With Old Town's DIY Home Decorating Festival in full swing, Sophie's swamped, juggling a bumper crop of artisans, antique dealers, and decorators for the busy street fair. Still, when her best friend Nina suddenly needs a ride from the airport, Sophie is happy to help . . . until she sees Nina disembarking in a state of disarray. It's obvious the trip to Portugal soured somewhere along the way. But after one of Nina's traveling companions turns up murdered the following day, Sophie knows something is truly rotten . . .
Though the crime scene is staged to look like an accident, Sophie isn't fooled and peels off to conduct her own investigation. Her only clue is a strange image the victim scratched into the soil before dying. Could it point to a cryptic killer in Old Town? A bitter travel adversary? Or a cursed artifact smuggled back from the trip? As the mystery grows, so does the body count, and if Sophie doesn't pluck the murderer soon, her best friend may be the next to fall . . .
Release date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
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The Diva Serves Forbidden Fruit
“What happened to you?” I picked up her suitcase and slung her carry-on bag over my shoulder.
She gave me a pathetic sideways look. “Not the best trip.”
I opened the car door for her, something I wouldn’t normally have done. But she looked so downtrodden! I closed the door and opened the back hatch to stash her bags.
A few of our friends had been on the same trip. I spied some of them coming out of the building. They all looked tired, but they were all wearing their shoes.
Everything safely closed, I pulled the car into the slow parade leaving the airport.
Nina leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “If I don’t get a divorce now, I never will.”
Her husband, a forensic pathologist, had suggested she accompany him to a medical convention in Portugal. She had blathered about it enthusiastically before the trip, eager to vacation with him in the sun. “Did you have a spat?”
“I didn’t see him long enough to argue! I’m not sure I can ever forgive him for dragging me to Portugal.”
“Not your favorite place?”
Her eyes still closed, she said, “Lovely people. Beautiful country. Delicious food. Honestly, Sophie, he abandoned me. If I had known I would ride endlessly on a bus with Dulci Chapman and Lark Bickford, I would have planned a vacation with you instead.”
“I’m flattered. But Dulci and Lark are nice.”
“Not exactly the life of the party. The last couple of days I wandered around by myself. I don’t think I’m the type for guided bus tours. I find them . . . tiresome and monotonous. I don’t like being shuffled about like a steer to market. On the bus. Off the bus. You have twenty minutes to eat. Please use the restroom now because we will be riding in the bus for the next fifty-three hours without stopping.”
I giggled a little. “It’s supposed to make sightseeing easier for us.”
“I think I’m more the Audrey Hepburn–on-a-red-scooter type. You know, like in Roman Holiday.”
“What happened to your shoes?” I turned the car onto our street.
“The customs people were awful. Just awful! But wait! They didn’t snag your present.” She took two green mugs out of her carry-on baggage.
“Majolica!” I exclaimed. “I love them.”
We stepped out of the car. I carried her bags up the stairs to her house while she unlocked the door and turned on the lights. When I walked into her foyer, she was actually hugging the newel post on her stairs. “I’ve missed you, home. Tomorrow, I will pick up a sweet dog or cat to foster and return to my regular existence, which, while somewhat boring, won’t be nearly as awful as my trip.”
Nina gazed at me. “What did I miss?”
“Not a thing.”
“In three weeks? Nothing happened?”
“The Do-It-Yourself Festival starts tomorrow morning.”
Nina lifted her upper lip in a sneer. “Not my thing.”
“Aw, come on. You love decorating your house.”
“Correction. I love paying people to decorate my house.”
That was definitely true. “Wash your feet and get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night, Soph. Thanks for picking me up.” I heard her lock the bolt behind me.
Frankly, I was glad my best friend and across-the-street neighbor was back. Life wasn’t nearly as much fun without her. I moved the car to my garage, placed the mugs on a shelf in the kitchen, put a halter on my hound mix, Daisy, and took her for a walk.
Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, dated back to the 1700s. Once a busy port on the Potomac River across from Washington, DC, Old Town had become an elegant and cozy neighborhood. Historic Federal-style houses lined the streets, and some still had flickering gas lanterns by their front doors.
Daisy and I strolled along the brick sidewalk, heading for a street that would be closed off at midnight for the next week so the vendors would have plenty of room to set up booths and demonstrate how to do-it-yourself.
I had my own event planning company and usually worked for large organizations, but I had taken on the Old Town DIY Festival for fun and a change of pace. So far everything had fallen in place. The NO PARKING signs had gone up and I trusted the few remaining cars would be moved by midnight. Barriers had been erected to keep traffic out, but there was still room for the stragglers to move their vehicles elsewhere.
Lights twinkled in the buildings and houses as we walked. If the weather held up, the weeklong event should be a success. It was that transitional time between late spring and early summer. People opened their windows to let in the fresh air and cleaned the winter grime off their porches to enjoy them before the humidity set in. Flowers bloomed profusely. Lavish purple wisteria blossoms hung on porches and fences, and outdoor dining had recommenced.
We turned back and approached Lark Bickford’s house. I assumed she had been on the same flight as Nina. Until the death of her husband a few years ago, Lark had been one of Old Town’s busiest socialites. Invitations to her dinner parties were coveted, even sought after. In true Southern style, Lark pulled out all the sterling hollowware, fine china, and sparkling cut crystal. She entertained effortlessly and elegantly.
As I watched, a light went out upstairs. She was probably exhausted and dealing with jet lag. It would take a day or two for Nina and Lark to get back on schedule.
The sun had just begun to show its rays at five forty-five on Monday morning, and I dressed in jeans that stretched in every direction. They were soft but not clingy. I would be perfectly comfortable but no one else would realize they were fake jeans with the give of spandex. A crisp white blouse with the collar turned up just a little bit added the professional look I wanted. I added a string of pearls because they went with everything, gold earrings, and a light blazer that I could discard if the weather turned hot. If I had worn heels, the outfit might have even been chic. But I knew better than that. I needed sneakers for all the walking I would do.
My Ocicat, Mochie, watched me from the bed. Purebred, he was supposed to have spots like an ocelot but instead had fur that looked like bull’s-eyes on his sides, necklaces around his throat, and bracelets on his front legs. His buddy Daisy sat on the floor nearby.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Daisy wagged her tail but Mochie said, “Mrrr,” and jumped off the bed. I suspected that translated into, “Where’s my breakfast?”
After spooning tuna into his bowl, I suited up Daisy in her halter and crossbody leash, jammed my wallet and phone into a small crossbody bag so my hands would be free, and collected my clipboard with all the relevant information for the festival. The two of us set off toward the center of town as the sun rose.
People were already unloading their goods and setting up tables. The day before we had arranged a large tent on Market Square for demonstrations of everything from refinishing furniture to quilting and wreath-making. There would be a new demonstration every hour starting at nine. Not only did it give people the opportunity to learn, but each of the vendors had a chance to show off the clever things they had available for sale.
I stopped at the sidewalk window of Bean Time for a tall mocha latte, a croissant, and a Puppucini for Daisy. We sat at an outdoor table and took a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful morning while we had breakfast. The sky was a bold blue without a cloud in sight. The air was crisp, and people went about their business refreshed after the weekend break.
I tossed our trash and we ambled down the street that had been closed.
In front of Lark’s house, Frank and Paisley Eames were setting up a canopy tent with walls that could be rolled up and down. Six little boys ran around them in circles, dodging back and forth, and tormenting one another. Their parents didn’t appear to hear their screams.
Lark’s daughter, Paisley, looked much like her mother. She had the same short, naturally curly peanut-brown hair and the same square face. Lark smiled more than her daughter, but then, she wasn’t usually surrounded by six boys.
I glanced over at Lark’s house, expecting to see her at the door watching her grandchildren. The front steps led directly from the sidewalk to the door. With no porch or yard, Lark had made the best of it, with a rectangular window box that overflowed with pink and white petunias, ivy, and yellow dahlias. An urn on the other side of the front door featured the same greenery and happy seasonal color.
An ear-splitting wail from one of the Eames boys drew everyone’s attention. He sat on the street and blood leached from his skinned knees. A bigger brother stood over him with a guilty and horrified look on his face.
Paisley dropped her side of the tent, which drew a moan from Frank. Slim and dark-haired, he was only a few inches taller than my five feet.
“Thomas Eames, that’s enough,” Paisley said, pointing to her mother’s house. “You go inside the gate and stay in Grandma’s side yard where I can see you until your dad comes to get you.”
“Pais!” Frank shouted. “If we don’t get this done in five minutes you won’t have a tent today.”
“What am I supposed to do?” she snarled.
“Oscar will be fine. Do you think your mom has some rope or bungee cords or something?”
“Oh sure,” she grumbled as she grabbed one of the tent poles so the whole thing wouldn’t collapse, “there’s no such thing as germs and bacteria.” In a louder voice she said, “If Oscar has to go to the hospital because of an infection, then you’re taking him.”
“Fine!” he yelled back.
Two boys who couldn’t have been older than five wrapped their arms around Paisley’s legs. She must have been used to it because I would have fallen for sure.
“Where is your mother?” she shouted to Frank.
He shrugged. “She’ll get here. It wouldn’t hurt your mother to come out here and help us, you know.”
“Sophie?” Paisley called. “Would you mind knocking on my mom’s door for me? I can’t let go of this pole. I didn’t want to wake her this early, but now I guess I have to.”
“No problem.” I walked to the front door of Lark’s house and raised a doorknocker in the shape of a sweet bird. I rapped it three times, but no one answered the door.
“Are you sure she’s home?” I asked.
“Aargh,” Paisley groaned. “She probably went out to get breakfast or groceries. If I had been a good daughter, I would have thought ahead and filled her fridge yesterday before she came home from her trip. Her keys are in my purse, on top of that pile of boxes. Check the drawers in the laundry room.”
I retrieved Paisley’s Kate Spade handbag and found keys with a tag on them that said Mom in tiny rhinestones. I unlocked the door and called, “Lark? Lark, it’s Sophie Winston. Are you home?”
There was no response. Daisy and I walked through the house to the kitchen where I thought I had caught a glimpse of a laundry room once. The kitchen had been beautifully updated with cabinets that looked like furniture. It was all white with touches of rustic bronze on the light fixtures and the cabinet grips. It smelled like coffee and there were two mugs in the sink. Lark was already up. “Lark!” I shouted. I didn’t want to scare her. I felt the coffee maker. It was completely cool to the touch. It had been a while since she had brewed the coffee.
Sure enough, a doorway led into a laundry room with a washer and dryer. On the opposite wall was a counter with a laundry sink. I envied the built-in storage station for coats and shoes that also provided a bench near the back door. A grocery tote leaned against it and canvas bags hung from hooks. The laundry hamper appeared to be full and several piles of laundry lay on the floor. I thought how nice it would be to come home from a long trip and empty out all the dirty clothes before lugging the suitcases upstairs.
I found twine and bungee cords in a drawer and returned to the street. I handed them to Paisley. “No sign of your mom.”
“What? Would you mind going upstairs and peeking into her bedroom? I bet she’s fast asleep.” Little boys still clung to each of her legs and Frank started to yell instructions to her again.
“I don’t mind at all. But I did see coffee mugs in her sink. She’s probably out.” One of the boys howled when his brother hit him with a plastic shovel. It was a wonder Paisley got anything done.
To help Paisley out and calm her worries about her mom, I returned to the house with Daisy and walked up the stairs.
It was an elegant home. The staircase and foyer were papered with a soft turquoise paper peppered with brown branches and white blooms. It wasn’t in style anymore, but it was beautiful and made a statement that plain walls couldn’t achieve.
The door to the master bedroom stood open. Lark’s four-poster bed looked like an advertisement, beautifully made with blue and white linens. Everything in the room seemed to be in perfect order. I spied a walk-in closet, also perfectly neat and organized, except for a bench where a suitcase lay open. Beneath it, on the floor, lay a second open suitcase and a blue bag with the tour company’s insignia on it. It appeared Lark had dug through them in a hurry, leaving a mess of clothes and souvenirs on the carpet.
“Lark?” I called, peering into the bathroom. There was no sign of her.
I peeked into the other bedrooms before heading downstairs and out of the house.
“She must have gone out,” I said to Paisley. “I don’t see her anywhere.”
“Pais! Did you fasten your end?” yelled Frank.
Little Oscar had already forgotten about his scraped knees. The tears on his face dried fast when he spied Daisy. He ran to us and hugged her.
“This is Daisy,” I said, glad she was wagging her tail and seemed to be okay with his attention.
He stroked her lush fur. “I want a dog like Daisy.”
Thomas reappeared at the gate. “Mom!”
Paisley looked over at him, clearly annoyed. “Thomas, I said stay in the backyard.”
“No. I do not want to see your face until it’s time for school, which will be in about five minutes. Honey,” she called to Frank, “are we done yet?”
Thomas’s face was pale, with two round blazing spots on his cheeks like a painted doll. Even I could see fear in his eyes.
“We’ll see you a little later, Oscar.” I walked Daisy over to the gate. “Are you okay?” I asked Thomas.
He shook his head fast. “Something’s wrong with Grandma.”
Daisy and I entered the yard and I closed the gate behind us. We followed Thomas to the back. I could make out a turquoise blue sneaker in the grass.
Daisy and I ran toward the blue shoe, which was still on Lark’s foot.
She lay near the back porch on her stomach, her right arm bent, and the fingers of her right hand outstretched to a flower garden. Next to her was a ladder. The kind that extended as far as a person needed.
“Lark!” I exclaimed. I reached for my cell phone and called 911. I punched speaker on the phone and knelt beside her.
“Lark?” I said her name softly and gently patted her cheek, but she didn’t respond.
The 911 operator came on the phone. “Where is your emergency?”
Lark felt cold. Dead cold.
I gasped and drew back, my hands shaking. With the other hand, I reached for Lark’s neck. Deep inside, I knew she was dead, but I sought a pulse anyway.
I told the dispatcher the address and in the vain hope that Thomas wouldn’t hear me and be scarred for life, I whispered, “I think Lark Bickford is dead.”
Every fiber in my body wanted to stay with Lark, but I had to get Thomas out of the yard first.
I scrambled to my feet. It was then that I realized she had drawn something in the mulch. Dried up chunks of wood aren’t the best medium for drawing. Why couldn’t it have been sand? I stared at it, realizing with a chill that Lark had left a message. At the risk of completely grossing out Thomas, I whipped out my phone and took three quick photos of it.
I took Thomas’s hand. “Let’s go get your mom.”
“Is Grandma alive?” he asked, looking up at me with scared eyes.
I dodged the question. “We’ll know more when the rescue squad gets here.”
Still holding Thomas’s hand, I opened the gate and marched him toward his mother, who was speaking with a chubby woman about my height. Short dark hair fluffed in large curls around her face. One of the Eames boys had attached himself to her leg. The others ran among the canopy tents across the way.
“Excuse me. Paisley,” I said softly, “there’s something wrong with Lark. It’s probably best if Thomas waits out here.”
Paisley looked at her son. “What did you do?”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s not him. He’s a hero because he found her.”
At the word hero, Thomas’s little chest swelled with pride.
“Frank! Help your mom watch the boys. Thomas, stay here with Dad.” Paisley followed me through the yard and screamed when she saw her mother on the ground.
Fortunately, the gate swung open again with a creak and Officer Wong strode toward us. She had let her hair grow out into a sleek bob that framed her face. One of those modern cuts, high in the back and longer in the front. She walked with calm reassuring confidence, as if there wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. From what I had seen of her in terrible situations, I thought that was probably true. The African American Wong had had a terrible marriage and been glad to divorce her husband, but she’d kept his last name anyway.
Like me, Wong had never met a cupcake she didn’t like. Her uniform strained against a generous bosom. I had never understood why women’s police uniforms fit them so poorly. Women had been on police forces for ages. Surely someone in charge had noticed that problem by now.
She nodded at me briefly while assessing the situation.
Paisley kneeled beside her mother, tapping her cheek and talking to her.
“Ma’am? Could you please step aside for me?” she asked Paisley.
Paisley reluctantly got to her feet. In a flash, Wong was on her knees beside Lark. I could hear her talking into her radio to make sure an ambulance was on the way.
“Is she . . . ?” asked Paisley.
Wong stood up and turned to Paisley. She pulled out a pad and a pen. “Are you related to her?”
“I’m her daughter, Paisley Eames. Will she be okay?”
“Can you tell me what happened?” asked Wong.
“No.” Paisley squeaked, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I guess my son found her. Sophie came to get me. Is she conscious?” Paisley started toward her mother.
“Hey, Sophie,” said Wong. “How about you and Paisley go to the gate and make sure the EMTs know where to find us?”
Wong was a master of finagling a difficult situation. She wanted Paisley to stop tampering with the crime scene. But it would sound so terribly cold to actually say that.
“Absolutely.” I wrapped an arm around Paisley and walked her to the gate where Frank waited anxiously.
“What’s going on?” He tapped his watch. “Should I start school?”
Paisley wiped tears from under her eyes with her fingers and sniffled. With a bright smile, she said, “They wouldn’t want to miss school.”
Five little boys protested simultaneously. Only Thomas remained silent. He watched his mom carefully. When she walked outside the gate, he wrapped his arms around her and clung to her.
Frank frowned at her. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head from side to side. “We . . . we might need to call Mrs. Gurtz to help us out with the kids for a few days.”
She whispered something to him that I couldn’t hear.
“Nooo,” he said sadly. He gently brushed her hair back off her face and kissed her cheek before hugging her. “What happened?”
“It looks like she fell off a ladder,” choked Paisley with tears streaming down her face.
When Frank let her go, he clapped his hands and acted happy. “Okay, gang. Let’s go.”
Thomas didn’t move. “Me too?”
Frank ran a fond hand over his hair. “Yeah, you too. Avo will take you. You’re going to learn about the planets today.”
After a glance at his mom, Thomas hurried off with his brothers and the dark-haired woman.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. The emergency medical technicians walked up and in through the gate. Paisley and I followed them.
While they worked, they asked her questions about her mother’s health. One of them came over to Wong, who stood beside me. “I think you’d better call the medical examiner.”
Wong nodded and asked for a medical examiner on her radio.
Seeing Lark’s lifeless body pained me to the core. She had been such a lovely person, kind to others, and generous with her ti. . .
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