Better Homes and Corpses by Kathleen Bridge is the debut cozy in the Hamptons Home & Garden Mystery Series set in the swanky east-end of Long Island, NY (available August 4, 2015).
In between scouring estate sales for her new interior design business, Cottages by the Sea, Meg visits the swanky East Hampton home of her old college roommate, Jillian Spenser. But instead of seeing how the other half lives—she learns how the other half dies. Jillian’s mother, known as the Queen Mother of the Hamptons, has been murdered. Someone has staged a coup.
When she helps a friend inventory the Spensers’ estate for the insurance company, Meg finds herself right in the thick of things. Cataloging valuable antiques and art loses its charm when Meg discovers that the Spenser family has been hiding dangerous secrets, which may have furnished a murderer with a motive. As Meg gets closer to the truth, the killer will do anything to paint her out of the picture…
It seems I’m always at the wrong end of the stick. The pointy end. The one you can’t see until you trip over it and it pokes your eye out, or worse yet, your heart. I got the flat tire at the intersection of Old Montauk Highway and Route 27. Earlier, my spirits had scaled the upper limits of antique-picker heaven. Now I’d be late, and Caroline Spenser would never tolerate lateness.
My rescuer came in the form of a PSEG power grid worker in a cable truck. When I offered him my last ten-dollar bill for a job well done, he refused and said, “But I’ll take that woody golf club in the back of your Jeep.”
I’d scavenged the club the day before from the front of the demolished Tiki Motel, along with a set of what I prayed were ivory mah-jongg tiles hidden in a moldy suitcase.
“Well, if you’re ever on the lookout for any more clubs, give me a call.” I handed him my business card.
“‘Meg Barrett, Cottages by the Sea,’” he said, reading the card. “What are you, some kind of home builder?”
“No, more like a nest builder. Sorry, I have to run. I’m sooo late.” I glanced at his ring finger. Darn. It would be nice to meet someone with the same collecting bug I had, instead of the cheating jerk I’d been engaged to who hated all things old. The only thing Michael and I had in common was Jeopardy! and an obsession with home décor magazines—he loved minimalist modern and I was more of a vintage upcyled-trash gal.
At the sight of the East Hampton windmill, my pulse quickened. Only a few rain-drenched souls trudged along Main Street. It was March, but come June, the beautiful people would descend and the east end of Long Island would morph into the American Riviera, double-cheeked air kisses on every corner and celebrities in every café. National Geographic voted East Hampton “America’s Most Beautiful Village,” and it was easy to see why, with its clean, tree-shaded streets and quaint storefronts.
When I veered left onto a narrow blacktop lane, I got occasional peeks at mammoth estates hidden behind tall privet hedges. My palms itched, forecasting good things around the corner—or disaster. I hoped the flat tire wasn’t an omen for my upcoming appointment. After all, it was just a casual meeting with one of the most important antique and art collectors in the Hamptons, scratch that, Long Island, scratch that, the entire East Coast. Now I was really nervous.
The road dead-ended at Seacliff, the Spensers’ estate. I passed through open iron gates and followed a long, curving driveway. Poplars, even without their foliage, guided me toward a jaw-dropping Greek Revival manor house set on a bluff overlooking a tremulous Atlantic. Once upon a time, Seacliff had been the nineteenth-century summer “cottage” of industrialist and robber baron Thaddeus Spenser. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, Seacliff was rumored to be the prototype for the Vanderbilts’ castle, Marble House, in Newport. Even against the dark-shrouded sky, its largeness and whiteness took my breath away.
Caroline Spenser was Seacliff’s twenty-first-century occupant, a former London socialite and fine art connoisseur with bloodlines to the Queen of England, hence her nickname, “Queen Mother of the Hamptons.” Caroline, now widowed, had married Charles Spenser, our very own American royalty. She lived alone with her daughter, Jillian, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Jillian and I ran into each other on Thursday, at the library in East Hampton. We’d only been roomies at NYU for a semester. My schedule left us little time to bond. I was a teaching assistant for the head of journalism during the day, and a waitress at a dive bar in Greenwich Village at night. When I had hung out with Jillian, she’d seemed introverted, always seeking others’ approval. Never had an opinion of her own. An odd duck. I chalked it up to her privileged upbringing. But it was thanks to her, I was allowed a short viewing this morning with her mother, the Queen, to discuss a business proposition that might give my fledgling interior design firm a much-needed shot in the arm.
I parked next to a boxwood maze and went up the wide marble steps. Under the sweeping portico, I pressed the button for the intercom. No response. Had I gotten it wrong? Was my appointment for next Saturday? Maybe I was too small a fish to fry, a minnow, a tadpole—oops, that’s an amphibian. Time to get a grip. This wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo. Actually, I’d never been to a rodeo, but I’d dealt with the snobby upper crust before. They weren’t any better than me. Then I thought about yesterday’s cocktail party. And the underwear.
I rang the buzzer again. With one last effort, I raised the brass knocker and let it thud against the door. To my surprise, the door groaned slowly inward.
“Hellooo, anyone home?” I stepped inside. The cathedral-ceilinged foyer had pale marble floors, dark early American furniture, and artwork even a first grader would recognize. I was admiring an enameled vase the size of my Jeep Wrangler when a sound came from behind the staircase.
I tiptoed toward it. Prickles of sweat formed on my upper lip.
Then I found them.
Jillian Spenser sat on the floor, rocking her mother’s limp body. Caroline’s mouth gaped open, oozing a pinkish froth. Her nightgown was a study in crimson—a macabre Jackson Pollock painting.
I skated across the blood-slicked marble and got down on my knees, gagging on the stench. “Jillian! What happened?” My father liked to recount tales of grisly homicides from his days in the Detroit PD, but he’d never warned me blood had such a sweet, sick odor.
Jillian pulled away when I tried to embrace her, cradling her mother closer. I felt Caroline’s wrist for a pulse but couldn’t find one. I crawled to the next room so Jillian wouldn’t hear my call, dialed 911 on my cell phone, then vomited into a Ming Dynasty vase.
When I returned to the hallway, I said, “Let’s go outside and wait.” I was worried Caroline’s killer might still be inside. “Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.” Who am I kidding?
Jillian wasn’t about to let go of her mother’s body. She mumbled, “Col . . .”
I draped my jacket on her quaking shoulders and noticed a lump on the back of her head. Jillian stuttered, “Col . . .” one last time then transferred her glassy stare to a nearby closet door.
Taking my best Charlie’s Angels stance, I twisted the knob to the closet and pulled. My feet gave way and my tailbone hit marble just as the front door opened and a sea of law enforcement rushed in.
Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Bridge.
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Kathleen Bridge started her writing career working at the Michigan State University News in East Lansing, Michigan. She is the author and photographer of an antique reference guide, Lithographed Paper Toys, Books, and Games, and the author of Revenge of the Sports Widows—How to Cope with a Sports Fanatic. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and has taught creative writing classes at the William Cullen Bryant Library in Roslyn, New York. Kathleen is also an antiques dealer in Long Island, New York, and has contributed to Country Living magazine.