I.L. Wolf - Her Cousin, Much Removed, page 1
Table of Contents
About the Author
Copyright and Credits
Delenda O’Brien loved to eat chocolate. Doctors say that chocolate can sometimes be healthy, but not when it’s laced with poison.
Then it’s not so good for you.
Delenda didn’t really have much time to think that through, though, because she was gone faster than she could say “There’s something wrong with this chocolate,” to her overworked and underpaid assistant, Billie. Billie, for her part, was somewhat surprised by the turn of events, given that the berating she’d been receiving, like most of her beratings, did feature brief pauses when Delenda shoved Belgian bonbons into her mouth as if berating them as well. But the pauses usually weren’t so long.
Or, she judged, given the look in Delenda’s eyes–glazed, unseeing and yet somehow still angry–so permanent. On the plus side, at least tonight, for the first day in months, she wouldn’t be working late.
Venetia Shipman rang the bell again, leaning to her right to try to glimpse inside the faux-leaded glass windows. Delenda told her that, yes, she could have her serving dish back today, and yes, this time she’d be home when Venetia came to get it, and by the way she was so sorry, but she had to throw one more dinner party, and the platter was exactly the right size, and too bad it was such an intimate gathering, or Venetia could have joined them.
Issuing invitations after the fact was a Delenda specialty, and not for the first time, Venetia wondered why she’d lent her the platter in the first place. She rang the bell, holding it longer in case that was the problem.
Finally there was rustling, and someone fiddling with the lock, apparently, it sounded, unsure of how to undo it. The door opened with a bit of a creak, and a man she didn’t recognize, medium height, light coating of tired, stood in the doorway.
“Yes?” he said.
“Is Delenda here?” Venetia said, trying to peer around the guy, who did a pretty effective job of blocking the doorway even with his average frame. Like he had practice.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I think a better question is who are you? And why are you in Delenda’s house?”
He tilted his head very slightly, but the expression on his face didn’t change. “I think we’ll start with who you are.”
“This is getting silly. Seriously, where is she? She promised she’d be here today. I know she comes up with ridiculous excuses, and now, what, hires a butler—”
“A butler? You think I’m a butler?”
“Well, the clothes probably aren’t officially butler gear or whatever, but I don’t know, she’s done it before.”
“Hired a butler?”
“Yes. Wait, why are you asking me about her butler?”
“You brought up the butler.” He shifted, his weight resting against the frame, and she caught a half-second burst of activity behind him. She watched over his shoulder and looked at him again.
“What’s going on here?” she said.
“I’m afraid this time Ms. O’Brien has a solid excuse,” he said, “for whatever it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe we should go back to where we started. Who are you?” He flashed her a badge.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. It’s money laundering, isn’t it? It’s some kind of money laundering, I’d put money on it.”
“Why would you say that?”
“I never understood how she had so much…” she trailed off as she looked up at the three stories of recreated Victorian excess, “Much.”
“You said you were friends with Ms. O’Brien?”
His words caught her. “Were?” she said.
“You were friends with Ms. O’Brien?” he said again, keeping his tense firmly in the past.
“She’s my cousin. Ish,” Venetia said, feeling the blood draining from her head. “What’s happened?”
“Ish?” he said. He noted the change in her color. “Maybe you’d better sit down.”
She tried to walk past him, but he shook his head. “Here on the step,” he said. “You can’t go in, we’re processing the scene.”
“Processing what scene? There’s a scene?” She sunk onto the interlocked paver surface of the stairs, not thinking about the fact that she was wearing nice pants instead of her usual jeans. Delenda always said something if she wore jeans. “Are you going to tell me what happened from the doorway? Because it’s going to be pretty hard to keep twisting and looking up at you like this.”
He disappeared past the door, and Venetia heard the indistinct exchange of voices. She wrapped her arms around her knees. There was a soft click as the man closed the door behind him and joined her on steps.
“Detective James. Cadby James,” he said, formally offering her hand.
“Which way do those names go?”
“James is last, Cadby first.”
“Because it sounds like they could go the other way.”
“Are you saying that because you’re truly interested, or because you’re trying to avoid hearing what I’m telling you?”
“I don’t know. Both, maybe.”
“Delenda O’Brien died late this afternoon,” he said.
“You said there was a ‘scene.’ Why is there a scene? What happened? Did someone kill her?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
“She’s dead? Actually dead?”
“Yes, I’m sorry to say. You two were close?”
“No, I hated her,” she said. “Everyone hated her.”
He pulled a plastic-covered pack of tissues from his pocket and handed her one. “So why are you crying?” he said.
“I’m not crying,” Venetia said, suddenly realizing that she was. “I don’t know. I couldn’t stand her. I still didn’t want her to die.”
“Hmm,” he said, pulling out a notebook and a small pen. “Did you kill her?”
“Did I kill her? Of course not, why would I kill her? And besides, are you supposed to come out and ask me that like that?”
“That’s not how they do it on TV.” His pen scratched quietly at the paper. “You’re writing that? Why are you writing that? Nice pen, by the way.”
“I’ve got to take notes,” he said. “And thanks, the pen was a gift.”
“Delenda is –” She stopped herself. “Was one of those people.”
“I’ve told you my name, you need to tell me yours.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said, her mind vague. “Venetia. Venetia Shipman.”
“And you and Ms. O’Brien were cousins?”
“Her mother and my aunt are cousins through marriage.”
He wrote on, stopped, put down the pen and looked at her. “How does that work?”
“We’re working on it,” he said. “Why were you aggressively ringing the doorbell today?”
“I wouldn’t say I was ‘aggressively’ ringing it,” she said.
“I counted twelve times, and I was in a part of the house where I couldn’t hear the bell that well.”
“She has my platter. Had my platter. Well, my platter’s probably still in the house.”
“All that over a platter?”
“It was a gift from a client” she said.
“Is it valuable?” Sitting next to him, she saw his eyes were greenish. They’d looked brown from the doorway.
“It’s a platter,” she said, all traces of tears gone, “how valuable could it be? It’s sentimental, though, and she’s had it for ages. It’s huge, it’s impossible to find one that size. It’s handmade, it’s not like I can get another one. She swore she’d give it back today. Can I get it? It’s got to be there.”
“Sorry,” he said, “it won’t be today.”
“Figures,” said Venetia. “I knew Delenda would find a way.”
“Well, she did die,” he said. “I don’t think she planned it.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” she said.
Twenty minutes later, Venetia was on her way home with Detective James’ card, but sans platter. Delenda was dead. Really, really dead.
She’d probably never get the serving dish back now.
Her phone rang. She pulled into the grocery store parking lot, but by the time she found a spot, it had stopped. And then it started immediately again. She didn’t recognize the number, but with a death in the family, she figured she should answer it anyway.
“Hello?” she said, more of a question than anything else.
“Venetia? Thank God I got you. I think I’m in trouble.” The voice was crackly, distant.
“Who is this?” She found herself recoiling as a man walked past her car, close and unexpected. She waited until he’d passed.
“It’s –” the static washed out any more.
“Who?” She got out of her car, still pressing the phone to her ear, and tried to find a place with a decent signal. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Billie,” she heard this time.
“Billie,” Venetia said, staying exactly where she was, one leg ahead of the other, a shade off balance, now that she could hear. The man who’d walked next to her car stopped, turned around and eyed her before eventually heading into the store. Crazy-looking or not crazy-looking, at least she had a signal. “Did you hear about Delenda? Can you believe it?”
“Yes, I heard,” she said. “And I can believe it. They think I did it.”
Venetia paused. “Well, did you?”
“How could you ask me that? I’m at the police station.”
“They arrested you?”
“Not exactly. But I think I need a lawyer.”
“Venetia, I’m at the police station. And I’m being questioned in a murder.”
“It’s a murder?”
“Did I not tell you they think I did it? What does that mean?”
“There’s no need to get testy, Billie. You’re not usually like this.” She overbalanced a tad , to the right, and leaned left to correct it.
“Given it’s the first time I’ve been accused of murder, I’d hope so. Come on. I need you to help me.”
“But police station. Murder.” She let the last word linger.
“I was there when she died.”
“Are you kidding me? You seriously didn’t kill her?”
“That’s not funny, Venetia.”
“I’m not joking, Billie.” Her leg tightened from the awkward posture.
“You know they record these calls, right? Can you please do it?”
“That depends. Is there any way you can get my platter back from Delenda’s?”
“I don’t think I’m in a position to do that right now. But I’m pretty sure you know who might.”
“Damn you, Billie.”
“Thanks for the encouragement,” she said. “Just have him come down here, OK?”
“Why didn’t you call him yourself? Why him? There are hundreds of lawyers in the phone book. Pick one.”
“Well, besides you—”
“I don’t practice anymore.”
“Which is why I said ‘besides you.’ So besides you, he’s the only one I can trust.”
“I’m glad at least one person can trust him,” said Venetia.
“The past isn’t the most relevant thing right now, Venetia. It has to be him. Will you please do it?” Her tone changed, and for the first time, Venetia heard fear. “Call him for me. You owe me that much.”
“Owe you? Are you kidding?”
“They’re telling me to get off the phone. I’ve got to go.”
Venetia still stood there, in her awkward-though-valid-antenna position, staring at the phone. It looked like someone had actually killed Delenda, and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t Billie. Apparently, neither could the police.
She walked through the sliding doors of the supermarket. She hadn’t spoken to Dane in at least three years, not that she was keeping track. Why did Billie insist on him? Why didn’t she call him directly instead of calling her?
She felt the weight of someone staring. When she turned, the same man from the parking lot, now halfway down an aisle, stood looking directly at her. She narrowed her eyes at him, heading for the next aisle over.
What the heck had she gone into the supermarket to buy? Now that she was standing inside, she had no idea.
“So let me get this straight,” Dane said, his familiar voice holding the slightest edge of incredulity. “Billie’s in jail.”
“Not exactly. I’m not sure. She thought she’d been arrested, but they were only asking her questions.”
“And she asked you to call me,” he said.
“Ordered me to.”
“Yes, it’s nice to speak to you too, after all this time. But she didn’t call me herself.”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Venetia got up from her couch and paced the floor, up four steps, back four steps, up four steps, back four steps.
“See answer to question one,” she said, slipping into the old joke without thinking. She wished she had.
He only skipped a quarter-beat before continuing. “Do they really think she killed Delenda?”
“How would I know that?” she said.
“Do you think she killed Delenda? And can you stop pacing?”
“First of all, we’re on the phone, so there’s no way it could possibly annoy you.”
“And not for the first time you’d be wrong,” said Dane.
“You can’t even see me do it.”
“It doesn’t matter, it still drives me crazy.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’re not talking on webcam.” She sank back into the sofa.
“That’s better,” he said.
“Now you’re being creepy.”
“Second of all?”
“Second of all what?”
“You said ‘first of all.’ That’s usually followed by a second of all,” said Dane
“Right. Second of all, it helps me to think.”
“Are we past this yet?”
“No, and trust me when I tell you that everything would take a lot more than a five minute phone call to get past.”
He cleared his throat. “I meant the pacing issue.”
“Oh, yeah, right. Yes. As you apparently know, I’m sitting.”
“Good. Why do they think it’s her?” he said.
“She was with her when she died.”
“Obviously,” he said. “She’ll have to settle for second-best.” Another oldie, but at least this time it wasn’t her.
“Oh please,” she said, breaking the routine. “We both know who had the better record.”
“Only she doesn’t practice anymore,” he said. “Anyway, it’s not terrible to hear your voice.”
“Gee thanks,” she said more flatly than she felt. She held the phone in her hand for a moment after hanging up, the conversation feeling a little unreal. Well, it should feel unreal, Delenda had been killed. Venetia closed her eyes, put a hand to her forehead.
That meant there would be a funeral. So that would be a week full of reunions she hadn’t intended on having. And as though she’d summoned her herself, the phone rang, the little light trilling an appropriate red.
“Hi Aunt Cicada, how are you?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake stop calling me Aunt Cicada. It makes me sound like I’m a hundred and three years old, and no one, no one except for your mother calls me anything but Sissy. And she knows it drives me crazy.”
Who do you think filled me in, Venetia barely held back. “Only a hundred and two, Aunt Ci—Aunt Sissy.”
“Sissy. Plain Sissy. You’d think you were doing it just to drive me to distraction.”
She was. “What can I do for you?”
“What do you mean what can you do for me? Delenda has died. Died, Venetia, and I know you know already, I was told you were lurking around The Vines yesterday.”
The Vines was what Delenda named her pop-up mansion. Perhaps she’d intended to cover it with ivy, but she’d been in it seven years without a single vine to be found. Maybe it was meant to be ironic, though she wasn’t really one for irony.
At least not on purpose.
“I wasn’t lurking. I never lurk. And how, pray tell, did you come by that information?”
“Never you mind,” said Sissy, her tone confidently smug. “Never you mind. The funeral’s set for Thursday, so get yourself ready. You’ll probably want to say something.”
“I don’t know if ‘want’ is exactly the right word.”
“She was your cousin, Venetia.” Sissy’s exasperation wound its way along the phone line.
“You keep saying that, but I’m not sure how that works.”
“You are so tiresome. You’ve always been a tiresome child.”
“Aunt Sissy, I haven’t seen ‘child’ for decades.” Venetia stood at the window, counteracting the sound of her aunt’s voice with the pretty view.