Read Fleeced: A Regan Reilly Mystery Online

Authors: Carol Higgins Clark

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #detective, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery fiction, #Women Sleuths, #New York (N.Y.), #Reilly; Regan (Fictitious character), #Women private investigators, #Women private investigators - New York (State) - New York

Fleeced: A Regan Reilly Mystery (2 page)

2

If just this morning someone had said to Thomas Pilsner, “Have a nice day,” he would have responded in the usual robotic fashion that most of the rest of the world did when they heard the clichéd phrase.

What a difference twelve hours makes.

How could he have known that at lunchtime two members of the club where he was president would give him the greatest news in the world? The Settlers’ Club, which needed repairs like nobody’s business and had been in serious danger of running out of operating money, was going to get what would probably amount to four million dollars.

How’s that for a shot in the arm? Thomas thought to himself. It was eleven o’clock at night and he had felt electrified since lunch. He was working late, going over everything that had to be done before the big party on Saturday night. What a celebration it would be! Nat and Ben had told him they wanted to do a special presentation of the diamonds at the party.

“Anything you want!” Thomas had said with a fierceness he almost didn’t recognize in himself. He’d practically done a jig around town this afternoon when he was running his errands. He hadn’t told anyone yet, but he suspected the news had leaked. But who cared? All’s well that ends well. The party would be exciting no matter what.

The phone on his desk rang. That must be my little Janey, he thought. Janey was his girlfriend of six months, and they usually talked several times a day. They’d met when she attended a lecture at the club, and everyone agreed they were perfect for each other. She was never without a strand of pearls and a cardigan sweater. He was never without his trademark bow tie. Both only in their twenties, they felt like old souls who had been together in another lifetime, who really belonged in a bygone era. Sometimes they discussed how they would have loved to live in New York City in the 1890s. But the time they had treated themselves to a horse-and-buggy ride in Central Park, in an attempt to re-create the past, they’d been surrounded by sweaty joggers and an obnoxious Rollerblader who kept circling the buggy.

It didn’t take long after Thomas answered the phone for his face to fall. “Ben Carney? Oh no…”

Thomas ran out of his office, down the hallway, and frantically pressed the elevator button. The door slowly rumbled open, slowly rumbled shut, and the ancient elevator creaked its way upstairs to the fourth floor. Another thing that needs to be replaced, Thomas thought in the midst of his anguish. How could he break the news to Nat about his old friend Ben?

When the door opened again, Thomas ran down the hallway to Nat Pemrod’s apartment and rang the bell. The sounds of another one of Lydia Sevatura’s singles parties echoed from across the hall. The gauche things I have to put up with so that this club might attract new members, he thought.

Nat didn’t answer.

Thomas rang again.

When Nat still didn’t answer, he put his ear to the door. He thought he could hear the faint sound of the television. Thomas reached in his pocket and pulled out the master key he always carried in case of emergencies. He unlocked the door and entered cautiously. To the left of the foyer was the hallway leading to the bedrooms and the kitchen and dining room. To the right was the archway to the living room that extended the length of the apartment.

“Nat?” he called. As he approached Nat’s bedroom, the sound of the television got louder. “Nat?”

At the doorway of the bedroom, Thomas peered in. Pillows were propped up against the headboard, and the bedspread was rumpled. Thomas’s throat went dry. He walked into the bathroom. A scream, barely audible, escaped his mouth.

His feet carried him quickly back down the hall and out the front door, just as the door to Lydia ’s apartment opened. He felt breathless as he ran to the end of the hallway, through the fire door, and took the steps three at a time, down to the first floor. In his office he dialed 911 as fast as his fingers could move.

Within minutes the police and Nat’s private doctor arrived on the scene. Back upstairs, Thomas watched in horror as the doctor pronounced Nat dead.

“He slipped in the tub,” Dr. Barnes said. “It looks like blunt trauma to the head. He’s been having some dizzy spells lately…”

Just then, one of the patrolmen walked into the bedroom. “There’s a lot of jewelry out on the desk in the living room. The safe is empty.”

Thomas looked up. “He told me he and his friend Ben were about to sell the four big diamonds in the red box and donate the proceeds to the club.”

“I didn’t see any red box.”

“But they just showed it to me this afternoon!”

“Believe me, there’s no red box. A lot of dark blue boxes. But no red box.”

Thomas promptly fainted.

3

Regan Reilly opened the door of her parents’ apartment and picked up the three daily newspapers that had been plopped on the floor at some ungodly hour while most of New York City was unconscious. Backing into the apartment, Regan shut the door and made her way into the narrow kitchen. She opened the cabinet over the sink and pulled out a mug as the coffeemaker hissed and groaned, spitting the last couple of freshly brewed drops into the glass pot. Music to my ears, Regan thought. It means that caffeine is just seconds from my bloodstream.

Regan settled herself at the dining room table and took that first, best sip of coffee. Her eyes took in the unbelievable view of Central Park that her mother always said made the apartment. It certainly does, Regan thought. Her parents’ pied-à-terre was a comfortable two-bedroom place to hang your hat, but it was the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the park from the sixteenth floor that made it to die for. And even on this cold and gray March morning, the view of the park was mesmerizing.

Coffee, the papers, and Central Park. A great way to start the day. And before the day is over, I’ll get to see Jack, she thought. She was suddenly reminded of a discussion held in one of her college English classes. Expectation and anticipation are one half the joy of life. Regan smiled. True most of the time. But being with Jack was a whole lot better than looking forward to it. I’ve had enough of looking forward! she thought. It’s time to live.

Regan opened one of the tabloids, a paper she always enjoyed reading when she was in New York City. The first few pages included the usual stories about conflicts of varying degrees of seriousness taking place in the Big Apple. Crack-downs on motorists who cause gridlock and jaywalkers who dart in and out of the gridlock, a bank robbery in midtown, noise from a construction site that had the neighbors going crazy.

Then Regan turned the page and gasped. In the middle of the page was a picture of her with her mother at last night’s opening cocktail party for the crime convention. A brief writeup described the plans for the four-day affair.

The caption under the picture read: “Mystery writers gather today through Sunday to hear experts in all aspects of crime fighting share their expertise. Bestselling mystery writer Nora Regan Reilly is chairman of the convention. Daughter Regan is no stranger to law enforcement. She is a private investigator who jetted into town from her Los Angeles home to attend the lectures and seminars, and, of course, the festivities.”

Los Angeles home! Regan thought. A one-bedroom apartment. Jetted into town! Coach class on a flight that served ice-cold bagels. Whoever said it’s all an illusion wasn’t kidding. At least the picture was pretty good.

Regan, classified as Black Irish thanks to her dark hair, light skin, and blue eyes, had her arm around her mother who, at five feet three inches tall, was three inches shorter than Regan. They looked like mother and daughter, although Nora was a blonde. Regan had inherited her coloring from her father, whose hair was now a distinguished silver but had been dark in his youth. Luke was six feet five inches, so Regan’s height favored neither parent’s lineage. Since she was an only child, Regan was the sole result of the blending of their genes. Talk about the quintessential crapshoot.

“That coffee smells great.”

Regan turned to see her mother standing in the doorway of the kitchen, a pale pink silk robe wrapped around her slender frame. Her face, devoid of makeup, had a serene beauty. She yawned and reached for a china cup and saucer in the cabinet next to her. There was something about staying in the New York apartment that made Nora always want to use the good dishes. Regan thought it might be the view of the park that did it. When you drank from a china cup early in the morning, you felt as if you could be in a glamorous movie from the forties. Not a plastic cup or beer can in sight.

“Anything interesting in the paper?”

“If you think we’re interesting, then the answer would have to be yes.”

“Huh?” Nora peered over Regan’s shoulder.

Regan pointed to the picture. “Mommy and me.”

Nora laughed. “How sweet,” she said as she squinted and leaned down to examine it. “That’s good publicity for the convention. I want to get down to the Paisley this morning before ten. I’m sure there’ll be late registrants straggling in.”

The Paisley was an old, midsize hotel off of Seventh Avenue in the mid-fifties that had clearly seen better days. But it had a certain musty charm and was the perfect size for the convention. It was big enough to handle all the seminars, but small enough to be cozy. Nora had made a deal with the hotel that included free coffee and as many folding chairs as there were behinds to fill them.

The phone rang. Regan glanced over at the clock on the mantel. “It’s not even eight o’clock yet. I wonder who that could be?”

“I hope it’s not bad news,” Nora said anxiously as she straightened up and reached for the phone on the kitchen wall.

We’re so Irish, Regan thought. What was that line? The Irish have an abiding sense of tragedy that gets us through the good times. Which meant that any phone call before 8:00 A.M. and after 11:00 P.M. could only mean big trouble. It was never even considered that it might be someone who wanted to talk when the rates were cheaper.

Regan watched the expression on her mother’s face. As soon as Nora recognized the caller, she relaxed and smiled.

“Thomas, how are you?”

Thomas who? Regan wondered.

“That’s all right. You’re not disturbing us at all…”

Oh sure, Regan thought. Our hearts only skipped a few dozen beats. And that extra surge of adrenaline when the phone rang gave me a needed boost.

“Yes, Regan is right here. Let me put her on…” Nora handed Regan the phone. “It’s Thomas Pilsner.”

Regan’s eyebrows raised. “Oh,” she muttered with surprise. Thomas, a lovable eccentric, was the latest president of the Settlers’ Club down in Gramercy Park. He and Regan had become fast friends when she attended a Mystery Writers dinner with her mother there last fall.

“Hi, Thomas,” Regan said cheerfully, picturing his baby face and mop of light-brown hair that looked like one big wave. It seemed to Regan that he could step into a snapshot from a hundred years ago and not look out of place.

“Regan! Oh my God, Regan!” Thomas cried hysterically, apparently having kept his real feelings from her mother.

“Thomas, what’s wrong?”

“I’ve barely slept all night. Then I saw your picture in the paper when it was delivered at six o’clock this morning, and I waited as long as I could to call you. Oh God!”

“Thomas, calm down. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Last night two of our elderly members died.”

“I’m sorry,” Regan said, thinking that the Irish intuition about phone calls before 8:00 A.M. had for once proved to be true. She could just hear her grandmother crying triumphantly, “I told you!” “What happened to them?” she asked.

“One of them had a heart attack in front of a bus and the other slipped in the tub last night. But if you ask me, something smells about the whole thing.” Thomas’s voice was trembling, but his words came tumbling out in a torrent. “Not just smells. Reeks! I just had lunch with the two of them yesterday. They told me they planned to sell four valuable diamonds and donate the proceeds to the club. It would have meant about four million dollars for us.”

“Well, won’t that still happen?”

“The diamonds are missing!”

“Missing?”

Thomas relayed to Regan the story of everything that had happened the day before. “And the red box with the diamonds is not with the rest of the jewelry. It’s gone.”

“What do the police say?” Regan asked.

“Well, I’m not completely sure.”

“Why not?”

“Because I fainted.”

“Oh dear.”

“It was so embarrassing. When I came to, they brought me downstairs to my apartment, and the doctor gave me a sedative and told me to get a good night’s sleep. I was in shock.”

“But you didn’t get a good night’s sleep.”

“Lord, no! After a couple of hours I was wide awake again. It’s bad enough to think that Nat and Ben are both gone, but I’m convinced that someone is trying to get away with murder and theft. The police think Nat just hit his head, but I think someone came in here and killed him and stole the diamonds.”

“You don’t have anything in writing about their intention to give the club the money from the diamonds?”

“No. This all came up just yesterday. It was going to be made public on Saturday night at our one hundredth anniversary party.”

“But you saw the diamonds?”

“They were sitting next to my Cobb salad during most of lunch. Every once in a while they let me open up the box and stare at them. They were so beautiful.”

“Could Ben have taken the diamonds home with him?” Regan asked.

“That would be bad too.”

“Why?”

“Because his wallet was missing by the time they got him to the hospital. If he had the diamonds on him, they would surely have been taken along with his wallet. Luckily his Settlers’ Club card was found in his pocket.”

“That red box could be hidden in the apartment somewhere.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because Nat mentioned at lunch that he was glad he wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting the combination to the safe anymore.”

“Why did they own the diamonds together?”

“They were both jewelers. They were part of a group of four jewelers who played cards together every week for fifty years in Nat’s apartment. They called themselves the Suits, after the spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds in the deck. Of course the diamonds were their favorite. Way back when, they’d each brought the most beautiful, valuable diamond they owned to one of the games. They made a pact not to tell anyone about these jewels-except for Wendy, Nat’s wife, who was in the apartment that night-and the last one alive would get to keep all four diamonds. Survivor takes all, they called it. Well, two of them died last year before I started this job. They belonged to the club too. With the centennial anniversary coming up, Nat and Ben decided to do some good with the diamonds and not wait until just one of them was left alive to enjoy the money. But now they’re both dead!”

“I wonder what the police are thinking?” Regan said.

“They probably think that I took them!”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because I knew about them.”

“But you brought it up to them. Didn’t you say the diamonds’ existence had been pretty much a secret?”

“Word had definitely leaked in the club. There were cries and whispers, Regan. Cries and whispers! People heard about the plans for Saturday. Maybe it was the waiter, I don’t know. If I hadn’t brought it up, and they’re not donated to the club, people would ask where they are! It would look like I was hiding them for myself.”

“I see,” Regan said.

“Could that make me a suspect?”

Regan cleared her throat. “Thomas, the police always take a look at everyone who might have had the motive or the opportunity to carry out a crime.”

“That’s why I need you, Regan.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Regan, please come stay here. Help me solve this mess. Help me get back those diamonds. Help me clear my name. Help me secure the future of the Settlers’ Club!”

Is that all? Regan wondered. “Thomas, I’m only in town for a few days. I have to get back to Los Angeles on Monday. I’m in the middle of a case.”

“I don’t care! Come for the weekend then. See what you can figure out in the little time you have.” He paused and said plaintively, “I need you, Regan. I don’t know what else to do.”

Regan looked over at her mother, who was sitting at the table, studying Regan with a quizzical look.

“Okay, Thomas,” Regan said. “I’ll come stay with you. I can be down there by about ten.”

“Regan, I knew you were the one to call. You’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“I hope I don’t disappoint you, Thomas. I’ll do my best.” When Regan hung up the phone, she turned to her mother. “You always said you wanted me to work in New York City.”

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