Jane Darrowfield is a year into her retirement, and she's already traveled and planted a garden. She's organized her photos, her recipes, and her spices. The statistics suggest she has at least a few more decades ahead of her, so she better find something to do . . .
After Jane helps a friend with a sticky personal problem, word starts to spread around her bridge club—and then around all of West Cambridge, Massachusetts—that she's the go-to girl for situations that need discreet fixing. Soon she has her first paid assignment—the director of a fifty-five-and-over condo community needs her to de-escalate hostilities among the residents. As Jane discovers after moving in for her undercover assignment, the mature set can be as immature as any high schoolers, and war is breaking out between cliques.
It seems she might make some progress—until one of the aging "popular kids" is bludgeoned to death with a golf club. And though the automatic sprinklers have washed away much of the evidence, Jane's on course to find out whodunit . . .
Release date: June 30, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 272
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody
Friday, August 3
“You’re a hard person to get ahold of.”
The face of the young man sitting on the other side of her desk swam into view. Jane’s glasses were new. The cheery optometrist had assured her she could shift easily from gazing out her back window into her garden to working on her computer to watching television. She’d get used to them in no time. No time at all. But after more than a week, the glasses still gave the whole world an underwater feel, which, while not unpleasant, could hardly have been their aim.
The young man shifted on the hard wooden chair, placing a slim ankle on his knee. He had short brown hair and wore tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses. He was conservatively dressed in a light-blue seersucker suit, something one hardly saw these days. Conservative, except for his socks, which were yellow with bright blue fish cavorting across them. The socks, Jane thought, made the man.
“I’m sorry I didn’t return your earlier messages,” Jane said. “I didn’t comprehend what you were after. I still don’t.”
“Hello,” the phone message had said. “This is Paul Peavey from Walden Spring, the lifecare community for active adults fifty-five plus in Concord, Massachusetts. Irma Brittleson recommended you. Can you give me a call, please? Our number is—”
Jane had run in from her garden to answer the blasted cell phone, which she’d left on her desk. As she’d listened to the message, she’d tried to conjure the kind of postapocalyptic world that would be required for her to return this call, but she could not. Would she ever get so desperate for the sound of a human voice she’d let someone try to sell her a condominium in an old folks village? She hoped not. And what was the story with her great and good friend Irma, giving her name and cell phone number to this guy? Did she think Jane could no longer handle her own home?
Jane had ignored the second message as well. Which is why, she supposed, Paul Peavey had navigated the flagstones of the walk that ran along the side of her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home and knocked on the door to her office, which was a converted back porch.
Peavey attempted to explain. “As I said, Mrs. Darrowfield, Miss Brittleson gave me your name. I’m the executive director at Walden Spring, the community for active adults fifty-five plus in Concord—”
“Paul, I’m sorry Irma wasted your time. I am not the least in the market for—”
“No, no, no. I’m not selling anything. In fact, I’m hoping to buy something. Your time, that is. To buy your time.”
A most unexpected remark.
“Miss Brittleson comes to Walden Spring frequently to visit a friend. We got to talking, and she told me about some of the things you’ve done to . . . um . . . intervene, I guess would be the word, and fix some potentially awkward or even tragic situations. When she told me about you, I thought, that’s exactly what we need. We need someone to intervene and fix something in our community.”
Jane was intrigued. And flattered, in a vague sort of way, though she wondered what Irma had been telling people. “When you say ‘fix something, ’ Mr. Peavey—”
“Paul, what exactly are you referring to?”
“We’re having some issues, hmm, with the, uh, social dynamics in the community.”
Social dynamics? “Could you be more specific?”
“I think it’s better for you to come and see for yourself. Say about ten a.m. Monday?”
“Aren’t there social workers or therapists who specialize in this sort of thing?”
“Been there. Done that. No results. I need someone like you, who can come into the community and get actively involved. I need someone who will intervene.”
Curiouser and curiouser. “When you said you wanted to buy my time, what did you mean?”
“I assumed I would pay your hourly fee. Whatever it is.”
“I charge eight hundred dollars a day.” Jane hoped Paul Peavey didn’t notice the flush that crept up her neck. She had never asked for that sum of money before. She had never asked for any money before, when people had asked her to intervene. She was deeply skeptical about Peavey’s offer and hoped by naming the largest sum she dared, he would have second thoughts.
He did not. “Fine, fine.” Peavey stood, leaning across the desk to shake her hand. “Ten o’clock Monday, then?”
“Let me check my calendar. I’ll call to confirm later this afternoon.” There was nothing on her calendar for Monday morning. Of that Jane was certain. But she needed time to think Peavey’s offer through.
“Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Jane escorted the young man to the multipaned glass door of the old porch and watched him head down the walk. “My goodness,” she said as he retreated. “There’s a new one.” She glanced at the time on her phone and picked her pocketbook up off the desk. She didn’t have time to consider the young man’s proposition right away. She had to hotfoot it around the corner to Helen Graham’s house or she’d be late for bridge.
“And this man wants to pay you?” Across the bridge table, Phyllis Goldstein arched an eyebrow at Jane.
“Wants to pay you for what?” Helen Graham entered through her swinging kitchen door, posture perfect, her hair in the pageboy she had worn since Jane had met her thirty-nine years earlier. She placed a tray laden with a pitcher of cold tea, tall glasses filled with ice cubes, lemon wedges, and sweeteners on the sideboard in the living room.
“That’s the rub,” Jane answered. “I’m not exactly certain for what. Something about a problem at Walden Spring, the over-fifty-five community in Concord he’s in charge of.”
“So Paul did phone you.” Irma Brittleson spoke from the vestibule inside Helen’s front door. The windows and tiled floor in the tiny space added an echoey quality to her voice. She’d let herself in, as they all had. It was a ritual, no matter which of their homes they played in. The last to arrive was responsible for latching the door.
“Phoned and came by,” Jane answered.
“Good. I’m glad he took my recommendation.”
Jane shifted her chair to face Irma. “Why did you send him to me?”
“Goodness, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.” Helen had returned from the kitchen with a plate of chocolate cookies, fresh from the oven, smelling like heaven. “Let’s play cards.”
The women sat, the cards were dealt. The day was warm, but happily the humidity was low, and a breeze moved the sheer curtains in Helen’s first-floor windows.
“News of the Week in Review,” Phyllis said, in another tradition as old as the game. “Hostess first.”
Helen spoke, as she always did, about her husband, Hugh, and her children. Her older two were married, the parents of a brood of grandchildren. Helen’s third child, Lizzie, was thirty and single. Lizzie’s engagement to a most unsuitable man had been originally responsible for Jane’s growing reputation as someone who could help out with problems that, while vexing or frightening, weren’t appropriate for the police or other authorities. When Helen had described Lizzie’s fiancé as “dead behind the eyes,” Jane, who’d been a little at sea after her retirement, decided to investigate. It hadn’t taken much to find his other two fiancées and his “late” mother living on the other side of Cambridge. Jane had been the one to warn him off, too, reasoning it was better that he break Lizzie’s heart sooner rather than run her through the wood chipper later. Helen had been grateful, and she had talked. A lot.
Jane’s reputation had grown. All winter and spring, people had made their way down the flagstone walk to Jane’s office.
Gerri McLaughlin needed help switching from her hairdresser to the one in the next chair. During an unexpected absence, the other hairdresser had done Gerri’s cut and color. The resulting hairdo had a new bounce and shine that had added a bounce to Gerri’s step as well. She’d urged her original hairdresser to re-create it, but without success.
Every woman knew ending a relationship with the person who did your hair was fraught. It was a professional arrangement, one in which money was paid for skill and services. But it was also a relationship in which confidences were exchanged and loyalty expected. Turning up a month later in the next chair was unthinkable. Gerri had considered proposing to the new hairdresser that she sneak into the shop after hours but had rejected it as ridiculous.
Jane counseled directness. It was time for a change. Not just in style but in stylist. When Gerri couldn’t face it, Jane had gone in and delivered the message herself. The original hairdresser was hurt but accepted the switch as inevitable. It was better, after all, to keep the client in the shop. Gerri had reported that after a couple of tense appointments, with much sighing coming from the next chair, everything had evened out. Everyone was fine.
Virginia Westbury didn’t know how to tell her neighbors their five-year-old was peeing in her garden every day. Jane volunteered to weed Virginia’s garden for a while. When the boy approached, equipment at the ready, so to speak, she jumped up and yelled, “Cut it out! You know you’re not supposed to do that!” He screamed and ran home. Jane worried about what he might tell some future therapist about the encounter, but the peeing stopped and Virginia was happy.
In Jane’s opinion, many people sadly lacked the skill to have difficult conversations with acquaintances and neighbors. Given a noisy house party or a car parked blocking a driveway, people stewed in silence—or worse, called the police—when a simple knock on the door and a polite request would have done the job. It was into this breach that Jane had leapt again and again. Now she was being offered the chance to be paid for her efforts. Why wouldn’t she take it?
When Helen was done speaking, Irma Brittleson reported on her week. Irma was retired from her job as a top administrator at Mount Auburn Hospital, but she still volunteered there several days a week. She lived with her mother in a lovely two-family overlooking a park on the Cambridge–Somerville line.
Irma had also sought Jane’s help, and brought her first failure. Irma’s ninety-six-year-old mother, the irrepressible Minnie, had been scammed quite badly by someone who had telephoned, claiming to be from her bank, asking her to help test their procedures by withdrawing $9,000 from her inactive savings account and then returning it to the bank manager, who would be waiting in the lobby. Minnie, happy to help, had struggled down her front steps while Irma was at her volunteer job and taken a cab to the bank.
The bank manager was, of course, not the bank manager, and the money was gone.
Jane had explained this was not a job for her but for the police. When Minnie refused to involve the authorities because she was mortified, Jane had volunteered to report Minnie’s story for her.
All this had occurred at a time when Jane was experimenting with letting her hair go gray. When she told the nice Detective Alvarez of the Cambridge Police Fraud Squad, the story “about a friend,” he had assumed she was the ninety-six-year-old Minnie.
Horrified, Jane had set him straight, left the police station, and raced immediately to her salon, where the redoubtable Hugo had returned her hair to the honey-blond that, while not natural to nature, felt natural to Jane. “I told you it would never work,” Hugo had said.
“Back to you, Jane,” Phyllis said when Irma finished the report on her week. “Who is this guy you were talking about, and what does he want to pay you for?”
“As I said earlier, he’s the executive director at Walden Spring,” Jane repeated. “Irma recommended me.”
The three of them looked at Irma, who shrugged. “He told me he needed help with some community problems.” She looked at Jane. “That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
“When is this happening, if you do it?” Phyllis asked. Phyllis’s face was soft and pleasant, like the rest of Phyllis. She was short and kind, a retired attorney and mother of four.
“Mr. Peavey wants me to meet him at Walden Spring on Monday morning.”
“No!” Phyllis shouted, too loud.
“Why ever not?” Jane was slightly annoyed Phyllis would presume to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. Advice was fine, but edicts, not so much.
“Because Monday is the day you’re going to help me find a man to date,” Phyllis answered.
Only Irma had the nerve to say what they were all thinking. “You’re kidding.”
Phyllis had had a long and happy marriage to Sam, a real sweetheart, who’d been struck down by leukemia at the age of fifty-nine. That was tragic. Also tragic was Phyllis’s reaction. Less than a year after Sam’s death, over the boisterous objections of her grown children and the somewhat more muted ones from the bridge club, Phyllis had married Craig, shortly thereafter known as “The Awful Craig,” and finally just as “The Awful.”
Phyllis was sparkly and pretty. She was round like a snowman, round hips, round chest, and a round face she emphasized with her short, feathered brown hair, a color that was no more natural than Jane’s honey-blond but that suited her. Phyllis’s was the kind of roundness men found enticing, and when Jane went out with her, she couldn’t help noticing Phyllis still attracted their attention.
Phyllis had gone to law school when her youngest child started kindergarten and later made so much money as a corporate lawyer, both she and Sam were astonished. But like many smart people, Phyllis could be incredibly dumb.
It had taken two years for Phyllis to admit her marriage to The Awful was a disaster. She ordered him out of her house. He refused to go. Phyllis hired a divorce attorney. The Awful did, too. Delays piled on delays.
Phyllis moved in with Jane and had the electricity and the gas turned off at her house. She let the oil tank run dry. At first, she drew the line at turning off the water, fearful of what The Awful could do in a house without functioning toilets, but as summer turned to fall and fall to winter, and the possibility of burst pipes turned to a probability, Phyllis had the city turn the water off at the street and a plumber drain the system.
It took a few weeks after that, but one morning The Awful Craig was gone. His lawyer, who’d dragged his heels for months, suddenly agreed to everything. Craig was marrying again.
That had been a year ago. So when Phyllis announced she wanted to date, the rest of the bridge group had their reservations.
“Why are you staring at me?” Phyllis asked. “I won’t make the same mistake twice. I was crazy with grief last time. Besides,” she added triumphantly, “Jane is going to make sure I don’t. She’s going to meet all my dates before I go out with them.” Phyllis looked at Jane. “I will date only the ones she preapproves.”
Phyllis’s announcement that Jane would be screening her dates was met with a fair number of objections, most of them Jane’s.
“How do you know there will even be dates to approve?” Jane asked.
“Because I signed up for an Internet dating service, and I don’t mind telling you, there’s been a lot of interest.”
“And what makes you think these men will agree to talk with me before they even meet you?” Jane pressed.
“Because I posted a profile for you on the service, too. They’ll agree to date you, and after you sort through them, you’ll introduce me to the winner.” Phyllis sat back, triumphant, while the other three stared with their mouths open.
“Phyllis, I cannot believe you signed me up for an online dating service without so much as asking.” Really, this was too much.
“It was easy. I had plenty of photos of you. I know your likes and dislikes, though I did mix in some of my own to make sure we could attract the same men.”
“And what made you think I’d agree to this?” Jane’s tone was sharper than she meant it to be. Phyllis had been through hell.
“You helped Helen. You tried to help Minnie. Why wouldn’t you help me? We’re friends.”
Good grief. How could Jane even argue? No wonder Phyllis was such a good attorney.
Back at home, Jane sat at the breakfast bar in her kitchen and powered up her laptop. Her photo beamed out from the top of the Getadate.com profile Phyllis had created. Jane had to admit, she’d picked a good one. It had been taken at her retirement party, hair done (then and now again, expensively, honey-blond), makeup on, the pacific blue of a beautiful silk jacket bringing out the blue of her eyes.
In combination, she had to admit she and Phyllis were quite the catch. She’d listed their interests: gardening and travel (Jane’s), along with gourmet cooking and golf (Phyllis’s) and, of course, bridge (both). She’d left off a few hobbies, such as watching trashy daytime television (Phyllis’s) and butting into other people’s lives (now apparently Jane’s).
There had been, as Phyllis said, plenty of interest. Jane scanned the profiles of Phyllis’s potential dates, who were, as her (and Jane’s) preference requested, all men between the ages of 60 and 75. True to their mutual zip code, the men were professors, consultants, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. Most were divorced, a few widowed. Many said they were retired, though others said they were “still working, though it’s not the center of my world,” perhaps unwittingly explaining the reason their earlier marriages had failed.
Their listed interests were p. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...