When PI Sarah Booth Delaney and her partner and best friend, Tinkie, take on Monica and Eleanor Levert as clients, they don’t have much hope of solving the case. The wealthy heiresses of Briarcliff in Natchez, Mississippi, claim that a family necklace worth four million dollars has been stolen, and they think that they can hurry the insurance payout if a reputable PI investigates. Sarah Booth has her doubts, and not just about the payout. All of the evidence suggests that the sisters might be committing fraud.
But when they have just started scratching the surface on the sordid past of the Levert family and the blood money that all of their wealth was founded upon, Monica goes missing. The police suspect that the heiresses are playing more games, and Eleanor isn’t doing anything to make them think any different.
But how can she? If she says or does anything besides pass on the insurance money to the kidnappers, they’ll kill Monica.
With a family history that runs deep and dark and a twisting plot where no one is exactly what they seem, Sarah Booth and Tinkie are the Levert sisters’ best and only hope in Bones of a Feather, the latest in Carolyn Haines sparkling Southern mystery series.
Graf Milieu, my fiancé, stands in the sunlight filtering through the sheers of the bedroom window. His dark hair hangs over one eye as he drinks a cup of coffee and watches over me.
“I love you, Sarah Booth Delaney,” he says, and he means every word.
“Come here.” I reach for him, light winking on the diamond of my engagement ring. My hands know the contours of his body, the curve of bicep and length of thigh. Male perfection. The bed is empty without him.
“Sleep, Sarah Booth.”
“No, wait,” I tell him. “Don’t go. Come back to bed.”
“Sleep,” he orders. He smiles and fades as the dream recedes and I open my eyes to a sunny morning. Graf is gone, and I’m home in the middle of the Mississippi Delta at the height of summer. Even so early in the morning, the day is already hot.
I roll out of bed and pad barefoot down the stairs toward the kitchen and coffee. The dream has left me empty and dissatisfied.
Wandering the rooms of Dahlia House, I have an inkling of what it must be like to be Jitty. This old house, my family dwelling, the repository of my roots and history, is empty without the warm energy of my significant other, Graf Milieu. That handsome hunk of man drove away at the crack of dawn this morning, headed to the Memphis airport and a flight to Hollywood. He’s taken the lead in a new thriller set in Louisiana. The good news is, once the location work starts, he’ll be one state away. Close enough for some “us” time.
For now, though, I’m alone in Zinnia, Mississippi, land of my birth and place where my ancestors rest. Some easy, some not. A long list of repairs on my rambling home awaits my attention. For too long, Dahlia House has been neglected.
“Follow the yellow brick road!”
The voice comes from all around me. Jitty, the resident haint of Dahlia House, has arrived to badger me. I don’t have to be psychic to know she’s going to tell me I should have gone to Hollywood with Graf. I should have “stood by my man,” even though I would only distract him from his work. Jitty, who dates back to pre–War Between the States times, has been singing this particular song since I returned home two years ago—unwed and unbred, as she loves to point out.
“Follow the yellow brick road,” she says again.
“If you show up as a Munchkin, I’m going to kick you back to Oz,” I warn Jitty.
I’ve miscalculated her most recent incarnation. Instead of striped socks and holding a lollipop, she appears in a puff of vile orange smoke. A black taffeta dress swirls around her slender body. When she stops spinning, I realize her lovely mocha skin is now a shade of pea green and a wart mars her nose.
“Click your heels together three times, pick up that fancy cell phone, and charge yourself a plane ticket to your man,” Jitty orders.
“I’m already home.” While I love Graf, I don’t want to abandon Dahlia House or Mississippi. The last few weeks—spending time in my childhood home with Graf, riding horses, making love, making breakfast, laughing with my business partner, Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, and our friends and helpers in crime solving, Cece and Millie—have shown me that the pull of acting isn’t stronger than these things. I want to act. I want to be with Graf in Hollywood. But I also want to be here, in Zinnia, with my horses, my hound, my friends, and my private investigating.
“Dorothy didn’t necessarily want to go to The Emerald City,” Jitty says darkly. “It was her destiny.”
“It was a dream,” I remind her.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Jitty can aggravate the hairs off a mole.
I surveyed her with a moue of distaste. “Why the Wicked Witch of the West? I figured you’re more of a bubble kind of witch. Pink frothy gown, crystal wand—a better outfit to show off that twenty-four-inch waist.”
“Elphaba suits my message.”
“Message? You have a communication for me?” Jitty’s job was to devil me and highlight the error of my ways, but for one brief second I thought perhaps my departed mother had something to tell me. “From whom?”
“Benjamin Disraeli, actually.” Jitty was smug.
“You have got to be kidding. A nineteenth-century prime minister of England has a message for me?” Things were obviously getting out of hand in the Great Beyond.
“ ‘Sweet is the voice of a sister in the season of sorrow,’ ” Jitty’s tone resonated, but her image began to fade before she finished.
“Hey, you can’t leave like that.” I hated it when she tossed out a pearl and made me feel like a trampling swine because I didn’t understand it. “Jitty! Jitty!” But she was gone.
Before I could try to track her down, the phone rang.
“Delaney Detective Agency,” I answered, despite the fact it was up in the air if we were still in business after Tinkie’s latest brush with death. Both her husband, Oscar, and Graf wanted us to shut down the agency. The men felt we put ourselves in the line of danger too often, a point that statistically couldn’t be argued.
“Ms. Sarah Booth Delaney?” a cultured woman asked. “This is Monica Levert, of Briarcliff in Natchez. I’d like to hire you.”
Instinctively I glanced around to make sure Graf wasn’t listening in. He’d have a hissy fit if he thought I was taking a case not three hours after he had driven away. Such is life.
“What type of case?” I asked.
“My sister, Eleanor, and I inherited a necklace. A very valuable necklace. For the past several weeks someone has tried to break into our home. Three nights ago, they succeeded. The necklace was stolen. Now the insurance company is stalling about paying the value of our policy.”
An insurance claim! No dead bodies. No murders. No guns. A simple insurance claim. “What’s the value of the necklace?”
“It’s been passed down in the Levert family for five generations. The jewels themselves are valuable, but it’s the reputation of the jeweler that makes it even more so. We’re afraid a thief won’t realize that and will destroy the necklace to sell the rubies individually.”
“The value is . . . ?”
“Four million dollars.”
I’d grown up in a society where valuable jewels were commonplace. The belles of the Delta, women of exceptional beauty and charm, felt good jewelry was a birthright. But a necklace with this appraisal was extraordinary. No wonder the insurance company was balking.
“The police have verified the theft?”
“They have, but Langley Insurance is still stonewalling. My sister and I thought bringing in reputable private investigators to reevaluate the evidence might speed things up.”
“I doubt that.” I had to be honest.
“Would you at least speak with Mr. Nesbitt at the insurance company? He’s aware of your reputation for honesty.”
Nice to hear, but in the instance of a $4 million claim, I doubted the reputation of Delaney Detective Agency would matter a whit. But what did I have to lose? “Sure, if my partner agrees.”
“Eleanor and I will await your phone call,” Monica said.
It took less than a minute to clear the case with Tinkie, who not only agreed to take the Leverts’ job offer but jumped in her Cadillac to head for Dahlia House. She loved Oscar, but their constant togetherness in the last weeks was driving her a little nuts.
We’d both gotten used to calling our own shots, a simpler situation for me. Tinkie had been reared in the fine tradition of a Daddy’s Girl, a woman who accomplishes much through charm and the guise of acquiescence. Tinkie was about as pliable as a titanium rod, but she knew how to appear malleable. It just required a lot of effort to do so.
She roared down my drive like a bat out of hell and bounded out of her car on the heels of Chablis, her dust-mop Yorkie terrier with the heart of a lion. Sweetie Pie, my noble red tic hound, greeted them with a tenor serenade. Ah, Placido, should you ever need a hound onstage, Sweetie’s voice could make an audience weep!
“Have you called the Levert sisters back?” Tinkie asked, rushing up the steps.
I held out a hand to steady her. She wore three-inch stilettos and I feared she’d topple backward and break her neck. Her sundress put me in mind of the 1960s, complete with the cutest straw sun hat. Tinkie had excellent taste and the bud get to indulge it.
“I thought I’d let you do the honors.” I led her toward our office on the first floor of Dahlia House in what was formerly a parlor. Our décor was taupe filing cabinets and cheap furniture. Tinkie had insisted on, and paid for, the frosted-glass door that said Delaney Detective Agency. Classic noir. The only classy thing about our digs.
I gave her Monica’s number and she put the phone on speaker and dialed.
Monica answered on the second ring.
“We’re interested in the case,” Tinkie said. “Our fee is two grand up front and a grand a day, plus any unexpected expenses.”
“Can you start today?” Monica asked.
“You realize we’ll investigate and write the report of what ever we find.” Tinkie wanted to be clear no one was buying results.
“We wouldn’t dream of anything else,” Monica said. “Eleanor and I are distraught over the theft. Yes, the necklace has a monetary value, but it’s part of our history. I’m sure you ladies can understand what that means.”
She was stroking my weak spot. “Heritage,” “tradition”—two words I understood down to the bone.
“Where would you like to meet?” Tinkie asked.
“The Excelsior Tea Room. At noon?”
“We’ll be there,” Tinkie agreed before she punched the disconnect button.
She sat on the edge of the desk. “A new case, Sarah Booth! Isn’t it exciting?”
Oh, exciting wouldn’t cover it when she told Oscar and I told Graf. Unless, of course, we could make the two-hour drive to Natchez, examine the evidence, come home, and write the report without anyone being the wiser. As my aunt Loulane would say, were she alive to say it, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
If we kept our mouths shut about the case, we’d spare Oscar and Graf needless worry. It could even be interpreted as an act of love.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur of black and heard the soft rustle of taffeta. A breeze kicked up outside and I could have sworn I heard, “Beware, my pretty.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked Tinkie.
She shook her head. “Let’s hit the road. Maybe we can get back before dark.”
Great minds think alike. I called in the dogs, grabbed my purse, and settled into the passenger seat of her new Caddy.
On the drive to Natchez, I’d used Tinkie’s cute new laptop computer, complete with wireless Internet, to do some research on the Levert family. Monica and Eleanor were heiresses of an estate valued at close to $10 million, not counting the necklace and other jewels. While the assets were impressive, Briarcliff, their home, was expensive to maintain. And the Levert sisters were used to globe-trotting and the luxuries of life.
They lived in Natchez part of the year and also spent time in Monaco, Vienna, Tuscany, and Rio during the carnival season. It was just the two of them, with nothing to tie them down.
Tinkie crested a steep hill and pulled into a parking space on a brick-lined street. The Excelsior Tea Room was on the second floor of a downtown Natchez building that gave a view of the Mississippi River. Tinkie and I entered and scanned the room.
“Is that them?” Tinkie whispered, pinching the fat on my upper arm.
“Stop it!” I snatched my arm away, but my gaze never left the two women seated in a corner of the tearoom. Both had shoulder-length black hair layered in a casually elegant style called a gypsy shag in the 1970s. The cut didn’t look dated in the least. Nor did the women, who had to be close to fifty but looked younger. One wore red, the other black. Mirror images. Identical twins.
They rose, waving us to their table. Introductions were made as we settled into our chairs. Monica was the dominant. She did most of the talking.
“It just makes me crazy that we tried to get the police to help us, but they wouldn’t do a thing,” Monica said. Her chocolate eyes were hot with indignation. “We reported the intruder the first two nights. Officers drove out, looked around, then said we should get a dog or one of those expensive alarm systems. I couldn’t make them understand that a historic house has certain restrictions. I mean, we’ve ordered new windows, but it will take weeks. They have to be handmade to fit. It isn’t just like calling out Sears for an installation.”
“Start at the beginning,” Tinkie requested.
“Do you know anything about our family history?” Monica asked.
“No.” We’d agreed to let them tell it. It’s always interesting to learn what a client reveals or hides.
“The family dynasty started with Barthelme Levert,” Monica said.
Eleanor leaned forward and spoke quietly. “He was a blackguard and a scoundrel. Natchez society has never forgiven us for Barthelme’s brutal ways.”
“Posh.” Monica waved her sister to silence. “They’ve never forgiven us for hanging on to our fortune during the Civil War, the Depression, and this latest economic downturn. Jealousy is a cruel prod, Sister. And it’s only jealousy that makes the peahens so catty.”
“Tell us about the necklace,” Tinkie said.
“I can do better than that.” Monica reached into her designer handbag and brought out a photograph. The rubies sparkled blood red against a gold satin background. Even I gasped, and Tinkie’s finger traced the delicate craftsmanship of the exquisite necklace. The design made the rubies appear to capture the light and shoot it back in a million blades of red. I couldn’t help but notice the ruby ring on Monica’s hand as she extended the photo—another piece of exceptional craftsmanship.
“Wow,” Tinkie said. “That’s some necklace.”
“Barthelme was a scoundrel, but he knew jewels and good work. The necklace was created by Rodney Implace, one of—”
“The finest jewelers in the mid to late eighteen hundreds,” Tinkie finished. “His creations were sought after by the monarchs of Europe as well as the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and others. That ring is his, too.”
“Exactly.” Monica’s smile revealed perfect teeth. I checked Eleanor’s dental work. Also perfection. In fact, I couldn’t see a flaw in complexion, figure, or hair, which was one of the top requirements for a Daddy’s Girl—bad hair might be a dominant gene and wealthy men didn’t favor offspring with frizz or limpness.
“So what happened the night the necklace was stolen?” I asked.
Monica picked up the story. “As I told you, for the previous two nights, Sister and I had seen someone on the grounds of Briarcliff.”
“Can you describe the person?” I asked.
“Only generically. He was tall, broad-shouldered, wore dark clothing, and moved with extreme grace.” The sisters shared a look. “We have a live-in gardener, Jerome Lolly. Though he was watching out for the intruder, he never saw a thing. The thief was like a phantom. I could only catch a glimpse here, a flit of movement there.”
“Footprints?” I asked.
“The lawn is thick around the house. There was no trace to support our complaint. That’s one reason the police never took us seriously.”
“And Jerome Lolly saw nothing,” Tinkie said.
“Not a thing.” Eleanor’s tone softened. “But he believed us. He’s worked at Briarcliff for more than three decades and has run off a lot of curiosity seekers and treasure hunters. Briarcliff is a . . . part of the local lore.”
“We don’t live there year round,” Monica said. “When we’re absent, the mice come out to play.”
They were very feline women—elegant, graceful, and nobody’s fools. “Has anything ever been stolen before?” I asked.
“Statuary from the gardens, furnishings in the gazebo or porches, tack from the old stables. Nothing of real value. I think the young people have scavenger hunts that require a tiny bit of Briarcliff.”
Tinkie put us back on track. “So you saw an intruder two nights before the necklace was stolen.”
“Exactly.” Monica squared her shoulders. “The third evening, Sister and I took something to help us relax. We were exhausted from the past two sleepless nights. I guess we finally accepted the police’s opinion, that the intruder was either a prankster or a figment of our overactive imaginations.”
“You both saw him?” I wasn’t clear on this point.
“Only me,” Monica said. “By the time I roused Sister, he was gone.”
“And the night the necklace was stolen,” Tinkie said, “did you see or hear anything?”
“No. I’d taken the sleeping pill. I didn’t wake up. And neither did Eleanor.”
“How did the thief enter your home?” I asked.
“The front-parlor window. The latch was old.” Monica bit her lip. “Briarcliff needs a complete overhaul. New windows are being built, as I mentioned. The police don’t understand that these things take time.”
I understood. Dahlia House needed work, too, but I wasn’t loaded like the Levert gals. Old homes are a money pit, and some updates, unless carefully orchestrated, can destroy the historic integrity.
“The latch was already broken?” Tinkie pressed.
“Not exactly broken, but antique,” Monica said. “It didn’t take much to pressure it off.”
“How would a thief know to go to that particular window?” I asked.
“These are the same questions Mr. Nesbitt at Langley Insurance asked,” Monica said. “I suppose it might be one of the first windows an intruder would try. It’s on the front of the house, and our bedrooms are in the back wing. And it’s a walk-through window. The house was designed to capture the breezes off the river.”
Most antebellum homes were built with a thought for cooling. Prior to air-conditioning houses made the most of wind and shade, to combat Mississippi’s oppressive summer heat.
“Were any of the other windows even tried?” Tinkie asked.
Monica’s brow furrowed, but it was Eleanor who answered. “How would we be able to tell? Chief Randall dusted, but there were no prints other than ours or Kissie’s, our housekeeper. The police deduced the thief wore gloves.”
“And the necklace was kept in a safe?” I asked.
“Normally, that would be the case. Old Barthelme installed an indestructible vault in the basement. It survived the Yankees and god knows how many attempts by robbers. Barthelme knew the tactics of highwaymen and pirates, and he built a safe no one could crack.” Monica rolled her eyes. “He was thorough in keeping out his brethren.”
I’d found a few references to Barthelme’s illegal activities on the Internet. He was something of a bluebeard. His first five wives died after a few years of marriage, and none bore offspring. I was curious to hear what the Levert sisters would admit.
“Was Barthelme really a highwayman?”
“And worse,” Monica said. Eleanor’s disapproving look was ignored. “If he weren’t our family, you know it would be delicious,” she told Eleanor. “And it’s such past history. What’s the harm? A lot of people back then did what they had to do to survive and build a fortune. Do you think the railroad magnates were any less ruthless? Just ask the American Indians if you do.”
“So he robbed people on the Natchez Trace?” Tinkie asked.
“Robbed, tortured, and murdered. I suppose old Barthelme might be termed a serial killer today. He had a very clever scheme. He’d ferry folks up and down the Mississippi River on his boat, the Lillith. His crewmen searched their bags for anything of value, then Barthelme would stage a robbery either along the Natchez Trace or in New Orleans, depending on whether passengers were heading north or south.”
“He acquired a great deal of wealth,” Eleanor said.
“And he stole slaves upriver and took them down to work the cane plantations in Louisiana,” Monica threw in. “Made a very handsome profit, too. If he’d been caught, he’d surely have been lynched. He tricked the slaves into believing he was taking them to freedom. They’d run away and board the Lillith. Barthelme sold them in New Orleans. Pure profit.”
Tinkie’s face registered distaste, and I figured mine was about the same.
“He was awful.” Eleanor put a hand over her eyes. “It shames me to know Briarcliff was built on blood money. Monica finds it much more entertaining than I do.”
Monica didn’t try to hide her amusement. “Eleanor is so strait laced and proper. She’d like to pretend the Levert money came from something benevolent, but the truth is, great fortunes are always built on the bones of someone. Great-great-great-grandpapa Levert killed other well-off people and sold runaway slaves. It could be worse. No child pornography or prostitutes or toxic chemical production or even weapons, for that matter. He simply executed the wealthy and took what they had.”
“Please, Monica.” Eleanor held up her hand. “Enough. It’s a fact, but I don’t enjoy having my nose rubbed in it.”
Monica’s laughter was musical and feminine, yet I heard a note of cruelty dancing beneath it. She enjoyed tormenting her sister.
“I haven’t even told them about the other ruby necklaces and the five dead wives.” Monica raised her eyebrows. “Some say Barthelme quickly tired of his young brides and poisoned them. Each dead wife is buried with an exact replica of the stolen necklace.”
“Get out!” Tinkie leaned back in her chair. “A necklace like that in a grave? How awful.”
“That’s twenty million dollars.” Even I could do the math. “Locked away in coffins.”
“What would you have me do, dig them up?” Monica was enjoying this way too much.
“When we were in Italy last winter, someone tried.”
Eleanor paled at the memory. “It was awful. We came home unexpectedly late on a February evening. It was storming—”
Monica cut in, “And we arrived to find mounds of dirt in the family cemetery where someone had been digging. Jerome ran them off before they could remove the cement slabs, but it—”
“Was completely disgusting,” Eleanor finished.
“The jewels were safe?” I asked.
Eleanor shrugged. “As far as we know. Monica wanted to look, but I wouldn’t budge. The Leverts have been called everything else, but I refuse to give Natchez ammunition to call us grave robbers.” Eleanor’s spine was straight, and her lips a compressed line.
“Sis stood firm on that issue,” Monica said, acting bored. “We could have done a two-year world tour with the money.”
“We have the necklace we inherited from our mother. That’s all we’re entitled to, and all I want.” Eleanor was visibly upset.
Monica stifled a yawn. “So now you know the family dirty laundry. Are you ready to start your investigation? The sooner you finish, the quicker we’ll get our insurance check.”
We followed the Levert sisters down the streets of Natchez, a small but bustling town that had once played a vital role in the history of the Old South. During the War Between the States, the two river towns of Vicksburg and Natchez offered control of the Mississippi River, a waterway vital to the survival of the Confederacy. Thousands of lives, both Union and Confederate, were lost in battles to take the mighty Mississippi.
Prior to the war, more millionaires lived in Natchez than any other Southern town, save New Orleans.
We left the business district and drove through a residential area, where the homes of the affluent graced huge lots. Victorian houses with gingerbread trim were tucked back on gracious lawns landscaped with huge camellias and azaleas. Time had not forgotten Natchez, but it had kissed it gently. The grace and charm of a lost era hung just out of reach.
The road curved and wound up a high bluff. At the crest was Briarcliff, a dark and brooding stone triple-decker with a widow’s walk. Barthelme Levert had made his fortune on the water, so it stood to reason his home would have the architectural trappings of a seaman’s abode, yet something about Briarcliff made me think of the moors and a tragic lord.
The cliff was a sheer drop down to Natchez and the Mississippi River. Even on a hot summer day, a breeze off the river was brisk enough to cool my sweaty face as I climbed out of Tinkie’s Caddy.
“Briarcliff is something else,” Tinkie said. “I wonder if the ghost-hunting teams for those televisions shows have been told about it. A village of lost spirits could be here.”
I agreed. A haint might comfortably take up residence. For Jitty, it would be a move to upscale digs. The thought made me smile.
The sisters pulled under a portico on the side of the house. I pictured Monica as the hunter of the pride. Eleanor . . . I wasn’t sure about her. My aunt Loulane, who raised me after my parents’ untimely deaths in an auto accident, might say “still waters run deep.” How deep was Eleanor?
“Come in,” she said. “I realize we never had tea. Let me put on a kettle.”
We entered the house via a mudroom that fed into a spacious kitchen. Natural-wood cabinets gleamed from oil and care. It reminded me how I’d neglected the maintenance at Dahlia House. How had Jitty failed to nag me about it?
“Oolong?” Eleanor asked as she turned on the gas stove.
“Perfect,” Tinkie said, using her spike heel to bring me back to the present.
“Perfect,” I agreed, trying not to wince from Tinkie’s assault on my foot. “Where’s the window the burglar used?”
“I’ll show you while Eleanor makes tea.” Monica led the way through a well-appointed dining room and a hallway filled with portraits of women, all beautiful, young, and smiling. “Barthelme’s wives,” Monica said, waving a hand dismissively. “All too delicate or too dumb, depending on which story you want to believe.”
“They all died before they had children,” Tinkie said carefully.
“Folks thought Barthelme was cursed,” Monica said. “Some said he was sterile and blamed his wives.”
“And that he murdered them?” I said. That had been broadly hinted on Internet Web sites.
“Then he met Terrant Cassio, the daughter of a Boston banker. She was his sixth and last wife. Terrant bore twin daughters within the first year of their marriage.” Monica’s smile was smug. “Twins run in the family.”
“But the Levert name? How do you have it if the only heirs were girls?”
“In each generation, the heir of Briarcliff takes the Levert name. It’s tradition.”
“What happened to Terrant’s children?” Tinkie asked.
“Barthelme died not long after the babies were born. He fell from the cliff, delirious with a fever.” Monica pushed open the door to a parlor. She stopped in her tracks. Gauzy drapes covering the windows danced and capered on the breeze as if possessed.
Goose bumps marched along my arms, and Tinkie’s eyes were huge.
Monica froze for only a few seconds. She rushed forward and slammed the windows shut. “This has to end. I closed that damn window and locked it yesterday,” she said. “File your report as soon as possible. Once the insurance pays out, Eleanor and I are leaving. We’ll go to Geneva or maybe Dublin. We don’t have to stay here and let someone terrorize us.”
“Call the police,” I said. “At least now you have Tinkie and me to alibi your whereabouts and to verify your story.” Though I realized she could have left the window open before she met us in town.
“And what a shame such is required,” Monica said. “This is our home, the place where we grew up. Yet no one believes us. I’m sick of it.” She pivoted on her heel and left the room, her footsteps echoing on the beautiful hardwood floors. In a moment I heard her say, “There’s been another break-in at Briarcliff. Yes, thank you.”
When she returned, she was calmer. “A squad car is on the way.”
I examined the window lock, careful not to touch anything. The burglar hadn’t left prints before, so it was unlikely he’d return and be sloppy. Still, I didn’t want to contaminate potential evidence.
The lock was old and loose in the wood. Someone jostling the window could wiggle it enough to dislodge the latch. “When will the replacement windows arrive?”
“I’ll ask Jerome,” Monica said. “He handles the repairs.”
Eleanor approached from the rear of the house. “Tea is read—” She broke off, staring at the window and then at us, reading the distress on her sister’s face. “He came back, didn’t he? He knew we were gone and came in broad daylight.” A hand covered her mouth and her complexion paled. “He stole the most valuable thing we had, so what does he want now?”
That was a question neither Tinkie nor I had an answer for.
What ever the Leverts’ standing in the community, their call brought Natchez Police Chief Albert “Gunny” Randall. The nickname said it all. An ex-marine, he deployed crime-scene investigators to dust and collect evidence, but his attitude told me he knew it would all be for nothing.
At my request, Tinkie ushered the Levert sisters to the kitchen so I could have a moment alone with Gunny, the name he insisted I use.
“The Leverts have hired me and my partner to write a report for the insurance company,” I told him.
He wasn’t surprised. “Four million is some kind of windfall. The sisters are doing what they can to make sure the insurance company pays out.”
I couldn’t deny it and didn’t want to. “Was there any evidence to counter the Leverts’ claim?”
“Nope, but there was nothing to back up the claim, either. Not a footprint or fingerprint or pry mark on the window. Nothing else was tampered with in the house. The burglar—if there was one—went straight to the necklace.”
I ignored the implication. “How did he, or she, open the safe?”
He cleared his throat. “The necklace wasn’t in the safe.”
“What?” The word was out before I could stop it. I remembered Monica’s earlier statement that the necklace would normally be in the vault. I hadn’t followed up.
“Now you understand my skepticism,” he said. “The sisters had the necklace out. For a new appraisal. Yes, I checked with Davidas’s Jewelry. The necklace was due in the store the next morning for the appraisal.”
“So the sisters weren’t lying.”
“No, but that’s easy enough to set up, isn’t it? Why didn’t they leave the necklace in a secure vault until time to transport it? Why leave it on top of a secretary? I’m having a hard time with this, and so is Mr. Nesbitt at the insurance company. The necklace should have been secured.”
“What’s the point of owning something so valuable if you can’t wear it and enjoy it?” I countered. I wasn’t defending the sisters, but I also wasn’t ready to believe they’d staged a robbery. They seemed to have plenty of ready cash. “If it were a Lamborghini parked on the street and it was stolen, you wouldn’t assume they’d planned it.”
He frowned. “True enough.”
I couldn’t believe it. Chief Gunny Randall saw my point. “What about the previous break-ins?”
“Same story. The sisters called, we came out. They say they’re replacing the windows, but until they do, a middle-school kid could get into the house. Last year, someone dug around in the family cemetery. Nothing was taken. I thought, and still think, it was kids. Nothing like a spooky legend to kick up mischief.”
“What about the gardener, Jerome Lolly?”
“He has a small cottage at the back of the property. He didn’t see or hear anything. Not this time. Not anytime.”
“Could he be behind this?” Lolly had easy access and knowledge of the sisters’ habits. He also had intimate knowledge of the layout of the house.
“He’s a person of interest.”
“And the house keeper, Kissie something?”
“Kissie McClain. She’s interesting. She has a record of B&E and theft. She did a stretch in the Adams County Jail. Six months. For breaking into her ex-boyfriend’s place and stealing a guitar. She said it was hers but had no way to prove it. The boyfriend, also with a record, testified the guitar was his. She was convicted.”
“The Leverts know about her record?”
He nodded. “They picked her up when she finished her time and gave her a job.”
“The boyfriend, certainly. Kissie . . . we never saw it, but it’s not improbable.”
From everything I could see, Gunny was a professional lawman. “What kind of training did you have in the marines, Gunny?”
“The best.” His smile told me he enjoyed a verbal one-up as much as anyone else. “My specialty was surveillance.”
“I’ll bet you were good at it. You’ll let me know if your team finds anything here?”
“Okay. Can I get a copy of your report?”
Technically, my report belonged to my employer. “I can’t see why the sisters would object. If they agree, I’m happy to make you a copy.”
He nodded. “Are you staying in town?”
Tinkie and I had hoped to get back to Zinnia by nightfall, but just in case I’d asked my friend Lee to feed Reveler and Miss Scrapiron, the two horses at Dahlia House, and the dogs. “I’m not sure,” I told him.
“The Eola is worth a visit. Lots of history in that old hotel. I should have this report by tomorrow.” He gave a cross between a salute and a tip of his hat and returned to supervise his investigators.
If we stayed, we could write up our report on Tinkie’s laptop, turn it in tomorrow when we had all of the police data, take our check, and go home. Besides, a night in the river town of Natchez held appeal. An advertisement for a “haunted Natchez” walking tour had sparked my interest. Maybe I could find some ammo to direct at Jitty. Briarcliff had put me in the mood for a good spooking.
The Eola was a grande dame nestled in the heart of Natchez. Tinkie and I took separate rooms, bought toiletries we’d failed to bring for the night, and Tinkie went on a shopping spree for new clothes. I managed with a new T-shirt that said, “I Got Down and Dirty Under-the-Hill,” a reference to Natchez’s riverfront district. Tinkie said it made her think of trolls.
We met in the lobby for the haunted tour. Along with a totally impractical but gorgeous cocktail dress, Tinkie purchased walking shoes, khakis, a sweater, and a jacket. Evenings along the river could be brisk, even in summer.
We fortified ourselves with a few adult beverages in the Eola bar before we met up with the tour group, an eclectic mix of tourists, locals, semiprofessional ghost hunters, and high school kids who knew the spiel by heart but enjoyed it nonetheless. Our merry company toured the town, stopping to see orbs flit by haunted houses and hear tales of gore and murder that generally accompany a haunting.
At King’s Tavern, a local eatery, we had drinks and I felt the warm spot on the upstairs bed where the ghost Madeline slept. Tinkie accused me of fibbing, but an area on the bed where a body might lie was warm to my hand.
The last stop was the bluff beneath Briarcliff, an unexpected bonus. Our tour guide gave a brief history of Barthelme Levert and his five tragic marriages. “Each bride was buried with a valuable ruby necklace. Some say it was Barthelme’s attempt to assuage the guilt of murder. Wife number six survived the old pirate. She knew the art of poison and drove Barthelme mad with a potion that sent him running and screaming out of the house and over the edge of this very cliff!”
The tour concluded, and everyone began to talk and laugh as we retraced our steps to the Eola. I turned back for one last glimpse of the loess bluffs created by a long-ago earthquake that dictated the route of the Mississippi River. A large object encased in fl uttering, diaphanous material sailed off the top of the cliff. I watched in soundless horror as the human-sized entity fell more than one hundred feet to smack into the water with a splash that drew everyone’s attention.
“What was that?” the guide asked.
Several people laughed shakily. I clutched Tinkie’s hand. “It looked like a body,” I whispered.
Tinkie pushed my shoulder. “It’s part of the show, Sarah Booth. We got our money’s worth on this tour.”
Her comment drew agreement from the others. Even the guide chuckled.
As we meandered back to the Eola, Tinkie chatted with an older couple from St. Francisville, Louisiana. I couldn’t shake the sense of tragedy that flooded me at the sight of the lace-clad missile dropping into the swift current of the Mississippi River. There had been no scream, nothing to indicate the object was alive. Still, I couldn’t let it go. The menacing gloom that hung over Briarcliff had slithered into my bones.
A. J. and Carlie Wells, the older couple from down river, were also staying at the Eola, so we pushed through the revolving door one after the other, Tinkie’s bright laughter leading the way. I loved her laugh, and I determined to shake off my glum mood.
Tinkie suggested a drink at the bar, so we followed her, until she stopped abruptly in the doorway. Like a line of ducks, we tumbled into one another. “What the—” And then I saw what had brought my partner to a dead halt—El Hombre Siniestro.
He wore a tuxedo and sat, one foot cocked on the bar rail in a GQ pose. His dark hair was pulled in a queue at the nape of his neck and an ill-tempered scowl claimed his face. He glowered as if we’d intruded on his most private moment.
Ignoring him, we settled at a table in the corner. We had a round of drinks and chatted pleasantly for half an hour.
“I think we’ll head upstairs,” A. J. said. “It’s been a long day.” He and Carlie slipped out of the bar, leaving me and Tinkie with the Thunder God. The tuxedoed man tapped the bar with his thumb as he scowled.
“Who the heck is he?” Tinkie whispered.
“An ass.” I liked brooding well enough, but I didn’t like it forced down my throat. When the waitress came to take our order, I buttonholed her. “Who is that guy?”
“He just arrived. From out of town.”
“Transylvania?” I asked. My wit was lost on her.
“No, I think New Orleans. His name is Don Cipriano. He’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen.” She sashayed past him, her hips swaying just a little more than normal.
Cipriano had the bad-boy appeal down to a science. I didn’t need Madame Tomeeka, Zinnia’s talented psychic, to tell me he was arrogant, overbearing, boorish, tormented, and aware of the figure he cut. In my younger days, he would have been like mainlining heroin. Now, though, I had Graf and a better understanding of the joys of a real relationship.
“We’d better check the harbor and see if he came with a coffin filled with dirt,” I murmured to Tinkie.
“He’s dangerous, all right.” Tinkie, too, had a weakness for handsome men, though her marriage to Oscar was solid.
“As Aunt Loulane would say, ‘Look, look, but looking and getting are two different things.’ We can look all we want as long as we don’t touch.”
“Righto,” she agreed. “But he is a perfect . . . specimen.”
How correct she was. Broad shoulders, balanced features, big feet clad in polished boots. The tuxedo looked custom-tailored.
With a mere tip of his head, he acknowledged us and stood. To my surprise, he approached our table. “Ladies, may I buy you a drink?”
“We’ve ordered.” My protective shields were on full alert. This man was a force to be reckoned with, and he knew it.
“May I join you?”
“Please do.” Tinkie indicated a chair. “What brings you to Natchez, Mr. Cipriano?”
“So, you know my name. I haven’t had the pleasure.”
Tinkie made the introductions. “Natchez is a small town. I’m sure eighty percent of the population knows who you are.”
“Should I be flattered or concerned?”
“Depends on your intentions.” Tinkie was so much better at banter than I was. While I might be a better horse woman, she had mastered the opposite-gender verbal-parry.
“I have no intentions.” Don Cipriano signaled the waitress for another drink. There was something decidedly Old World in his manners. Old world and old money. I’d had my brush with both in the body of Hamilton Garrett V, a man I’d ultimately done wrong. Maybe it was a guilty conscience that made me try harder with Cipriano.
“So you’re vacationing in Natchez?” I asked.
“A smart man combines business and plea sure whenever possible.” His dark gaze drilled into me.
“I grasp the pleasures of a visit to Natchez. I’m just curious about your business.” My deflector shields were taking a beating, but I could still fire back.
“I’m a collector.”
“Don’t tell me. Rare books?”
His laughter was rich, espresso-strength. “Hardly. So you’re a reader?”
His amusement didn’t totally mask the darkness that flitted in the depths of his eyes. “When I have time,” I said. “So what do you collect? Butterflies? Art?”
“Nothing so exotic. Antiques. I have a store in New Orleans.” He patted his chest. “I normally carry a card, but the tuxedo . . .”
“We love New Orleans.” Tinkie interjected a lighter tone into the conversation. “Sarah Booth and I had a case—”
“A case?” He took the drink from the waitress’s tray before she could put it down. “Are you doctors?”
“Private investigators,” Tinkie said.
“Is that why you’re in Natchez?” If his interest was feigned, he was a good actor.
“Cheating husband? Missing wife? Murder?” he asked, and I thought I heard excitement in his tone.
“Nothing so deadly.” Tinkie ate the last olive in her martini. “Just an insurance case. And we have much to do tomorrow, Sarah Booth. We should get some rest.”
She was right. Tomorrow would be busy. We stood together. “Have a nice evening,” I said.
“Ladies.” He executed a courtly little bow. “I hope our paths cross again.”
Copyright © 2011 by Carolyn Haines
Carolyn Haines is the author of eighteen novels, including nine previous Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries. She is the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writing Award as well as the prestigious 2009 Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. Born and raised in Mississippi, she now lives in Alabama on a farm with more dogs, cats, and horses than she can possibly keep track of.