A peek at my cozy mystery, The Painted Lady Inn Mystery.
The front door swung open, drawing attention. A few of her new neighbors stood bundled up in coats with their pajama legs and slippers peeking out the bottom. The others she’d bet hid behind lace curtains watching the scene unfold, unwilling to chance the brisk winter morning air or the possibility of looking rude. Politeness served as a prerequisite in the restored Victorian neighborhood. Manners and money, that’s why she had jumped on the foreclosed home. It would be the perfect place for her dream Bed and Breakfast.
A medic backed out of her front door guiding a gurney, which held a filled black body bag. The second medic handled the back end. The series of steps leading away from the door made it difficult for the initial medic, a slender male, to handle. A couple of times, he lost his grip. The front end of the gurney bounced down the steps while the muscular woman on the back end chastised him.
“Come on Barney. Grab the bar and lift. Give the man some dignity.”
The medic reached for the metal bar, gaining control over the plummeting stretcher. Her new neighbors now knew a dead man resided under the black covering. Not good. Time to salvage her reputation and The Painted Lady Inn’s also. Her father’s old pea coat, with obvious pilling across the wool material paired with a promotional drug ball cap some rep had given her on his last visit, made her look more homeless than actual business owner. Suck it up, Donna. Go do what you need to do. Damage control.
Her lips lifted up in a parody of a smile as she crunched across the frosted lawn. An elderly woman glanced up at her husband and took a step back. Seriously, did she look that bad? Okay, no makeup, but her reaction didn’t make sense. “Hello. I bet you’re wondering what’s going on.” She held out her hand to the man since the woman’s pinched mouth and panicked eyes didn’t encourage neighborliness.
The man hesitated for a brief second before taking her hand and giving a brief, firm shake. “Stan Whitaker. Yes, I did wonder what was happening. The sirens interrupted our breakfast.”
Ah yes, a complaint. Somehow she had ruined their breakfast. Finding a dead man in her newly purchased home put her off her cereal too, especially considering there wasn’t one there yesterday when she did the walk through with the realtor. “Um, sorry about that. I came over early to start on the renovations.”
The man’s bushy eyebrows lifted with the word renovation. Yeah, she knew the type. They didn’t think a woman could do anything besides cook and clean. Forever single, she had termed herself after being left at the altar at twenty-two. However, it gave her the opportunity to do many things most would consider man’s work, including renovating the neglected Victorian. Ignoring his attitude, she plowed on. “Wanted to get a rough feel for what I need to do first.”
She nodded her head as if she were considering ripping out walls as opposed to holding up paint chips and looking for mouse droppings. Her brother, Daniel, a construction supervisor, agreed to give his professional opinion and should be arriving any time now.
A car door slammed. “Hey Donna!” Her sibling’s voice cut across the chaos ensuing on her front lawn. Her hand went up to acknowledge the greeting. She wished the man didn’t have to yell everything, but probably the natural result of working with power tools.
“My brother,” she explained, noticing the frightened woman had no trouble peering around her for a look at her brother. Geez seriously. The octogenarian was checking out her brother in front of her husband, causing Donna to roll her eyes. The animated look on the woman’s face demonstrated her brother’s proximity. “I’m Donna, if you couldn’t tell.” She forced out a little chuckle as if commenting on her brother calling her by name was humorous. It wasn’t.
She spoke faster knowing any chance at meaningful conversation disappeared with Daniel’s appearance. Not only did the Universe bless him with the wicked good looks of a fallen angel with blonde hair and dark thick eyelashes all women envied, but he had charisma. Women, men, children, even dogs loved him. It would be normal for her to hate him, but his constant concern for his older, single sister cancelled out the uncharitable emotion. Well, at least most of the time. Her new neighbor grew more interested, stepping forward, earning a dark look from her husband.
Ignoring the interplay, she spoke Yankee fast. “Anyhow, in the upstairs room, the attic really. Thinking about making that into a parlor. Great view. Went up to check the view again in the winter with all the leaves off the trees and found the dead man.“ A backward glance revealed her brother about two feet away and a man in a sports coat clutching a cellphone to his ear, stolling behind him. Great. Who could that be? Don’t let it be the local news.
“How do you know he was dead?” The woman managed to tear her eyes away from Daniel’s wide shoulders long enough to ask.
She inhaled deeply. These people don’t know me. Be patient. I need their good will. “I’m a nurse. Have been for the last thirty years.”
The husband and wife looked at each other and smiled. The man met her eyes first.“ A nurse would be handy as a neighbor. My Hilda has spells.”
Oh great, another couple who expected free medical services. It was a common reaction when she announced her profession. At least it wasn’t as bad as the men who announced they’d like to play doctor. That nonsense ended about the time she turned fifty.
“Glad to help,” she offered, not really meaning it, knowing she’d be saddled with a hypochondriac all hours of the day and night. Give a little to get what you want. Her father’s famous words about getting along with others, but it always seemed like she gave a great deal and got very little in return.
The scent of tobacco rode the air, causing her to pivot, searching the crowd for the offender. The man behind Daniel let out a puff of smoke as he returned her glance. At least he wasn’t polluting her inn with his vile smoke. Her window of opportunity would slam shut in about thirty seconds. “I was wondering if you knew the man. Why he might be in my house?”
They shook their heads in unison, although the man was the one who replied. “Absentee owner. I heard he resided in another state. No one ever came around the last couple of years except for the realtor and the lawn service. “
Lawn service. A possible lead, but there was little to do in the dead of winter. “Hey,” Daniel called out, turning all attention on him as he usually did. Well, at least she had seven years of having her parents’ sole attention before her baby brother showed up.
“Oh,” she added, knowing the window named Daniel would slam down on her inquiries. “Good looking man with brown hair, expensive haircut. Preppy clothes, oxford shirt, khakis, and one of those club windbreakers. The ones that have the name of the club stenciled on the right side. Probably in his late thirties.”
Hilda looked away from Daniel briefly, her mouth partly open, ready to answer, when Stan did it for her. “Nope. Don’t know anyone like that.”
Daniel nodded to the couple, giving them an easy smile that had them beaming back as if he’d just told them they were sweepstakes winners. Presenting his hand he shook both theirs. Hilda had no trouble shaking his hand. Donna stepped back, realizing her time was done, but she needed her brother, who engaged in chatter about the weather.
Mr. Smoky eased up next to her. “I heard what you said about the dead man.”
Her eyes cut to the man beside her whose skin, upon closer examination, appeared weathered and wrinkled, not at all the appearance of a reporter. Too old, too rough, not one of the pretty boys who ended up in front of the camera. His tweed sports coat sported wide lapels, indicating the man was no slave to fashion or he was cheap, or possibly both.
Surreal. Everything had shifted at some point in time to left of normal. It could have happened while she slept. The man puffed away on his cigarette, getting the last drag before he dropped it and ground it underneath his loafer. Good thing they were standing in the neighbor’s yard and not hers. “Yeah, what about it?” She tried for the world-weary voice of a sexy 1940’s silver screen siren. The scratchy tone of her coffee-less voice grated. Somewhere, between finding a deceased trespasser and calling the police, she’d put down her hazelnut coffee.
Her eyes remained on Daniel as he effortlessly charmed the older couple. Why couldn’t she do that? It would be a useful skill for running a bed and breakfast, but her practical nature saw small talk as a waste. She had considered making her brother a partner, but his wife Shelly quickly put the kibosh on that plan. The man spoke, reminding him of her presence by her side.
“You have a good eye. You remembered a great deal while only seeing the man briefly before you called the police.”
Yeah. True, she tended to remember things. Was he complementing her or accusing her? “When a dead stranger shows up in a newly purchased house, it makes a big impression.”
“Understandable.” The man agreed, patting down his jacket. Finding a box-like bulge, he pulled out his cigarettes. “Do you mind?”
“Yes.” Her quick answer stopped him in the middle of shaking out a new smoke. He pushed it back in with his index finger, and replaced the pack back into his interior jacket pocket. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Need to quit. Nasty habit.”
Her top teeth rested on her bottom lip keeping her from agreeing as much as she wanted to. She didn’t know who the man was. It would be rude behavior anyhow. As an innkeeper, she’d have to learn to hold her tongue. Critical B & B owners probably earned very few return customers.
“Name’s Mark Taber, detective.”
“I’m Donna -” She never got to finish her introduction before the man finished it for her.
“Tollhouse, the owner, I know.”
Her top teeth clamped down on her lip again. While she could use some lessons on the art of small talk and social etiquette, Detective Taber could benefit from an extensive four-year course. At one time, she played with the idea of naming the inn, The Tollhouse Inn. Her best friend, Barb, discouraged her by pointing out most people didn’t associate the words Tollhouse and cookies together. They’d think there would be some hidden charge if the word toll appeared in the name.
The detective reached back into his jacket, despite the significant look she gave him. His fingers withdrew a long narrow tablet instead of the dreaded smokes. Her gaze dropped to the ground as her cheeks reddened at her bold action. “Ms. Tollhouse, can you run me through your day?”
Naturally, he assumed she was single. Was it the man’s coat she doned, or the ball cap? Did he think she was playing for the other team? Then it hit her. Oh yeah, Ms.. The outdated term identified women whose marital status was uncertain or those who became bristly when asked. Hard to say which one applied to her.
She cleared her throat. “I left my coffee in the house. Could I go get it?” If she was going to do recite her morning of feeding her dog, grabbing the paint chips, and her short wait at Great Awakenings coffee shop, then she need something to soothe her throat.
No, really? It was her coffee. She was the one who had overpaid for the meager paper cup of the sweetened brew she used to jumpstart her day. “Why?”
He furrowed his forehead, allowing his eyebrows to meet. Sure, he measured a few inches taller than she did, but definitely not a giant. If he thought to intimidate her, the man needed some work. She had the dubious privilege of working with numerous doctors who considered themselves gods, not to mention dozens of truly arrogant patients. Eyebrows in need of grooming did not do it.
“It’s a crime scene.” He said the words slowly, enunciating them as if she were either deaf or stupid.
“I know that. I called 911 when I found the dead trespasser.” Donna’s nose crinkled in response to his condescending tone. Someone might have considered her tone abrupt also. Her brother glanced at her, turning away from his enraptured audience, and mouthed the words watch it.
“Trespasser?” The detective pushed his jacket aside and placed his hand on his hip, exposing his holstered weapon.
Was the move supposed to scare her? To prove he was a big bad cop who carried a gun? Somehow that made him better, smarter than her. Not happening though. “That’s what you call somebody who is on your property without permission. The fact he’s dead just makes it more mysterious.”
“Dead. Yeah, he’s dead alright. Murdered.”
Hilda gasped and grabbed her husband’s arm at the detective’s overloud words. The tiny woman directed a baleful glance Donna’s way as if she had something to do with the dead man. Home values in the neighborhood immediately plummeted with Tabor’s pronouncement. Everyone looked at her, including her brother.
“Hey, I didn’t know he was murdered.” She held up her hands waist high, but dropped then when she realized it looked too much like she was surrendering. “I checked his pulse and called the police. There wasn’t any blood that I could see.”
“That’s because,“ The detective halted his words, noticing everyone’s intent stares. “Never mind. Forget about it.”