Mantrap (The Boston Uncommons Mystery Series), page 1
Table of Contents
Praise for Mantrap
The Boston Uncommons Mysteries
Please visit these websites for more information about Arlene Kay
About the Author
He was rich, controversial, and determined to build bike paths all over one of Cape Cod’s prettiest seaside villages. Now, he’s dead.
Dario Peters, avid cyclist, ardent environmentalist, and heir to a munitions fortune lives the dream, until a nasty spill on a Cape Cod bike trail ends his life. Everyone calls it a tragic accident—except Persus Cantor, Dario’s doting grandma. When psychic Merlot Browne brands it foul play, Aunt Pert begs amateur sleuths Deming Swann and Eja Kane to find Dario’s murderer.
Despite misgivings, grumbling and elaborate excuses, Deming is pressed into service. After all, Pert is his mother’s favorite aunt, and family comes first. Eja embraces the challenge. As a mystery writer, all deaths seem suspicious to her and she leaps at the opportunity to spend time on a majestic Cape Cod estate with her sizzling fiancé.
Bayview, a tranquil seaside village, is seventy miles and several decades removed from bustling Boston. Residents treasure tradition and family values, two things that Dario Peters openly renounced. Case in point was his marriage to Paloma, a study in excess with body parts as suspect as her lineage. Dario’s scheme to rezone staid Bayview into a cycling paradise was another venture that riled locals and investors alike.
Praise for Mantrap
“Its snappy repartee between Deming and Eja is reminiscent of the comedy-mystery movies of the thirties . . . an entertaining first entry into the Boston Uncommons mystery series.”
—New York Journal of Books, praise for Swann Dive
“I always loved the Thin Man movies about the husband and wife sleuthing team of Nick and Nora Charles, so I thought I’d like Arlene Kay’s latest novel, MANTRAP, featuring her latest character creations, Demming Swann and fiancé Eja Kane. I wasn’t disappointed.”
—Steven Martini, author, Aberration
“Kay knows how to draw and hold your attention from the first paragraph. Mantrap is a fast, fun mystery with quirky, unforgettable characters that keeps you guessing ’til the end.”
—Marian Lanouette, author of the Jake Carrington Series
The Boston Uncommons Mysteries
(Coming October 2014)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events or locations is entirely coincidental.
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Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61194-521-8
Print ISBN: 978-1-61194-463-1
ImaJinn Books is an Imprint of BelleBooks, Inc.
Copyright © 2014 by Arlene Kay
Printed and bound in the United States of America.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
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Cover design: Debra Dixon
Interior design: Hank Smith
Man (manipulated) © George Mayer | Dreamstime.com
To the friends and colleagues who encouraged and sustained me. Pay it forward.
Boston Globe, April 22
LOCAL MAN INJURED IN CYCLING ACCIDENT
A freak accident Tuesday afternoon left a Bayview man in critical condition at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dario Peters, 31, lost control of his machine while cycling on the town bike path. There were no witnesses to the incident.
“OH, NO!” I slammed my cup of espresso on its saucer, watching helplessly as a dark caffeine river coursed toward the edge. “No wonder he missed the party.”
I grabbed my iPhone and speed-dialed Deming’s number, praying that he wasn’t on some tedious conference call with a client.
It was Sunday, a cloudless spring day in Boston with bright, blinding sunlight that assaulted my parlor windows with a vengeance. An evil triumvirate of champagne, fine wine, and spirits held me in their painful thrall, punishing me for last night’s excess.
I crept over to my computer—phone in hand—nursing a headache of epic proportions. Maybe I misread that item. Engagement parties will do that to you, especially your own. I’m the abstemious type who seldom drinks and prefers a good book to revelry. Last night was the exception. I danced every dance, sipped champagne, and sang ’til my lungs gave out. Frankly, I hadn’t missed Dario Peters even though he was on our guest list. He was an acquired taste, rather like castor oil. One adjusts to the product but never seeks it out.
Deming answered on the first ring, in a sultry, slightly groggy voice that spoke of dreams disturbed and passions banked.
“Miss me, do you?” he asked. “I like a woman who can’t get enough.”
I swallowed hard and sputtered out a sentence. “Have you heard? Check the Globe.”
“What? You’re not making sense, Eja.” His voice veered instantly to red alert. “Repeat what you said but don’t shout. My head hurts.” Deming had imbibed far too much at last evening’s festivities, and like most men, he has a low tolerance for pain or discomfort.
“Dario. Your cousin Dario Peters was in a bicycle accident. A bad one. No wonder he missed the party. He’s at Mass General in critical condition, whatever that means. I always get it mixed up with serious, so I’m not sure which is worse.”
Deming made a noise somewhere between a snort and sigh. “Hold on. Stop babbling while I check with my dad. Dario and I sort of lost touch when he got married.” He rang off with a resounding click, leaving me to contemplate the art deco wonders of my engagement ring. It was lovely, a Swann family heirloom with a delicate swirl of diamonds and platinum surrounding a sparkling emerald. Gazing at it sooth
Cato’s shrill bark startled me back to reality. The surly spaniel was a legacy from CeCe Swann, my dearest friend and Deming’s twin. Against all odds, she had loved the little cur, and he returned the favor. After her death—her murder—I gained custody of Cato and all his foibles. He gave me the equivalent of a canine eye-roll and stared pointedly at his empty bowl. The little devil was the least sentimental creature I’d ever known. Despite my constant chiding, his distaste for Deming fueled open warfare and the occasional blood sport each time they met. Combining our households portended an Olympic-sized challenge with Cato in the mix.
I sprinkled chicken on Cato’s kibble as I racked my brain for snippets about Dario Peters. Instantly the memory of a Swann family reunion popped into my head. It was hot, an unseasonably humid July evening. Deming had been locked in a fierce, no-holds-barred tennis game with his cousin Dario, a high-flying type “A” personality. Competition was hardwired into their DNA, so they’d carried their five set match to a thrilling tiebreak. Dario was the smaller man, but you’d never know it by his intensity. Every point he scored was punctuated with squeals from his trophy wife, Paloma, and the loud clapping of his grandmother Persus. Aunt Pert! I pictured her gentle face, alight with good cheer. Oh God! She must be frantic. She’d raised Dario after the death of his parents and doted on him to the point of absurdity.
I paced the floor of my office, admiring the wide walnut planks and the venerable Sarouk covering them. Luxury was still an adjustment for me, one that had been surprisingly easy to make.
Writing is my profession. I’m a mystery novelist with a string of moderately successful books to my credit and one bestseller. Unfortunately, monetary rewards are seldom commensurate with literary pride. My spacious flat—complete with furnishings—was another legacy from Deming’s twin CeCe. We’d been inseparable, closer than most sisters. The Mandarin term Lao-tong, sisters for a thousand years, seemed woefully inadequate to describe our bond. It endured beyond time, tighter than the graveyard’s grasp. I missed my friend and grieved for her each day of my life. I always would.
THE CONCIERGE phoned an hour later, announcing Deming’s arrival. Although he had his own key, Deming still observed the proprieties. Good breeding demanded that, and the Swann pedigree was second to none. My origins were more modest, but the intimidation factor was mitigated by the genuine love I felt for his parents. Bolin Swann, his mega-rich daddy, evinced a type of old world courtliness that both charmed and awed. His mother, the elegant Anika, combined the grace of a runway model with the steely courage of a warrior princess. No one could ask for better in-laws.
When Deming’s key turned the lock, my heart flip-flopped like a politician’s promise. Simply put, he took my breath away. Seventy-four inches of muscled male beauty will do that to a woman. Clouds of coal-black hair, startling hazel eyes, and a razor-sharp mind compounded the thrill. To my surprise he was formally dressed in a navy suit, white shirt, and subdued tie. Hardly the garb for weekend wear.
I’ve tried to tame my misgivings by reading a host of self-help books and giving myself the occasional stern lecture. Intellect has never been an issue. There are objective measurements for that. Deming admits that my IQ is stratospheric and praises my professional attainments. Sometimes that’s not enough.
Self-restraint was my watchword when dealing with Deming. Over the years, he’d grown jaded by the simpering adoration of female fans. Our relationship thrived under a different model. Despite my rapid pulse and stomach flutters, I painted a tranquil smile on my face, folded my hands, and played it cool. It wasn’t easy, but it worked for me.
Cato was a different story. That dog held grudges like Silas Marner hoarded gold. With teeth bared, Cato charged the door as if he were storming the Bastille. Deming hurled a number of vivid scatological terms at him and used his briefcase as a shield. Since neither could claim victory, each retreated to opposite sides of the room.
I checked my emotions and let Deming make the next move. Impetuosity is a failing of mine, especially when the stakes are high. Deming, on the other hand, has a lawyer’s caution about sharing bad tidings. His expression was grave, almost funereal. After planting a quick kiss on his cheek, I locked eyes with him.
“What’s the story? Is Dario okay?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t called Mass General yourself. You love worming information out of people.” Deming lessened the sting by wrapping his arms around me in a python grip.
“Stop stalling,” I squeaked. “Tell me before I suffocate.”
“You’re stronger than you think.” He hesitated and loosened his hold. “Dario died early this morning. He never regained consciousness.”
“Oh, no! I’m sorry. You guys were close as kids. I remember that.”
Deming and I had known each other since pre-school. Dario had been along for the ride too, skulking around the fringes, joining the crew of bad boys who bedeviled every little girl in sight. I’d loathed the little bastard until we’d both passed puberty and gained some perspective. There were limits of course. Our fragile truce frayed whenever his wife Paloma writhed into view. I dismissed her as a brainless bimbo with artificial breasts and a cash register for a heart. She returned the favor by curling her collagen-laden lip and flirting shamelessly with Deming.
“How’s Aunt Pert taking things?”
Deming shook his head and hugged me once more. “Mom’s with her. You know how much she loves great Aunt Persus.”
“And Paloma? How come they didn’t call you? Surely your parents knew right away.”
After giving me a quien sabe shrug, he did a quick appraisal of my tattered robe. “Come on. Get dressed, and we’ll go find out.”
I was afraid he’d say that. After last night’s exploits, my hair was massed in tight brown ringlets that bore an unfortunate resemblance to a crazed moppet. Deming never expected elegance from me, but with his penchant for Boston beauties, I had to try.
“Grab some espresso while I get ready.” I nodded toward the door. “Unless you’d like to walk Cato around the Common first.”
Deming narrowed his eyes and ignored my suggestion. “Be prepared when you see Aunt Pert. She hasn’t been herself for the last month or two. Digestive upsets, something of that nature. At her age I guess it’s expected, but she’s always been healthy as a horse. Now Mom says she’s been spouting all kinds of crazy notions about Dario’s death. I told Mom they should call her doctor. Get her sedated.” He folded his arms as if he were the Lord High Executioner pronouncing the final sentence.
“Cut her a break. She’s grieving.” I touched his shoulder. “You know all about that, remember?”
He winced as if I had struck him. Deming had never recovered from his twin’s ghastly murder, a shared wound that united and devastated both of us. My thoughtless comment had exacerbated his pain.
He waved his hand toward my bedroom door. “I know. Now vamoose. Unless you need my help getting dressed.”
SOME PEOPLE CALL his home a mansion, but Bolin Swann, one of the nation’s wealthiest men, shrugged off that description. When the twins entered college, he and Anika sold their estate in Weston and downsized to a five-story colonial in the heart of Back Bay. It was a modest dwelling only by the standards of an oil-rich pasha, or Internet potentate. Commoners like me called it magical.
I’d never adjusted to the effortless lifestyle enjoyed by the Swanns. I was the product of Russian émigrés content with their lot as college professors and obsessed with honing their only child’s intellectual prowess. In our home, books, not objets d’art, had been the real treasures. From prep school through graduate school, I’d rubbed shoulders with the Swanns and other privileged youths without feeling inadequate. After all, scholarships were earned;
“Watch your step!” Deming grasped my arm to avert an accident. “Can’t have any mishaps spoiling that face.”
His offhand comment made me flush with pleasure. I don’t feel beautiful—far from it. My eyes are my best feature, although men sometimes glance southward, focusing on other assets. Either way, I’ve always felt out of Deming’s league. His looks, a cross between a male model and a film star, literally turn female heads whenever he enters a room. Even in our combative days, I’d had to admit that. Intellect not beauty is my strength. I bow to no one in that area, but as frat boys often joked, dorms are packed with dull, brainy girls who study instead of dating.
I stepped carefully over the threshold, avoiding the perfectly polished floors. As a child, I’d once taken a spectacular header down a winding stairwell, something Deming never lets me forget. I saw no need for a return engagement.
Their houseman Po greeted me with a wintery smile that never reached his eyes. He was that rarity, an ageless family retainer who valued loyalty and discretion over tabloid tell-alls. I’d always found Po’s noiseless moves and solemn face vaguely disquieting. He rarely spoke English, preferring to express himself in rapid fire Mandarin. The rest of the household was also fluent in this language of Bolin’s ancestors. I was clueless anytime they spoke it. I clung to French and Spanish and a smattering of Russian with a ferocity I couldn’t explain or justify. Deming thought it a charming idiosyncrasy, but in truth it was pure stubbornness.
“They’re in Dad’s study,” he warned. “Come on. Get a move on.” He put his arm firmly around my waist and gave me a gentle push. “Remember. Ignore Paloma. She’s a widow now. Show some respect.”
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