“He’s coming with us?” Her pale eyes bugged slightly.
“I can’t leave him out here. He’s just a puppy, and people will start driving in soon.”
“All right,” she said reluctantly. “But we just had your office carpeted. He’d better control himself.”
We followed Constance through the museum toward the co-op studio in back, which was once the hacienda’s stables. These buildings, I wanted to inform Constance, had seen their share of animal droppings. Instead, I whispered into Boo’s upright ear, “If you must piddle, please stay away from her expensive shoes.”
Once inside my small office, I found a basket, emptied it of its magazines, arranged my sweatshirt for some padding, and settled Boo in his makeshift bed. He immediately stuck his shiny nose inside one of the sleeves and went to sleep. From experience, I knew his nap would probably last for about twenty or thirty minutes, then he’d be ready to play again. Hopefully, by then, Constance would be gone.
“Tell me everything,” I said, sitting down across from her in one of the two padded visitor’s chairs. “From the beginning.”
“First, I want to say how disappointed I am in your husband. You know, I’ve half a mind to report him to the mayor.”
I contemplated reminding her that the mayor wasn’t Gabe’s boss, the city manager was. On a quick second thought, I decided to keep that to myself. “What did Gabe do?”
“It’s what he’s
doing.” Beads of sweat darkened the whitish down on her upper lip.
“What is that?” I asked calmly.
At that moment, she burst into tears, which couldn’t have surprised me more than if she’d hopped up on my desktop and started dancing the jitterbug. I jumped up, fumbled in my desk drawer for a box of tissue and held it out to her. While she took one and held it under her mascara-streaked eyes, I sat back down across from her, stymied about what to do next.
“I’m very sorry,” I said again, my words sounding feeble to my ears. I hadn’t realized how truly upset she was over her friend’s death. Behind my closed door, a group of men laughed, on their way to the wood shop down the hall. In the distance, the whine of a wood saw accompanied Constance’s sobs. I held out the tissue box again, and she took two more.
“Constance, what happened to Pinky?” I asked in a gentle voice. I was still shocked at her uncharacteristic outburst. She’d always been one of the most self-assured, imposing, some would say controlling, people I’d ever met. Confidence in herself and her place in San Celina’s society had always made her seem like nothing could ever shake her. Seeing Constance’s vulnerable side was something that caught me off guard. It also made me more than a little wary. Once she regained control, I was sure she’d make me pay for glimpsing this vulnerable moment of her psyche.
She inhaled deeply, dabbed at her eyes and then straightened her spine. “They say she had a heart attack in her sleep, but I know it isn’t true.”
“Did Pinky have heart problems?”
Constance shot me an exasperated look. “Of course she did. That’s not the point.”
It seemed the whole point to me.
“She had a heart problem, but she didn’t have a heart attack no matter what the doctor says. No matter what your husband says. She was murdered. She took her medicine faithfully and was feeling better than she had in years. She told me so herself. She said she had something special she was working on, something she said I’d really enjoy. We had plans to take a cruise to Italy next month. We were already planning next year’s Christmas ball. She just had one hundred tulip bulbs planted! Does that sound like someone who would just up and die for no reason?”
I wanted to point out that people made plans all the time, and death intervened. Death doesn’t call and make an appointment; how well I knew that.
She sat up straight, her momentary emotional outburst over. General Patton had returned. “You work for me, and since your husband won’t do his job, I demand you investigate this crime.”
I couldn’t help it. Despite my pity for her loss, and even though her cheekbones were tinged a very familiar angry pink and in spite of the fact I knew I’d live to regret my action, I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
“Investigate? Constance, I am a museum curator, not a private eye. If Gabe doesn’t think there is a crime, what can I tell you? He’s the expert.”
“You’ve done it before. Found killers.”
Though she was technically right—I’d been involved in a few incidents where I’d done some investigating on my own—I’d sworn to Gabe I would stay away from playing detective. And, frankly, after what had taken place less than a month ago with the hostage situation, I was more than happy to leave the bad guys to my husband and his officers.
“Yes, I have,” I said. “But those incidents were all accidental.”
“But you solved them when the police couldn’t.”
That was true. It was also the reason I was determined to stay away from this disagreement she had with the police about her friend’s death. My and Gabe’s marriage had enough problems without me getting involved with something like this. Not to mention his mother was coming to town in—I glanced up at the schoolhouse clock on the wall—seven hours.
“Constance,” I said, looking directly into her red-rimmed eyes. “I am truly sorry about your friend, but I can’t go against Gabe’s decision. I assure you that he and his detectives are very good at their jobs, and if they say that there was nothing suspicious about your friend’s—”
“They are wrong,” she interrupted. “I’ll pay you overtime. All your expenses, gas and meals and whatever equipment you need to solve the case. Isn’t that what you do with private detectives?”
“I wouldn’t know because I’m not a private detective.” I took a deep breath, working particularly hard at keeping my voice from sounding irritable. After all, she’d just lost a close friend, and perhaps this was her way of working it out. Besides, I reasoned, it was good practice for the next two weeks with Kathryn who, I was willing to bet, could give Constance a run for the roses in the intimidation department.
“Benni, please.” Her normally commanding voice sounded odd saying those words. “I’ll do anything. I’ll pay anything.”
I looked at her a long moment, wishing like anything that I’d called in sick this morning. “I wish I could help you, but if Gabe says there’s nothing suspicious about Pinky’s death, why would you doubt him?”
“Because I know what I know.” She wagged a long, elegant finger at me. It sounded like something my gramma Dove would say.
“C’mon, Constance,” I said, finally getting frustrated enough to nip this in the bud. I had too many things to do today. “Who would possibly want to murder your friend?”
Her triumphant smile told me immediately that my question was the wrong one to ask. She opened up her purse and took out a folded sheet of paper.
“I have a list,” she said.
Of course she did. I groaned out loud. “I didn’t mean I actually wanted to know—”
She slapped the paper into my hand. “There are three names on there, the women who are next in line for 49 Club membership. One of them did it.”
I stared at her like she was a fire-breathing dragon come to life. “The 49 Club? You think someone killed Pinky to take her place in the 49 Club?” The idea was so outlandish, I couldn’t even laugh.
The 49 Club was San Celina’s most exclusive female-only society club. Formed seventy-five years ago, faithful to its name, it was comprised of only forty-nine members. They were the elite of the elite, and a woman could only become a member after one of the forty-nine died and then only by a unanimous vote of the other forty-eight members. They put on an invitation-only Christmas Ball and Silent Auction every year that was the most talked-about holiday event in the county. Last year it was five thousand dollars a head and limited to three hundred people. Tony Bennett, a personal friend of one of the 49ers, attended and sang a medley of Christmas carols. All the money raised was directly donated to various charities helping women and children in the county. I’d never gone to the ball, something like that being far out of my price and social range, but Elvia attended last year with Emory and said it was even more amazing than what the newspapers reported. The club met once a week for lunch in their historical landmark clubhouse in San Celina designed for them by Julia Morgan, the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s infamous castle.
I clutched the sheet of paper in my hand, fighting the temptation to read her list. “You can’t be serious. I mean, I know the 49 Club is . . . well, many people are . . .” I almost said dying to join, then caught myself. “Many women would love to join, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually kill to become a member.”
She stared at me silently for a moment, her eyes bulging with some kind of emotion. At our feet, Boo gave a little chirrup, then rolled over on his back, splaying his back legs out in a pose that would have been X-rated had he been a human.
“Please, Benni,” she finally said. “Just consider my request. I have nowhere else to go.”
I felt myself weakening. It was the second
that did it. Constance had never uttered the word please to me. She’d likely never said it to anyone in her life.
“I don’t know,” I said, still attempting to maintain some boundaries with my boss. “It—”
She stood up and closed her purse with a snap. “One day to look at what I’ve written. That’s all I ask. I’ll pay you five hundred dollars for a retainer. Right now.”
I gave a big sigh and stood up. “I don’t want your money. I’ll see what I can find out from Gabe. That’s the best I can offer.”
She gave a sharp nod. “Fair enough. Are we set for the exhibit opening?”
“Yes, the wine arrived yesterday. I have it stacked in the storage room. The caterers are all set. I’ll come in early tomorrow to make sure everything is in order.”
“What about the painting?”
“It arrived this morning and is probably in Gabe’s office right now. I called him the minute it came. D-Daddy’s waiting for the alarm people today to double-check the system. I’ll bring it to the museum and hang it tomorrow.”
“Good. We want this event to be special. Maybe Miss Finch will tell some of her artist connections, and the museum will receive even more donations.”
“I’ll do my best to make sure everything’s perfect.”
“See that you do.” She brushed past me without even a good-bye, the familiar autocratic Constance returned. Had I just imagined the sobbing and vulnerable Constance of a half hour ago?
“Okay, my little Bugaboo,” I said, waking the puppy up. “Let’s get you fed, and then let’s go visit your Uncle Gabe. We have to run this whole thing by him before we become involved.”
Boo, unaware of the hullabaloo he’d just entered, pounced at my loose shoelace, capturing it with a triumphant bark.
HEN I WENT OUT TO MY TRUCK TO DIG THROUGH Boo’s stuff, I found a note stuck to my windshield. It was from Hud.
“Hey, ranch girl,” it read. “I realized I forgot to give you Boo’s schedule, his likes, dislikes, etc. He’s sort of house-trained, ha-ha. (Sorry.) I’ll donate five hundred bucks to the folk art museum if you can accomplish that. When I came back inside the museum, your door was closed. It sounded like there was some kind of emotional crisis going on, so I decided not to disturb you. Call my cell or the ranch if you have any questions about Boudin. Thanks again. You’re a stand-up broad. Your buddy, Hud.”
So, I thought, the going rate for finding a killer and potty-training a puppy seemed to be the same in San Celina. I wasn’t sure which one would be harder.
“Okay,” I said to Boo, who was now scampering about my feet, playing with a dandelion sprouting from the gravel, “according to your schedule you are due for lunch. But I suspected that.” I looked at my watch. “Then it’s time to meet
, and I don’t mean Scout. Be on your cutest behavior, because I’m not sure how he’s going to take sharing his home with a semi-housetrained corgi.”
Boo yapped, then chased a bee. I found his food and a black and red ceramic dish that had Yummers! printed on the bottom. I fed him, then took him to the side of the building to do his business. I put him in the pickup’s bed while I struggled to secure his padded car seat with the passenger seat belt. I recaptured him, slipped his tiny halter on and hooked him into his fancy car seat.
“You know,” I said, starting my truck. “Traveling with Scout is a whole lot easier.” After introducing Boo to Gabe, I was going to spend some of that thousand-dollar retainer at All Paws on Board. He’d be in expert and loving hands with Suann, the day care’s owner and head dog wrangler.
At the police station, it took me twenty minutes to maneuver the short walk to Gabe’s office. There was something about a puppy that softened the eyes of even the most hardened street cop, cynical detective or seen-it-all dispatcher. Before I made it to Gabe’s office I heard three long-winded memories of a special dog in someone’s life. Gabe’s oak door was closed when I walked up to his assistant’s desk. Maggie, a fellow rancher and dog lover, had to spend her requisite minutes fawning over Boo and telling me about a corgi-beagle mix her grandfather once owned.
“Is Gabe in?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, cuddling Boo to her chest. “But he’s only got fifteen minutes to spare before he has a meeting.”
“More important, is he in a good mood?” He had been when he left this morning, but being a police chief, that could change in a flash-bang.
“Reasonably so. He’s excited about his mama coming out for Christmas.” She grinned at me. “Said you were excited about it too.”
I grinned back. Maggie knew me too well to believe that. “More like anxiously anticipating. Kathryn and I came to something of a truce when I visited Kansas a few years ago. Except for three or four short phone conversations, we haven’t talked since.”