I suppose. He can sense power. He always wanted to be on the right side of anyone who possessed it. That usually didn’t last long. I smoothed my cream tunic and adjusted my posture to center myself. I needed to pay close attention to this conversation.
A short time after, Vera propelled her wheelchair down the corridor from the opposite direction. Behind her, the signora fluttered, a panicky black bird. “Vera must eat! Come back. Gnocchi tonight! Eat now! No no no yes!”
I opened the door to the study. I’ve always liked that room. After all, this was where Vera first agreed to hire me. Vera rolled on through the open door, without so much as a glance at Muriel Delgado’s striking appearance and flowing black garb. She pivoted in the wheelchair. “That will be all, Miss Bingham. Mr. Kelly. Fiammetta, I will not be eating. Stop babbling. Please leave us.”
We stood there, frozen, although our bodies still indicated our intention to enter.
So, I wouldn’t be joining Vera and this strange black widow persona to soak up the atmosphere of the ten-foot walls, the tall Georgian windows with the timeworn silk draperies and the formerly red velvet sofa now faded to amethyst, not to mention the gorgeous Edwardian desk. My gut told me that I would be absorbing more than beautiful antique design if I had gotten my foot through the door. And now, I wouldn’t be there to cushion my boss from whatever negative intentions this strange woman had for her. My job was to make sure that bad things did not happen to Vera’s collection of rare first editions and to her investment in them. By extension, I felt that included making sure that bad things did not happen to Vera herself.
Vera’s eyes narrowed. “Go find something to do, Miss Bingham. I don’t require your presence.”
My mouth was still hanging open when the door shut behind the black-clad pile of drama that was our visitor. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have to avert my eyes from another batch of Vera’s ancestors staring down from the walls of the study in disapproval. Even so, I didn’t feel good about not being there.
Kev scratched his head. The signora let out an enormous sigh.
Kev was the first one to regain composure. “No reason to let our food get cold.”
He had a point.
The signora almost brightened, although she stared at the closed door with trepidation.
I didn’t like it, but then I didn’t have to like it. I wasn’t paid to like things. I was paid to do whatever Vera Van Alst wanted whenever she wanted it. And she wanted to be alone with this visitor who had arrived without an appointment and without an explanation.
“A bit of history there apparently,” I said.
The signora crossed herself.
Kev said, “No kidding.”
I wondered if there was a way that I could hear what was going on by pressing my ear to the door. Or the wall of the next room. That didn’t work. Whatever its other drawbacks, Van Alst House is well insulated with solid mahogany doors.
“Let’s go,” I said, after my failed attempt. “Gnocchi waits for no man. Or woman.”
” the signora said. “No no no cold gnocchi! No! Come. Eat!
“Eat, drink and be merry.” Kev giggled.
For tomorrow we die.
I shivered. I told myself not to be silly.
We ate. We drank. We were not merry and we wondered.
“What was that about?” Kev said, as he accepted a second helping of
Pan di Spagna
, an Italian sponge cake he had developed a weakness for. He layered on some whipped cream and a small lake of the signora’s homemade blueberry syrup.
“Nothing good,” I muttered.
Vera doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Her home is her castle and she needs us to achieve her goals, so she does suffer us, but not gladly in the least, come to think of it. Yet she’d gone into a room with a seeming stranger, closed the door and sent off her palace guard without a blink.
My intuition told me that something was up. Something bad. What was going on? We weren’t to find out that night. Vera never reappeared. Kev spotted La Delgado’s Grand Prix leaving in a swirl of snow around eleven. I heard the elevator creaking up to Vera’s second-floor quarters around the same time. But I learned nothing. It didn’t sit well, and heartburn flared on top of the uneasiness.
Trouble for sure.
* * *
IT WOULD HAVE
been helpful to discuss this odd occurrence with someone. It’s never easy to talk to the signora, and Kev is a lost cause when it comes to sensible, or any other, advice. But I had options. My best friend, Tiff, was now living in Harrison Falls. I’ve been bouncing my problems off her since we were roommates in our first year at college. We’d bonded on so many things. I’d done my best to help her cope with her mother’s death from leukemia during our second year of studies. My mother died when I was a child, so I understood something of loss and devastation and survival. In turn, Tiff had been a shoulder to cry on when my cheating ex-boyfriend dumped me, after maxing out my credit card and draining my bank account.
We could always rely on each other. But Tiff didn’t pick up. I figured she’d have a good reason. Now that she was back from her stint in Africa and working in our neighboring town of Grandville as an ICU nurse at Grandville General Hospital, she pulled a lot of extra shifts. She hadn’t mentioned it, but perhaps she’d been called in to work. I sent her a text.