Everyone in Longely is talking about Blue House, an art complex that will bring the town a theater, an art gallery, and even a restaurant and coffee bar. But they're less than enthusiastic about Ludvoc Zeb Zalinsky, the self-made billionaire who's funding the complex. The night of the benefit arrives and Westchester's finest show up in droves. But just when it seems the production is going according to plan, Zeb lifts an electric tea kettle, clutches his chest, and falls to the floor in fittingly dramatic fashion. The kettle shorted out and his pacemaker malfunctioned-but it doesn't take long for police to decide that this seemingly random accident was actually cold-blooded murder, making another case for Bernie and Libby.
Release date: September 1, 2016
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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A Catered Tea Party
For the last ten minutes, Sean had watched Alice chase the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts around a table set for tea, and the only reason Sean could see for that piece of stagecraft was that it highlighted Zalinsky’s teapot. Why anyone would pay two million dollars for that thing was beyond him, but then he wasn’t a billionaire.
While Sean was thinking about what he would do if he was a billionaire, he watched the two rent-a-cops who had been guarding the doors to the house march down the aisles and take up new positions on the top steps that led up to the stage. Now they stood facing the audience, arms crossed over their bulletproof vests, at the ready to deter anyone from doing a run-and-grab with the teapot. Like that was going to happen.
In Sean’s professional opinion, the whole security drama being enacted was ludicrous, but he supposed that the thing about being a billionaire was that you could do whatever you wanted, hence the pierogies being distributed to the audience. The pierogies! Good God, he’d heard about them for the last two weeks. He’d heard about how bad serving them would make his daughters look, about what a jerk Zalinsky was, about what a bad recipe Zalinksy’s mother had used. And then there’d been the tastings. Endless. If he never saw another one of those damned dumplings again, it wouldn’t be a moment too soon.
Sean sighed and looked at his watch. He was just thinking that maybe he could find an excuse to leave after act one when Ellen Crestfield turned and whispered in his ear how much she was enjoying the play. Then she squeezed his hand. He mustered up a smile, but he didn’t squeeze Ellen Crestfield’s hand back. Instead, he freed it and began studying the playbill.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Ellen Crestfield. Ellen Crestfield was a very nice woman, but she was, as the saying goes, dull as dishwater, and he had no intention of entering into a relationship with her. He wouldn’t have even cared about going to the gala with her if Libby hadn’t arranged it to get him away from Michelle. Sean knew that Libby thought she was being clever. She thought he didn’t know what she and Bernie were up to; she thought he didn’t know what they thought of Michelle, but she was wrong on all counts.
Sean knew alright. His daughters didn’t like Michelle—not even a little bit—but Sean was damned if he could figure out why. He would have thought that all of them being in the same business would have given Michelle and his daughters something to talk about. Michelle said his daughters were just jealous. Maybe they were. Maybe Michelle was right, although he didn’t think so, but what did he know? He fanned himself with the playbill. He’d admit it: when it came to women he didn’t know a lot. He’d been married to Rose for almost thirty years, and he hadn’t understood her any better on the day she’d died than on the day they’d gotten married. He’d loved her, but he hadn’t understand her.
As Sean turned his attention back to the stage and watched Alice, the March Hare, and the Queen of Hearts do what must be their tenth lap around the stage, he noticed Libby and Bernie peeking out at him from the curtain on the left. Libby waggled her fingers back and forth, and Sean reciprocated and forced a smile.
“Dad’s not happy,” Libby said to Bernie as she let the curtain drop.
“Told you that you shouldn’t have foisted Ellen on him,” her sister replied.
“Then what would you suggest?” Libby demanded.
“Waiting,” Bernie said. “Michelle will screw up.”
Libby shook her head. “I can’t believe Dad is that dumb. What does he see in her?”
Bernie wiped a bead of sweat off her forehead. God, it was hot in there. “What do you think he sees in her? She laughs at his jokes, and she’s twenty years younger than he is.”
“She’s using him!”
“I don’t think Dad sees it that way, and even if he did, I don’t think he cares. In fact, let me go further. In this particular instance, I think he’s happy being used.” Bernie looked at her watch and cursed under her breath. They had to get going. In fifteen minutes, Erin (aka Alice) and Hsaio (aka The Dormouse) were going to pick up platters of pierogies from the prop table, re-enter stage right, walk down the steps into the audience, and offer the pierogies to the people sitting in the front rows.
While that was happening, the stage would go dark, and Zalinsky would take his teapot to the kitchen, fill it and a thermos up with hot water from the electric kettle, return to the stage, and start brewing the tea for the tea party. That was the plan.
Originally there had been no eating and drinking onstage, but Zalinsky had insisted that the tea party be “realistic.” He wanted to both brew tea in his teapot and drink it, which of course created a whole slew of logistical problems for poor Casper. Bernie just hoped that Zalinsky didn’t trip getting to and from the kitchen because it was going to be pitch-black backstage, and there were wires and cables snaking all over the floor.
“Can you imagine if Zalinsky dropped the teapot?” Bernie asked Libby, making sure to keep her voice low so it wouldn’t carry out to the audience.
“Poof.” Libby made a disappearing gesture with her hands. “Two million dollars gone, just like that.”
“I don’t think I’d drink out of it.”
“I don’t think I’d buy it.”
“This is true. But you’re not a collector.”
“Even if I was . . .” Bernie’s voice trailed off as she looked at her watch again. “We have to get going.” They had two more scenes before it was time for the tea party. In scene number one, Alice bopped the Queen of Hearts with a croquet ball, and in scene number two, Tweedledee and Tweedledum recited their poem.
“I know,” Libby said as she fanned herself with a playbill. She figured it was over ninety inside the theater. It was dark enough backstage as it was. When the lights went out they wouldn’t be able to see anything. “I just hope we don’t drop those damned platters.”
“You and me both, sister,” Bernie said as she turned and headed toward the galley kitchen.
Not only did she and her sister have to deal with the pierogies, they had to finish setting up for the high tea they were serving after the play. By Bernie’s reckoning, they just had enough time to heat up the pierogies, arrange them on the platters, pour the milk into the silver creamer, which was also going on the tea table, and make sure the electric kettle had been plugged in before the stage went dark.
Five minutes later, Libby and Bernie were out the kitchen door. They were halfway to the prop table when the stage lights went out. Libby cursed under her breath. Please don’t let me drop the pierogies, she silently prayed. She bit her tongue in concentration as she walked. She’d taken about twenty steps when she saw something in front of her that looked even darker than the surroundings. An object? Maybe a table? She wasn’t sure. It doesn’t matter what it is, she told herself. Just go around it. Which she did. She was just congratulating herself on not banging into it when she tripped on something on the floor.
“Damn,” she cried as the platter tipped.
“Sssh,” Bernie said.
“I’m trying,” Libby replied as she righted the platter. She didn’t think any of the pierogies had fallen on the floor. At least she hoped not. It was hard to tell because she couldn’t see them. She’d just taken another step when someone brushed by her, jostling her arm. “Watch it,” she hissed.
“Then get out of the way,” a person Libby decided must be a techie hissed back.
Libby bit back her retort and concentrated on getting to where she was supposed to go. She was almost at the prop table. By the time she got there, Bernie had already arrived and Erin and Hsaio were waiting for her.
“The lights are about to go on,” Erin whispered as Libby put the platter on the table.
“I know,” Libby whispered back.
A moment later they did.
Erin looked at the stage. Her eyes widened. “Where’s Zalinsky?”
Bernie shook her head. She had no idea.
“He’s supposed to be onstage by now,” Hsaio noted, a hint of panic in her voice.
“Maybe he’s still in the kitchen,” Bernie suggested.
“Why the hell should he be in the kitchen?” Erin demanded. She was pissed. She hadn’t wanted to do this play in the first place. “He should be sitting at the damned table brewing tea in that stupid teapot of his.”
“I’ll go look,” Hsaio volunteered. Her tone was placating.
“Why don’t you ask Casper what he wants to do in the meantime?” Bernie said to Erin. She could hear the audience getting restless.
Erin put her hands on her hips. “Do you see him around here?” she asked, jutting out her chin.
“No,” Bernie allowed, which she thought was odd. She could have sworn she’d seen him near the prop table fiddling around with the Caterpillar’s hookah ten minutes ago.
“Good, because neither do I,” Erin replied. She turned to Hsaio. “Hurry up so we can start giving out the pierogies.”
“I’m going, I’m going. No need to be unpleasant,” Hsaio told her.
“I wasn’t being unpleasant,” Erin countered. “But we need to get this show on the road.”
“Like I’m not aware of that,” Hsaio huffed as she turned and headed toward the kitchen.
Great, Bernie thought as she watched Hsaio retreating into the backstage gloom. Now the pierogies will be cold on top of everything else. She peeked out around the curtain. The audience was definitely restless. They were leaning over and talking to one another while they fanned themselves with their playbills. She could hear phrases like “a waste of my time” and “when will this be over?” floating in the air.
Libby bit at her nail, realized what she was doing, and stopped. “I hope Zalinsky hurries up,” she said.
“Me too,” Erin agreed, shifting the platter of pierogies from one hand to another so she could pull down her skirt. Every time she moved, the dratted thing rode up. It was extremely annoying.
“I’ll go see what’s happening,” Bernie offered.
“Hsaio already went,” Erin pointed out.
“Maybe she needs help,” Bernie replied. She couldn’t stay still any longer. She had to do something.
She was halfway to the kitchen when someone screamed.
Bernie’s first thought as she hurried toward the sound was Oh my God. What now? Her second thought was It’s Hsaio screaming. Her third thought was Fantastic. More drama. Just what we don’t need. She didn’t know why Hsaio was screaming, but she did know it wasn’t because she’d seen a mouse.
Absolutely nothing had gone smoothly since she and Libby had taken this job. Nothing. And this was going to have been such an easy gig too. Simple as pie, Casper had said. A piece of cake. A chance for you to shine. Get some new business. Get in on the ground floor. You could become the go-to caterer for all the events at The Blue House. Etc. Etc. Etc. Yeah, right.
But how was she to have known things would turn out this way? Seriously, how hard could catering a community theater post-production party of Alice in Wonderland be? At least that’s what she and Libby had thought. Some fancy scones with clotted cream and strawberries, a variety of crustless sandwiches of the cucumber and cream cheese variety, a summer pudding, different kinds of tea, both hot and iced, a little May wine, some sort of punch—in other words, a riff on a classic English high tea—and they were done. What they hadn’t counted on was Zalinsky.
He’d turned out to be the proverbial client from hell. Of course, she and Libby hadn’t known that when they’d taken the job. Neither had Casper, for that matter. If he had, he never would have signed on to direct this fiasco. When she and her sister had spoken to Zalinsky and presented their menu, he’d been positively enthusiastic. He’d thought an English high tea was a great idea. Brilliant was the word he’d used. But then as the weeks passed, he’d changed his mind about as often as Imelda Marcos changed her shoes. By the time they were done, the menu was a complete mishmash.
There was sushi (in deference to Zalinsky’s precious Yixing teapot—never mind that the teapot was Chinese and sushi was Japanese), cucumber sandwiches, and a sprinkling of Polish dishes with unpronounceable names that Zalinsky had insisted on adding to the menu. To honor his mother’s memory, he’d said—never mind that his mother was Irish. At least, that’s what Casper Cumberbatch had told her. Individually the dishes were all fine, except for the headcheese, of course. But together? Together, they induced acute indigestion.
At that point, she and Libby would have backed out of the whole thing, except for the fact that they’d already signed a contract and Zalinsky had threatened to sue them for breach of it if they opted out. Libby had said he was bluffing, but Bernie was pretty sure he would have followed through on his threat. Evidently he had a history of drowning people in legal actions, which was one of the reasons Casper hadn’t up and left.
At least that’s what Casper had told her. Bernie sighed. Too bad she hadn’t researched Zalinsky before they’d taken the job. In her defense, though, she’d never had to deal with this kind of situation before. But if she had it bad, Casper had had it worse. He had to deal with Zalinsky twenty-four/seven. If Zalinsky wasn’t at the theater, he was calling Casper to discuss one of his ideas—all of which were terrible. It seemed as if nothing was immune from Zalinsky’s meddling. Zalinsky had cast the play, pretty much rewritten it, and designed the set. It was the ultimate vanity piece.
To Bernie’s mind, a perfect example of Zalinsky’s meddling was Zalinsky insisting that the table where the tea party was going to take place be placed front and center on the stage. This was despite the fact that the tea party scene didn’t happen until act one, scene five. But when Casper had pointed that out to Zalinsky, Zalinsky had called him a cretin and told him to get over himself. Everyone, he’d said, was coming to see the teapot. And maybe they were. Maybe Zalinsky was correct. Still, there was such a thing as being civil, a concept Zalinksy didn’t adhere to. He just wanted what he wanted and used any means at his disposal to get it.
When she and Libby had argued with him about serving pierogies at the tea party, Zalinsky had gotten red in the face and told them they were morons and their food sucked. But when Libby had told him he had no sense of taste, he’d clutched his chest and told them they were giving him a heart attack. Libby actually thought he was having one, so she had apologized, at which point Zalinsky had told her he’d do whatever he wanted and he could do without her suggestions, thank you very much.
So when Zalinsky had decided that not only were pierogies going to be served for the tea but that Erin (aka Alice) was going to serve them to the audience as well, neither she nor Libby had uttered a peep. Pierogies! At an English tea! The thought still made Bernie shudder. As Casper had said, “It’s enough to make one blush with shame.” Which was only a slight exaggeration, in Bernie’s mind.
Bernie sighed as she recalled the events of the past weeks. But wasn’t that always the way? The things you thought were going to be hard were easy, and the things you thought were going to be easy turned out to be hard. At least her biggest nightmare hadn’t happened. The food critic for the New York Times hadn’t come. He’d sent his regrets instead. Evidently, he’d been invited to something more exciting in the Hamptons. Thank God for small favors. Their shop, A Little Taste of Heaven, would never have lived down the embarrassment.
Bernie pursed her lips as she recalled Zalinsky’s temper tantrums, his clutching his chest and telling everyone they were giving him a heart attack when he didn’t get his way. There had been no detail too small to escape Zalinsky’s notice. The man didn’t micromanage, he nanomanaged, which had built up a tremendous amount of resentment on the part of the cast and the crew.
Witness the scene in the lounge before the production had started. Bernie could smell the tension in the air when she and her sister had walked in. Everyone in the cast looked angry, while Casper looked as if he wanted to do a Cheshire Cat and fade into the sofa.
Erin Kenwood had been sitting next to him on the sofa, facing the door. She was wearing her Alice in Wonderland getup, a light-blue, knee-length dress, a frilly white apron, white knee-length socks, and black patent-leather shoes. A black velvet hair band was holding back her long blond hair. When she looked up, Bernie could see that her mascara and eyeliner were smudged. Erin’s been crying, she remembered thinking.
Jason Pancetta, the March Hare, was sitting on the second sofa, alternately glowering at Zalinsky and swinging his pocket watch back and forth, while Hsaio Rosenthal was curled up on the sofa in her Dormouse costume, looking terrified. The next two members of the cast, Stan and George Holloway (aka Tweedledee and Tweedledum), were both leaning against the far wall.
Bernie remembered thinking that the costumes Zalinsky had chosen for them, tight T-shirts and vests and stripped knickers, must have been an act of revenge for some imagined slight—like maybe killing Zalinsky’s best friend. The last member of the company, Magda Webster, who was Zalinsky’s administrative assistant and the putative Queen of Hearts, looked as if she wanted to rake her long, red fingernails across Zalinsky’s chest.
And then there had been the scene. Zalinsky had wanted to make yet another change, and she and everyone else had jumped in and told Zalinsky it wasn’t possible, and he’d gotten really, really angry. Angry to the point where he’d stalked over to the coffee table and swept the vase filled with Erin’s red roses onto the floor. Then he’d snarled at Erin to clean the mess up. If looks could kill, Zalinsky would have been dead.
But Zalinsky hadn’t cared. Instead he’d railed at everyone. Bernie remembered his rant. “So this is what I get for trying to be nice,” he’d screamed. “This is what I get for building you this lounge and furnishing it with top-of-the-line furniture.” Then he’d ended with, “You people are going to be the death of me yet,” and stomped off.
“From your mouth to God’s ear,” Bernie couldn’t help remembering Casper whispering to Erin after Zalinsky had left.
It looks as if Casper has had his way, Bernie thought when she reached the kitchen and saw Zalinsky crumpled up on the floor, his arms outstretched, his hat covering his face. Zalinsky’s favorite mug lay on the floor near his left foot, which was resting in a small puddle of liquid. Probably his tea, Bernie thought because that was all Zalinsky ever drank. He must have dropped it when he collapsed.
Bernie wrinkled her nose. The smell of something burnt lingered in the air. She watched Hsaio standing over Zalinsky, shrieking loud enough to wake the dead. Only in this case, Bernie didn’t think there was going to be a resurrection. She’d just had time to register the fact that Zalinsky wasn’t mostly dead, he was completely dead, when the two security guards who had been on the stage brushed her aside, slamming her into a wall as they rushed into the room.
It wasn’t until an hour later, when the confusion had died down, that she and Libby realized that the two-million-dollar teapot was gone as well. So much for hiring security guards, Bernie had thought when she saw the empty spot on the table where the teapot had been.
“I didn’t say that,” Casper protested to Sean, Libby, and Bernie.
A week had gone by since Zalinsky’s death. It was three in the afternoon, and the four of them were sitting in the Simmonses’ flat above A Little Taste of Heaven. Casper was stirring another lump of sugar into his iced green mint tea, while Sean was finishing off a piece of blueberry pie.
“Yeah, you did Casper,” Libby said as she flicked a crumb of crust off her lap.
“Okay,” Casper admitted, backtracking, “maybe I did say from your mouth to God’s ear, but that doesn’t mean I killed him . . .”
“. . . and stole the teapot,” Libby added.
Casper gave her the evil eye. “Don’t be absurd.”
“I’m just repeating what the police are saying,” Libby told him.
Casper put his cup down. “What the police are alleging. Alleging. I didn’t steal the damned thing. Why would I do something like that?”
Libby supplied the obvious answer. “Because the teapot is worth two million dollars.”
“Only to the right people,” Casper retorted, “and they’re above my pay grade. It’s not the sort of thing you can pawn. They should talk to Hsaio. She’s the one who knows about that world.”
“She’s getting a PhD in art education,” Bernie objected. “That’s quite a bit different.”
Casper blotted the sweat off his face with a napkin. “But she still knows more about that world than I do. The police should look at her.”
Bernie ate a raspberry. “They looked at everyone,” she told Casper.
“They should look harder,” Casper cried.
“They’ve pretty much settled on you,” Sean informed him. “At least that’s what Clyde tells me.” Clyde was Sean’s friend and a member of the Longely police force.
“Lovely,” Casper muttered. “Wonderful. First that hel. . .
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