Gin and Panic by Maia Chance is the third book in the Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries series (available October 24, 2017).
Former socialite Lola Woodby is now struggling to make ends meet as a not-so-discreet private eye in Prohibition-era New York City, along with her stern Swedish sidekick, Berta. When they’re offered a piece-of-cake job―retrieving a rhinoceros trophy from the Connecticut mansion of big game hunter Rudy Montgomery―it seems like a no-brainer. After all, their client, Lord Sudley, promises them a handsome paycheck, and the gin and tonics will be plentiful and free. But no sooner do they arrive at Montgomery Hall than Rudy is shot dead.
When the police arrive to examine the scene, they conclude that Rudy had actually committed suicide. But Lord Sudley can’t believe his friend would have done that, and there’s a houseful of suspicious characters standing by. So Lord Sudley ups the ante for Lola and Berta, and suddenly, their easy retrieval job has turned into a murder investigation. Armed with handbags stuffed with emergency chocolate, gin flasks, and a Colt .25, Lola and Berta are swiftly embroiled in a madcap puzzle of stolen diamonds, family secrets, a clutch of gangsters, and plenty of suspects who know their way around a safari rifle.
November 7, 1923
I cannot believe that I, Lola Woodby, am saying this, but there is only so much ornamental ham, puff pastry, and pink fondant icing one can stomach. At least in any given day.
I leaned in for the last pillowy bite of cherry almond cake. “Mm,” I said. “No.” I waved for the waiter. “This one is too sweet.”
“Too sweet?” Berta Lundgren said in her stern Swedish accent. She patted her lips with a napkin. “Too crumbly, I thought.”
“Wasn’t the first one too crumbly? And the fifth one was too lemony, I recall that much.”
“We really should be taking notes—and just look at the time! We are due at the Bombay Room at four o’clock, and the subway has been terribly overcrowded and behind schedule as of late. No one wishes to walk about in this horrible cold rain. Oh, how I detest November.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“You are cocooned in romance at the moment, Mrs. Woodby,” Berta said. “You are as impervious as a duck. Trust me when I say that it is dismal outside.”
Berta was small and round, with a plaited silver bun, rosy jowls, and keen, ice-blue eyes. In my former life as a flush Society Matron, she had been my cook. And oh, could she cook. Her scrummy food was to blame for my womanly curves, which I must squeeze with great ingenuity into these tube-shaped flapper fashions. At any rate, when my philandering husband kicked the bucket several months earlier and left me penniless, Berta and I went into the gumshoe trade together. And we were making a go of it … more or less.
The waiter appeared beside our table. Whip-thin and waistcoated, he was almost camouflaged in Delguzzo’s elegant, famous, and (most important to my mother) shockingly expensive confectionery-caterer establishment in Lower Manhattan.
He eyed Cedric, the fluffy Pomeranian on my lap, with disfavor. “Yes, mesdames?”
“Do not suppose for a moment, young man, that we do not detect your rolling eyes,” Berta said. “After all, we are detectives.”
The waiter lifted an eyebrow. “Detectives? Lady detectives, who—accompanied by a rotund toy dog—spend each afternoon in the tearoom of Delguzzo’s sampling every pastry, cake, cruller, chocolate truffle, and sweet biscuit under the roof? What an amusing tale.”
There. You see? I was so very in love, not even this snooty human wishbone could pop my balloon. “No one served me chocolate truffles,” I said mildly.
“Pray tell me, mesdames, what is it that you are detecting? Are you perhaps attempting to discover how much pastry cream one may consume without removing one’s girdle?”
“We are researching wedding foods.” I petted Cedric’s ears. “Wouldn’t you like Delguzzo’s to cater the society wedding of the year?”
“I do not care much one way or the other. Now, what was it that you desired to ingest next? Pistachio brittle? Bluepoint oysters on the half shell? An entire honey-glazed goose?”
“We’d like the check, please,” I said.
The waiter floated away.
“Snot,” I added under my breath.
“Mrs. Woodby, I must inform you that I cannot continue with this endeavor for much longer,” Berta said. “I feel as though I am going to burst, and what is more, these confectionery-caterers make unwholesome food. One must eat vegetables with one’s butter.”
In July, my mother had disowned me on the grounds that my going into the gumshoe trade was an embarrassment as well as a threat to our family’s social standing. This would have been true had my father’s immense Wall Street fortune not padded them from disgrace, and if my family were not amply capable of embarrassing themselves.
Three weeks ago, however, Mother had telephoned me out of the blue to say that Rebecca Van Dweck was no longer slated to be my sister Lillian’s maid of honor, as she had eloped with her parents’ chauffeur. “You shall be given this one opportunity to redeem yourself,” Mother had fluted imperiously over the telephone lines. “Lillian and I are leaving for Paris soon—I expect you did not know that Worth’s is making her wedding gown and trousseau?—and in our absence, you may address and mail all the wedding invitations—”
“I don’t know if I’m cut out for—”
“—and select a caterer from the list I have compiled. You may save the selection of the florist for a later date.”
“Wait—do you mean you wish me to choose the wedding cake?”
“Yes, but do not overindulge, Lola. You inherited that ankle concern from your father’s side of the family.”
Actually, I had my mother’s ankles—or lack thereof. If we don’t wear shoes with a three-inch-minimum heel, our ankles vanish like the dodo. To balance things out, I’d also inherited my mother’s large blue eyes, full mouth, and dark, shiny hair. But while Mother coiffed, garbed, and bejeweled herself as a Society Battle-axe, my eyes were enhanced with kohl, my lips were painted with vampish Guerlain, and my hair was cut into a chic Dutch bob. And I could only afford to wear last year’s fashions.
I’d agreed to be the matron of honor. A large box of addressed invitations languished, unmailed, on the floor beneath my telephone. I meant to post them, honest, but I kept forgetting. I would do it, however. For even if one’s family is self-centered, spoiled, and prone to squawking, one cannot, sadly, return it to the store for a refund. In a way, I missed the rotters. I also adore cake.
And—I snapped back to the present—so did Cedric.
“No,” I said, whisking my plate away from Cedric’s stubby snout. Too late. Cake crumbs trembled on his whiskers. “Naughty, naughty peanut.”
He licked his chops.
Berta was working herself up. “Simply choose a caterer for your sister’s wedding and be done with it! We have eaten our way through every caterer-confectioner on your mother’s list, and we have work to do—”
“Think of the money we’ve saved by dining in restaurants all the time at my parents’ expense.”
“—genuine work, for our clients. For instance, we still have not retrieved the Dove White Launderette’s stolen linen carts—”
“Small fry, Berta.”
“What do you expect?”
She had a point. Our business cards read,
THE DISCREET RETRIEVAL AGENCY
No job too trivial.
“We really must accept whatever job it is that Lord Sudley intends to offer us, Mrs. Woodby. When I spoke to him on the telephone this morning, he conveyed that he would pay us handsomely.”
“Dandy. Here’s our check.”
* * *
At a quarter past four o’clock, Berta, Cedric, and I entered the mahogany hush of the Bombay Room. The Bombay Room had once been a swanky place to sozzle a gin and tonic or a sidecar, but, alas, the Eighteenth Amendment had spoiled the fun and now people drank only tea, coffee, and seltzer water there.
The place was warm, crowded, and hazed with cigar smoke and costly perfumes.
“That must be Lord Sudley,” Berta whispered, collapsing her umbrella. “See the large handsome fellow behind those potted palms? He is not married, according to the society column in Tête-à-Tête magazine. I did a bit of research at the newsstand after he telephoned this morning.”
I nodded, checking my wristwatch for the hundred-and-first time in fifteen minutes.
Berta started toward Lord Sudley, realized I wasn’t coming, and stopped. “Why are you dawdling, Mrs. Woodby?”
“I asked Ralph to meet me here at four thirty, and we’re running late.”
“Mr. Oliver will surely wait for you.”
“I know. I feel ill.”
Berta looked at me sharply. “What is the matter?”
“Matter? Nothing. Does my makeup look all right?”
“Yes, although when we were on the subway, I believe a small moth fluttered out of your coat.”
“What? This is my favorite!” I shook my fur-collared coat. Raindrops splattered but no moths emerged. Thank goodness. I couldn’t have insects swarming at the Magical Moment. The thing was, I was 78 percent certain that my PI colleague, gentleman caller, and maddening distraction, Ralph Oliver, intended to pop the question. On the telephone, he’d said he wished to give me something, and that it was really important. What else could it be but an engagement ring? Ralph couldn’t afford more than a chip of a diamond, of course, but I was so in love with him, I’d be happy with a ring from a Cracker Jack box.
“If there is nothing the matter,” Berta said, “then we should not keep Lord Sudley waiting.”
I hurried after Berta. We introduced ourselves to Lord Sudley and ordered seltzer waters. As soon as the waiter had delivered them, Lord Sudley asked, “Do you feel up to retrieving a rhinoceros head?” He had a resonant voice and a cultured British accent. His suit was Savile Row. That diamond tiepin was the real McCoy.
“Rhinoceros?” I coughed on seltzer. “Living or dead?”
“Stuffed, and mounted on a wall, most likely.”
“Good,” I said. “I don’t handle guns, and certainly not safari rifles.”
Berta looked smug. When push came to shove, she could wield her Colt .25 like Annie Oakley on five cups of coffee. “All we shall require is a step stool and a screwdriver,” she said. “And a very large hatbox for transport.”
“There is to be a pheasant-hunting party at the house where the rhinoceros trophy is currently located. I am an invited guest.” Lord Sudley turned to me. “I would like to propose that you, Mrs. Woodby, attend the party under the guise of being my friend. We’ll say you’re an avid hunter.”
“That might be a bit of a stretch,” I said.
“And me?” Berta demanded. “We work as a team, you do realize.”
“Ah. I see. What about this: You could pretend to be Mrs. Woodby’s aunt, another avid hunter. Then you will detach the rhinoceros trophy from the wall under cover of darkness and deliver it to the boot of my motorcar. Simplicity itself.”
“Hold on a tick,” I said. “If it’s so simple, why don’t you do it yourself?”
Lord Sudley adjusted a gold cuff link. “It is a private matter.”
“We require all the facts,” Berta said. “We have more than once become embroiled in unpleasantness that would have been avoidable had we been given all the facts from the start.”
I leaned forward, elbow on the table. “Just last month we ran into a fiasco while retrieving an emerald necklace from someone called Mademoiselle Gigi. It all would’ve gone much more smoothly had our client mentioned that Gigi was a Siamese cat.”
“Mrs. Woodby is a fine detective,” Berta said to Lord Sudley confidingly, “but from time to time she indulges in straying from the main point.”
Lord Sudley smiled at me, and for the first time I noticed he was … rather attractive. Astonishingly fit for a man of perhaps fifty years. Strapping, really. Weathered, silver at the temples, with one of those craggy foreheads and prominent aristocratic noses that made phrases like Mr. Rochester and stormy moors and ancestral castle pop into one’s head.
Not, mind you, that I cared, since I was desperately in love with someone else. This was merely a detective’s detached observation of facts.
Lord Sudley’s eyes twinkled. “I’m certain that when Mrs. Woodby strays from the main point, she leads one down enchanting paths and byways.”
Berta made a ladylike snort.
“Is Mr. Woodby in the detective trade as well?” Lord Sudley asked casually.
“He popped off.” My elbow slipped off the table. I righted myself. “I mean to say, I’m a widow.”
Berta kicked me under the table.
Honestly, I felt like kicking myself. The Man of My Dreams and Love of My Life was going to propose marriage to me in approximately—I checked my wristwatch—five minutes. Other fellows were as meaningless to me as crackers under the sofa cushions.
“Shall we return to the matter at hand?” Berta said.
Lord Sudley leaned back in his leather club chair and steepled his hands. “You won’t breathe a word about this?”
“We call ourselves the Discreet Retrieval Agency for a reason,” I said.
“Very well. The fact of the matter is, Rudyard Montgomery is my close chum, but he has in his possession a rhinoceros trophy that, in fact, belongs to me.”
I pulled my notebook and pencil from my handbag and flicked to a fresh page. “Current location?”
“Montgomery Hall in Carvington, Connecticut. It’s his family home. Lovely seaside estate. Splendid pheasant hunting and fishing, if you enjoy that sort of thing.”
Not unless it’s hunting for bargain-priced shoes or fishing for compliments. “Did Mr. Montgomery steal the trophy from you?” I asked.
“Not precisely. It is more that he stole the credit for having felled the beast in the first place. We were on safari together in June—Kenya, you know—and we both aimed for the same rhinoceros in the bush. We both fired. Rudy’s shot went wild—he flinched just before he pulled the trigger—and my shot killed the beast. Rudy took credit. Oh, we quarreled, but I didn’t wish to spoil the safari, so I dropped the issue and allowed him to take it back with him to America. However, something has arisen, and now I most urgently require the trophy. Naturally, I cannot be caught taking it. No one may know that I have it—not the servants, not Rudy’s lady friend, no one. And if Rudy found out, why, it would destroy our friendship. We go on a hunting trip together twice a year, you know, and now more than ever Rudy and I must stick together because our dear old chum from the Scion Club, Winslow Bradford, who always accompanied us, he’s up and kicked the bucket. Frightfully sad. Bad ticker. At any rate, my rhinoceros trophy will be missing a bit of its left ear—that’s where Rudy’s bullet whizzed past. The lethal shot that I fired went in, as is proper, behind its shoulder.”
“Why do you require the trophy?” I asked.
“Because it is mine. Shall we discuss your fee?” Lord Sudley pulled a small leather-bound book and a gold pen from his breast pocket and jotted a figure. He showed it to us.
Berta stopped breathing.
The sum was hefty. Hefty enough to cover our rent for several months. Hefty enough to keep Berta in new chintz dresses and top-shelf baking ingredients and me in department store lipsticks and Belgian chocolates for several months, too.
“When do we begin?” Berta asked.
“Well, tomorrow, actually—”
“Tomorrow?” I said. “Oh. No. No, I can’t take the case. Tomorrow is … off-limits.” I planned to be with Ralph, of course, wallowing in soon-to-be-married bliss.
“Off-limits?” Lord Sudley said.
Berta glared. Under the table, I swiveled my shins out of the reach of her kicks.
My eyes drifted past Lord Sudley. Ralph Oliver had just strolled into the Bombay Room. How is it that love makes a person look like they’re always lit up by a Broadway spotlight? How did Ralph, with his shabby trench coat, tipped-down fedora, and—let’s face it—empty wallet, move with such captivating self-assurance through all those tables of New York fat cats with their cigars? Every last lady in the Bombay Room was watching Ralph from over teacups or under eyelashes. And, gee whiz, who could blame them?
Ralph’s bright gray eyes hit me, and a corner of his mouth twitched up. He shrugged off his trench coat and took a seat at an empty table in the corner. When he removed his hat to reveal brilliantined ginger hair and a weathered forehead marred by a shrapnel scar, I’m positive I heard a lady sigh.
“I shall perform the heist,” Berta said to Lord Sudley. “Single-handedly. Mrs. Woodby and I often work separately on cases.”
“It was simply peachy meeting you, Lord Sudley, and I’m terribly sorry I won’t be able to assist you with this case,” I said. “Berta, I’ll see you back at the apart—back at the office.” Better if he didn’t know we worked out of a poky apartment that always smelled of Dorin of Paris face powder and cookies.
I stuffed my notebook and pencil in my handbag, scooped up Cedric, and zigzagged through the tables to Ralph.
Copyright © 2017 Maia Chance.
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Maia Chance was a finalist for the 2004 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. She is writing her dissertation on nineteenth-century American literature. She is also the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal mystery series (Cinderella Six Feet Under, Snow White Red-Handed, and Beauty, Beast and Belladonna).