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Dying to ReadA Novel
By Lorena McCourtney
RevellCopyright © 2012 Lorena McCourtney
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Chapter OneCate glanced at the identification card her Uncle Joe had printed out just before she left his office. Cate Kinkaid, Assistant Private Investigator. Complete with the photo he'd snapped, which showed a spike of red hair growing out of her left ear, and the address and phone number of Belmont Investigations.
An identification card that made her—what? An overage Nancy Drew? An underage Jessica Fletcher? A clueless Stephanie Plum?
Whatever, she was getting desperate, and the job was only temporary, not a lifetime commitment. She was, as Uncle Joe had put it, just dipping her toe into the world of private investigation. Just until one of the many résumés she had floating around brought results. All she had to do today was check on a woman named Willow Bishop living at an address on Meisman Street here in Eugene, Oregon, and then write up a brief report for the files.
Although Cate hadn't expected the house to look as if it had jumped off the cover of some old Gothic novel. She parked at the bottom of the steep driveway and stared up at the unlikely old place sitting on an oversized parcel among a subdivision of modest homes. Not dilapidated, but weathered and brooding, with oddly shaped windows tucked into unlikely nooks and several upper windows painted over. A witch, or maybe a vampire or vulture, wouldn't look out of place peeking over the peaked roof of a corner turret.
No witches, vampires, or vultures lurking today, Cate decided as she walked up the driveway. Not unless they'd taken to using Lincolns or Buicks as transportation. A handful of older women milled around the front porch. One woman was punching the doorbell with open-up-or-else ferocity. Another had her hands pressed to the sides of her face as she peered in a window.
A plump blonde woman in pink spotted Cate and immediately charged out to meet her. "Willow, thank goodness you're here! We've been waiting twenty minutes and—" She stopped and peered at Cate with disapproval. "Oh, you're not Willow, are you?"
"Actually, I'm looking for Willow myself. Willow Bishop?"
"I don't know that I've ever heard her last name. Are you her sister?"
"Does she have a sister?"
"I don't know. You look like a sister."
Cate had realized the description Uncle Joe had given her for Willow Bishop, age 26, 5'4", 120 pounds, red hair, blue eyes, came close to fitting Cate too, but apparently the similarity was even closer than the numbers suggested. Although she was nearer the dreaded 30 than 26.
"No, I'm no relation. It's a business matter." Uncle Joe had emphasized that the work Belmont Investigations did was strictly confidential. "And you are?"
Another woman, tall and gaunt and clothed in more purple than Cate had ever seen on one person, said, "We're the Whodunit Book Club. We read a mystery and meet every other week to discuss it. Today we're meeting here at Amelia's house."
"She's our club president this year," a short woman with a squeaky voice added.
"Someone named Amelia, not Willow, lives here?" Cate asked.
"Willow lives here, but she works for Amelia," Fiona said. "We're supposed to have lunch here at 12:00, and it's already—"
Purple Woman filled in a time. "Almost 12:15." The broad brim of her purple hat flopped with indignation as she spoke.
"Amelia can be so rude. Making us wait out here like this." This woman, in a long, suede skirt, cowboy boots, and spur earrings, waved the book in her hand. "And insisting we read Wuthering Heights was ridiculous. It's no whodunit."
"It wasn't any worse than that awful spy thing you suggested last month, Texie," Fiona snapped.
"At least I had lunch on time," Texie snapped back.
Cate decided a prudent retreat was advisable before she found herself in the cross fire of a book war. Cowgirl-garbed Texie, more toned and tanned than the other women, looked as if she could be a tough adversary. Maybe she had a six-shooter tucked away in that outfit.
"Could Amelia be ill, and that's why she isn't answering the door?" Cate asked.
The women exchanged glances. What seemed a logical thought to Cate apparently hadn't occurred to them.
"I suppose it's possible," the woman in purple said, although the agreement sounded reluctant. "She's never sick, but she's always complaining about her fluttering heartbeat."
"It's her eyelashes that flutter. Whenever any good-looking male comes within flutter distance. And it doesn't matter who the male belongs to." Texie planted her fists on her hips. The venom in her voice suggested personal experience.
What Cate couldn't figure out was why this group bothered to meet, given the hostility billowing around them. Not her concern, however. She turned to go. She could come back tomorrow. It did seem odd, however, that neither Amelia nor Willow was around to feed what was apparently an expected horde of hungry mystery readers.
"Is there someone you could call who would have a key so you could go in and see if everything's okay?" Cate asked.
"Actually," Fiona said slowly, with a wary glance at the others, "I have a key. I didn't want to mention it because when Amelia gave it to me she said not to let anyone else know I had it."
"But she gave me one and said the same thing!" Purple Woman dug in an oversized purple purse and whipped out a key on a metal ring.
Almost instantly, five identical keys on five identical metal rings dangled from five not-so-identical fingers. Purple nails on the gaunt woman. Short, bitten-to-the-quick nails on Texie. Elegant, silvery-pink on another woman who now said, "Well, isn't that just like Amelia?"
"Why is that like Amelia?" Cate asked.
Texie took a step forward to answer. "Because she's underhanded and sneaky, that's why." Texie sounded triumphant, as if this were something she'd wanted to proclaim for a long time.
Purple Woman tilted her head thoughtfully. "It's a psychological thing. A power play. She wants to make you feel special, so you'll be indebted to her."
"I was in a garden club that broke up because of one awful woman," Texie said. "So then we got together and reorganized without her." She glanced around as if looking for support for a reorganization.
"Amelia'd find out," Fiona said, her uneasy tone suggesting the consequences could be dire.
In spite of the dangling keys, the women didn't seem inclined to make use of them. When Cate suggested someone unlock the door, a discussion followed, the consensus being that Amelia would be outraged if she unexpectedly found them all inside her house.
Cate impatiently grabbed a key. "Tell her to blame me then." She marched up the front steps and stuck the key in the lock.
With the door open, the Whodunit ladies swarmed inside. They headed for the dining room, apparently hoping lunch would materialize there, but Cate took a moment to glance around the living room.
Unlike the Gothic-gloom exterior of the old house, the interior held sleek, Danish modern furniture, an oversized flat-panel TV, and recessed lighting. Bookcases winged out on either side of a white marble fireplace. A curtain of wooden beads hung over the entrance to the turret room. A curved staircase, more Southern plantation than Gothic, swept to the second floor. A flamboyant painting of three green eyes immersed in what looked like a cauldron of boiling beans hung over the fireplace. Cate wasn't knowledgeable enough about art to identify what style the painting represented, but this was definitely a house with a split personality.
"The table isn't even set for lunch!" the squeaky-voiced person squeaked from the dining room.
Another voice suggested they move the meeting to a nice tearoom near the university.
"But it's Amelia's turn to provide lunch! She shouldn't get to just wiggle out of it. Sometimes she can be so cheap," Fiona said. "Remember that time she said she was serving lobster, but it turned out to be that imitation kind?"
"She's not cheap when she's buying shoes. Have you ever priced those Jimmy Choos she likes?"
"Hey, wait." This voice came from farther back in the kitchen. "This is odd."
Everything about the split-personality house, the missing Amelia and Willow, and the squabbling Whodunit ladies struck Cate as odd. But she was curious about what one of them might consider odd. She cut through the dark cave of the dining room, where heavy drapes closed off view of the backyard. The woman in purple stood at an open door on the far side of the kitchen. Cate stepped up beside her to peer inside.
The room was scantily furnished with a single bed, a nightstand with a lamp lying on its side, a mirrored dresser, and a swivel rocker. An open door led to an adjoining bathroom. Candy wrappers, dust balls, lint, and paper clips trailed across the floor. One white sock lay in the doorway. All suggested the room had just been hastily vacated.
"Willow's room?" Cate guessed.
From behind her, Texie said, "She must have had enough of Amelia."
"Not the first employee to walk out on her," Fiona said. "But Amelia might have fired her. You know how worked up she can get over some little thing."
"I don't suppose anyone would know where Willow may have gone?" Cate asked.
Negative murmurs from the group now clustered behind Cate in the doorway.
"How about where she came from, or where she has family?"
More negative murmurs.
A real private investigator would no doubt know what further questions to ask or what to do next to obtain information for the great-uncle client in Texas, but Cate didn't. She'd have to ask Uncle Joe if he had more ideas.
But at the door between kitchen and dining room, she reluctantly paused. She tried to reject the unwanted feeling that had suddenly kicked in, but it wouldn't retreat. Something did not feel right here. Something felt, in fact, very wrong. Then she scoffed at herself. When had her intuition ever been of any great value? Not in the job market. Not in her relationships with men. Not even when she'd chosen Hair Delights for a haircut last week. She fingered that odd spike sticking out behind her ear.
Had something changed now that she was a fledgling private investigator? She'd heard about people connecting with their "inner child." Had she connected with her inner PI? Because something definitely felt off. And a spider of apprehension skittered up her spine.
"Maybe we should look around upstairs," she suggested reluctantly. "Make sure everything's okay."
Fiona shook her head. "Amelia wouldn't like it."
Behind her, one of the women opened the refrigerator door. "Hey, there's food in here. Look at this! Salad and sandwiches ... and cream puffs!"
Like a flock of hungry birds, all but the tall woman in purple descended on the refrigerator. She stepped toward Cate. "I'll go with you." She stuck out a hand, as bony as the rest of her. "I'm Doris McClelland."
Cate shook the gaunt hand. "Cate Kinkaid."
They crossed the living room and climbed the stairs. A fat white cat sitting on the top step regarded them with regal blue eyes.
"That's Octavia. I think the name's from Antony and Cleopatra." Doris waved a hand back toward the bookshelves. "Amelia has all these literary pretensions."
The cat jumped up and scampered down the hallway with surprising agility, considering her weight, and disappeared through an open door.
"Would that be Amelia's room?" Cate asked.
"I don't know. I've never been up here." The woman tapped the carpet with a long, narrow purple pump, and Cate suspected she had come upstairs more out of curiosity than helpfulness. "I could buy a new car with what Amelia spent carpeting this house."
They walked down the hallway and peered into the bedroom together. A pale peach chiffon canopy draped the king-sized bed, beside it an identical canopy in miniature over a cat bed. An array of bottles with prescription labels surrounded a crystal lamp on a nightstand. A mirrored dressing table held an assortment of cosmetics and lotions. Octavia jumped on the unmade bed and kneaded a satin pillow. She stared at Cate and Doris as if challenging them to object. An oil portrait hung on one wall, a regal-looking woman with jet black hair and a red ballroom gown.
"They must have used a stand-in for the body. Amelia's never had that kind of figure. At least not since I've known her." Doris patted her own chest. "Oh my. I'm cattier than Octavia today, aren't I?"
A walk-in closet had been built into a corner so that it extended out into the room. Cate opened the door. Amelia's taste ranged from furs and glitter to designer jeans and cashmere sweaters. And if an army ever needed to march on high heels, there were enough here to outfit them. Amelia apparently liked scarves too, because designs from geometric to flowery, wool to silk, handkerchief-sized squares to toe length, draped a dozen hangers. A scent of some perfume that Cate suspected was too pricey for her to recognize hung in the air.
Doris circled the bed and studied the labels on the prescription bottles.
"What are they for?" Cate asked, curious in spite of a feeling this was getting a bit too nosy.
"Blood pressure. Heart. Cholesterol. Insomnia. I think she takes a sleeping pill almost every night. There's no point even trying to talk to her before she has her morning caffeine to unfuzz her head." She opened the drawer of the nightstand. "Of course it's no wonder she can't sleep. I wouldn't be able to either, if I were her."
"Why is that?"
Doris had already moved on to the bathroom and didn't answer. Cate followed and peered into the room with her. Double sinks, fancy gold faucets, garden-style tub with Jacuzzi jets, separate shower large enough to shower the Whodunit ladies en masse.
What neither bedroom, closet, nor bathroom contained was Amelia herself.
Back in the hallway, they cautiously opened other doors. Two were guest rooms, a bit musty smelling. The third held a four-drawer, wooden file cabinet, an old electric typewriter, and an expensive copy machine. At the end of the hall another narrower stairway led upward.
Cate and Doris exchanged glances, and then, in a conspiratorial tone, Doris said, "Why not? I've always wondered what's up there."
Cate paused midway up the stairs. "We probably should have checked the garage first to see if her car is here."
"Amelia hates to drive. She uses a taxi a lot of the time. So the Mercedes might be here, and she could still have gone somewhere."
"But surely she wouldn't leave knowing the Whodunit ladies would be here at noon. Unless she forgot, I suppose."
"Or got a better invitation from Radford." Doris gave the name an inflection that was not complimentary. "She'd dump us in a minute for Radford."
"The current man in Amelia's life."
Cate had to admit she was surprised Amelia had a "current man," but then she chided herself for being ageist.
The third floor hadn't benefited from the remodeling and updating that had taken place on the floors below. Faded wallpaper in an old-fashioned cabbage-rose pattern covered the walls of small rooms stuffed with furniture and racks of old clothes. The last room held a jumble of golf clubs, fishing rods, a stuffed owl, and an accordion. Octavia raised a cloud of dust when she jumped up beside the owl.
"A memento room for old husbands," Doris observed. "Amelia had four of them, and the last one played the accordion, as I recall."
"You've all been friends for a long time?"
"You've all been in the Whodunit Club together for a long time?"
"That's how we met. It used to be a larger group, but some people find Amelia's personality a bit ... overpowering." Doris's smile unexpectedly changed her bony face. "And the rest of us have our peculiarities too."
The third-floor hallway ended in a door to the outside. Cate was surprised to see that it stood partway open. "Maybe she leaves this open for the cat to go in and out?"
"Not Octavia. That cat may have been a stray at one time, but she thinks she's queen of the universe now. She's also deaf, so Amelia keeps her inside."
Cate felt an unexpected flicker of kindliness toward Amelia. She hadn't heard much good about the woman so far, but anyone who'd take in a deaf stray must have some redeeming qualities.
Cate stepped onto a small square of weathered boards outside the open door, Doris right behind her. The steep stairway below them looked dangerously flimsy, the old boards dark and cracked. And at the bottom ...
Cate's breath snagged in her throat. Uncle Joe had assured her this assignment was strictly routine. No murder, mayhem, or mystery, not like what those detectives on TV always encountered. No dead bodies.
Excerpted from Dying to Read by Lorena McCourtney Copyright © 2012 by Lorena McCourtney. Excerpted by permission of Revell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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