Death is discovered on an idyllic southern California island when feisty British gossip columnist Tosca Trevant is banished to the U.S. at the request of Buckingham Palace. Idly snooping out of sheer boredom, she stumbles across what she believes to be human remains in a recently widowed music professor’s rock garden. Tosca asks a retired U.S. Secret Service agent for help, and by solving the riddle of a coded music score, the two sleuths bring a serial killer to an unexpected end.
Letter from a Lonely Outpost. Hello, dear Reader. I have settled onto this lovely little island and will be ferreting out some delicious tidbits for you from this side of the Big Pond… I miss the Savoy and the Ritz bar terribly but have just discovered there is a Ritz right here, thank heavens, even though it is in the middle of a shopping mall where fashionistas are buying a new perfume called Gossip! An omen, perhaps?… Someone here has written a 147-page poem. Took him forty years and he says he doesn’t completely understand it. Not surprising. Toodle-oo sweet Reader, till next time.
Tosca thought about the neighbor’s wife as she left JJ’s apartment for her usual early morning walk. She found it difficult to reconcile the darkness of death when every day now was filled with sunshine. After a week on Isabel Island, Tosca was in love with the balmy Southern California climate but still missed the frequent cloudbursts that freshened her English homeland. As she strode briskly around the three-mile seafront, a folded parasol at the ready in her hand, she examined everything in sight with a suspicious eye. She’d given up counting the dozens of powerboats docked in the bay, the small boats bobbing on moorings, and the expensive yachts berthed alongside private docks, matching the opulence of the chic beach houses. crammed together like dominos in a box. Snow-clad mountains towered in the distance, dwarfing the gleaming white skyscrapers of Newport Beach’s luxury hotels and office buildings.
But every day brought a new dilemma.
“What? No proper teashop nearby?” she’d protested to JJ
Tosca glanced skyward as she walked. A-barth am Jowl! Not a drop of rain, either. As the sun lazily nudged itself over the hills and took its first look of the day at the wide Newport Beach harbor and the bay big enough to embrace seven small islands Tosca opened the parasol to shade herself.
She called out a cheerful “Good morning!” to a jogger as he passed. Foremost in her mind, though, was where to find the kind of gossip for her column from America that her editor, Stuart Prebble, demanded while she sought a crime to solve.
“Stuart, I don’t think there’s much royal gossip where I’m going. Certainly no authentic royalty. Can’t I be an investigative reporter instead?” she’d asked for the fourth time before she left London.
Not that Tosca felt that the “Tiara Tittle-Tattle” column was beneath her, especially since she inevitably managed to ferret out private tidbits before anyone realized they’d revealed them. For eleven years she’d held her readers enthralled or appalled, depending on their sympathies toward the throne. That is, until she was rather swiftly banished, she complained, just like the exiled Duke of Windsor who was booted to the Bahamas for marrying an American divorcee. Exalted company, indeed, but humiliating. She was grateful that London Daily Post readers knew nothing of the real reason for her re-assignment. Tosca’s farewell column was headlined, “Goodbye London, Hello Los Angeles.” The new title was, “Tête-a-Tête with America.”
When the editor called her into his office to tell her, she’d said, “Oh, for goodness sake, Stuart. That sounds fatuous. And what am I supposed to be writing about? How America takes tea? The Tea Partiers? Tête-a-Tête indeed. I think that my re-assignment is the perfect opportunity for a splendid new start. How about it?”
“No way, Tosca. We want readers to follow you across the pond for your impressions. What’s it like living there? Tell me about some of those bizarre happenings that Americans take for granted, not the usual Hollywood celebrity trash. I want gossipy stories about real people. That makes you almost a news reporter, right?”
“Well, I’ll give it a try. But promise me you’ll work on our legal problem with the royals.”
At first she’d told herself the threatened lawsuit was due to her description of the queen’s latest appearance in that dreadful blue frock as “gravity having claimed her ample bosom.” But, of course, she knew it was for the discovery she’d made and the matter was far more serious than a mere criticism of the monarch’s elderly figure.
Maybe now that JJ is now a proud U.S. citizen I should become one, too, she reflected, and report on crimes on the West Coast. There seem to be plenty of shootings judging by the media. I might never go back to England. Let the Brits solve their own murders.
But despite the beauty of the beach town she now resided in Tosca already missed the hustle and bustle of the London tube stations and their trains that ran underground all over the city. She missed the wild Cornish moors of her childhood that gave her respite on weekends in the country and she missed the vibrant energy that millions of Londoners, speaking dozens of different languages and dialects, brought to the chattering streets. She even missed Buckingham Palace although it was her downfall. Would Queen Elizabeth really go through with the lawsuit? Well, I’ll have to make the best of it, she decided.
“JJ,” she’d asked her daughter a day after her arrival, “where will I find vino nero among the hundreds of California brands?”
“That black Sardinian wine? You really must learn to adjust, Mother. Our Sonoma and Napa Valley wines are renowned worldwide. Here,” said JJ, “try this pinot noir. I bought it especially for you.”
After she tasted the wine Tosca admitted it was passable and even agreed that Orange County offered a tranquility and beauty that could be considered paradise. But as she strode along the seafront she thought about having to adjust to the conformity she was encountering in her new home.
A Starbucks on every corner. Stainless steel appliances in every kitchen, she’d heard. . And as for the epidemic of fake breasts everywhere, as round as soccer balls and equally, she suspected, as hard, she had to admit the practice had found its way to Britain and was eagerly embraced.
Besides, who am I to judge? Jolly old England isn’t so jolly any more, ever since the Beatles left center stage and Camilla came to town. A-barth an Jowl, Tosca swore again. Now I’m complaining again. Well, this gorgeous place really is annoying, she thought. Not a breath of bloody wind, not a cloud in the sky. Oh, for a nice, wet drizzle, that soft, steady, persistent misty rain that can last for hours and require the wearing of wellies.
She walked past a pseudo-Tudor cottage slotted between two small Swiss-style chalets taking a perverse delight in trying to decipher the island’s eclectic housing styles. Along the bay’s canals were Dutch colonials with overhanging eaves, Spanish-style stucco, adobes topped with red tiles, and a Cape Cod built next to a couple of grand pseudo-haciendas. The mix of styles also included a handful of New England saltboxes and several large Georgian homes that stood on double lots, their formal heavy stone sills and ornate roof balustrades completely out of place at the beach.
“Isabel Island’s saving grace,” she declared to JJ, “is its variety of architecture. I love it. It’s a bizarre hodge-podge of styles. No conformity here, thank goodness. Of course, none of it is worth a brass farthing as far as elegance goes.”
“How about our beautiful little front yards?” said JJ.
As she recalled her daughter’s words Tosca stopped in front of one of the houses, leaned over the owner’s low garden wall, reached toward a rose bush, and began snapping off dead flower heads. Finished with the task she brushed aside fallen leaves from a nearby eucalyptus tree. Don’t people know these trees are among the highest emitters of hydro-carbons, contributing to smog? she grumbled. And Americans have no idea how to grow roses. Then she remembered the many prizes they won at the annual Chelsea Flower Show. I’m testy because it’s not raining, she told herself. And I’m bored. From a hotbed of royal intrigue to worrying about a bed of roses. What a comedown.
Tosca passed by the house of JJ’s recently widowed neighbor, Professor Haiden Whittaker, giving it a quick glance before stopping and retracing her steps to his front gate. Yes, the garden was still a mess. Appalling. She’d noticed it yesterday and the day before that. The short white picket fence was easy to see over but she could barely make out the rock garden through the thick vegetation that covered it. Tucked into a corner of the front yard up against the west wall of the house, it was almost three feet in length, five feet high and built in the shape of a pyramid. Ah well, the poor man must still be grieving, she decided. Maybe I can help.
She approached the front door and rang the bell. After a few minutes, she rang the bell again. When no one answered, she marched across to the overgrown area in the corner.
“A disgrace,” she muttered, pushing aside tall, scraggy weeds. “All this rock garden needs is tidying up. Hello, what’s this? Good heavens, where on earth did he get the idea to put these big stones on top? They belong at the bottom. Foolish man. They must be ten inches around. Much too big.”
Heavy, too, she thought, grunting as she picked one up. She noticed a small chunk had crumbled away it revealing four inch-long, stick-like objects embedded in the rock. How strange. Fossils? But as she touched them she felt a chill run through her. She had a sudden suspicion she knew what they were. Impossible. She replaced the rock and walked home. I absolutely refuse to worry about Professor Haiden Whittaker’s weeds again. Or that strange stone they’re hiding.