Sophie Winston is busy handling the first ever convention of the Association of Ghost Kitchens—restaurants that do delivery only—but she's taking a little time out for a lunch meeting organized by A Healthy Meal. The group is dedicated to providing meals for children in need, and as a bonus, it'll give Sophie the perfect opportunity to ogle the lavish Old Town home of socialite Geraldine Stansfield. Gerrie's dining room is impeccably furnished, the table laden with gleaming crystal and prized china. If it weren't for the dead man lying on the floor, everything would be perfect . . .
No one knows the victim—or at least, no one claims to. But a little snooping by Sophie reveals links to many local notables. In fact, not only was he a client of Geraldine's late husband, an attorney—every member of the Stansfield clan knew the deceased. But only one knows what he was doing in Gerrie's house.
Gerrie's elegant abode looks spotless, but there's plenty of dirty linen in those family closets. Now Sophie will have to get the killer to come clean before he spoils another appetite—for good . . .
Release date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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The Diva Delivers on a Promise
His wife, Geraldine, Gerrie to her friends, and a domestic diva by anyone’s standards, had thrown herself into funeral preparations worthy of the pope. She had inherited an enormously successful restaurant supply company from her parents, and she hadn’t spared a dime in celebrating Edwin’s life.
We all noticed, though, that Edwin’s recent demise hadn’t seemed to leave Gerrie particularly bereft. I suspected that the myriad details of his funeral had distracted her from the day-to-day reality of his absence.
Besides, not everyone played the forlorn widow publicly. It seemed more in character for Gerrie to spend those lonely, weepy hours in the privacy of her own home.
Three months had passed and Gerrie had surprised us all by calling the annual meeting of A Healthy Meal, a local organization that provided meals for less fortunate children.
Although I made my living as an event planner, and quite often have charities as clients, some causes are so dear to me that I don’t charge any fees for my contributions. A Healthy Meal was among them. One of the perks, though, was the annual luncheon meeting at Gerrie’s house. She certainly knew how to throw an elegant ladies’ luncheon.
Shortly before noon, I met my best friend and across-the-street neighbor, Nina Reid Norwood, in front of her house. As we walked along the brick sidewalk, I was glad I had pinned my hair up in an easy chignon. The August sun blazed down on us.
“Should have worn a hat,” Nina griped.
“It’s not that far.” At that moment, the two of us stopped abruptly and watched as a plump, petite woman dashed across the road dodging traffic. She wore a gauzy red, pink, and yellow dress with a pleated skirt that swished around her legs.
“Was that Gerrie?” asked Nina.
“Do we have the wrong day?” I asked. Nevertheless, we continued on our way to her house.
Half-a-dozen other women clustered before the front door of Gerrie’s white Federal-style home. Pots of lush hot-coral geraniums, a shade squarely between screaming pink and vivid orange, flanked the three stairs to her door. The oval plaque on the wall denoted it as a historic building. Four stories tall, it was bold and impressive. But it had absolutely no front yard and abutted the sidewalk.
The other women greeted us warmly. One of them said, “I don’t think Gerrie’s home. It’s not like her to make us wait.”
Minutes later, Gerrie, her hair perfect as always, opened the front door and invited us inside. She must have entered the house through the kitchen door in the back. She didn’t look flustered or hurried, but the one thing she couldn’t disguise was her rapid respiration.
We entered the cool foyer, a long hall on the right side of the house. White-on-white wallpaper and judiciously placed tall gold-framed mirrors helped it feel larger. It ended at stairs and a door.
Gerrie smiled brightly and held out a tray of icy pink drinks with a twist of cucumber on the rim. “They’re mocktails. So refreshing in this heat.”
Nina wrinkled her nose. “No booze?”
In a most earnest tone, Gerrie said, “Nina, they’re the latest thing.”
Each of us took one and Gerrie flitted away to offer them to other guests.
Nina took a sip. “Not bad. But if this is the trend, I’m going to become one of those women who carries a little flask in her purse.”
I laughed at the image, and we chatted with friends as we entered the living room. The walls were a dusty Williamsburg blue that was picked up in the furniture fabrics, along with generous hints of gold.
An oil portrait of Gerrie and Edwin hung over the marble fireplace mantel in an ornate frame. I guessed it must have been painted about ten or fifteen years ago.
“It was definitely Gerrie we saw crossing the street. That dress is unmistakable,” murmured Nina.
“I wonder where she bought it. I love the colors.”
“I’m starved. Do you know what she’s serving?” Nina edged toward the dining room.
Williamsburg blue continued as the dominant color, with white wainscoting around the bottom half. A cozy window seat should have been the main architectural attraction, but the far wall, where open French doors led to a lush patio, was full of glass and white molding that offered a welcome interruption to the blue. The upholstered seats on the dining chairs matched the blue walls. A blast of heat radiated in through the open doors, though I could feel the relief of air-conditioning behind me in the living room.
Gerrie had outdone herself on the tablescape. Fresh roses, irises, white columbine, and coral butterfly weed added a punch of color to the table. And she had used no less than three tablecloths. A gold one peeked out at the bottom. It was covered by a tablecloth in shades of blue, and that was topped by an elegant white embroidered square. The luncheon dishes had a beautiful blue floral pattern on white and were rimmed with a band of gold around the edges. A rose lay on a napkin at each place setting.
A horrific scream interrupted my thoughts, and the din of voices was abruptly silenced.
At the other end of the table, near the French doors, Mindy Parsons cupped her hands over her nose and mouth in horror and whimpered.
Nina and I rushed to her side. Nina squealed and clutched my arm.
At Mindy’s feet, a man lay on his back with a blue knife handle jutting from his chest. A growing red stain marred his crisp white button-down shirt.
Gerrie peered past me and shrieked before howling, “Noooo! Russ!”
The dining room was filled with her luncheon guests, who also screamed in various pitches, adding panic and chaos to an already bad situation.
I pulled my phone from my purse and called 911. “Gerrie, what’s your address?”
She told me, and I repeated it to the dispatcher, then handed my phone to Nina, while I kneeled on the floor beside the small man.
He looked vaguely familiar to me. I had probably seen him around Old Town or at events I arranged. His straight sandy hair had fallen back off his face, accentuating his open eyes, wide with terror. His long sleeves were rolled back, and his shirt was open at the neck. I slid my fingers under the collar in search of a pulse.
Sirens wailed in the air. One of the advantages of living in a small community was that it rarely took long for help to arrive. But I felt no pulse.
“Should we pull out the knife? Do CPR?” Gerrie’s shaking hand wavered in the air above the blue knife handle.
“Don’t touch the knife!” I tried to sound calm. “He could bleed out. He needs professional help.” I thought he was already beyond the help of anyone, but there was no point in saying so. Maybe the rescue crew could jolt his heart into beating again.
I breathed easier when I heard Gerrie’s front door knocker bang.
I rose to my feet and watched as the guests parted to let Officer Wong through. Like me, Wong was partial to good food, especially of the cupcake variety, which was probably the reason for her snug uniform. She wasn’t very tall for a cop, but she made up for her lack of height with serious smarts. The African-American Wong had chosen to keep her former husband’s name, but she’d told me she hadn’t regretted kicking him to the curb.
Her eyes narrowed and she murmured, “Russ Everett. Well, well.”
As she took in the situation, I did, too. I hadn’t noticed some items that were definitely out of place. A green baseball cap lay on the floor. It was embroidered with the words Dinner at Home. On the table lay a small robin’s-egg–blue box of cookies. The words Natasha’s Cookies glittered on it in gold lettering. A ribbon that had probably been tied on the box unfurled on the table. Cookie crumbs lay scattered on the pristine tablecloth.
I longed to pick the package up and take a closer look, but I didn’t dare touch it. I knew Natasha very well and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that the cookies must be her latest project. Natasha and I had grown up together in the same small town, which was the reason I knew her last name was Smith, even though she insisted on using one name, like Cher. And now, through a quirk of fate, we lived on the same block and wrote competing advice columns about the domestic life, a phrase that had fallen out of favor and was being replaced by everyday living.
Natasha liked to brag about everything she undertook. Yet I hadn’t heard so much as a whisper about a line of cookies, which I found odd.
Much as I had, Wong kneeled beside Russ and checked for a pulse. “What happened here?”
“Mindy found him like this. We were on the other side of the table.” I looked at Mindy. “Right?”
Her hands trembled. “Y-y-yes.”
Wong’s shoulders stiffened. I had known her for years, but had never seen her uncomfortable like this. She always took the worst in stride. She hadn’t hesitated a second to help me carry my old beau out of a burning building. Wong gazed up at me. Her voice tense, she asked, “Did you see who knifed him?”
“Not at all. I didn’t even know he was here.”
“How about you, Mindy?”
She shook her head, her expression fearful.
The sirens grew louder, which only served to heighten tension in the room. Wong appeared to be out of her element.
“Why don’t we all move back into the living room?” I held out my arms like I was herding them.
“I think we should all go home.” Jenna Ryder clutched her purse tightly, as if she thought someone might grab it.
Wong got to her feet. “Not so fast, ladies. You need to stay here. Y’all have a seat.” Wong followed us into the living room and eyed them, one by one, as if assessing them. She sounded gentle and kind when she said, “I know most of you. There’s nothing to be scared about. But we need you to stick around so we can get some information from you. Okay?”
It was a rhetorical question, but a number of them nodded their heads.
I rushed to the front door and flung it open in anticipation of the emergency crew’s arrival. Jenna dashed past me, and out the door, leaving only a whiff of Miss Dior behind.
Emergency medical responders calmly walked inside.
Wong greeted them and led them to the dining room.
A man stood outside watching. He was tall and dressed in a striped golf shirt and white trousers. As he neared, I recognized his aristocratic face. I had arranged many functions to which U.S. Senator Albert Keswick had been invited.
“Is Gerrie all right? I’m her neighbor. I live just across the way.” He pointed to an equally large house distinguished by a small balcony on the second floor that hung over the main entrance.
“Gerrie is fine.”
“I worry about her, now that Edwin isn’t with us anymore.”
“That’s very kind of you.” I wondered whether to invite him in. The fewer people, the better, I thought.
“Albert!” Gerrie cried as she came toward the door. “What are you doing here?”
I eased out of the way and watched as Wong filled in the rescue team with what little she knew. Then leaving them to their work, Wong returned to the living room and looked at the women gathered there in silence. “Was Russ invited to whatever y’all are doing here?”
Nina shook her head. “No! It’s a luncheon meeting of A Healthy Meal.”
Mindy added, “For needy children. No sodas, chips, or pizza.”
Wong grunted “uh-huh,” as if she wasn’t impressed. “I’m going to have to get your names and addresses.” She cast a quick glance my way when she added, “But first I have to call Wolf.”
Years ago, I had dated Wolf Fleishman of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Alexandria Police. Things had been a little awkward between us after we broke off our relationship, but at least we had stopped avoiding each other. At times like this, I was very happy to see Wong and Wolf because I knew how competent they were.
Gerrie pulled me aside. “What should I do?”
“Why don’t you sit down and wait for Wong? I’m sure she’ll want to speak with you.”
“What if one of the guests is diabetic or something and needs to eat?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I’ll bring more drinks. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.” She flitted away eagerly, as if thrilled to have something to keep her busy.
Nina scowled at me. “I’m always hungry, but who can think of food at a time like this?” Nevertheless, she drifted in the direction Gerrie had gone.
Gerrie was neither unkind nor stupid. I guessed she simply didn’t know what to do and felt too unsettled to sit and wait.
The emergency medical responders didn’t linger. Everyone stopped talking and watched with horror as they wheeled Russ through the living room. The knife handle still jutted from his chest. I followed them and observed from the doorway as they whisked him into the waiting ambulance in record time. I didn’t know if he could be resuscitated, but I knew for sure that his best chance was in an emergency room and that minutes mattered.
Wolf had arrived and was speaking with the emergency responders. He looked a little trimmer than the last time I had seen him. The sun glinted off silver strands that increasingly crept into his hair along the edges of his face. He watched as the ambulance rolled away.
Wolf turned and hesitated for just a beat when he saw me. “Hi, Sophie.”
“Can they save him?”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. A doctor will probably declare him dead on arrival at the hospital.”
Wolf entered the house and Wong led him to the scene of the crime.
Gerrie reappeared with a pitcher. “Refills, anyone?”
I’d never seen anything like it. A man had just been stabbed in her house and Gerrie was being a proper hostess, as if nothing untoward had happened! But as I watched her, I realized that the pitcher was shaking so violently that she had to steady it with her other hand. Everyone coped differently.
Nina had returned and now nudged me toward the dining room. “Gerrie was looking in her knife drawer,” she murmured.
“That’s curious. Wouldn’t she have known from the handle if it belonged to her?”
“Maybe she recognized it and was hoping her knives were all accounted for?”
Wong passed us and pulled out a small notebook and pen. She glanced around the living room. “Who’s missing?”
The silence that followed reminded me of kids who had been rounded up because one of them had done something wrong.
“Jenna Ryder,” Mindy whined.
“Mindy!” scolded Gerrie. Turning to Wong, Gerrie babbled, “I’m sure she had an emergency at home.”
Wolf approached me and asked in a low voice, “Where’s the kitchen?”
At one of her parties, Gerrie had needed a hand and directed me through the door at the end of the foyer. So I happened to know that it led through a narrow butler’s pantry to a second door. Beyond that, one stepped into a short passage, which contained a door to a powder room, and finally opened to the kitchen. That section of the house appeared to have been an addition. Unlike most homes, there was no easy connection between the kitchen and the dining room, which was to the left of the foyer. To serve a meal, one had to carry the food through the butler’s pantry, into the foyer, and then through an archway to the dining room. Alternatively, one could step outside the kitchen and walk through the elegant private patio to the French doors of the dining room. Clearly, not the best alternative in inclement weather. It struck me as oddly cumbersome, but it was the norm to Gerrie. The house had been in her family for decades. She had grown up with that crazy arrangement. And even I could see that changing it would mean ripping off the entire four-story rear of the building and losing the gorgeous private patio.
I showed him the way through the butler’s pantry and into the kitchen.
“That seems awkward. I thought those pantry things usually led right into the dining room.” He peered out the French doors at the patio.
“Old homes can be hard to update.” I was itching to open drawers in search of Gerrie’s knives, but didn’t want to leave my fingerprints in the kitchen. The countertop was fairly tidy for a luncheon about to begin. A quart of half-and-half sat next to a creamer that contained a white liquid. Half-and-half, I assumed. A strawberry cake roll had been dusted with powdered sugar. Ruby-red strawberries threatened to fall off the white cream at the coiling end of the roll. “It’s part of an addition. I guess there wasn’t a better way to do it.”
“What do you know about Gerrie?”
I peeked in the trash. She was using a lot of half-and-half. An opened container of it lay on the top. “Her husband died a few months ago. She has two sons, Todd and Jim. Both of them live in Old Town. Rumor has it that Todd is divorcing his wife, Colleen, with whom he has a daughter.”
Two trays sat on a counter, one loaded with teacups and a stack of dessert plates, the other packed with matching coffee cups, a china teapot, and a coffeepot. They were so perfect and pretty that they looked like a setup for a magazine photograph.
“Were the French doors open in the dining room?”
“We were making our way into the dining room for lunch, when Mindy Parsons screamed. The body was on the opposite end of the table, so we hadn’t noticed it. He must have lain there while we mingled in the living room.”
Wolf opened the French doors of the kitchen and stepped outside. I followed him into the perfect patio. High brick walls around the edge provided privacy. Short brickwork enclosed garden beds of carefully selected bushes and trees that provided a background for red geraniums and golden black-eyed Susans. It reminded me of the way a flower arrangement is created. Greens first as a background for the flowers.
The large, weathered lanterns would shed a peaceful glow during evening dinners al fresco. A wooden door with a curved top was the only way to exit without going through the house. If we assumed Russ was murdered where we found him, the killer could only leave the house one of three ways. He could have gone through the front door, but a gaggle of women were out there and surely someone would have noticed him leaving. He could have fled to the kitchen and exited through the French doors, as we had just done, or most likely he was the one who opened the French doors of the dining room to depart through the patio.
I stepped back and gazed up at the windows. “He could be hiding in the house right now. Are you going to search it?”
Wolf stood beside me and looked up. “The perpetrator is probably long gone, but we’ll do a sweep. Just in case.”
“Wong seemed to know the victim. Russ somebody?”
Wolf nodded. “Russ Everett. He is well known to the police. I’m sorry to say that I’m not particularly surprised that he came to a bad end. But it’s quite curious that it happened here.” His hands in his pockets, he observed, “No sign of breaking and entering.”
I knew what Wolf was getting at. It wouldn’t have been difficult to break the glass in the French doors. But neither Russ nor his killer had done so, which meant the doors weren’t locked or someone had let them in. And that, while not conclusive, likely indicated that Gerrie or someone in her household knew Russ well enough to invite him into the house.
“Are you familiar with Gerrie’s kitchen knives?” Wolf raised his eyebrows.
“No. But I saw the handle of the murder weapon. I could probably tell you if it came from a matching set.”
“Thanks. We’ll collect her knives, and the hospital will send over the one that killed Russ. I’d better interview these ladies and let them go.”
I followed him into the living room. Nina looked at me questioningly.
I sidled over to her and whispered, “Did you recognize the dead guy?”
“He looked familiar, like I’d seen him somewhere before.”
“That’s what I thought, but I can’t place him. Wolf and Wong knew him right away. It sounds like he might have a criminal record.”
Nina waved her phone at me. “How come you’re not answering your phone?”
“Really? A man was stabbed to death and that’s what’s worrying you?”
“It wouldn’t be, if people weren’t contacting me in an effort to find you.”
That didn’t sound good. “Who’s looking for me?” I pulled out my phone and turned it on. Nina was right. I had half-a-dozen texts.
I started with one from my ex-husband, Mars. He usually got right to the point.
I’m stuck in a meeting. Charlene needs help. Irv is missing.
Who on earth was Irv?
When my friend Natasha did a DNA search, hoping to locate her father, Charlene Smith had turned up as Natasha’s half sister. As things progressed, Charlene had moved in with Natasha and now lived on the same street as me. I had once helped Charlene locate a kitchen where she could temporarily cook for her clients.
I read Charlene’s text next. I hate to impose, but Irv has disappeared. Do you have time to give me a hand?
Who was Irv? I looked Charlene up in my contacts and phoned her.
“Sophie! Oh, thank goodness! I’m completely beside myself. Irv went out to deliver food over two hours ago. He should have been back by now. The phone is ringing off the hook because people are asking where their food is. Could. . .
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