Naughty on Ice: New Excerpt
By Maia Chance
Naughty on Ice is the latest in Maia Chance’s Prohibition-era caper series, Discreet Retrieval Agency Mystery, featuring society matron Lola Woodby and her stalwart Swedish cook, Berta.
The Discreet Retrieval Agency is doing a brisk holiday business of retrieving lost parcels, grandmas, and stolen wreaths. But with their main squeezes Ralph and Jimmy once more on the back burner, both Lola and Berta pine for a holiday out of New York City. So when they receive a mysterious Christmas card requesting that they retrieve an antique ring at a family gathering in Maple Hill, Vermont, they jump at the chance. Sure, the card is signed Anonymous and it’s vaguely threatening, but it’s Vermont.
In Maple Hill, several estranged members of the wealthy Goddard family gather. And no sooner do Lola and Berta recover the ring―from Great-Aunt Cressida Goddard’s arthritic finger―than Mrs. Goddard goes toes-up, poisoned by her Negroni cocktail on ice. When the police arrive, Lola and Berta are caught-red-handed with the ring, and it becomes clear that they were in fact hired not for their cracker-jack retrieving abilities, but to be scapegoats for murder.
With no choice but to unmask the killer or be thrown in the slammer, Lola and Berta’s investigations lead them deep into the secrets of Maple Hill. In a breathless pursuit along a snowy ridge, with a lovelorn Norwegian ski instructor and country bumpkin hooch smugglers hot on their heels, Lola and Berta must find out once and for all who’s nice…and who’s naughty.
Maple Hill, Vermont
December 19, 1923
The circumstances, I do realize, were ghastly. A chunk was missing from the molasses layer cake on the kitchen table. A corpse lay, probably still warmish, out on the living room carpet. And I was aware that, having been caught in the act of removing a ruby ring from an elderly lady’s finger, my detecting partner, Berta Lundgren, and I looked as guilty as masked bandits in Tiffany’s.
The policeman, who had announced himself as Sergeant Peletier, stood over the kitchen table, wearing an Oho, what have we here? expression. “You’re the uninvited guests, I reckon,” he said. “Mrs. Lundgren and Mrs. Woodby?”
“We were invited,” Berta said coldly.
“That’s not what I was told,” Peletier said. He surveyed drunken Aunt Daphne, the ring, and the cake. “Having a bit of dessert with a side of jewel thieving, I see. Mighty funny thing to do right after your hostess has expired.”
“Aghamee do eshplain,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?” Peletier said.
I swallowed cake. “Allow me to explain,” I repeated.
This wasn’t the plan. The plan had been to retrieve the ring, pop it in the breadbox, slink out of the house, and skip town on the next train out.
“Yes,” Peletier said. “Please explain. Mrs. Goddard lies dead in the other room, and you’re here in the kitchen shimmying a ring off Mrs. Lyle’s finger?”
At the mention of her name, Aunt Daphne raised her champagne glass. “Cheers,” she crowed.
“I will explain,” Berta butted in. She was a rosy, gray-bunned lady of sixty-odd years who spoke with a faint Swedish accent and resembled a garden gnome. “What you see before you is a tried-and-true method for removing stuck rings from fingers—fingers, you understand, that have … expanded.”
We all regarded Aunt Daphne’s fingers, which, short and plump and swollen, resembled a litter of Dachshund puppies. The too-small ring had been maneuvered to just below the knuckle with Berta’s trick of looping embroidery thread under the ring, winding the thread tightly around the finger, and then unwinding the thread from the bottom. With each loop that was unwound, the ring edged up another millimeter. The downside was that it looked rather painful. However, Aunt Daphne, drinking champagne and shoveling cake with her free hand, had yet to complain. There really are no better painkillers than cake and booze.
“My mother always used butter to remove stuck rings,” Peletier said.
“A pound of butter wouldn’t get this thing off me,” Aunt Daphne said. “Believe me, I’ve tried it! This darned thing’s been stuck on my finger since the summer of 1919.”
“When you stole it,” I prompted.
“Stole it?” Aunt Daphne snickered, and with her free hand she lifted the glass of champagne to her lips and polished it off. “I never said that!”
“Yes, you did.” Panic zinged through me. I turned to look up at Peletier. “She stole it. She told us she did. In the summer of 1919. We have merely been, um, asked to remove it.”
“By Mrs. Lyle, here?”
“Sounds like thievery to me. And now, coincidentally, Mrs. Goddard is dead.”
My cheeks were growing hot. “As I said, Aunt Daphne stole the ring, and we are merely attempting to restore it to its rightful— Hold it. What are you suggesting? ‘Coincidentally’? Mrs. Goddard died of a heart attack, didn’t she? That’s what it appeared to—”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Peletier said. “It was poison.”
“I smelled it on her breath. Cyanide. Likely in the cocktail she’d been drinking at the time of her death.”
“Are you certain?” I said. “I happened to notice she was drinking a Negroni. Those are made with Campari, you know, which itself is as bitter as poison—”
“‘Happened to notice,’ eh? Any chance you fixed it for her?”
Phooey. It had been Berta’s idea to carry on with the ring-retrieval job even after Judith Goddard had kicked the bucket about an hour earlier. Having nothing else to do while waiting for the authorities to turn up, we had conferred in the butler’s pantry amid the family silver. I had whispered that it was unseemly to filch a ring under the circumstances. Berta had whispered, “Oh no, we did not come all the way up here to the snowy wilds of Vermont for nothing, we are finishing the job.” I had conceded. Our train tickets had been costly.
Now I gave Berta a bug-eyed I told you so look.
She ignored it and busied herself with completing the ring removal.
“Oh, all right,” I said to Peletier with a sigh. “The jig is up. We’re private detectives—”
“Go along!” Peletier said.
“Ha-ha-ha!” Peletier slapped his thigh.
“Did you bring a card, Mrs. Woodby?” Berta asked.
Berta flicked Peletier a frosty look. “I did not expect to be asked to provide my credentials this evening. Ah! There. The ring is—” She wiggled it from Aunt Daphne’s fingertip. “—off.”
“You’re an angel of mercy,” Aunt Daphne said to Berta. “Thank you. My! Just look at the divot it left behind.” She massaged her finger, and then helped herself to more champagne.
“Buying that’s against the law, you know,” Peletier said, pointing to the champagne bottle.
“Oh, to Hell with your Eighteenth Amendment,” Aunt Daphne said. “It’s for the dogs. And politicians and church ladies.”
“Would you mind if I placed the ring in the breadbox?” Berta asked Aunt Daphne.
“Not at all. I never want to see that thing again.”
Berta went to put the ring in the metal breadbox on the counter—plink—and then sat back down.
Peletier pulled out one of the ladder-back chairs, sat, and extracted a notebook and pencil from inside his coat. He was small and wiry, with a flushed face, beady eyes, and tufting gray hair and eyebrows. He called to mind a disgruntled North Pole elf. His embroidered badge read MAPLE HILL, VT POLICE and featured a deer and a pine tree.
“Start at the beginning,” he said.
In a tumbling back-and-forth, Berta and I explained to Peletier that we were private detectives with our own small agency in New York City. How, last week, we’d received an invitation from an anonymous sender asking us to dinner at Goddard Farm, requesting that we retrieve a stolen ring, place it in the breadbox, and to subsequently expect payment in the mail. That we’d only arrived in Maple Hill earlier that afternoon, having taken the night train, and that we had rooms at the Old Mill Inn only for that evening. How Anonymous had not revealed him- or herself to us upon our arrival at Goddard Farm (really a mansion on a ridge above the village).
How we’d been gobsmacked when Judith Goddard went toes-up only fifteen minutes after our arrival.
“I understand that this was a family gathering to celebrate Mrs. Goddard’s recent engagement,” Peletier said. “How did you explain your appearance at a family affair?”
“Well, at first it was a bit awkward,” I said. Only Judith Goddard, her brother Roy, her aunt Daphne, Judith’s three adult children, her brand-new fiancé, and two servant women had been present in the house. “You know how it i—”
“We had no choice but to fabricate an explanation,” Berta interrupted. She was serenely sawing the molasses cake.
“They said that I invited them,” Aunt Daphne said. “That we’d met at a ladies’ poetry luncheon at the country club in Cleveland. I can’t remember much anymore, of course, and poetry knocks me out cold, so I didn’t realize that they were lying—”
“Mrs. Woodby and I are innocent of any wrongdoing,” Berta said. “We were merely doing our job. Surely, Sergeant Peletier, you are able to understand that.”
Peletier snorted and stood. “Come down to the station tomorrow morning, and if you can show me this anonymous invitation of yours, maybe I’ll let you off the hook. Until then, don’t even think about leaving town. Good evening.” He left the kitchen, Aunt Daphne drifting after him with the champagne bottle.
Berta and I looked at each other across the collapsing cake.
“Would it be absolutely unconscionable to leave right now?” I whispered.
“There has been a death in the family, Mrs. Woodby, and we are strangers. We should leave them to their grief.”
“Maybe there is something we could do to help—”
“There is nothing worse than having to speak with strangers when one’s heart is breaking.”
Honestly, I hadn’t gotten the impression that Judith Goddard’s demise was cracking anyone’s heart in two. Not even the heart of her fiancé-to-be. “They aren’t an especially happy family,” I said, “but I suppose none are. Happy families are a myth.”
“Nonsense. You must simply know one when you see it. They sometimes come in unusual forms. Now, come along. After we show the invitation to Sergeant Peletier in the morning, our hands will be washed clean of this terrible affair.”
I felt like an absolute gink as we sneaked to the entry hall to fetch our coats, hats, scarves, and gloves. We didn’t encounter any of the family or the servants, although voices rose and fell in distant rooms.
We stepped out the front door into the night. Our breath billowed in the icy air. Berta bent her head into the wind and toddled toward our rented pickup truck, an REO Speedwagon with a boxy cab and wooden rails around the bed. She winched herself up into the passenger seat.
I followed, mincing like Comet or Cupid through the crunchy snow in my high heels. I took the hand crank from the cab floor, resuscitated the engine, climbed behind the wheel, flicked on the headlamps, and we were off.
“Oh, it is so very cold,” Berta said with a shiver. “As cold as I remember Sweden being when I was a girl, but I am no longer young.”
I inched the truck down a steep, snow-packed road. Bristling black forest encroached from beyond the headlamp beams. I was accustomed to the glitter and hum of Manhattan. Nighttime in the countryside was giving me the jumps.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” I said.
“If you slip, steer into the slide. That is the only way to avoid a tailspin.”
“Not that. The murder.”
“We will be on our way home tomorrow.”
How I wished I could believe it.
The next morning, I awoke disoriented in my small room at the Old Mill Inn. Where was I, and why was the air so cold and quiet?
Then it all rushed back like a herd of Pamplona bulls: Vermont. The ring-retrieval job. That unpleasant Goddard family. Murder.
After bathing, I bundled up, stuffed my small Pomeranian dog, Cedric, into a red-and-white snowflake sweater, and took him outside to pay a call upon a picket fence. He had been a very good boy the previous evening when I’d been up at Goddard Farm. Left alone in my room, he’d disemboweled only one pillow.
Maple Hill, Vermont, was snuggled into a river valley amid low-lying farms and rolling mountains. It wasn’t the blink-and-miss-it size of some New England villages, but it could barely be classified as a town. Though prosperous looking, it boasted only one commercial street—hardware store, general store, a few shops and cafés, attorney’s office, two churches, and, in the middle of it all, the bulky, three-storied Old Mill Inn. From behind River Street stretched a straggling web of houses, town hall, library, a knitting factory, and a large building with a sign reading ROGERSON’S BRAND MAPLE SYRUP. On the other side of River Street, the frozen river wandered away down the valley, fringed with leafless thickets.
Inside once more, I packed my suitcase and set it beside the door in readiness to depart. There was one afternoon train out of Maple Hill, along an electric line running the ten miles to Waterbury. In Waterbury, one could board the train that ran daily between Montreal and New London, Connecticut. From New London, it was but a hop, skip, and a jump to Grand Central Station and home.
* * *
When I strolled into the inn’s dining room and spotted Berta at a window table, I instantly knew that something was the matter. Her cheeks were ashen, her lips pinched. Hugging Cedric close, I weaved my way through the busy tables. Cedric tipped his nose to the air, which was warmly aromatic with maple and bacon.
“What is it?” I asked, sitting down across from Berta. “I haven’t seen you look so upset since the Giants slathered the Yankees in the World Series last—wait—you aren’t ill, are you?”
“Well?” I plopped Cedric at my feet.
“Of what variety?”
“The dossier has gone missing.”
“I am not certain. It was in my suitcase, in the inner pocket with my extra wool stockings.”
Berta, always thorough, had taken to compiling dossiers for each of our cases. Some of her research was conducted in the periodicals room of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Some of it was done on the telephone, or while pretending to gossip at the laundry or the butcher. Berta knew people who knew people.
The ANON. INVITATION CASE 12-17-1923 dossier (as Berta had labeled it) contained the following:
The invitation (a Christmas card with typed verse inside), with original envelope.
A clipping from last Friday’s Cleveland Courier society gossip page, depicting Judith Goddard and her soon-to-be fiancé, Maynard Coburn, in black-tie dress, on the steps of the Cleveland Museum of Art. (The caption made no mention of the impending engagement.)
Notes Berta had taken on several other library-owned issues of The Cleveland Courier. Mentions of Rosemary Rogerson, Mrs. Goddard’s daughter, and son-in-law, Wilfred Rogerson (a cash-and-carry grocery store tycoon). Mentions of George Goddard, Judith’s elder son (a playboy bachelor). One mention of the presence of Daphne Lyle, a widowed aunt of Judith’s, at the Cleveland country club poetry luncheon.
An issue of The Country Gentleman magazine, dated December 1922, containing an advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes featuring Maynard Coburn, the nearly famous ski jumper and alpine skier.
An issue of Physical Culture magazine, dated January 1923, with Maynard Coburn’s likeness on the cover, skiing handsomely.
Brief notes on Rosemary Rogerson’s two books, both put out by a prominent New York publisher in the last three years: Mrs. Rogerson’s Practical Guide to Housekeeping, and Mrs. Rogerson’s Practical Guide to Childrearing. (Berta had written, officious, rigid, and snobbish advice—and regrettably ill informed with regards to the health benefits of butter.)
Train schedule of the electric line between Waterbury and Maple Hill.
And now Berta was saying the whole kit and caboodle was missing.
“I did not think to check if the dossier was in my suitcase last night,” Berta said. “How could I guess that a thief would break into my room and pilfer it? But I did check for it this morning, as I was packing. It is gone.”
“When was the last time you saw it?”
“Not since I packed my suitcase in New York, the day before yesterday.”
“Could it have slipped under the suitcase lining or something?”
“Could it have fallen out of your suitcase somewhere between New York and here?”
“I always keep my suitcase locked during train journeys.”
“But who would steal the dossier? And why?”
“To keep us in Maple Hill, perhaps.” Berta leaned forward. “You must recall that Sergeant Peletier said we could leave town only if we produce the invitation, and now that invitation has vanished.”
“But that could mean—”
“This could be a frame-up job. Yes. As I said, it is a disaster.” With shaking hands, Berta poured out steaming cups of coffee for us both from the pot on the table.
I doused my coffee with cream. I drank some. Then I took a stab at sounding plucky and levelheaded. “Perhaps Sergeant Peletier will see reason and allow us to go home anyway.”
“That is unlikely.”
“Well, we must try. We’ll go straight to the police station after breakfast. I don’t want to miss today’s train out of here.” I wasn’t going to mention it, but I had a dinner and dancing date for the following evening with my gentleman caller and maddening distraction, Ralph Oliver, PI. He’d been away for weeks on a case in Chicago, and I was perishing to see him, ideally beneath a sprig of mistletoe.
“Oh! Our waitress is coming,” Berta whispered. “When she brought the coffee earlier, I recognized her.”
“Really? Where di—?”
“Shush, Mrs. Woodby.”
A waitress appeared beside our table, a slim, golden-bobbed young woman with large, thick-lashed blue eyes, a storybook sort of beauty. “Could I take your orders, please?” she asked in a sweet voice.
I, too, had seen this young woman before.
“Good morning,” I said. “I beg your pardon, but weren’t you working at Goddard Farm last night?”
“Yes.” The waitress gave Berta and me closer looks. “Oh yes, and you’re the women who turned up uninvited. You fibbed and said Mrs. Lyle invited you, but Sergeant Peletier said that really, you’re private detectives from New York City—”
“Please—” Berta’s eyes darted around the dining room. “—we prefer to remain discreet.”
“Sorry. I’m Patience. Patience Yarker. Mrs. Goddard hired me from time to time to help out up at the house when there were a lot of guests. Which wasn’t very often, these past few years. Hester Albans manages by herself when it is—was—only Mrs. Goddard and Fenton staying. No one lives in that house year-round, you see.”
“Hester Albans was the other woman working at the house last night?” I asked. I’d glimpsed a rangy, dour woman in an apron a few times. She had attended to Mrs. Goddard’s hysterical daughter after the death.
“That’s right. But I reckon you’ll be leaving this afternoon, won’t you?”
Golly, I hope so. “Perhaps,” I said.
Patience’s eyes widened. “Oh. And … have you … have you spoken to Hester about last night?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, well, good.”
“Why is that?” Berta asked.
“It’s nothing, only that Hester tends to be … superstitious, I suppose you’d call it. She said she saw a-a thing last night. Out the windows at Goddard Farm.”
My scalp prickled. “What sort of thing?”
“She called it a—” Patience swallowed. “—a ‘furry critter.’”
I racked my brain, trying to think what sort of creatures roamed northern Vermont. “A moose?”
“She said it was, well, ‘walking upright’—”
“Upright!” Berta said, touching the locket she always wore at her throat.
“—but you ought to ask Hester about it, really. I only mentioned it because, well—” Patience bit her lip. “—I don’t want you to suppose we’re all backward hayseeds here in Maple Hill.”
“Of course we don’t,” I said. “Mrs. Lundgren and I both grew up in rural places, you know.” I had whiled away my formative years in Scragg Springs, Indiana, before Mother had decided a career change for Father was in order and we moved to be within pillaging distance of Wall Street.
Patience was fidgeting with her apron tie. “Isn’t it just awful about Mrs. Goddard?”
“Shocking,” I said.
“I’m awfully sorry for her children,” Patience said. “I’ve known them my whole life, you see. They came to Maple Hill every summer growing up.”
“Did you play with them?” I asked.
“Only a little, and on the sly, out in the fields or down by the river, when their nurserymaids and tutors lost track of them. Their mother didn’t want them consorting with the rural folks.” Patience sighed. “Poor Fenton. He was so attached to his mother, went everywhere with her … now I just don’t know what he’ll do.”
Fenton was the younger of Judith’s two sons, a wan, stringy young man of about twenty years.
Berta said, “But his mother was about to remarry. Surely Fenton would have set out on his own then? Or gone back to college?”
“Fenton doesn’t attend college. He lives—lived—with his mother in Cleveland.”
“Mrs. Goddard mentioned something about a long honeymoon in Europe,” I said. “Was Fenton planning on tagging along for that?” I pictured Judith and Maynard Coburn at the Eiffel Tower, motoring along the cliffs of Capri, and yachting amid Greek isles, all with silent, heavily pomaded Fenton in tow. “That sounds … unusual.”
“Fenton is. Unusual, I mean to say.”
Berta cleared her throat. “Patience, a small, rather insignificant item has gone missing from my suitcase,” she said in a grandmotherly tone. “I know that I locked the door to my room when I was out yesterday evening. Tell me, who has access to the room keys?”
Patience’s eyes widened. “I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Mrs. Lundgren. We’ve never had anything stolen from any of our guests before. Dad takes pride in that.”
“Your father is—?”
“Samuel Yarker. The innkeeper.”
“He checked us in yesterday, yes,” Berta said.
“This inn is our family’s place.” Patience lifted her chin a notch. “Always has been.”
“Ah. And … the keys?”
“Well, there’s only the numbered room keys, one of each—we keep those behind the front desk.”
As in most hotels, at the Old Mill Inn one turned in one’s room key before going out.
“There are no other keys?” Berta asked.
“No. The cleaning women use the room keys.” Patience glanced over her shoulder. “Grandma will give me a stern word if I don’t hurry up and take your orders. We’re awfully busy this weekend on account of the Winter Carnival.”
For the past ten years or so, winter carnivals had popped up all over the map in northern climes, from Winnipeg to Portland, Maine, offering festivities like skating, toboggan racing, sleigh rides, and ice-sculpture carving. Some local club usually sponsored the things. I’d been told that the final preparations for Maple Hill’s annual Winter Carnival were under way, so merrymakers were arriving to fill every boardinghouse, inn, and spare room for miles around.
With any luck, I’d be missing the carnival.
Berta and I ordered sausage and johnnycakes with maple syrup, and I asked for extra sausage and a bowl of water for Cedric. Patience slipped away.
“Should we ask Patience, or her father the innkeeper, where the police station is?” I asked Berta.
“No, indeed. We cannot have them knowing we are mixed up in this bad business. After all, we could end up needing to stay an extra night. We should inquire elsewhere in the village.”
I thought, but did not say aloud, that Patience Yarker herself was mixed up in this bad business, too, if only by happenstance. After all, she had been in the room when Mrs. Goddard’s drink was poisoned.
Copyright © 2018 Maia Chance