"I knew it," J.X. said. "I knew you'd do this."
I held onto my temper, although that's a comment guaranteed to fry anyone's fuse--and mine isn't the longest to start with. My fuse, I mean.
"No, you didn't. I didn't know I'd do this. How could I have known this would happen? Anna didn't know this would happen. If Anna had known this would happen, I'm sure she'd have done her best to avoid falling down those twenty-two flagstone steps in her garden."
"And if your old former mentor hadn't taken a tumble down the garden path and needed you to fill in for her with this writing seminar in the Berkshires, you'd have come up with some other excuse for why we couldn't get together this weekend."
I think it was more annoying because J.X. was using that vastly reasonable tone of voice on me. Like my predictability was almost amusing. But the main reason it was annoying was because deep down inside I knew he was right. I had been thinking of possible reasons for canceling before Anna's phone call.
I said vehemently, "Bullshit."
"No, it's not." No trace of amusement now. "I wish it was."
"Anna needs my help. She's got a broken ankle and busted ribs. What was I supposed to tell her? No can do. I've got a hot date?"
"In three months we've seen each other three times--two of which times you had to cut the weekend short. It's pretty obvious that this...relationship isn't something you want to pursue."
My heart sank like a stone. I could almost hear the lonely little plop.
"That's not true," I protested. "You're not being fair. I'm just out of one relationship. Of course I'm proceeding cautiously."
"That I could understand. The problem is, you're not proceeding. Three times in three months is not proceeding. Your brakes are locked and your transmission is stuck in park. I think it's bad timing, Kit. Again."
J.X. didn't sound angry. He didn't sound hurt. He sounded resigned. A little wry. And I knew he'd been thinking about this--as he waited for me to cancel yet again--and that his mind was already made up.
And that was probably for the best, right? Because it was bad timing. It was too soon after David. I wasn't ready to start up again--let alone with a guy five years my junior. It was doubtless a good thing that one of us had the presence of mind to see that it was not going to work between us. We'd had our shot and it hadn't taken. That was that.
So why did my heart keep foundering in that arctic bath, trying vainly to gain some kind of purchase on the icy walls?
"What are you saying?" I asked. "I'm off your Christmas card list?"
"I'm saying..." J.X. took a deep breath and I understood that it wasn't as easy for him as I'd thought. "I'm saying that if you ever...change your mind, give me a call."
I opened my mouth, but the words didn't come. Not because I didn't want to say them, but I wasn't sure I would be saying them for the right reason--and whatever J.X. thought, I cared too much for him to say them for the wrong reason. I was trying to make my mind up when he disconnected.
Like fine wine, I do not travel well. Sure, when I was young, fresh, low in acidity and not so tannic, I was a more adventurous spirit. But at forty, divorced--or as good as--and my career having been through the shredder and back, well, let's say I had developed a taste for home and hearth. My own home and hearth.
Especially after being involved in a homicide investigation three months earlier. Of course every cloud has its silver lining, and the bright side of my being suspected of murder was that my books, featuring intrepid spinster sleuth Miss Butterwith and her ingenious cat Mr. Pinkerton, were once again hitting the bestseller lists. Well, some of the bestseller lists. As my agent Rachel kept reminding me, platform is everything in publishing these days, and my wobbly new platform was apparently that of amateur sleuth. Which was still an improvement over my previous platform of crotchety reclusive has-been. That platform had more closely resembled a scaffold.
Anna Hitchcock was one of the few people in the world I would break my no-travel rule for. Way back when I was a student in the MFA program at UC Irvine, Anna, already touted as the American Agatha Christie, had been my professor and my advisor. She had been more. She had been a mentor and a friend. I owed my writing career--and it had been a highly successful career until recently--to Anna. So when she had called to say she desperately needed my help, even I--famous for my lack of, er, helpfulness--could hardly refuse.
Even if I'd wanted to. And I hadn't--not least because it gave me an excellent excuse to avoid another awkward weekend with J.X.
Which was something I didn't want to think about as I staggered off the plane at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Anna's estate was in the Berkshires. Nitchfield, to be exact.
From what I remembered, Nitchfield was a historic small town right there at the intersection of Routes 202 and 63. It was in the heart of a region that referred to itself as "America's Premier Cultural Resort". The Berkshires were popular for hiking, biking, skiing, fishing, white-water rafting, antiquing, wine tasting...you-name-iting. In the fall the area was famous for its gorgeous autumn foliage.
But this wasn't the fall. This was dead winter. February. And Nitchfield was buried under a scenic blanket of snow. Did I mention I hate driving in snow? It should go without saying. I picked up a car at Budget Rent-A-Car and proceeded north to the Asquith Estate.
I'd been there once before, more than ten years earlier. The house, designed in 1908 by noted architect Wilson Eyre, was a registered historic place. Ten thousand square feet of hand-carved chestnut wood paneling, marble staircases, limestone fireplaces, hardwood floors, and French doors opening onto fifty acres of garden and landscaped woodland. It was an authentic classic English country estate complete with tennis court, pool, garden house and a guest cottage where the writing seminars were held.
In short, the Asquith Estate was proof that some people did still earn a nice living from writing fiction. All that it lacked was someone named Bunty and a corpse in the drawing room.
I felt qualified to apply for the part of corpse after I arrived shortly before dinner. What the idea is behind combining the serving of salty packets of dry snacks and overpriced alcohol might be, other than trying to turn airline customers into desiccated fossils, I can't imagine.
"We haven't met." A tall, serious-looking young blonde woman greeted me as I stood studying the stately life-sized portrait of Anna which hung over the enormous fireplace in the entry hall. She offered a cool hand. "I'm Sara Mason. Anna's PA."
I meant lucky Anna to be able to afford a PA, but Sara gave a weary smile as though she was getting rather tired of predatory men hitting on her day in and day out. "How was your trip, Mr. Holmes?"
My trips are always horrible. That's why I strenuously avoid traveling. I spared Sara the gruesome details, restraining myself to a mild, "I don't think any of the passengers will actually sue. And they did eventually find my luggage."
Sara gave me another of those polite and automatic smiles. She was taller than me, and probably about my age--it's hard to tell with women who take care of themselves. She looked younger than I felt at the moment. Her eyes were a steely gray and her hair was that shade of blonde that is closer to white. A snow princess. I half expected to hear the tinkling sound effects for ice crystals as she beckoned me to follow her.
"Anna is upstairs. She's anxious to see you."
"How is she?"
"What exactly happened?"
Sara's direct gaze faltered. "An accident. She was on her way back from the guest cottage and she slipped on the garden steps. They're icy this time of year." She added huskily, "It was a miracle she wasn't killed."
My luggage had already been whisked upstairs by well-trained minions, but I wished I had time to splash water on my face, freshen up before I faced Anna. Not that I would dare demur once the chilly Sara had given me my marching orders.
I followed her across shining parquet floors and up a marble staircase past a gallery of oil-painted nobles who I happened to know for a fact were not related to Anna. We came at last to a walnut door in the private wing of the house.
Sara tapped politely, and I recognized Anna's rich, cultured tones bidding us enter.
The room was furnished in soft grays and muted creams. At the far end were three banks of diamond-paned bay windows half veiled by gold and cream brocade shades and valences. The windows looked out over a frozen ornamental lake. There was a seating arrangement of chairs and loveseats in front of the windows. Against another wall was a large fireplace and across from that was a king-sized bed. Anna was ensconced in the bed. She was wearing some kind of lacy, sage-green peignoir, and she reclined against a mountain of satiny pearl-gray pillows. There was a tea tray on one side of her and a computer table on the other. But she wasn't drinking tea and she wasn't working at her laptop. In fact, she was staring moodily up at the delicate vines and flowers of the plaster ceiling overhead.
As Sara and I walked in, she turned to face us and a bright smile lit her tired face.
"Christopher, darling. Look at you, all grown up and sophisticated. I always thought they'd bury you in jeans and a flannel shirt." She held out a hand in greeting. Of course I'd have had to climb on top of the giant bed to take it, so I settled for circling around and bending to kiss her cheek.
"Anna. It's been too long."
"And it would have been longer if I hadn't played the guilt card." She was chuckling, and I felt the old irresistible tug of her charm. Anna would be in her sixties by now, but you'd never guess it. Her hair was still that incredible shade of fiery copper, her eyes--always her best feature--were still wide and green and striking. Her hands and face and feet were meticulously cared for--I could tell because I could see her perfectly polished toes sticking out of the cast on her left ankle.
"How did it happen?" I asked, nodding at the cast--it had several signatures scrawled on its hard shell.
"So fucking ridiculous," Anna murmured. I'd forgotten about her potty mouth. Anna always did swear like a sailor. The rumor was the irate student reports used to send shivers through the UCI administration. It takes a lot to offend the sensibilities of your average college English major. "But never mind that. How was your trip? Did the plane have to make an emergency landing? Was your luggage lost again?"
"They found it. And our takeoff was only delayed about an hour."
Anna said to Sara, "Christopher has the most horrendous luck traveling of anyone I know. The only way it could be worse is if the plane actually crashed." She gave that delightful chuckle again. "Do you still have to get plastered before boarding, darling?"
"I'm much more disciplined. I wait for in-flight service now."
"Did you need anything, Anna?" Sara inquired.
"No, darling." Anna waved her away. As the door closed behind Sara, Anna said, "That girl is a fucking jewel. My ciggies are on the table, darling. Would you?"
I retrieved her cigarettes from the low table in front of the gray velvet loveseat by the window. There were white roses on the table and more of them in a crystal vase next to the bed. I handed Anna her gold cigarette case.
"Lighter." She nodded to the gilt table beside the bed.
I opened the drawer and blinked at the sight of a pistol nestled beside a couple of paperbacks--all Anna's own--an enamel pill box and a tube of AHAVA hand lotion. The pistol was a Browning Hi-Power, which I recognized from my research for Open Season on Miss Butterwith.
"Is that thing real?" I asked.
"Absolutely. Guaranteed or your money back. Straight from the laboratories by the Dead Sea in Israel. The bath salts are amazing. My skin is as soft as a baby's behind."
"I mean the gun."
"Oh. Yes. It's real. Don't worry. I have a permit."
I handed Anna her lighter. "I don't remember you packing heat before."
"Things change. How's David?"
"We're not together."
She raised her eyebrows, lit her cigarette and flicked shut the lighter. "Don't tell me you finally left him? No. Of course not. Well, I can't say I'm surprised." She took a long drag on her cigarette and expelled a blue stream of smoke. "Let me guess. He ran off with your neighbor."
She laughed. I laughed too, although I didn't really find it funny. I doubted if I would ever find it really funny.
"Seeing anyone new?"
I thought of J.X. "No."
"Poor you. But you've still got Miss Butterwith. Although I'm surprised, frankly. I'd heard through the grapevine you'd been dropped by Wheaton & Woodhouse." Her green eyes studied me shrewdly. It was the look that used to make it impossible to come up with a good excuse for handing papers in late.
"We took the series to Millbrook House's Crime Time line."
"Oh, they'll do a lovely job. Such adorable covers. What kind of advertising budget are you getting?"
I shrugged. "It's not extravagant, but it's better than we were getting at Wheaton & Woodhouse."
A sudden silence fell between us. I could feel something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on what or why. Anna was still smiling through the veil of cigarette smoke, still watching me.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Wrong?" She gestured with her cigarette for me to pull one of the white velvet side chairs over to the bed.
I slid the chair across the glossy floor and sat down. "Not that I'm not flattered by your faith in me, but I don't have any teaching experience, and you know plenty of mystery writers a lot more successful and well-known than me. Why did you call me?"
Anna smiled. "Perhaps I thought it would be good for you."
"That's flattering, but I can't imagine you've given me more than the occasional passing thought in the last decade."
"You don't make it easy, Christopher. You've cut yourself off from everyone. You don't do signings, you don't do conferences, you don't do book tours. You were the best and brightest of my students, and you've lived up to that promise to some degree--"
Anna shrugged, then winced in pain at the unwise move. "Do you deny it? Do you deny cutting yourself off from the old crowd?"
"No. I've been focused on building my career."
"Haven't we all." Anna's voice was bitter. "Listen, Christopher, I know what I'm talking about. My own ambition cost me my first two marriages."
"Third time's the charm?"
"There is someone again, yes."
"Congratulations," I said, surprised, although I guess there was no real reason for surprise. It's not like Anna was in her dotage. Sixty is the new fifty, right? And fifty is the new forty, and forty is the new thirty. By the way, how come I didn't feel thirty?
"Thank you." She seemed preoccupied.
"I'm still not sure what I'm doing here."
Anna sighed. "All right. The truth is, I read an article in People magazine about what happened to you at that writing conference in Northern California. How you solved that murder."
"Wait a minute. You're not saying--"
She gave a funny laugh. "I think I am, actually. That is, I'm not absolutely positive, but I think someone might be trying to kill me."