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3rd in the Kate Lawrence mystery series
set in historic Old Wethersfield, Connecticut
ISBN 978-0-615-26899-6 trade paperback
232 pages
Now available at Barnes & Noble Bookstores

Everyone has a skeleton or two in their pasts, but the one that turns up at 185 Broad Street in Old Wethersfield is all too real. Afraid that the discovery of a corpse on their property might put off potential buyers, the elderly owners of the historic Victorian house turn to Wethersfield realtor and reluctant amateur sleuth Kate Lawrence to solve their problem.

As if that weren’t enough to contend with, Kate and her longtime love Armando are moving in together. Kate’s partner Strutter has a secret that sends everyone reeling. Best friend Margo sets her cap for a local police officer. And every last one of them is being threatened by an anonymous poison pen.

Join Kate and her friends as all of the skeletons–figurative and literal–come crashing out of the closets to challenge the three women as never before.

SAMPLE CHAPTER

    The long, wet spring had finally turned the corner into a Connecticut summer so glorious that the residents of Old Wethersfield decided among ourselves it had probably been worth the wait. Now that we were into June, the houses on both sides of the Broad Street Green boasted lush lawns and flower beds glowing with every color imaginable under canopies of trees in full leaf. The fields behind the farmhouses showed promising signs of the sweet corn to come, and although I knew very well that I had another month to wait, I was already salivating at the thought of wolfing down a tomato so fresh it was still warm from the sun.

The grand old specimens of oak, elm and beech that anchored the green itself dozed in the morning sunshine, no doubt congratulating themselves on having survived yet another New England winter. Property was proudly maintained here, and nearly every Cape Cod, Colonial, Victorian and farmhouse along our route shone with fresh paint and liberally applied elbow grease.

Usually, my daughter Emma and I hiked the loop from the Law Barn on Old Main Street, where our respective businesses were housed, to the Wethersfield Cove and back, but we varied our route occasionally to check out properties for sale in different neighborhoods. It’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but we both have reason to be interested in local real estate. Along with my partners, Margo Farnsworth and Charlene Putnam, I own MACK Realty. Emma, who is a paralegal, and her friend Isabel, who had just passed her bar exam, were launching a real estate law practice in the Law Barn’s spacious loft. House sales were booming in what had to be the last of a sustained hot market, and our morning constitutionals gave us an opportunity to mix a little business with pleasure before the workday claimed us.

We slowed our pace as we approached the little pond on the corner of Spring Street, where a dozen geese and a sprinkling of ducks habitually summered. Emma, her older brother Joey, and I shared a fondness for all types of critters, and we liked to follow the progress of the fuzzy ducklings and goslings as they morphed into sleek adulthood, ready for their fall migration to more hospitable winter quarters. For the past few years, a pair of black-legged mute swans had also selected our little pond as their summer home. Since swans are both bossy and territorial, their presence didn’t please the rest of the feathered inhabitants, but the human visitors were delighted. This year’s hatch had produced four of the most adorable cygnets we had ever seen, although to be truthful, we said that every year.

This morning, the elegant twosome seemed to be sleeping late, as they were nowhere in sight. I hadn’t visited the pond in several weeks, and I was eager to see the babies and be sure that all were present and accounted for. The few Canadian geese who had not been run off, plus a small number of sturdy mallards, were taking advantage of the swans’ absence by preening their feathers on the grass near us.

“Eeuuuww, what’s that?” Emma stood on the bank and twisted her long, ash blonde hair into a high ponytail as she scanned the bank on the far side of the pond, squinting in the bright sunlight. She leaned forward and frowned. “It looks like a hairy chicken.”

I peered in the direction she was pointing. Though my eyes aren’t as young as my daughter’s, I could make out what did indeed look something like a chicken covered in dryer lint wriggling in the tall grass. One scrawny, unattractive wing stretched out briefly. Instinctively, Emma shrank away, but the sight made me smile. “Maybe it’s a baby buzzard,” she ventured. “Do buzzards live around here?” The creature in question now unfolded a long, wobbly neck and lifted its head. Emma looked at me in bewilderment. “What in the world …”

Before I could speak, her question was answered. Out of the marsh grasses to the left of the mysterious specimen strutted two magnificent swans, herding three more of their babies. When the adults had their four hideous offspring satisfactorily corralled, they all filed into the water. First came Dad, gliding slowly across the still surface. The four youngsters paddled after him furiously. I noticed that one of them was a bit smaller than the others, but he or she seemed to be able to keep up just fine. Mom brought up the rear. “Baby swans!” Emma crowed in disbelief. “Hans Christian Andersen sure had that ugly duckling thing right. I’ve never seen one before, have you, Mamacita? It’s kind of like with pigeons. You know there must be babies, but I don’t know anyone who has actually seen one.”

Emma’s nickname for me was a hangover from a long-ago semester of high school Spanish. After ten years, it had almost stopped annoying me. “They’re cygnets, technically speaking, and yes, I’ve seen them before. They’re absolutely adorable when they’re first hatched, just like ducklings. This is their awkward adolescence, but they’ll morph into beauties in a few more weeks.” We stared at the ugly youngsters as their proud parents continued their circuit of the pond, oblivious to our opinions. I checked my watch. It was only 7:15, still too early for the dog walkers and the baby strollers.

I scanned the neighboring apartment buildings to be sure we wouldn’t be disturbed for a while longer, then eased open the trunk of my Altima and extracted the digital camera I kept handy. I wanted to be able to get a closer look at these fascinating babies when I got back to my computer. I rejoined Emma at the water’s edge next to the sign that read, “Don’t Feed the Animals” and hoped once again that it was keeping people from tossing bread, crackers and the other awful stuff they had been taught by their misguided parents to throw into the pond for the geese and ducks who summered there. They meant it kindly, of course, but the truth was that the starchy stuff swelled the birds’ bellies, spread avian botulism through the excessive droppings that resulted, and kept the birds from foraging for the seeds, aquatic grasses, and submerged pond weeds that constituted their ideal diet, supplemented with a few invertebrates, fish eggs and small fish.

I took two careful photos of the little family and checked the results in my viewer before turning the camera off. “There. Now I have proof that baby swans are ugly. I wonder when they’ll get pretty this year?”

“I hope it’s not before I get back.” Emma looked a bit wistful as she smoothed her hair out of her hazel eyes, so much like my own. She was a slightly shorter, sturdier version of me at the same age, and her smile lit up any room she entered. Her brother Joey had dipped equally into both sides of his gene pool and wore my face atop his father’s frame. On him, I had to admit the combination looked good, and more than a few young women seemed to agree.

“When is that again?” I asked as we headed back toward the Broad Street Green, where our cars were parked.

“Six weeks from Saturday, the end of July.”

Today’s walk would be our last for several weeks, I reflected. This afternoon Emma would leave for Boston, about one hundred miles northeast of Wethersfield, to study in preparation for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ advanced competency exam. The designation of Registered Paralegal would enhance her new business’s credentials, which was a good idea for a pair of twenty-eight-year-olds striking out on their own.

“How is Officer Ron taking your impending separation?” I twitted her. Ron Chapman of the Wethersfield Police Department was Emma’s latest beau.

“Not well, but that’s okay. It will be good for him to miss me. He’s coming up for the fourth of July concert by the Charles River. A little absence will make for a hot reunion,” she twitted me, digging an elbow into my ribs.

“That’s way too much information for your mother,” I complained. “Knock it off, or I’ll force you to listen to the lurid details of my sex life.” I did a Groucho Marx eyebrow wiggle.

She feigned shock. “You and Armando have a sex life? At your advanced ages? Amazing.” Armando Velasquez was my steady man, a handsome South American transplant who could still make my middle-aged heart flutter like a teenager’s after eight years together—when we weren’t bickering, that is. Unfortunately, at present, we were. The topic was moving in together, which we were days from doing. As devoted as we were to each other, and as much as we loved being together, we were both reluctant to give up the freedom of solo living we had enjoyed since our respective divorces many years ago. Armando seemed to think we would be fine under the same roof. I wasn’t as confident.

I sighed as we approached our cars and tried to ignore the anxiety that nibbled at my midsection. “I’ll come by and take baby swan pictures once a week or so. I can e-mail them to you so you can keep up with the little uglies’ progress.”

“Great! You can send them right to my cell phone.” Emma owned every electronic gadget on the market, which I realized was age appropriate, but it astounded me that she operated all of them with ease. I could barely manage to place a call on my cell phone, and I seriously doubted my ability to send digital photos to hers, but I decided to let her keep her illusions about her mother’s lack of technical ability for a while longer.

“I’m going home to pack. I’ll call you later to say goodbye.” Emma was quite aware of my angst and opted not to drag out our farewell. She hugged my neck, climbed into her Saturn, and zoomed off, leaving me gazing after her with mixed feelings. Officer Ron might be okay with Emma’s newfound independence, but I wasn’t sure I was.

Emma and her brother Joey, seventeen months older than she, had both preferred to stay close to home until recently, content to live within a tight circle of friends and family. About two years ago, Joey had suddenly become restless, acquired a commercial driver’s license, and now led the gypsy existence of a long distance trucker. To everyone’s amazement, he loved it. Six nights a week, he lived in his surprisingly comfortable tractor, which, when hooked up to a trailer, formed the seventy-three-foot rig in which he moved back and forth across the country. The space behind the driver’s seat resembled a very small apartment and contained bunk beds, a small refrigerator, cupboards and shelves, a television/DVD player, laptop computer, and a satellite radio dish. The truck stops he frequented offered shower rooms and power hook-ups and even air conditioning or heat, depending upon the season, which was provided through a window vent. One night a week, he turned up from Denver or San Diego or Atlanta to spend the night at my Wethersfield condominium, wolf down a home-cooked meal, and play with Simon and Jasmine, my aged housecats. The rest of the time, he was seeing more of the United States, Canada, and even Mexico than I ever would, and I had a wall map full of push-pins to prove it.

Now Emma was heading for the big city, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I was proud of her, certainly, but there was something more. Fear? No. I chuckled as I unlaced my Avias and stuck my feet into the sandals I wore to work these warm summer days. Emma was nobody’s fool. Her father and I had raised her to take care of herself. She would be gone for only a few weeks. More likely, I was a little envious. My own school days in Boston, a city I continue to love, had ended more than thirty years ago, but the spirit of the perpetual teenager that still inhabited my middle-aged body remembered the sounds and scents of summer evenings by the Charles River, enjoying the Boston Pops concerts with beaux of my own. It had been pretty heady stuff then. For Emma’s sake, I hoped it still was.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Eeeuuwww, what’s that?” This time the comment came from Jenny, the pretty youngster who worked as our receptionist, as I entered the Law Barn’s lobby through the back door. Frowning, she scanned the newspaper clipping she held in one hand, then turned it sideways to examine something written in the margin. An envelope dangled from her other hand. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, but on her, it was merely cute. No one looking at Jenny for the first time would guess that the petite brunette was a second-year law student at the University of Connecticut, working days to earn the tuition for her night classes, in which she ranked solidly among the top 10%. “Listen to this, Kate.” She read aloud:

June 14 / 3:05 p.m. US/Eastern STORRS, Conn. (AP)

Within the next few weeks, New Englanders will have the opportunity to see and smell one of the strangest productions of the vegetable kingdom: the titan arum, which features a gigantic bloom—and a mighty stench akin to that of decaying flesh—is expected to open sometime near the end of June at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Conservatory.

Currently, the flower bud is more than three feet high and growing by several inches each day. The plant growth facilities manager estimates the plant will flower between June 28 and July 2. Mature flowers are about 6 feet high and 3 feet across, shaped like an urn, with a tall spike rising from the center. The colors of the corpse flower—a sickly yellow and blackish purple—imitate a pot roast that sat out in the sun for a week. The fragrance is universally described as being powerful and revolting, with elements of old socks, dead bodies and rotten vegetables. As if that isn’t weird enough, the corpse flower is actually warm-blooded, heating itself up at the height of flowering, probably to help spread its putrid odor and attract the flies that will pollinate the plant.

I leaned over Jenny’s shoulder to have a look at the accompanying photo of the botanical phenomenon, which resembled a tightly closed, three-foot-tall lily bud. “Now there’s something only a botanist could love.” I yielded my spot to Margo, who had joined us on her way to refill her coffee mug. Incredibly, she had risked wearing white linen to the office, but I had to admit that the fitted sheath complemented her fair coloring and blonde chignon exquisitely. Rhett Butler, the chocolate Labrador Retriever who was Margo’s constant companion, nuzzled my ankle, and I obliged with a head scritch while his mistress gazed, awestruck, at the corpse flower bud.

“Oh, my,” Margo gasped. “That is the most phallic flower I have ever seen, Sugar. Why, it’s absolutely disgustin’!” She winked at me behind Jenny’s back.

“Since when do you use the words ‘phallic’ and ‘disgusting’ in the same sentence?” I countered. Southern belle though she was, Margo’s avid interest in men made her resemble Samantha Jones more closely than Scarlett O’Hara. Since last fall, she had been focusing on Lieutenant John Harkness, who headed the Wethersfield Police Department’s detective division. He was also Ron Chapman’s boss. To everyone’s amazement, John had abandoned his dour professional persona and was thriving under the attentions of my libidinous partner. “Who sent us the clipping, and what’s that scribbling down there on the corner?”

Jenny handed me the clipping, which was actually a computer print-out of an article from an internet news website, and took a closer look at the envelope. “There’s no return address, but it’s postmarked Storrs,” she noted. Do you have a friend at UConn, Kate?”

The University of Connecticut was located in Storrs. “Not that I’m aware of. Why? Was it addressed to me?”

Jenny inspected the address again. It had been block printed in blue felt pen. “Mmmm, no, it wasn’t. It just says MACK Realty in upper and lower case, as if the person who sent it doesn’t know that M-A-C-K is an acronym of the first letters of Margo, Charlene and Kate.” She handed the envelope to Margo and looked at us expectantly. “What do you think?”

I held the print-out closer to the lamp on Jenny’s desk. The Law Barn’s loft had windows and skylights, but downstairs, only the offices at the rear of the first floor enjoyed natural light. The lobby, which occupied the center of that level, was always a bit dim, so we kept a variety of table lamps on during the day to brighten things up. I turned the sheet of paper sideways and peered at the scribbles in the margin, apparently made with the same blue felt pen that was used on the envelope. “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you,” I read with difficulty and looked up. “A Bible verse maybe?” I had been raised as a Lutheran, but my adult attitude toward organized religion was distinctly agnostic, and my remembrance of Bible verses was sketchy.

Margo took a look. “Sure sounds like one to me, Sugar, if I’m rememberin’ all those Sunday mornins’ I spent yawnin’ at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta correctly. And what’s this last part? ‘And it shall come to pass that instead of sweat … no, make that sweet … smell there shall be stink.’ Is that a reference to the absolutely revoltin’ plant in this news article?”

“I guess,” I responded doubtfully, “but what does one thing have to do with the other? And why does someone want to bring fornication and large, smelly plants to our attention?” We looked blankly at each other, then back to Jenny.

“My guess would be some religious zealot has it in for one of you,” she announced. “He or she probably doesn’t like the fact that all of us unmarried females are breaking at least one of the Commandments on a regular basis.” She smiled sunnily. “You know, Kate and Armando … Margo and John … Emma and Ron … oops! Sorry, Kate. I keep forgetting that you’re Emma’s mom.”

My smile was thin. “I believe you said ‘all of us,’ which would include you, would it not?” I said tartly. Margo giggled, and Jenny started to squirm. The telephone rang, and she snatched it off the hook gratefully.

Momentarily stumped, we left the article and its envelope on Jenny’s desk and headed for the coffeemaker. Along with the photocopier, it stood in a little alcove to the left of the lobby. Rhett Butler kept us company, no doubt hoping for a handout from the jar of dog treats that sat next to the coffeemaker. “So what’s on everybody’s agendas today?” I inquired as I slid a pre-measured filter pack into the plastic basket and poured water into the top of the machine. Making coffee for the junior associates had been one of Margo’s duties at the Hartford law firm where she, Charlene and I had worked before we joined forces to open the realty office, and she flatly refused ever to do it again outside of her own kitchen. I didn’t blame her.

“I’ve got showings scheduled from 9:30 on at Vista Views,” she began, referring to the new active adult community for which we served as rental agents. “Then a quick manicure at one o’clock.” She tsk-ed over the state of her fingertips. They looked fine to me, but when it came to the fine points of personal grooming, Margo’s standards were higher than mine. “After that, it’s paperwork and more paperwork unless …” hope brightened her expertly made-up face, “Strutter comes in with a new listin’, as I frankly expect she will.” Strutter was the nickname of our third partner, Charlene Putnam. Recently remarried and the mother of a young son from her first, long-ago marriage, Strutter was a drop-dead gorgeous native of Jamaica. Soft curls fell to her shoulders, and eyes the color of the Caribbean sparkled in her beautiful, brown face, which topped a figure to die for and legs up to here. No one who had ever seen Charlene strut her stuff ever questioned the sobriquet.

“Where is Strutter anyway?” I questioned, filling Margo’s mug and then my own. I pointed at the dog treats and raised an eyebrow. Margo shook her head, and we carried our coffee down three steps to the MACK Realty office off the lobby at the rear of the Law Barn. I sat at the desk, and Margo arranged herself on the comfortable sofa and fired up her laptop. Rhett flopped at her feet, sighed once, and fell instantly asleep. He wasn’t as young as he once was, and he needed his naps so that he could keep a properly watchful eye on the back yard when Margo took him out to his spacious pen.

“I saw her checking the phone messages earlier,” she said now, squinting a little as she scrolled through her emails. She resisted wearing her stylish computer glasses, even though I had pointed out the little frown line forming between her exquisitely groomed eyebrows. “There was one from Ada Henstock—you know, one of those darlin’ little ol’ gals who live over on the Broad Street Green. She wanted our advice on somethin’ to do with that enormous house she and her sister own near the Anderson Farm … the Second Empire with the mansard roof.”

Known locally as The Henstock Girls at the age of eighty plus, the Misses Ada and Lavinia Henstock were fixtures in Old Wethersfield. The story went that although both sisters had been quite appealing in their youth, they were spinsters by choice. They had spurned the advances of many a prospective suitor upon the advice of their dear papa, who had never felt that any of the local gents were quite good enough for his little girls. The Honorable Reuben Henstock, Esq., widowed shortly after his second daughter was born, had been a tartar of a man who had first served in the Connecticut State Legislature, then been appointed to the bench. He had never remarried, leaving the day-to-day care of his children to a succession of housekeepers, and had presided over trials right up until the day of his death in the late 1960s, when he had gaveled the day’s court business to a close and collapsed untidily across his bench. Since then, the sisters, who were known for their ability to stretch a dollar, had shared their home with a scrawny cat or two, but men seeking their company had been unilaterally turned away.

“Huh!” Emma and I just walked right by that house. What kind of advice?”

“Frankly, we couldn’t make much sense of Ada’s message. You know how reserved she is, how reserved they both are, when they aren’t finishin’ each other’s sentences, but Ada was practically pleadin’ for one of us to come by and let her know how somethin’ or other might affect the value of their property. She seemed real upset, and you know how tenderhearted Strutter is. She picked up her purse and ran right on over there to put Miss Ada’s mind at ease.”

I couldn’t help smiling as I imagined Strutter walking her distinctive walk up to the front door of the Henstock house and lifting the big brass knocker. The ladies would be peeking from behind the lace curtains at one or the other of the big front windows. They knew Margo and me by sight, since we had sold a house in that neighborhood while Strutter and John were on their honeymoon, but what they would make of Strutter was anybody’s guess. It was safe to say that the elderly sisters’ experience of black women had been limited to peremptory exchanges with their dear papa’s kitchen help when they were growing up. What they would make of a stylishly clad black businesswoman rapping on their front door, I could not think.

“Well, this has been some Thursday morning so far. I saw the baby swans about an hour ago. They look rather like vultures at this stage, did you know that? Emma is taking off this afternoon for six weeks in Boston, and I’m not at all sure how I feel about that. Some religious fanatic seems to have taken exception to the way we conduct our personal lives, and the Henstock girls are having the vapors. Anything else?” I grinned at Margo as I picked up my phone.

I had learned over the past year that once the phone started ringing, it rarely stopped, and by nine o’clock, the day was officially launched. One call followed another, and I did my best to field inquiries about listed properties, refer buyers to the back-up law firm that was covering while Emma and Isabel got ready to open their doors, and soothe jittery sellers who were anxious to move their properties. A major advantage of having a real estate brokerage in Old Wethersfield is that all of the property that can be developed under current zoning ordinances has pretty much been developed. It’s an extremely desirable community, located west of the Connecticut River and south of Hartford, and almost any residential property that comes on the market generates a flurry of interest. Even a house with an in-ground swimming pool and no garage will sell in this community, despite our short summers and long winters. I know, because we’ve done it. As we tell people over and over again, it’s just a matter of matching the right buyer with the right property, and if it takes a little time, well, the deal will be that much sweeter when it’s done.

As Margo was preparing to leave for her first appointment, we heard the front doors of the Law Barn crash open. Strutter rushed through the lobby and skittered down the half-staircase to the office, almost falling in her haste. She burst through the doorway looking about as pale as it’s possible for a black woman to look. “The Henstock sisters have a skeleton in their closet,” she announced.

“Don’t they always?” murmured Margo, still focused on her computer screen, “and it’s the primmest old gals that usually have the wickedest secrets.” She giggled delightedly. “I can hardly wait. Let’s hear it.” She punched Save, crossed one elegant leg over the other, and gave MACK Realty’s third partner her full attention. I stopped making notes to myself at my desk and did the same.

“No, really,” insisted Strutter. She collapsed onto the sofa next to Margo and looked from one to the other of us wildly. “Kate, Margo, listen to me. There’s a skeleton behind a false wall in an old closet in the Henstock sisters’ basement. Literally. It had clothes on, or at least, it used to.” She clutched her briefcase to her chest and swallowed hard. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Instinctively, Margo leaned away and pulled her Jimmy Choos out of harm’s way. I leaped up, wastebasket at the ready, but Strutter waved me away.

“No, no, I’m not really going to hurl. I just feel queasy, and so would you, if you’d seen what I just saw.” She flopped back on the sofa and stuck her legs out in front ofher. “I need coffee. No,” she amended hastily, holding one hand to her stomach, “make that water. Please,” she added feebly, eyes closed.

“You bet, Sugar.” Margo practically leaped to her feet, causing Rhett Butler to snap to attention. She hurried out to the water cooler and returned in seconds with a filled paper cup. Strutter sat up and sipped carefully, holding the cup between hands that trembled.

I could stand it no longer. “Charlene Putnam, I love you like a sister, but I’m going to walk over there and shake you if you don’t tell us what you are talking about right now.”

“Don’t make me sic Rhett on you,” Margo threatened for good measure. The dog panted happily at the mention of his name. He might lick Strutter to death, I knew, but that was about the extent of her peril.

With an effort, Strutter pulled herself together. “As soon as I parked in front of that big, spooky house, I knew it was a mistake to go inside. There were those crazy old ladies peeking out at me from behind the front curtains, plain as day. Did they imagine I was there to rob them at nine o’clock on a Friday morning? You’d think they’d never seen a black woman on their front porch before.” She stopped shaking and took another noisy sip of water, irked by the memory. Margo and I exchanged glances.

“They were raised in another era,” I soothed, “and they don’t get out much these days either. They probably aren’t used to women being business owners, never mind black women.”

“Huh! Probably don’t know we can vote and own property now and everything,” Strutter fumed. Margo snorted, an unattractive habit of hers when something tickled her. “Anyway, I announced who I was, and Miss Ada let me in. At least, I think it was Ada. The bigger one with the kinky permanent wave and the sensible shoes.” I nodded. “The wispy one, Lavinia, just kind of fluttered around, waving a hankie and moaning to herself. We went into the front room, the one they’d been using to check me out, and sat on the sofa, and I asked as delicately as I could what had them in such a swivet. I didn’t want to be too pushy, them still being in shock at having a sister sitting right there on their sofa and all.” Another snort from Margo.

“And what did Ada say?” I prodded in an effort to move this along. Margo checked her watch none too discreetly.

Finally, Strutter kicked it into high gear. “She said they’d about run through all the money from their papa’s trust fund, and they were considering selling the house, but some pipes running to the old boiler needed serious repairs, and they’d had a fellow banging around in the basement tearing out walls and bricks, and he found something even worse than the leak, and they needed to know how it might affect the value of the property.” She sucked in a breath. We waited.

“It was a skeleton! He found it right there in a closet that had been built next to where the pipes come down next to the chimney. He had to break through the back wall, which was apparently false, because there was another one behind it. He completely freaked, said he didn’t want to be involved in any investigation or questioned by the police, and he packed up his tools and ran out of there. For some reason, Ada called us. Naturally, I thought she was hallucinating or seeing shadows, so I had her get me a big ol’ flashlight and dragged her down there to show her it had just been some moth-eaten clothes on a hanger or something, and, well,” she gulped, “there was a skeleton, or sort of a skeleton. It was more like a dried-up old mummy with scraps of cloth clinging to parts of it.” She shuddered.

Margo looked at me and back at Strutter. “But why on earth did Ada call us instead of the police? Did she want to know if they should include the thing in their askin’ price?” Strutter was not amused.

“Where are Ada and Lavinia now?” I inserted hastily.

“They’re right where I left them in their front parlor, drinking cups of strong, hot tea with lots of sugar. They didn’t know whether to call the police, so I told them I’d come back here and consult with my partners. I didn’t know what else to do, and I surely wanted to get out of there.”

I sat on the couch next to her and patted her arm. “Well, of course you did. The question is, what do we do now?”

Margo promptly took charge. “I’m going to call John and ask him to meet you—unofficially, of course—over at the Henstocks,” she said, punching numbers into her cell phone, “and then I’m going over to Vista Views for my first showing. I’m already late. Don’t worry,” she comforted Strutter, who looked stricken at the thought of returning to the Henstock house. “John will take very good care of you. He’s the head of the detective division, remember, and very reliable. I have reason to know that he’s also the soul of discretion.” She winked broadly, trying to get Strutter to smile, but she didn’t.

“Getting tangled up with you, he’d have to be,” was her only comment.