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 (4 page)

7

It was a wet, cold day in the rolling hills of Devon, England. Rain pelted mournfully against the windows of Thorn Darling-ton’s country estate, home of his famous butler school. Thorn had been in a bad mood for several weeks, coinciding with the commencement of Maldwin Feckles’s butler classes over in New York City.

“I know his school will be pathetic, but he’s doing this to ruin me!” Thorn had cried when he heard the news. “He knew that I was planning to open a branch of the Thorn Darlington School for Butlers there next year. He’s stealing my thunder! On purpose!”

Thorn sank his rotund body into a leather club chair that squeaked in protest whenever he sat down. He sipped the tea that his own butler had just delivered. His whole body ached. The dreary weather seemed to have seeped into his bones, and the aggravations of the day were driving him over the edge. His Thorn Darlington School for Butlers, which had been in existence for over thirty-five years, was about to begin the two-week refresher course that was worse than the six-week intensive program. The course was often filled with a bunch of “know-it-alreadys.” Thorn knew that all they wanted was the Thorn Darlington certificate, which would naturally increase their chances of finding a proper butlering job. Thorn put up with their attitudes because, after the course, most of them would find jobs through Thorn’s placement agency.

He had quite a racket going.

Thorn bit into a tasty shortbread cookie. As he chewed, the frown on his face grew deeper and deeper, while his bushy eyebrows twitched up and down. Just thinking about Maldwin Feckles’s nerve drove him nuts. And now he’d heard that Maldwin was getting publicity for that bloody school, publicity that should have been reserved for him. Feckles was going to be on television in New York City with his students. It was maddening!

Many new butler schools had tried to imitate the Thorn Darlington School, attempting to steal business from him, but they had all quickly shut their doors, failing miserably after one mishap or another. Now Thorn was ready to conquer New York, and he had no intention of letting an oddball wanna-be like Maldwin Feckles get in his way.

In the fall, Maldwin had taken Thorn’s refresher course but had stormed out of Thorn’s office when he realized he was not among the applicants being sent to interview for a job he desperately wanted. He had said he was going to make Thorn very sorry.

Thorn had just snorted and laughed.

Maldwin took off for a holiday in New York City, where he accidentally landed a butlering job, then started his classes. And so far, Thorn had not been able to do anything to stop him.

The phone on the table next to him jangled, fraying his nerves to the breaking point. With great irritation, he answered it.

A few moments later the first broad smile in weeks spread across his jowly face. “A suspicious death and possible burglary right across the hall from Maldwin’s butler school? How delicious! I don’t think it will be too hard to stir up a bit more trouble around there now, do you?” Thorn’s infrequent laugh bellowed through his gloomy office. “Old Maldwin Feckles is going to be very, very sorry he ever stuck his nose into the business of running a butler school. Very sorry indeed.”

8

Daphne Doody had lived in an apartment on the ground floor of the Settlers’ Club for nearly twenty years, but in all that time she had never seen anything that could compare to the excitement of the last twenty-four hours.

First the news about the generous donation that was to be made by Nat Pemrod and Ben Carney had spread through the club like wildfire. Then the sight of Nat’s body being carried out just hours later. And the news of Ben’s demise and the missing diamonds. It was all too crazy.

Daphne had passed through the dining room yesterday when Nat and Ben were dining with Thomas Pilsner. They had looked like they were having such a good time that Daphne hoped they’d ask her to join them. But they hadn’t. You win some and you lose some, she had thought at the time, trying not to be angry that they ignored her. It was obviously a boys’ lunch. And what turned out to be Nat and Ben’s last lunch.

Daphne had bought her apartment when she was forty and making lots of money doing voice-overs for commercials and cartoons. Through the years, she had also appeared in many off-Broadway productions, playing comic roles. Although she worked more than most actors, she still had plenty of free time to devote to sticking her nose into the affairs of the other residents and members of the Settlers’ Club. She had been married once, in her twenties, to a man she had done a scene with in acting class. Unfortunately she had fallen in love with the character he played. It didn’t take long to figure out he was no Rhett Butler.

Now Daphne was sixty and as energetic as ever. She had always wished to remarry, but to her disappointment it hadn’t happened. She had no family to speak of, so she always said that her friends were her family, frequently inviting people into her apartment for parties and get-togethers. She even had people over to listen to her play the piano. The piano-playing parties had become the hardest draw, ever since she made the mistake of putting out a tip jar, thereby offending several of her guests. But that was done in a moment of high anxiety, when she had just lost a commercial and was afraid she’d never work again.

Still a redhead, thanks to monthly trips to a local salon, Daphne was an attractive woman with a Greenwich Village look about her. She favored berets and scarves and long skirts and lace-up boots. Daphne’s bohemian, artsy sensibilities had drawn her to the Settlers’ Club in the first place. After all, the club had been founded by a gentleman who had abhorred the stuffiness of other clubs in the city. He had wanted people with a sense of adventure, people who appreciated the arts. He also believed that women should be accepted as members in their own right. What better place to meet interesting people? Daphne had thought twenty years ago.

As Daphne sat in her apartment reading her favorite newspaper, the
New York World,
which featured a story about an old man who was retiring from his job as a doorman at the Plaza after more than fifty years of service, she sighed. He’s seen a lot, she thought. And so have I, living on the ground floor of this joint.

She put the paper down. Time to get dressed. After all, today I am a working actress.

Daphne had managed to get a job as stand-in for one of the actresses in the film shooting at the Settlers’ Club that day. It’s true it wasn’t like having a real part, but at least she’d meet people in the business. And she needed to meet new people. Members of the club were dropping like flies.

She heard Thomas’s voice outside in the hallway. She ran to the peephole and stole a look. He was walking by with a young woman who looked so familiar. Who was she?

“Wait a minute!” Daphne whispered. “I just saw her picture in the paper. That’s Regan Reilly, and she’s a private detective. Thomas must have called her in!”

“Are you sure you don’t mind staying in Nat’s apartment?” Thomas was asking.

Stay in his apartment! Daphne let the peephole snap shut. I don’t have time now, she thought. But I’ll go up there later with a tray of my cookies, and I’ll offer to be of service in any way I can. I’ll tell her about those meat-market parties held across the hall from Nat’s that don’t welcome women of a certain age!

“There is a season, turn, turn, turn,” she trilled as she ran to her bedroom to get ready.

9

Regan followed Thomas off the elevator and down the red carpeted hallway to Nat’s apartment. The walls were covered with framed collages of black-and-white photos capturing decades of Settlers’ Club parties.

“A lot of history here,” Regan said.

“One hundred years of history, Regan,” Thomas said as he unlocked the heavy wooden door to Nat’s apartment. It opened onto a foyer with wood paneling. To the right, Regan could see the spacious living room.

“And for the last fifty years, Nat called this apartment his home,” Thomas said quietly as he led her inside.

“One of those great old apartments,” Regan commented.

In the living room, Regan’s eyes fixed on a tiny stained-glass window up in the corner. It gave the room the solemn feeling of an old church. “What a wonderful place to escape to,” Regan said, taking it all in. “And look at these sheep.”

Thomas smiled ruefully. “The story goes that Nat and his wife bought them years ago. As you look around the apartment, you’ll see that Wendy had a thing for sheep. As a matter of fact, it was her expressed wish that when they both died these two sheep would have a place of honor in the front parlor. I guess I should bring them down there sooner rather than later.”

“When did she die?” Regan asked.

“Three years ago. They’d been married for forty-five years.”

Regan sighed. “That’s tough. He must have been lonely.”

“Nat didn’t change a thing around here after she died. Her dressing table in the bedroom still has all her perfumes and knickknacks, just as she left them. He said he kept expecting her to come out of the bathroom and sit down at that table like she used to and brush her hair before going to bed.”

“He did have good friends, though.”

“The group he played cards with were his best friends.”

Regan walked over to the antique desk. “This is where the jewelry was left out.”

Thomas looked pained. He just nodded.

“Where is the safe?”

“Behind these books.” Thomas removed several old volumes from one of the lower shelves and placed them on the desk. He then pushed the paneling aside to reveal the safe.

“That’s pretty well hidden,” Regan said. “My mother has a safe in the closet of her bedroom, but it’s in plain view. A couple of years ago the house was burglarized and the safe was bashed in. All of her good jewelry was stolen. She always said it was safer when she hid it in a box in the attic.”

Thomas nodded. “My grandmother was always hiding her jewelry, but then she could never remember where it was. After she died we had to be so careful about throwing anything out. We found jewelry hidden in secret compartments in books.”

“You know, Thomas, one of the things I do want to do is make a preliminary search of the apartment to see if the diamonds are here.”

“Okay, but I still say he kept them in a red box in the safe.”

The doorbell rang.

“Who on earth?” Thomas asked rhetorically as he hurried to the door.

Regan waited, making a mental list of all the things she had to do to get started. And look at all these books, she thought. That red box could be hidden in any one of them.

A sound not unlike a lone dog’s howl in the wilderness echoed through the apartment. Regan ran to the front door. Thomas was leaning against the wall, a small red velvet box in his hands. A fiftyish woman dressed in a maid’s uniform was standing in the hallway with a sympathetic look on her face and “tsk tsks” coming from her mouth. She reminded Regan of Edith Bunker.

“What happened?” Regan asked.

“I heard all the talk this morning about the red box that was missing. Well, I found it! I knew Thomas was up here, so I ran up as fast as I could.”

“It’s empty!” Thomas cried.

“Where did you find it?” Regan asked.

“In the wastebasket in Thomas’s office.”

Regan looked at Thomas, who seemed as if he were about to sink through the floor.

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