The Lavender Lane Lothario by David Handler is the 11th Berger and Mitry Mystery where a feud between families ends in murder, and NYC film critic Mitch Berger and Connecticut State Police Resident Trooper Des Mitry have to work together to solve the mystery (Available February 23, 2016).
Every year, the Gant family performs an annual ritual desecrating the tomb of Aurora Bing. The Gants have held a grudge against the legendary silent film star for almost eighty years, but for Sherm Gant and his son, things have become personal. Aurora's only grandchild, Hubie Swope, has shut down Sherm's notoriously rowdy beachfront bar, and refuses to allow The Pit to reopen until Shem undertakes expensive upgrades. This means war. And when The Pit catches fire and Hubie Swope's charred remains are found in the rubble, it also means murder.
Who killed Hubie Swope? Crime-fighting duo Mitch and Des have no idea. Not only are Sherm and his son prime suspects, but so are the women in Hubie's life. To their surprise, Mitch and Des discover that Dorset's building inspector, a quiet widower who repaired cuckoo clocks in his little house on Lavender Lane, was secretly juggling four girlfriends at once. And then there's Gaylord Holland, a builder who had a beef of his own with Hubie. Dorset is in turmoil, and only New York City film critic Mitch Berger and Connecticut State Police Resident Trooper Des Mitry can put it back together.
“I MUST SAY, MASTER Sergeant. This qualifies as the most unusual date we’ve ever been on.”
“It’s not a date.”
“Are you sure? It feels like a date.”
“It’s not a date.”
Des and the chronically overweight Jewish man in her life were sitting together in the darkness on a picnic blanket in Duck River Cemetery, not far from the marble tomb where the great Aurora Bing had been interred since her death in 1961. It was an elaborate tomb compared to the historic cemetery’s older, simpler headstones, set apart by a stone retaining wall and adorned with intricate scrollwork as well as an inscription courtesy of Byron:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes …
The night was foggy and damp. Des wore a Gore-Tex jacket over her uniform. Mitch had on his C. C. Filson wool packer coat. They’d brought a Thermos of hot coffee and a bag of ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The sandwiches were for Mitch. There are two types of people in this world, Des had come to realize—those who eat when they’re on edge and those who don’t. Which explained why she, Desiree Mitry, Dorset’s resident Connecticut State Trooper, had zero fat on her leggy six-foot-one-inch frame and why he, Mitch Berger, bore an uncanny resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy. They’d been waiting here since darkness fell. It was nearly nine o’clock now and way quiet, aside from those mournful blasts of the foghorn from the Old Saybrook lighthouse across the Connecticut River.
“I’m on the job right now,” she reminded him. “And you’re keeping me company because I didn’t feel like doing this by myself. Cemeteries weird me out.”
“No problemo,” he assured her, munching on either his third or fourth sandwich. “Although I do keep expecting vampires to show up. This really reminds me of one of those color-drenched Dracula movies that Hammer Films made with Christopher Lee. Would you believe that he played Dracula for Hammer seven times? Starting with The Horror of Dracula in 1958 and ending withThe Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973, which incidentally featured Joanna Lumley as Jessica Van Helsing. You may remember her from the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, better known as Ab Fab. She played Patsy, who was best buds with—”
“Mitch, you’re getting your jabber on.”
“Sorry. Cemeteries weird me out, too. Plus we seem to be out of sandwiches.”
“I can’t imagine how that happened.”
“Hey, I know what…” He reached into his jacket pocket for his new cell. “I’ll take your picture with my super-duper new Batphone. It has its own built-in flash.”
“It can also tell us precisely where we are.…”
“Mitch, I know where we are.”
“And answer any questions you might have about baseball, agriculture, world religion, you name it. Ask it anything. Go ahead. You have no idea how amazing it is.”
“Kind of do, wow man. I’m the one who’s been begging you to upgrade to a smart phone, remember? You’d still be clinging for dear life to your vintage Agent Fox Mulder clamshell if you hadn’t dropped it in the bathtub. Does this mean you’ve finally been won over?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Only to me.” She heard a night creature skitter in the woods a few feet away.
Mitch heard it, too. “Um, I forget, how long do we have to stay here?”
“Until they come.”
“You think they will?”
“I know they will. My troop commander schooled me about this when I first took the job.” The leafy New England village of Dorset, jewel of Connecticut’s gold coast, came equipped with all sorts of peculiar quirks. Though none quite so peculiar as this one. “They’ve been pulling stuff since long before you and I were born—ever since Geoffrey Gant took his own life way back in 1938.” Gant had been one of the leading lights of Dorset’s artist colony, right up there with George Bruestle. He was renowned for his landscape paintings, many of which depicted the countryside near his farm up in the hills on Eight Mile River Road, where the painter had lived with his wife and two sons.
“Aurora Bing owned White Gate Farm right across the road from him. She was a widow in her late forties, and still a very beautiful woman. The two of them fell madly in love, but when Gant refused to leave his wife for her she broke it off. He couldn’t deal with it and hanged himself right there in his studio. His sons blamed Aurora. On the first anniversary of his death ‘someone’ burned her barn to the ground. Gant’s sons were questioned but released. She rebuilt it. On the second anniversary ‘someone’ set fire to her house. Again, Gant’s sons were questioned but released. Again she rebuilt. After that the Gants marked the anniversary of his death by throwing farm-fresh eggs at Aurora if she dared to set foot outside of her house. The Gants are a stubborn bunch. Not even Aurora’s own death has stopped them. Year after year, generation after generation, Geoffrey Gant’s male heirs have marked the anniversary of his suicide by desecrating her tomb. I’m told that what they used to do was fairly harmless.”
“Fairly harmless as in…?”
“They’d pee on it, one by one.” She glanced over at him in the foggy darkness. “Why do guys do that?”
“It’s considered the ultimate show of disrespect.”
“Dunno. Just is.”
“There are times when I don’t understand your gender.”
“We’re complex,” Mitch acknowledged. “But we’re not deep.”
“No one got super upset about it until last year, when they decided to up their game by spray-painting the word whore all over Aurora’s tomb. It was hateful, plus it took a lot of hard work to clean off.”
“Did they get busted for it?”
“Geoffrey Gant’s grandson, Sherm, and Sherm’s son, Leland, were questioned but released. No proof that they did it. But it was them. And they’ll show up here tonight and do it again. Or try. Sherm is not a very nice man.”
Sherm Gant, popularly known as the mayor of Pitcairn Avenue, was a major player in the Dorset business community. And one of those crusty small-town New England types who, once you got to know them better, turned out to be just plain nasty to the bone. Sherm was an unpleasant bully with a drinking problem. Condescending, too. Someone who felt he was just a tiny bit superior to everyone else because his grandfather had been a famous artist and because he, Sherm, had inherited a substantial amount of real estate. Geoffrey Gant’s paintings had fetched quite a bit of money after he died. Money which Sherm’s father had used to buy up dozens of summer rental cottages in the 1950s, as well as most of the commercial properties on Pitcairn Avenue. Sherm came into all of it when his father died, and he had proven himself to be a thoroughly inept landlord. He’d lost many of the cottages to the bank in recent years, but still had a stranglehold on the summer businesses on Pitcairn Avenue. He collected rentals from the folks who ran the ice cream parlor and kiddie arcade and so on. And he owned and personally operated The Pit, the rock ’em, sock ’em beach bar that was not exactly a source of pride among Dorset’s moneyed blue bloods. Nor was Pitcairn Avenue itself, which they considered to be a low-class, honky-tonk destination for low-class, honky-tonk summer people. In fact, they preferred to think of Pitcairn Avenue as belonging to the less affluent neighboring town of South Dorset, though it did not. Des had the arrest records to prove it.
“Sherm also has a personal grudge against Hubie Swope,” Des pointed out. “Which means you’ve got bad blood on two counts.” Hubie Swope, Aurora Bing’s sole grandchild, was the town of Dorset’s stickler of a building inspector. Last summer, two weeks before Labor Day weekend, Hubie had shut down The Pit for numerous building code violations. Sherm had been infuriated. Still was, because Hubie was refusing to let him reopen for the upcoming season unless Sherm undertook enough upgrades to pass a rigorous inspection. “Trust me, Sherm will be showing up here any minute now, spray paint in hand,” Des said, shivering from the damp cold. “And he’ll drag his son Leland along. I just hope they get here before we freeze to death.”
“Want some more coffee?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks for doing this with me. By now you must be incredibly sorry you said yes.”
“Not a chance. I’m sharing a blanket with the woman of my dreams in a spooky old New England cemetery. It’s delightfully foggy out. The marsh is giving off the ripe aroma of rotten eggs and dirty sweat socks. This is my idea of a good time.”
Des reached over and touched his face, smiling. After her bitter breakup with her cheating dog of a husband, Brandon, she’d been positive that she would never, ever let another man into her life. And then Mitch came along. They made no sense together. None. She was a woman of color, a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran who’d risen fast to become a lieutenant catching homicides for the Major Crime Squad—until she’d tangled with the wrong people and ended up back in uniform. Mitch was a Jewish film critic from New York City who’d spent most of his life sitting in dark rooms staring at flickering images on a wall. And yet they’d fallen madly in love with each other from the moment they’d met. Still, they were taking it careful and slow. Des needed time alone to deal with what she’d experienced on the job. She did that at an easel in her cottage overlooking Uncas Lake, where she drew heart-wrenching portraits of the many—too many—murder victims she’d encountered, deconstructing the horror line by line, shadow by shadow. And Mitch still wasn’t totally over losing his beloved wife, Maisie, to ovarian cancer at the age of thirty. Many nights, he sat up all night watching movies from yesteryear in his two-hundred-year-old cottage out on Big Sister Island. Old movies weren’t just Mitch’s life’s work. They sustained him. When she’d met him, Mitch had been chief film critic of the most prestigious daily newspaper in New York City. After the paper got taken over by a media conglomerate, he’d joined his editor’s start-up e-zine as an essayist. He also wrote quirky film encyclopedias that were very popular.
He reached over and took her hand. “But listen, if you’re feeling guilty about dragging me out in the fog like this…”
“No way, doughboy. Not going to happen.”
“How do you even know what I’m going to say?”
“Because I know you. And we’re not getting freaky on this blanket in the middle of Duck River Cemetery.”
“Are you trying to tell me you’ve never fantasized about having sex in a cemetery after dark?”
“I believe that’s the working definition of the word never. I’m on duty, remember? I’m not dropping trou here in front of all of these dead people.”
“You can keep your pants on if you’d … Okay, ow, that hurt.”
“Why don’t you school me about Aurora? She’s in your wheelhouse, isn’t she?”
“Sure is. Not that you hear her name much anymore. But the lady in that tomb with a view over there was a huge star in her day—her day being shortly after the turn of the last century, when Aurora Bing was considered to be the most beautiful woman to ever set foot on a Broadway stage. She played Portia in a landmark 1908 production of The Merchant of Venice that was staged by the great impresario Henry Harris, who died four years later on the Titanic. Went on to star in a string of Broadway hits before Adolph Zukor signed her to a three-year film contract for five thousand dollars a week, which was a lot of money in 1915.”
“It’s still a lot of money.”
“Those were the early days of silent pictures. They were still making most of them in New York. For a brief while, Aurora was as big a film star as Mary Pickford. But when the industry moved cross-country to Hollywood, her film career fizzled out. She didn’t like it out there. They barely had paved roads. Aurora was used to the life of a Broadway diva. So she returned to the stage and married a zillionaire financier named Maynard Swope.”
“Who bought her White Gate Farm,” Des said, nodding. “Aurora gave birth to a bouncing baby boy and the family spent their summers here happily ever after until Swope lost his shirt in the crash of ’29 and took a flying leap off a tall building. Aurora had some money of her own that his creditors couldn’t get their hands on. And she had the farm, which Swope had given to her outright. So she raised her son here and went on to have a wild love affair with Geoffrey Gant.”
“Which, I believe, is where we came in,” Mitch said.
“Have you ever seen any of her movies?”
“No one has. They’re gone. Most of those early silents are. The nitrate film stock turned to dust. Would you believe that the great Will Rogers made a whopping eleven feature films that no longer even—” Mitch broke off. “Did you just hear that?”
Des heard them now, too, crunching on the cemetery’s gravel drive. People had to walk their way in after dark. The front gate was locked to cars. Her Crown Vic and Mitch’s truck were hidden around the corner on Buttonball Road. Now she saw a flashlight beam coming closer to them. And heard voices. One raised, the other quieter.
“Stay out of this, okay?” she whispered to Mitch as she climbed to her feet, Maglite in hand.
“No prob,” he whispered in response.
She pointed the Maglite’s beam at Sherm and Leland Gant. They blinked at her, startled. Sherm was clutching an aerosol paint can in his right hand and reeling more than a bit. Des could smell his whiskey breath from several feet away. He was in his mid-fifties, bald, jowly, and rosy-cheeked. Des had always thought he resembled a malevolent cherub, though a cherub he was not. He was a big, flabby guy. One of those men who looked as if he had a pillow stuffed down the front of his pants.
Leland, who was twenty-three, looked totally miserable as he stood there next to him. Leland didn’t resemble his father at all. He was slightly built, with neatly trimmed blond hair and a narrow face. He didn’t behave like his father, either. Sherm loved to rankle people. Leland didn’t. He was a nice guy. “Hiya, Trooper Mitry,” he said, ducking his head in shame. “How’s it going?”
“You tell me, Leland. What are you fellows doing here?”
“You know what we’re doing here,” Sherm blustered at her. “And you’re not stopping us, see? This is about family.”
“Just head on home before there’s any trouble,” Des told them.
“Who’s going to make us?” Sherm demanded. “You and your boyfriend Blubberstein over there?”
“That’s Mister Blubberstein, you boozed-up cretin,” Mitch shot back.
“What’d you just call me?”
“Mitch, you’re not helping right now.”
“He’s the one who started it.”
“Okay, now you’re really not helping.”
“We’re not looking for any trouble,” Sherm said, swaying as he stood there. “Just got to do our duty and then we’ll be gone.”
“Sherm, I need you to hand over that can of spray paint, then turn around and go back the way you came. If you don’t I’ll have to arrest you both for criminal trespassing. You don’t want Leland to have an arrest record, do you?”
“Come on, Dad, let’s go home,” Leland said.
Sherm shook his head. “Not until we take care of that whore.”
Leland snatched the paint can from his father’s hand and gave it to Des. “Not tonight, Dad.”
“What the hell…?” Sherm was outraged.
“Thanks, Leland,” Des said. “You’ve got good sense.”
“No balls is more like it,” Sherm snarled at him. “You let people push you around.”
“Whatever,” Leland said wearily. “Come on, let’s go.”
Sherm stayed right where he was. “This isn’t over,” he warned Des. “We’ll be back. And tell that whore’s grandson, Hubie, to stay away from me or he’ll get what’s coming to him.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“He calls me up this morning and says he’s coming by to inspect The Pit tomorrow, like he’s the landlord and I’m the tenant. It’smy place!”
“He’s the building inspector, Sherm. He’s just doing his job.”
“Sure, take his side,” Sherm grumbled at her sourly.
“Go home,” Des told them once again.
Leland put a hand on his father’s back and started to steer him away.
Sherm was having none of it. “Let go of me!” he hollered, flailing his big arms.
One of those big arms smacked Leland in the chest and sent him backpedaling into Mitch, who lost his footing on the loose gravel, tumbled over, and whacked the back of his head against a gravestone. Hard.
Mitch lay there on the ground and didn’t move.
Des rushed over to him, aiming her flashlight into his eyes. “Are you okay?” His eyes were open but he didn’t respond. “Mitch…?”
“Yeah…?” he said slowly, blinking at her. “What is it?”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, why?”
“Don’t move.” She turned to the Gants and said, “Leland, get your father out of here before I lose my temper, hear me? Beat it!”
Leland started his way back toward the front gate. Grudgingly, Sherm joined him.
Des reached for her cell and called Madge and Mary Jewett, the no-nonsense sisters who ran Dorset’s volunteer ambulance service. They lived two minutes away. Madge assured her they’d be there in a flash. Then Des crouched next to Mitch, who’d been very obedient. He hadn’t moved. “Talk to me, wow man. How are you?”
“Still fine. Why are you making such a fuss?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you’ve had two concussions in the past year and you just got your bell rung again. I should never have let you come with me.”
“It’s just a minor bump on the head. Not to worry.”
“Yes to worry. I put you in harm’s way. I’m not going to let that happen again.”
“Don’t be silly.” He reached over and took her hand. “I’m fine. Honest.”
“The Jewett sisters will be the judge of that.” She heard the ambulance pull up at the front gate, followed by their hard-charging footsteps on the gravel drive.
“What happened?” Madge demanded when they arrived, puffing.
“Sherm Gant is what happened,” Des replied.
“I can’t stand that man, especially when he’s been drinking.” Mary knelt next to Mitch. “Had he…?”
“Most definitely. There was a slight scuffle. Mitch conked his head on that gravestone. He insists he’s okay but I thought you’d better have a look.”
Mary fingered the back of Mitch’s head as he lay there. “He’s not bleeding. Skin’s not broken.” She shined a pen-sized light into his eyes. “His pupils are normal and responsive. How’s your stomach, Mitch?”
“I don’t think I could sit through an entire film directed by Mr. Judd Apatow, if that’s what you’re asking. Is that what you’re—?”
“Does your head ache? Are you dizzy?”
“Nope and nope.”
“I want you to count backward from one hundred in increments of, say, seventeen.”
“Can we pick a different category? I’m terrible with numbers.”
Des said, “Mitch, what was the name of Sturges’s last film?”
“Preston or John?”
“There’s a John?”
“Most def. He directed The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, not to mention Bad Day at Black Rock, featuring the delectable Miss Anne Francis, who was one of my first boyhood crushes.”
“And his last film was…?”
“Marooned with Gregory Peck. Utter dreck.”
“He’s fine,” Des assured the Jewett sisters.
“Sherm gets nasty when he drinks.” Madge helped Mitch up to a sitting position. “Always looking to pick a fight with somebody. That man’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since his wife, Tess, took off for Hawaii a dozen years ago and never looked back. Leland’s grown up to be a fine young man. His aunt, Mary Ellen, made sure of that. I don’t know where he, or Dorset, would be without her.” Sherm’s younger sister, Mary Ellen Tatum, was Dorset’s town nurse. “Mitch, are you okay to drive home?”
“No way,” Des said. “Not going to happen.”
“Des, I’m perfectly fine,” he insisted. “You’re overreacting.”
“So I’m overreacting. I’ll drive you home before I head over to the barracks. I have a mountain of paperwork waiting for me there.”
“What about my truck?”
“I can drive it home for you,” Madge offered. “My sister will follow me in the EMS van and pick me up.”
“Well, okay…” Mitch doted on his bulbous, kidney-colored 1956 Studebaker pickup. “It pulls a little to the left, and the steering wheel shakes.”
“Not to worry. I’ve been driving old trucks my whole life.”
“Speaking of Mary Ellen,” Des said. “Maybe she ought to look in on Mitch in the morning. Just to play it safe.”
“Not a bad idea,” Madge agreed. “I’ll call her.”
Copyright © 2016 David Handler.
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David Handler is an Edgar Award winner and Anthony, Derringer, and Dilys Award finalist. He has written extensively for television and films. David lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.