Avery Morgan has been hired to breathe new life into the Portage Path Women's Club, but first she'll have to deal with a dead body and a meddling ghost.
When a local theater troupe puts on a new play at the club, manager Avery Morgan is excited. This is just the sort of event that's destined to bring in potential new members. Okay, millionaire banker Bob Hanover has more bucks than talent and has used his position to grab the lead role, but that seems like a small price to pay...until Bob is found dead backstage.
Bob rubbed many people the wrong way, but would anyone want him dead? The short answer to that is: Who wouldn't want him dead? His long-suffereing wife had to put up with years of womanizing. The show's playwright has been tricked out of his one great idea by Bob, who claimed it as his own work. And Bob bankrupted one of the town's small businessmen. The choices are many and the time to find the killer is running short.
Avery is working overtime to keep the club open and find the killer. Fortunately, she has help with the latter task. Clemmie Bow was once a singer in the speakeasy in the club's basement. Now she's a ghost who's also a top-notch detective. Together Clemmie and Avery will find the killer—even if it kills one of them.
Release date: April 6, 2021
Print pages: 288
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Phantoms and Felonies
Nobody knew what a speakeasy was supposed to look like more than Clemmie Bow knew what a speakeasy was supposed to look like. After all, she'd actually been inside a speakeasy back in the roaring twenties, the days of Prohibition when booze was illegal and the illicit places they called speakeasies (or gin joints or blind pigs) popped up everywhere from back rooms to basements.
Clemmie was familiar with what the guys behind the bar served their lawbreaking patrons. She knew what people back in the day wore for a night out on the town. She'd actually gotten a job as a singer in a speakeasy, so really, could anyone possibly know more about the music of the time, not to mention the steps of a frenzied Charleston?
Of course, that was all before Clemmie was killed in the speakeasy in Chauncey Dennison's magnificent mansion.
And, naturally, she was dead before she started haunting the place.
I mean, dead-that is the main requirement for being a ghost, isn't it?
"So, what do you think?"
It was not as crazy as it might look on the surface, me standing in the old speakeasy of the Dennison mansion talking to a ghost. Clemmie and I had gotten acquainted a few months earlier when I took over the job of manager of the Portage Path Women's Club that now owned the mansion; and, yeah, while it had been pretty weird when I realized who-and what-she was, Clemmie and I were at peace with it all now and with our own special places in the universe.
Clemmie was clearly on the Other Side.
And I was in the here and now, trying to keep the dinosaur of a women's club from going under and taking my job with it.
I waved a hand toward the old bar that I had recently helped clean and polish to within an inch of its life, and from there to the theater sets that had been erected behind it to make it look like the walls were decorated with garish paper-crimson dahlias on a black background.
"Does it look like the real thing?" I asked Clemmie.
I had hoped for a reaction a little more enthusiastic than the way Clemmie tipped her head from side to side. She studied the tables and chairs we'd arranged in front of the bar, the tiny stage where the band we'd hired would play old standards, the stations where the waitstaff-and I-would monitor the goings-on and make sure everything ran smoothly at the first-ever Portage Path Women's Club murder mystery dinner and fundraiser.
"There was never any wallpaper," Clemmie said.
This, I knew. "The speakeasy needed a name. And the guy who wrote the murder mystery dinner play, he decided to call it the Crimson Dahlia. So. Voilˆ!" I made a dramatic flourish toward the theater flats. "We've got crimson dahlias."
Clemmie wandered toward the stage and I couldn't help but think that had anyone come down to the basement at that moment-anyone who was actually able to see her-they wouldn't have blinked an eye. In her cream-colored, tube-shaped dress covered with beads and her feathered headdress, dark bobbed hair, Cupid's bow lips, and pencil-thin brows, she fit right in with our theme. Or should I say our theme fit right in with her?
"You know about what people needed to do to get in, don't you, Avery? About the password?" Clemmie asked.
I didn't, at least not until we'd started in on this project designed to bolster PPWC's bank account and hopefully draw in new members, but fortunately Fabian LaGrande, the man who'd written the mystery, did.
"Our guests were sent the password when they RSVPed," I told Clemmie. "Just like at a real speakeasy, they'll have to say the password to the actor stationed at the door before they come down here for the cocktail hour." Like it really was some secret, I lowered my voice. "It's twenty-three skidoo."
Over her shoulder, Clemmie tossed me a look that included a curled upper lip. "Old-fashioned! That's something my ma used to say. You need a password that's more the bee's knees. Like, Know your onions. Or Get a wiggle on. You know, something with some modern sass."
Modern? Maybe in Clemmie's day. "I guess maybe LaGrande didn't do his historical homework," I told her. "I can mention to him that the phrase isn't actually from the twenties, but LaGrande . . ." I remembered my last encounter with the playwright when he and the cast did a run-through of the play a couple of days earlier. As a member of the Portage Path Players, LaGrande had proudly told me he'd written exactly two plays. He'd appeared along with the other twenty or so amateur actors who usually performed in the local middle school auditorium.
And he acted-and expected to be treated-like he was Lin-Manuel Miranda.
My sigh betrayed my frustration. "He might not listen."
Clemmie's red, red lips puckered. "A windbag, huh?"
I laughed. "If you mean someone who's always talking about themselves and how good they are, you could say that. When I talked to him the other day, all I wanted to know was if we could move a guy who was supposed to say his lines from over here"-I zipped over to the spot-"to over here." This time, I moved five feet to my right. "Just so the actor didn't get in the way of the waitstaff going into the back room with the dirty glasses. LaGrande insisted I was trying to spoil the artistic integrity of the play. You know, I really am glad we found a group to put on the play and I'm more than grateful Valentina Hanover's husband is part of the company and volunteered to bankroll the whole thing." Valentina was our board secretary, a sweet woman with oodles of money and, lucky for us, a husband who'd been bitten by the theater bug. "But really . . ."
I looked around and thought about all the hours that had gone into planning and cleaning and getting ready for the dinner that was scheduled in just two days. "Not that I'm complaining or anything, but something tells me a play performed partly here in the basement and partly upstairs might not be LaGrande's gateway to fame and fortune like he thinks it is."
"Hey, you don't know that!" Clemmie pouted. "I was going to start here, you know. And then go on to New York. To the stage! Sister, I was going to have it all."
I bet it would have happened if Clemmie's life hadn't been cut short. She had that kind of grit. After all, she'd helped me capture a murderer just a few months earlier. If the girl could do that even while she was dead, I had no doubt she could have charmed the socks off a Broadway producer when she was alive.
I closed in on her. "You've got talent," I told her and it was true. I'd heard Clemmie sing. She had a sweet voice, and she sure could pack a wallop of emotion into a song. "I'm not so sure about LaGrande. The script for Death at the Crimson Dahlia is perfect for what we want, hokey and simple, but the stuff of Tony Awards, it is not."
"And the cocktails?" Clemmie skimmed a hand over the bar. "You're serving the right hooch, aren't you?"
"No hooch here," I assured her with a laugh. "Everything we're serving is strictly legal and I told our bartenders about those cocktails you suggested. They'll be mixing up sidecars, bee's knees, ward eights, and gin rickeys. All authentic to the times." I remembered what I'd read when I was starting my research for the project. "Did you know cocktails originated because the proprietors of speakeasies were trying to make their illegal liquor go further by adding other ingredients?"
"And to disguise the awful flavor!" Clemmie made a face. "That stuff made in bathtubs was terrible."
"This fundraiser is going to be so much fun." I knew it in my hearts of hearts. I felt it in my bones.
All I had to do was convince that little voice of intuition inside me. The one that reminded me that my fundraiser idea wasn't being met with enthusiasm by everyone in the club.
My shoulders rose and fell. "We've got to pull this off without a hitch. Otherwise I'm going to hear a lot of people say I told you so."
"Just from them bluenosed ladies." Like it was nothing, Clemmie waved a hand. "They're just afraid a party like this is going to attract . . . you know . . . the wrong kind of people. People they don't want in this here club. People who ain't got their bucks or breeding. Those hoity-toity ladies, they only want people here who are just like them."
"There aren't many people left who are just like them." It explained why the club had gone down from a membership in the thousands to just the eighty-four members it had now. And why we needed to bolster the membership rolls. Not as easy as it sounds in a day and age when people's schedules are packed and they're far more likely to spend their time online than they are meeting their fellow club members to put together puzzles or play cards.
"But that's exactly why some of our members feel we need to let other people into the club," I told Clemmie, and she didn't have to follow my thoughts to know what I was getting at. Though they'd never seen her and they had no idea she'd been hanging around, Clemmie had been in on plenty of membership meetings where the topic was discussed. "You saw it for yourself at the last meeting. Not everyone agrees. They like things just the way they are, and they want them to stay that way."
"Those crabby old ladies, they'll see. This dinner of yours, it's going to be the berries."
Her smile was infectious.
"The bee's knees," I said.
"The cat's particulars!" Clemmie squealed a laugh and what with the high-pitched sound of it, I guess I didn't hear the door at the top of the stairs open.
I did hear the pounding of footsteps, though, and Clemmie did, too. She vanished in a sparkle of mist as light as a spritz of Chanel No. 5.
"You can't get away with this, Hanover."
I recognized the voice. Fabian LaGrande. Our playwright.
"You think you own everyone and everything in Portage Path. Well, you don't."
At the bottom of the steps, Fabian turned, fists on hips, and looked up toward the stairway and the man who followed him into the basement.
Bob Hanover's cheeks were purple. His hands were clenched into fists at his side. He stomped to the bottom of the steps and Fabian had no choice but to back up, to move over, to make room.
But then, Bob Hanover was that kind of guy.
President of a bank that had been a Portage Path mainstay for more years than anyone could remember, Bob had a booming voice, a huge bank account, and an ego to match both. I knew his wife, Valentina, loved him to pieces, and who was I to argue? They say there's someone out there for everyone. Valentina, younger than most of the women in the club, was Bob's secretary when he divorced his first wife-and once he and Valentina were married, she was propelled into Portage Path society-but I'd seen the way she looked at him. Something told me even if ol' Bob had been as poor as a church mouse, Valentina wouldn't have cared. She adored her husband.
Yes, Bob was definitely Valentina's someone, and for her sake-and the sake of our upcoming fundraising event-I pasted on a smile and strolled out of the speakeasy into the main part of the basement and right into the middle of their argument as if I hadn't heard a word of it.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. How are the plans going?" I asked.
LaGrande was tall and slim. He had a shock of silvery hair, a nose as long as a zucchini, and a voice that affected me like nails on a blackboard.
"Plans?" He rasped out the word, and a shudder raked up my spine. "Actors do not have plans. Neither do writers. We have fates. We have destinies."
"We have two days to get this infernal play down pat, and you're worried about trivialities," Bob growled.
LaGrande rolled up on his toes. Even then he wasn't as tall as Bob. Bob Hanover was a big man with a barrel chest and fists like hams. That day, like always, he was dressed impeccably in a dark suit, a blindingly white shirt, and a tie I bet cost more than I made in an entire week.
"It's hardly trivial." I knew for a fact that LaGrande was born and raised in Portage Path. Which always made me wonder why he thought he could get away with a British accent. "This is important. And we need to hash it out, Bob. Right now."
"And you will." Was that my voice? Even I didn't realize I could sound so perky. But then, the last thing I needed was some major meltdown between these two. "We'll get all the lines polished and all the actors ready to go. I'll help in any way I can. So . . ." My smile was as bright as my voice. "What do you two think? You've seen the sets? The dahlia wallpaper?"
I knew LaGrande had. Which explained why he didn't need to do any more than cast a quick look into the speakeasy before his nose twitched. "I'd hoped for something with a little more class."
"That just proves it, doesn't it?" As if they were old buddies who hadn't just been tussling, Bob chuckled and slapped him on the back. "You don't have a sense for this sort of thing, Fabian. A murder mystery dinner like this, it's supposed to be fun. Campy!"
I appreciated Bob's support and joined in the effort to reassure our Shakespeare wannabe. "We want people to really get into the play. To take sides. To grill the actors and decide who the suspects are. To help find the killer. That's one of the reasons we've asked our guests to come in costume. To get into the spirit of the thing."
LaGrande shuffled his feet. "It isn't a game."
"Of course it is." Bob's voice boomed through the basement. "It's all a game, Fabian. Haven't you figured that out yet? Oh yes." Chuckling, he headed back upstairs. "It's all a game, all right. If you're smart, Fabian, you won't forget it."
It wasn't until after Bob was upstairs and closed the door behind him that LaGrande allowed himself an angry growl. "The man drives me up the wall! Do you know what he told me before we came down here? He wants more lines. More lines! Like I can just do that? Like I can go into a play that's finished and start adding lines willy-nilly? With just two days until we open?"
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