It’s scones and scandal for Indigo Tea Shop owner Theodosia Browning in this Tea Shop Mystery from New York Times bestselling author Laura Childs.
Normally Theodosia wouldn’t attend a black-tie affair for all the tea in China. But she can hardly say no to her handsome boyfriend, Max, who directs public relations for the Gibbes Museum in Charleston. Max has organized an amazing gala opening for an exhibit of a genuine eighteenth-century Chinese teahouse, and the crème de la crème of Charleston society is invited.
Max even rented a photo booth to give guests a memory of the occasion. But Theodosia makes a grim discovery behind the booth’s curtains: the body of museum donor Edgar Webster. When Max becomes a suspect, it’s up to Theodosia to examine the life of the fallen philanthropist and find out who really wanted him to pay up…
INCLUDES DELICIOUS RECIPES AND TEA TIME TIPS!
Release date: May 5, 2015
Print pages: 336
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Ming Tea Murder
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Laura Childs
With drums banging and the sweet notes of a Chinese violin trembling in the air, the enormous red-and-gold dragon shook its great head and danced its way across the rotunda of the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the opening-night celebration for the reconstruction of a genuine eighteenth century Chinese tea house, and the crème de la crème of society had turned out in full force for this most auspicious occasion.
And even though black-tie events weren’t exactly topmost in Theodosia Browning’s comfort zone, there had been no easy way to refuse this particular invitation, especially when your handsome, hunky boyfriend was the museum’s public relations director. So here she was, applauding the music, mesmerized by the spectacle of the enormous dragon’s gaping jaws as it snapped and slapped above the heads of the excited crowd.
Yes, the event was most impressive, Theodosia decided. Glowing red Chinese lanterns, stands of bamboo, elegant orchids, and miniature penjing trees had transformed the cold, marble rotunda into an exotic Asian garden. And then there was the food. Serving tables were laden with tempting bites of shrimp dumplings, honey-glazed pork buns, chicken satay, and miniature crispy duck rolls. Delicious!
Of course, the real treasure was the Chinese tea house itself, purchased and deconstructed in Shanghai, then rebuilt board-by-board inside the museum. The blue-tiled, exotically peaked roof, gleaming cypress walls, and intricately carved sandalwood screens seemed tailor-made for an emperor and his courtesans.
“I’m anxious to take a look inside,” Theodosia told Max, who was gazing about proudly if not a little distractedly.
“We pulled it off,” said Max. “I can’t believe we actually pulled it off.” He sounded surprised that his PR efforts had yielded such a turnout.
“Of course you did,” Theodosia told him. “Because nobody would pass up an opportunity to enjoy a fancy celebration like this.” Except . . . maybe me?
Theodosia had a smile that could light up a tea room—and often did, since she was the proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop on nearby Church Street. But tonight she’d been smiling so exuberantly that her face felt like it was about ready to crack. She’d flitted about on Max’s arm, chatting and rubbing shoulders with Charleston’s old guard, most of them big-buck donors who were thrilled that their money had made it possible to import this masterpiece of a tea house.
But Theodosia was also counting the seconds to midnight.
Because when the clock struck the proverbial witching hour, she planned to cut and run like Cinderella. She’d kick off her pinchy black satin heels, climb into her pumpkin coach—which, in this case, was her venerable six-year-old Jeep—and head home to her cozy little cottage where her dog, Earl Grey, awaited her.
Shaking her head and forcing another smile because Max was saying something to her again, she leaned toward him, and said, “Excuse me?”
“I need to schmooze a couple more board members,” said Max. “You’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be perfect,” said Theodosia.
“Go check out the photo booth,” Max urged, “while I huddle with Edgar Webster, one of our illustrious donors.” He grinned. “Maybe take a selfie.” As a fun perk for the guests, Max had convinced the museum director to let him bring in a photo booth. And just as he’d predicted, there’d been a constant parade of guests in and out of the booth all night long. Everyone was seemingly thrilled with the notion of immortalizing themselves in photos, even if they were the small black-and-white variety.
“I’ll do that,” Theodosia told him. “It’ll be fun.” As she turned to push her way through the crowd, she caught sight of herself in a fragment of mirror. And as always, the image gave her pause.
Is that really me with that mass of auburn hair framing my face and blue eyes looking so expectant? Hmm, I don’t look half-bad for being in my midthirties.
She’d swiped a hint of blusher on the apples of her cheeks, smudged on the bare minimum of mascara. But with her confident bearing, winning smile, and fair southern belle skin, she looked almost like a noblewoman who might have been portrayed in some delectable English painting. Perhaps something John Constable might have done.
“You’re looking very lovely tonight,” said a voice behind her.
Theodosia whirled about to find Drayton, her dear friend and tea master, smiling at her.
“If not a bit mischievous,” continued Drayton.
Theodosia smiled and gave an offhand wave. “Ah, I think I might be a tad underdressed.” She’d worn a simple black cocktail dress, an armful of colorful bead bracelets, and heels, while most of the other women were glitzed and glammed in the latest runway creations from Dior and Oscar de la Renta.
“Nonsense,” said Drayton. “An LBD is always perfectly appropriate.” Drayton was sixtyish, tall, and debonair. Tonight his gray hair was slicked back straight, and he wore a slim-cut tuxedo with his trademark bow tie. He was the buttoned-up old guard to Theodosia’s more playful boho cool.
“Did you get a gander at all the jewels these women are wearing?” Theodosia asked him. “I mean, a cat burglar would have a field day here.”
Drayton’s bushy brows rose in twin arcs. “Please don’t interject a criminal element into the occasion. Even if it is only imaginary.”
“Okay, then I’ll just compliment you on all your lovely penjing, because they certainly add to the Asian atmosphere.” Penjing were basically Chinese bonsai, miniature trees that had been cut, trimmed, and wired so they could exist in small, moss-encrusted ceramic pots. Drayton, a master at creating windblown-style trees and miniature forests, had lent the museum a dozen of his trees. Most had spectacularly twisted trunks and leaves that were smaller than a lady’s pinky nail.
“They do look nice, don’t they? Particularly my Chinese elm.” Drayton prided himself on his composure and modesty, but he also appreciated a compliment now and then.
“You’ve been inside the tea house?” said Theodosia. They both had to take a step back, since the crowd was pressing so hard around them.
“It’s a marvel,” exclaimed Drayton. “I took the liberty of exploring while all that Chinese-dragon business was going on.” He paused and smiled. “You should run over and take a quick peek, too. You’ll love it.”
“I’m going to,” said Theodosia. “But first I promised Max I’d check out his photo booth.” She looked around, saw that Max was backed up against a wall talking to a rather red-faced man, a board member by the name of Edgar Webster. Neither of them looked happy.
“Photo booth?” spat out Drayton. Clearly he wasn’t a fan. “What is this fixation everyone has today with memorializing themselves? And then posting every single silly photograph on . . .” Drayton made a face. “On the Internet?”
“Come on,” Theodosia cajoled. “It’s not as bad as all that.”
“I’m just not sure a photo booth is apropos for an event such as this.”
“Still, it’s fun. And everyone seems to love it.”
“You see,” said Drayton, “that’s why I’m not everyone.” Drayton was a self-proclaimed Luddite who mistrusted smartphones, DVDs, and CDs. In fact, he was an old-fashioned vinyl record kind of guy.
“But you’re perfect just the way you are,” Theodosia assured him. She glanced around again, but Max and Webster had apparently moved on.
“Oh my,” said Drayton. As he gazed into the crowd, his placid expression suddenly changed to one of horror.
“What?” Then Theodosia caught sight of the small, blond woman who was speed walking toward them on clacking kitten heels.
“I’m going to let you handle this encounter,” said Drayton as he quickly slipped away.
“You look like you’re having a marvelous time,” cooed Charlotte Webster. She slalomed to a stop in front of Theodosia and grinned like the Cheshire cat, practically upending her glass of champagne in the process. Charlotte was the bubbly socialite who presided over the Broad Street Garden Club, was a sometime customer at Theodosia’s Indigo Tea Shop, and was married to Edgar Webster.
“It’s a thrilling night,” Theodosia, mustering yet another smile, told Charlotte. Since Charlotte’s husband, a prominent businessman and philanthropist, had put up the largest chunk of money to import the tea house, Theodosia pretty much had to make nice with his wife.
“I was just chatting with Percy Capers,” said Charlotte. She fluttered a pudgy hand and adjusted her necklace, a string of sparkling diamonds with a large yellow diamond as the center stone. “You know, the museum’s curator of Asian art?”
Theodosia nodded. She’d met Capers a couple of times.
“Anyway, Mr. Capers was regaling me with horror stories about importing this lovely tea house. Shipping it across the Pacific, shepherding it through customs, misplacing some of the actual parts. Why, do you know there are no nails whatsoever in the construction? That the entire thing is held together with dozens of wooden pegs?”
“I’ve heard that.”
“Is that the craziest thing ever?” said Charlotte. “Wooden pegs?”
“I guess that’s how they built them two hundred years ago,” said Theodosia.
“Two hundred years? That’s how old that thing is?” said Charlotte. She took a quick glug of champagne. “Well, I certainly hope we got our money’s worth, then.” She giggled loudly, patted Theodosia on the arm, and toddled off.
Charlotte was a real character, Theodosia thought to herself. And then, because she really didn’t want to be unkind, decided that the Websters, as civic-minded underwriters of the tea house, really had done a wonderful thing.
As Theodosia slipped past one of the food tables, she accepted a miniature egg roll from a black-uniformed waiter. Then, when another waiter held out a tray filled with champagne glasses, she took a glass. As she sipped and surveyed the crowd, she was struck again by how fancy and formal everyone looked. Of course, many of the guests, board members as well as donors, were friends and neighbors who lived in the nearby Historic District. One of the Ravenels was conspiring with a Clayton and a Tisdale. And Mr. Pinckney was talking to a large man with a rather pronounced Texas bray.
The pounding of drums suddenly started up again, loud and hard, and Theodosia turned to see what was going on now. Oops, it was dragon time again. The Chinese dragon was humping its way through the crowd once more, tossing its head from side to side, its dragon beard fluttering with every move.
Theodosia had witnessed a dragon parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown once, when she’d been roaming up and down Grant Street popping into tea shops, looking for unusual varieties and blends. But seeing this guy up close and personal was a lot more fun. And, from the enthusiasm generated by the crowd, they obviously thought so, too.
Edging her way through a clutch of suitably enthralled guests, Theodosia headed for the photo booth. Maybe she could slip in and take a quick photo right now. She wasn’t all that hot to pose, but it would make Max happy. Give him a small souvenir of tonight’s museum triumph.
Dodging around an enormous celadon pot filled with leafy bamboo plants, Theodosia darted past a red Chinese lantern supported by a heavy wooden post. Over here, in an alcove off the rotunda where the photo booth was located, it was a little darker, a little quieter.
Theodosia rounded a stone lion-dog statue, heading for the photo booth. The drums were pounding furiously now, the erhu—the Chinese violin—pouring out high, pleading notes. Finishing the last sip of champagne, she set her glass down on a small rosewood table and turned toward the photo booth.
Was it still occupied, she wondered, or could she dart in for a quick photo?
“Hello?” Theodosia called out, giving a couple of sharp knocks on the shiny, bright yellow exterior. She didn’t want to go crashing in and photobomb someone. That would be just plain rude.
“Is someone in there?” she called again.
When there was no reply, Theodosia took a step forward. And just before her hand parted the flimsy black curtain, the toe of her strappy black stiletto slid into a patch of something sticky.
“Oh no,” she groaned. All she needed was to ruin her best pair of shoes because some exuberant guest had spilled a glop of sweet-and-sour sauce.
Theodosia glanced down, expecting to see sauce, fragments of an exploded pork bun, or a puddle of champagne. After all, this art opening had turned into a fairly raucous party.
Only what she saw instead was a small, dark puddle.
A spilled drink?
No, Theodosia decided. Champagne or tea would have been much more translucent.
As she pulled her foot back and stared at the floor again, taking a longer, harder look, her heart began to flutter. Then it began to dance a little jitterbug. Because whatever was on the floor was decidedly dark and sticky.
No, it couldn’t be. Could it?
Slowly, tentatively, her heart in her throat, Theodosia reached forward and slowly parted the curtains. And saw . . . nothing.
It was pitch-black inside the photo booth. Lights out.
Somehow that didn’t feel right to her. What was going on?
She pushed the curtains a little farther apart.
And that’s when she saw him. A large man, sprawled on a narrow wooden bench, bent all the way forward so his forehead pressed tightly against the front panel of the booth. His eyes were closed, and he looked like he was passed out cold.
“Excuse me,” said Theodosia. “Sir?” Her mouth felt dry, her breathing was fast and thready. “Are you okay, sir?” She paused. “Do you need help?”
Theodosia glanced backward, looking for a museum guard, one of the museum staff, anyone who might be able to lend a hand.
But everyone had their backs to her. They were still cheering and clapping like mad as the musicians played wildly and the Chinese dragon continued his energetic prance.
Tentatively now, Theodosia touched a finger to the side of the man’s throat. To where she figured a pulse point might be.
She felt . . . nothing. In fact, he felt cool. Practically lifeless.
A loud pounding sounded inside Theodosia’s head, and she could feel the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickle and rise.
No . . . please no.
And, as her eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness inside the photo booth, as her mind slowly wrapped itself around what might have just happened, that’s when she saw the first telltale evidence of foul play. Just above where her fingertip had come into contact with the man’s throat, a trail of dark, sticky liquid dribbled from his ear!
Blood? Has to be.
Theodosia snatched her hand away and backed out of the photo booth as fast as humanly possible. Then she screamed as loud as she could, her voice rising in volume as it mingled with the urgent, shrill notes of the erhu.
It was amazing. Or maybe it wasn’t. That a gaggle of wealthy, sophisticated people could scatter in mere minutes, like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
Who wanted to get involved in what appeared to be a brutal, spur-of-the-moment murder?
No one, apparently. Death was too nasty, far too unseemly for this well-heeled, fashionable crowd.
So when a gang of uniformed police officers and EMTs descended upon the museum, when the dancing dragon was shooed away and the stunned musicians were silenced, Theodosia was left with a handful of museum folks. Everyone fumbled for explanations and tried to relate the story as best they could.
“How could this happen?” exclaimed Max. He touched a hand to his forehead as if he couldn’t quite process the event. The tall, dark-haired, and olive-skinned Max now looked pale as a ghost.
A uniformed officer with brush-cut gray hair, a solemn expression, and a nametag that said D. HICKS hastened to take charge. “It happened,” he said. “So let’s move on from there. Because what I really need to know right now is: Who is this fellow?” He peered into the darkness of the photo booth at the dead man.
“I don’t know,” said Theodosia. “I’m not sure. I never saw his face. When I found him, he was just, uh, kind of slumped forward like that. Like he is now.”
“You didn’t touch him?” Hicks asked.
Theodosia grimaced. “Well, I kind of did.”
“Explain, please,” said Hicks.
Theodosia hunched her shoulders. “I’m sorry, but I reached in and touched an index finger to his throat.”
“To see if the man was still breathing?”
“That’s right. It seemed like the smart thing to do. The responsible thing to do.”
“And was he breathing?”
“No. At least I don’t think he was.” Theodosia was nervous and felt like she was fumbling the interview when she should be trying to be a little more helpful. “And he certainly isn’t breathing anymore.”
“That’s fairly obvious,” said Max.
“So my question still stands,” said Hicks. “Who is he?” Even the two EMTs who’d come rushing in with a clattering gurney stood on the sidelines now, watching and listening. The situation looked pretty darn strange, and their curiosity was ramped up.
Drayton, who’d been standing behind Theodosia and observing what was slowly turning into a freak show, held up a hand, and said, “I think I might be of some help.”
“Oh yeah?” said Hicks. He looked like he was normally a fairly easygoing guy, but tonight his jaw was set firmly and his eyes were pinpricks of intensity. “You believe you can identify this man?”
Drayton nodded. “I think this unfortunate gentleman might be . . .”
“Edgar!” A shrill scream echoed from halfway across the room. It rose in volume, like steel wheels grinding against metal rails, then tapered to a high-pitched whine. “Is that my Edgar?”
Charlotte Webster suddenly stumbled toward them. She was half staggering, half running, looking like a crazed zombie woman. Her blond hair stuck straight up, her bright red lipstick was hopelessly smeared, and she wore a look of utter anguish on her doughy face.
The small crowd parted silently for her as she lurched up to the photo booth. She stopped, peered inside, and let out a sound that sounded like “Whump?” Then she slumped so visibly that Drayton had to reach out and steady her.
“Is it him?” Hicks asked. “Is that your husband?”
But Charlotte wasn’t about to be hurried.
She fanned herself madly with one hand. “When I couldn’t find Edgar in the crowd,” she said, “I started to panic.” Now tears streamed like rivers down her cheeks. “And now . . .” She put a hand to her chest as if she was suddenly experiencing stabbing heart pain. Then she swallowed hard and pointed at the dead man. “And now I recognize him,” she said in a high, quavering voice. “We . . .” She shook her head, almost unable to continue.
“Take your time,” said Hicks.
“I mean . . .” said Charlotte. “I can’t quite believe this, but earlier tonight we actually argued over Edgar’s choice of tuxedos. He wanted to wear the Armani. I told him I much preferred the Brioni.” Her lower lip trembled and her finger shook as she pointed at the dead man, who was still slumped like a slab of meat inside the photo booth. “That’s Edgar’s Brioni. I’d know it anywhere.”
“Oh dear,” said Theodosia.
“That’s Edgar Webster?” said Max. “I was just talking to him!”
“I think I . . .” Charlotte mumbled. Then her eyes rolled back in her head until only the whites showed. Her knees trembled and buckled. In front of a dozen horrified onlookers, Charlotte dropped to the marble floor like a sack of potatoes. Potatoes encased in a fashionable red silk dress, anyway.
Drayton and Percy Capers, the Asian curator, immediately leapt to Charlotte’s aid. Together they hauled her back onto her feet and led her, stumbling and blubbering, to a nearby bench.
“Well, you certainly don’t see that every day,” said a gruff voice.
Theodosia whirled around, ready to chastise whoever had made what she considered a fairly rude and insensitive comment. And was met with the steady, dark gaze of Detective Burt Tidwell.
“You,” she said. Burt Tidwell headed the Robbery and Homicide Division of the Charleston Police Department. He was a bear-sized man with a strange, bullet-shaped head and huge hands. Brilliant, shrewd, and driven, he was not a man to be trifled with.
“You,” Tidwell fired back at Theodosia. They’d met on any number of occasions. Socially, at the Indigo Tea Shop, and, more recently, when Theodosia had been pulled into a bizarre murder case.
Tidwell extended a hand and gave an impatient flick of his wrist. “Please move,” he said as a kind of blanket warning to everyone in his immediate vicinity. “Everyone step back. You are all compromising my crime scene with your sticky little strands of DNA.”
“Your crime scene?” said Hicks. He put his hands on his hips. “I don’t think so.” Suddenly, a turf war seemed to be brewing.
Tidwell directed a withering gaze at him. “I prefer to take over from here. Good work, though, Officer Hicks. I’m thrilled that you were able to keep so many guests from stampeding.”
“Look here,” said Theodosia, stepping in again. “It wasn’t his fault. When I saw that poor man . . .” She pointed inside the photo booth.
“Edgar Webster,” said Max.
“When I saw him slumped inside,” said Theodosia, “I started screaming. Which meant the band quit playing, and then . . . well . . .” She stopped abruptly, aware that at least a dozen pairs of eyes were staring at her with increasing curiosity. “They all . . . all the guests, that is . . . got scared and ran off.”
“A fine narrative,” said Tidwell. “Very helpful indeed.”
“You don’t have to be so dismissive,” said Theodosia, pulling it together and speaking more clearly now. “I was startled, and I’m afraid my screams launched everyone into panic mode.”
Tidwell glanced around. “Who is in charge here, please? Besides me?”
“That would be me.” Elliot Kern, the director of the museum, stepped forward and extended his hand. He was well turned out in an Ermenegildo Zegna power suit. His sparse gray hair was a fringed cap, a hawk nose dominated his face, and he exuded a faint patrician air. In an earlier century he could have been one of the wheeling, dealing members of the Medici family.
“I’m assuming you have a list of everyone who was in attendance here tonight?” said Tidwell.
“Of course,” said Kern. “Absolutely.” He seemed more than eager to lend assistance.
“Then I will be needing that list,” said Tidwell. Like many large men, he’d taken to wearing vests under his sport coats. And tonight, the small pearly buttons on Tidwell’s vest seemed to yawn and strain, defying every dreary law of physics.
“Is there anything I can do?” asked Max. But both Tidwell and Elliot Kern ignored him.
“Again, people,” said Tidwell, raising his voice to a frightening rumble, “you must clear away from here.” A few more people shuffled backward as the EMTs looked anxious and edged their gurney closer.
“No, no,” said Tidwell, holding up a big paw. “We cannot load him up yet. We must wait for the crime-scene team to arrive. Since we haven’t determined the primary cause of death, their small ministrations are going to be quite necessary in helping gather as much information as possible.”
Theodosia noted that Tidwell seemed to veer between blustering and decorous. Typical. She edged a little closer, ignoring his warning to back off.
“What was the cause of death?” Theodosia asked. She figured she already knew what it was, but she wanted to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
“If you want an official statement,” Tidwell said brusquely, “you’re welcome to make an appointment and meet with the medical examiner of Charleston County.”
“Okay, then,” said Theodosia. “How about unofficially? You’re an experienced investigator. What do you think might have been the cause of death?” She glanced at Charlotte Webster, who was still sitting on a bench, bent over with her face in her hands.
Tidwell offered a mirthless smile, a smile that seemed to imply his superiority as an investigator. Then he extended a hand toward the dead man. “You see there . . . how the blood has oozed out? Very dark, almost black, dribbling down the side of our victim’s face?”
“Yes.” Theodosia wished he hadn’t phrased it quite so graphically.
“Off the record, I’d say that a thin, sharp object had been inserted into our victim’s right ear.”
Not our victim, Theodosia thought. Your victim.
“Dear lord,” said Drayton. All the blood seemed to drain from his face.
Theodosia was appalled but fascinated at the same time. “And this particular sharp object entered his brain, too?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” said Tidwell. “A sharp object, inserted rather deftly, would most definitely impact that particular area.”
“Deftly,” said Theodosia, frowning. “That’s a strange way to describe such a brutal, up-close murder. Your choice of words almost implies a certain elegance.”
Tidwell’s mouth twitched slightly upward at the corners, and he rocked back on his heels. “No, Miss Browning, the elegance lies in how adroitly this particular murder will be solved.”
Theodosia gazed at Tidwell, the feisty, obstinate, ex-FBI agent, who could be both courtly and brusque at the same time. “But . . .” she said. She hesitated, thought for a moment, and decided to voice her opinion anyway. “But the killer . . . the murderer . . . he had to have been a guest here tonight. It couldn’t have been someone who just wandered in off the street.”
“Very good, Miss Browning,” said Tidwell. “My thoughts exactly.”
“Now the mu shu pork has really hit the fan,” murmured Max.
Theodosia lifted her gaze from the dead man to the elegant Chinese tea house. Red lights, set on a timer, had suddenly blinked on and shone down upon the enormous central gallery. Now the tea house shimmered in brilliant red light, while everything around it was bathed in a darker bloodred.
Theodosia shivered, as if a chill wind had suddenly swept across her grave. A killer had walked quietly among them with murder in his heart.
Who could it be?
A Brown Betty teapot rested on the small wooden table where Theodosia and Drayton sat. Bone china teacups were filled with freshly brewed Assam. Haley, the Indigo Tea Shop’s young chef and baker extraordinaire, hovered nearby. It was a half hour before the Indigo Tea Shop was slated to open, and the three of them were still mulling ove
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