Berkley Prime Crime titles by Laura Childs
With drums banging and the sweet notes of a Chinese violin trembling in the air, the enormous red-and-gold dragon shook its great head and danced its way across the rotunda of the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the opening-night celebration for the reconstruction of a genuine eighteenth century Chinese tea house, and the crème de la crème of society had turned out in full force for this most auspicious occasion.
And even though black-tie events weren’t exactly topmost in Theodosia Browning’s comfort zone, there had been no easy way to refuse this particular invitation, especially when your handsome, hunky boyfriend was the museum’s public relations director. So here she was, applauding the music, mesmerized by the spectacle of the enormous dragon’s gaping jaws as it snapped and slapped above the heads of the excited crowd.
Yes, the event was most impressive, Theodosia decided. Glowing red Chinese lanterns, stands of bamboo, elegant orchids, and miniature penjing trees had transformed the cold, marble rotunda into an exotic Asian garden. And then there was the food. Serving tables were laden with tempting bites of shrimp dumplings, honey-glazed pork buns, chicken satay, and miniature crispy duck rolls. Delicious!
Of course, the real treasure was the Chinese tea house itself, purchased and deconstructed in Shanghai, then rebuilt board-by-board inside the museum. The blue-tiled, exotically peaked roof, gleaming cypress walls, and intricately carved sandalwood screens seemed tailor-made for an emperor and his courtesans.
“I’m anxious to take a look inside,” Theodosia told Max, who was gazing about proudly if not a little distractedly.
“We pulled it off,” said Max. “I can’t believe we actually pulled it off.” He sounded surprised that his PR efforts had yielded such a turnout.
“Of course you did,” Theodosia told him. “Because nobody would pass up an opportunity to enjoy a fancy celebration like this.” Except . . . maybe me?
Theodosia had a smile that could light up a tea room—and often did, since she was the proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop on nearby Church Street. But tonight she’d been smiling so exuberantly that her face felt like it was about ready to crack. She’d flitted about on Max’s arm, chatting and rubbing shoulders with Charleston’s old guard, most of them big-buck donors who were thrilled that their money had made it possible to import this masterpiece of a tea house.
But Theodosia was also counting the seconds to midnight.
Because when the clock struck the proverbial witching hour, she planned to cut and run like Cinderella. She’d kick off her pinchy black satin heels, climb into her pumpkin coach—which, in this case, was her venerable six-year-old Jeep—and head home to her cozy little cottage where her dog, Earl Grey, awaited her.
Shaking her head and forcing another smile because Max was saying something to her again, she leaned toward him, and said, “Excuse me?”
“I need to schmooze a couple more board members,” said Max. “You’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be perfect,” said Theodosia.
“Go check out the photo booth,” Max urged, “while I huddle with Edgar Webster, one of our illustrious donors.” He grinned. “Maybe take a selfie.” As a fun perk for the guests, Max had convinced the museum director to let him bring in a photo booth. And just as he’d predicted, there’d been a constant parade of guests in and out of the booth all night long. Everyone was seemingly thrilled with the notion of immortalizing themselves in photos, even if they were the small black-and-white variety.
“I’ll do that,” Theodosia told him. “It’ll be fun.” As she turned to push her way through the crowd, she caught sight of herself in a fragment of mirror. And as always, the image gave her pause.
Is that really me with that mass of auburn hair framing my face and blue eyes looking so expectant? Hmm, I don’t look half-bad for being in my midthirties.
She’d swiped a hint of blusher on the apples of her cheeks, smudged on the bare minimum of mascara. But with her confident bearing, winning smile, and fair southern belle skin, she looked almost like a noblewoman who might have been portrayed in some delectable English painting. Perhaps something John Constable might have done.
“You’re looking very lovely tonight,” said a voice behind her.
Theodosia whirled about to find Drayton, her dear friend and tea master, smiling at her.
“If not a bit mischievous,” continued Drayton.
Theodosia smiled and gave an offhand wave. “Ah, I think I might be a tad underdressed.” She’d worn a simple black cocktail dress, an armful of colorful bead bracelets, and heels, while most of the other women were glitzed and glammed in the latest runway creations from Dior and Oscar de la Renta.
“Nonsense,” said Drayton. “An LBD is always perfectly appropriate.” Drayton was sixtyish, tall, and debonair. Tonight his gray hair was slicked back straight, and he wore a slim-cut tuxedo with his trademark bow tie. He was the buttoned-up old guard to Theodosia’s more playful boho cool.
“Did you get a gander at all the jewels these women are wearing?” Theodosia asked him. “I mean, a cat burglar would have a field day here.”
Drayton’s bushy brows rose in twin arcs. “Please don’t interject a criminal element into the occasion. Even if it is only imaginary.”
“Okay, then I’ll just compliment you on all your lovely penjing, because they certainly add to the Asian atmosphere.” Penjing were basically Chinese bonsai, miniature trees that had been cut, trimmed, and wired so they could exist in small, moss-encrusted ceramic pots. Drayton, a master at creating windblown-style trees and miniature forests, had lent the museum a dozen of his trees. Most had spectacularly twisted trunks and leaves that were smaller than a lady’s pinky nail.
“They do look nice, don’t they? Particularly my Chinese elm.” Drayton prided himself on his composure and modesty, but he also appreciated a compliment now and then.
“You’ve been inside the tea house?” said Theodosia. They both had to take a step back, since the crowd was pressing so hard around them.
“It’s a marvel,” exclaimed Drayton. “I took the liberty of exploring while all that Chinese-dragon business was going on.” He paused and smiled. “You should run over and take a quick peek, too. You’ll love it.”
“I’m going to,” said Theodosia. “But first I promised Max I’d check out his photo booth.” She looked around, saw that Max was backed up against a wall talking to a rather red-faced man, a board member by the name of Edgar Webster. Neither of them looked happy.
“Photo booth?” spat out Drayton. Clearly he wasn’t a fan. “What is this fixation everyone has today with memorializing themselves? And then posting every single silly photograph on . . .” Drayton made a face. “On the Internet?”
“Come on,” Theodosia cajoled. “It’s not as bad as all that.”
“I’m just not sure a photo booth is apropos for an event such as this.”
“Still, it’s fun. And everyone seems to love it.”
“You see,” said Drayton, “that’s why I’m not everyone.” Drayton was a self-proclaimed Luddite who mistrusted smartphones, DVDs, and CDs. In fact, he was an old-fashioned vinyl record kind of guy.
“But you’re perfect just the way you are,” Theodosia assured him. She glanced around again, but Max and Webster had apparently moved on.
“Oh my,” said Drayton. As he gazed into the crowd, his placid expression suddenly changed to one of horror.
“What?” Then Theodosia caught sight of the small, blond woman who was speed walking toward them on clacking kitten heels.
“I’m going to let you handle this encounter,” said Drayton as he quickly slipped away.
“You look like you’re having a marvelous time,” cooed Charlotte Webster. She slalomed to a stop in front of Theodosia and grinned like the Cheshire cat, practically upending her glass of champagne in the process. Charlotte was the bubbly socialite who presided over the Broad Street Garden Club, was a sometime customer at Theodosia’s Indigo Tea Shop, and was married to Edgar Webster.
“It’s a thrilling night,” Theodosia, mustering yet another smile, told Charlotte. Since Charlotte’s husband, a prominent businessman and philanthropist, had put up the largest chunk of money to import the tea house, Theodosia pretty much had to make nice with his wife.
“I was just chatting with Percy Capers,” said Charlotte. She fluttered a pudgy hand and adjusted her necklace, a string of sparkling diamonds with a large yellow diamond as the center stone. “You know, the museum’s curator of Asian art?”
Theodosia nodded. She’d met Capers a couple of times.
“Anyway, Mr. Capers was regaling me with horror stories about importing this lovely tea house. Shipping it across the Pacific, shepherding it through customs, misplacing some of the actual parts. Why, do you know there are no nails whatsoever in the construction? That the entire thing is held together with dozens of wooden pegs?”
“I’ve heard that.”
“Is that the craziest thing ever?” said Charlotte. “Wooden pegs?”
“I guess that’s how they built them two hundred years ago,” said Theodosia.
“Two hundred years? That’s how old that thing is?” said Charlotte. She took a quick glug of champagne. “Well, I certainly hope we got our money’s worth, then.” She giggled loudly, patted Theodosia on the arm, and toddled off.
Charlotte was a real character, Theodosia thought to herself. And then, because she really didn’t want to be unkind, decided that the Websters, as civic-minded underwriters of the tea house, really had done a wonderful thing.
As Theodosia slipped past one of the food tables, she accepted a miniature egg roll from a black-uniformed waiter. Then, when another waiter held out a tray filled with champagne glasses, she took a glass. As she sipped and surveyed the crowd, she was struck again by how fancy and formal everyone looked. Of course, many of the guests, board members as well as donors, were friends and neighbors who lived in the nearby Historic District. One of the Ravenels was conspiring with a Clayton and a Tisdale. And Mr. Pinckney was talking to a large man with a rather pronounced Texas bray.
The pounding of drums suddenly started up again, loud and hard, and Theodosia turned to see what was going on now. Oops, it was dragon time again. The Chinese dragon was humping its way through the crowd once more, tossing its head from side to side, its dragon beard fluttering with every move.
Theodosia had witnessed a dragon parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown once, when she’d been roaming up and down Grant Street popping into tea shops, looking for unusual varieties and blends. But seeing this guy up close and personal was a lot more fun. And, from the enthusiasm generated by the crowd, they obviously thought so, too.
Edging her way through a clutch of suitably enthralled guests, Theodosia headed for the photo booth. Maybe she could slip in and take a quick photo right now. She wasn’t all that hot to pose, but it would make Max happy. Give him a small souvenir of tonight’s museum triumph.
Dodging around an enormous celadon pot filled with leafy bamboo plants, Theodosia darted past a red Chinese lantern supported by a heavy wooden post. Over here, in an alcove off the rotunda where the photo booth was located, it was a little darker, a little quieter.
Theodosia rounded a stone lion-dog statue, heading for the photo booth. The drums were pounding furiously now, the erhu—the Chinese violin—pouring out high, pleading notes. Finishing the last sip of champagne, she set her glass down on a small rosewood table and turned toward the photo booth.
Was it still occupied, she wondered, or could she dart in for a quick photo?
“Hello?” Theodosia called out, giving a couple of sharp knocks on the shiny, bright yellow exterior. She didn’t want to go crashing in and photobomb someone. That would be just plain rude.
“Is someone in there?” she called again.
When there was no reply, Theodosia took a step forward. And just before her hand parted the flimsy black curtain, the toe of her strappy black stiletto slid into a patch of something sticky.
“Oh no,” she groaned. All she needed was to ruin her best pair of shoes because some exuberant guest had spilled a glop of sweet-and-sour sauce.
Theodosia glanced down, expecting to see sauce, fragments of an exploded pork bun, or a puddle of champagne. After all, this art opening had turned into a fairly raucous party.
Only what she saw instead was a small, dark puddle.
A spilled drink?
No, Theodosia decided. Champagne or tea would have been much more translucent.
As she pulled her foot back and stared at the floor again, taking a longer, harder look, her heart began to flutter. Then it began to dance a little jitterbug. Because whatever was on the floor was decidedly dark and sticky.
No, it couldn’t be. Could it?
Slowly, tentatively, her heart in her throat, Theodosia reached forward and slowly parted the curtains. And saw . . . nothing.
It was pitch-black inside the photo booth. Lights out.
Somehow that didn’t feel right to her. What was going on?
She pushed the curtains a little farther apart.
And that’s when she saw him. A large man, sprawled on a narrow wooden bench, bent all the way forward so his forehead pressed tightly against the front panel of the booth. His eyes were closed, and he looked like he was passed out cold.
“Excuse me,” said Theodosia. “Sir?” Her mouth felt dry, her breathing was fast and thready. “Are you okay, sir?” She paused. “Do you need help?”
Theodosia glanced backward, looking for a museum guard, one of the museum staff, anyone who might be able to lend a hand.
But everyone had their backs to her. They were still cheering and clapping like mad as the musicians played wildly and the Chinese dragon continued his energetic prance.
Tentatively now, Theodosia touched a finger to the side of the man’s throat. To where she figured a pulse point might be.
She felt . . . nothing. In fact, he felt cool. Practically lifeless.
A loud pounding sounded inside Theodosia’s head, and she could feel the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickle and rise.
No . . . please no.
And, as her eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness inside the photo booth, as her mind slowly wrapped itself around what might have just happened, that’s when she saw the first telltale evidence of foul play. Just above where her fingertip had come into contact with the man’s throat, a trail of dark, sticky liquid dribbled from his ear!
Blood? Has to be.
Theodosia snatched her hand away and backed out of the photo booth as fast as humanly possible. Then she screamed as loud as she could, her voice rising in volume as it mingled with the urgent, shrill notes of the erhu.
It was amazing. Or maybe it wasn’t. That a gaggle of wealthy, sophisticated people could scatter in mere minutes, like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
Who wanted to get involved in what appeared to be a brutal, spur-of-the-moment murder?
No one, apparently. Death was too nasty, far too unseemly for this well-heeled, fashionable crowd.
So when a gang of uniformed police officers and EMTs descended upon the museum, when the dancing dragon was shooed away and the stunned musicians were silenced, Theodosia was left with a handful of museum folks. Everyone fumbled for explanations and tried to relate the story as best they could.
“How could this happen?” exclaimed Max. He touched a hand to his forehead as if he couldn’t quite process the event. The tall, dark-haired, and olive-skinned Max now looked pale as a ghost.
A uniformed officer with brush-cut gray hair, a solemn expression, and a nametag that said D. HICKS hastened to take charge. “It happened,” he said. “So let’s move on from there. Because what I really need to know right now is: Who is this fellow?” He peered into the darkness of the photo booth at the dead man.
“I don’t know,” said Theodosia. “I’m not sure. I never saw his face. When I found him, he was just, uh, kind of slumped forward like that. Like he is now.”
“You didn’t touch him?” Hicks asked.
Theodosia grimaced. “Well, I kind of did.”
“Explain, please,” said Hicks.
Theodosia hunched her shoulders. “I’m sorry, but I reached in and touched an index finger to his throat.”
“To see if the man was still breathing?”
“That’s right. It seemed like the smart thing to do. The responsible thing to do.”
“And was he breathing?”
“No. At least I don’t think he was.” Theodosia was nervous and felt like she was fumbling the interview when she should be trying to be a little more helpful. “And he certainly isn’t breathing anymore.”
“That’s fairly obvious,” said Max.
“So my question still stands,” said Hicks. “Who is he?” Even the two EMTs who’d come rushing in with a clattering gurney stood on the sidelines now, watching and listening. The situation looked pretty darn strange, and their curiosity was ramped up.
Drayton, who’d been standing behind Theodosia and observing what was slowly turning into a freak show, held up a hand, and said, “I think I might be of some help.”
“Oh yeah?” said Hicks. He looked like he was normally a fairly easygoing guy, but tonight his jaw was set firmly and his eyes were pinpricks of intensity. “You believe you can identify this man?”
Drayton nodded. “I think this unfortunate gentleman might be . . .”
“Edgar!” A shrill scream echoed from halfway across the room. It rose in volume, like steel wheels grinding against metal rails, then tapered to a high-pitched whine. “Is that my Edgar?”
Charlotte Webster suddenly stumbled toward them. She was half staggering, half running, looking like a crazed zombie woman. Her blond hair stuck straight up, her bright red lipstick was hopelessly smeared, and she wore a look of utter anguish on her doughy face.
The small crowd parted silently for her as she lurched up to the photo booth. She stopped, peered inside, and let out a sound that sounded like “Whump?” Then she slumped so visibly that Drayton had to reach out and steady her.
“Is it him?” Hicks asked. “Is that your husband?”
But Charlotte wasn’t about to be hurried.
She fanned herself madly with one hand. “When I couldn’t find Edgar in the crowd,” she said, “I started to panic.” Now tears streamed like rivers down her cheeks. “And now . . .” She put a hand to her chest as if she was suddenly experiencing stabbing heart pain. Then she swallowed hard and pointed at the dead man. “And now I recognize him,” she said in a high, quavering voice. “We . . .” She shook her head, almost unable to continue.
“Take your time,” said Hicks.
“I mean . . .” said Charlotte. “I can’t quite believe this, but earlier tonight we actually argued over Edgar’s choice of tuxedos. He wanted to wear the Armani. I told him I much preferred the Brioni.” Her lower lip trembled and her finger shook as she pointed at the dead man, who was still slumped like a slab of meat inside the photo booth. “That’s Edgar’s Brioni. I’d know it anywhere.”
“Oh dear,” said Theodosia.
“That’s Edgar Webster?” said Max. “I was just talking to him!”
“I think I . . .” Charlotte mumbled. Then her eyes rolled back in her head until only the whites showed. Her knees trembled and buckled. In front of a dozen horrified onlookers, Charlotte dropped to the marble floor like a sack of potatoes. Potatoes encased in a fashionable red silk dress, anyway.
Drayton and Percy Capers, the Asian curator, immediately leapt to Charlotte’s aid. Together they hauled her back onto her feet and led her, stumbling and blubbering, to a nearby bench.
“Well, you certainly don’t see that every day,” said a gruff voice.
Theodosia whirled around, ready to chastise whoever had made what she considered a fairly rude and insensitive comment. And was met with the steady, dark gaze of Detective Burt Tidwell.
“You,” she said. Burt Tidwell headed the Robbery and Homicide Division of the Charleston Police Department. He was a bear-sized man with a strange, bullet-shaped head and huge hands. Brilliant, shrewd, and driven, he was not a man to be trifled with.
“You,” Tidwell fired back at Theodosia. They’d met on any number of occasions. Socially, at the Indigo Tea Shop, and, more recently, when Theodosia had been pulled into a bizarre murder case.
Tidwell extended a hand and gave an impatient flick of his wrist. “Please move,” he said as a kind of blanket warning to everyone in his immediate vicinity. “Everyone step back. You are all compromising my crime scene with your sticky little strands of DNA.”
“Your crime scene?” said Hicks. He put his hands on his hips. “I don’t think so.” Suddenly, a turf war seemed to be brewing.
Tidwell directed a withering gaze at him. “I prefer to take over from here. Good work, though, Officer Hicks. I’m thrilled that you were able to keep so many guests from stampeding.”
“Look here,” said Theodosia, stepping in again. “It wasn’t his fault. When I saw that poor man . . .” She pointed inside the photo booth.
“Edgar Webster,” said Max.
“When I saw him slumped inside,” said Theodosia, “I started screaming. Which meant the band quit playing, and then . . . well . . .” She stopped abruptly, aware that at least a dozen pairs of eyes were staring at her with increasing curiosity. “They all . . . all the guests, that is . . . got scared and ran off.”
“A fine narrative,” said Tidwell. “Very helpful indeed.”
“You don’t have to be so dismissive,” said Theodosia, pulling it together and speaking more clearly now. “I was startled, and I’m afraid my screams launched everyone into panic mode.”
Tidwell glanced around. “Who is in charge here, please? Besides me?”
“That would be me.” Elliot Kern, the director of the museum, stepped forward and extended his hand. He was well turned out in an Ermenegildo Zegna power suit. His sparse gray hair was a fringed cap, a hawk nose dominated his face, and he exuded a faint patrician air. In an earlier century he could have been one of the wheeling, dealing members of the Medici family.
“I’m assuming you have a list of everyone who was in attendance here tonight?” said Tidwell.
“Of course,” said Kern. “Absolutely.” He seemed more than eager to lend assistance.
“Then I will be needing that list,” said Tidwell. Like many large men, he’d taken to wearing vests under his sport coats. And tonight, the small pearly buttons on Tidwell’s vest seemed to yawn and strain, defying every dreary law of physics.
“Is there anything I can do?” asked Max. But both Tidwell and Elliot Kern ignored him.
“Again, people,” said Tidwell, raising his voice to a frightening rumble, “you must clear away from here.” A few more people shuffled backward as the EMTs looked anxious and edged their gurney closer.
“No, no,” said Tidwell, holding up a big paw. “We cannot load him up yet. We must wait for the crime-scene team to arrive. Since we haven’t determined the primary cause of death, their small ministrations are going to be quite necessary in helping gather as much information as possible.”
Theodosia noted that Tidwell seemed to veer between blustering and decorous. Typical. She edged a little closer, ignoring his warning to back off.
“What was the cause of death?” Theodosia asked. She figured she already knew what it was, but she wanted to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
“If you want an official statement,” Tidwell said brusquely, “you’re welcome to make an appointment and meet with the medical examiner of Charleston County.”
“Okay, then,” said Theodosia. “How about unofficially? You’re an experienced investigator. What do you think might have been the cause of death?” She glanced at Charlotte Webster, who was still sitting on a bench, bent over with her face in her hands.
Tidwell offered a mirthless smile, a smile that seemed to imply his superiority as an investigator. Then he extended a hand toward the dead man. “You see there . . . how the blood has oozed out? Very dark, almost black, dribbling down the side of our victim’s face?”
“Yes.” Theodosia wished he hadn’t phrased it quite so graphically.
“Off the record, I’d say that a thin, sharp object had been inserted into our victim’s right ear.”
Not our victim, Theodosia thought. Your victim.
“Dear lord,” said Drayton. All the blood seemed to drain from his face.
Theodosia was appalled but fascinated at the same time. “And this particular sharp object entered his brain, too?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” said Tidwell. “A sharp object, inserted rather deftly, would most definitely impact that particular area.”
“Deftly,” said Theodosia, frowning. “That’s a strange way to describe such a brutal, up-close murder. Your choice of words almost implies a certain elegance.”
Tidwell’s mouth twitched slightly upward at the corners, and he rocked back on his heels. “No, Miss Browning, the elegance lies in how adroitly this particular murder will be solved.”
Theodosia gazed at Tidwell, the feisty, obstinate, ex-FBI agent, who could be both courtly and brusque at the same time. “But . . .” she said. She hesitated, thought for a moment, and decided to voice her opinion anyway. “But the killer . . . the murderer . . . he had to have been a guest here tonight. It couldn’t have been someone who just wandered in off the street.”
“Very good, Miss Browning,” said Tidwell. “My thoughts exactly.”
“Now the mu shu pork has really hit the fan,” murmured Max.
Theodosia lifted her gaze from the dead man to the elegant Chinese tea house. Red lights, set on a timer, had suddenly blinked on and shone down upon the enormous central gallery. Now the tea house shimmered in brilliant red light, while everything around it was bathed in a darker bloodred.
Theodosia shivered, as if a chill wind had suddenly swept across her grave. A killer had walked quietly among them with murder in his heart.
Who could it be?
A Brown Betty teapot rested on the small wooden table where Theodosia and Drayton sat. Bone china teacups were filled with freshly brewed Assam. Haley, the Indigo Tea Shop’s young chef and baker extraordinaire, hovered nearby. It was a half hour before the Indigo Tea Shop was slated to open, and the three of them were still mulling over the ill-fated events of last night.
Theodosia took a fortifying sip of tea, and said, “I think Max feels partially responsible for everything that happened.”
“Nonsense,” said Drayton. Dressed in his customary tweed jacket with a starched white shirt and red bow tie, he looked just this side of imposing. “Max had nothing remotely to do with that murder.”
“It was his idea to bring in the photo booth,” offered Haley. She was in her early twenties, with stick-straight blond hair and a waifish figure. Even though she favored T-shirts and flowing, mid-length skirts, the ethereal looking Haley was, in reality, a stiff-backed martinet. She ran the kitchen as if it were a military operation. Even now, cream scones, apple muffins, and cranberry nut bread baked in the oven, each pan of goodies timed out precisely. Luncheon ingredients had already been prepped, and woe to the deliveryman who showed up late for his allotted time.
“Still,” said Theodosia, “Max feels just awful.”
“As do we all,” said Drayton. “It’s a crying shame to import that lovely tea house all the way from China only to have the opening reception ruined.”
“It wasn’t just the reception that was ruined,” said Haley. “It was people’s lives.”
Drayton pursed his lips. “Well, I certainly didn’t mean to make light of that.”
“We know you didn’t,” said Theodosia. She was the peacemaker in the group, always ready to smooth things over or offer a quick suggestion. Unless, of course, her own feathers got ruffled. Then, as Drayton was wont to say, Hell hath no fury . . .
But this morning Theodosia was in a thoughtful mood. Edgar Webster’s murder simply made no sense to her. Webster was a businessman who’d served on the board of directors at the museum and was well regarded in the community. He’d also done a wonderful service for the art-loving public in helping to spearhead the importation of that treasure of a tea house.
And, what really bothered Theodosia was that Webster and his wife, Charlotte, had been in the seemingly safe company of friends. Though most of the crowd had been made up of Charleston’s old-money families or newly crowned titans of industry, they were, for the most part, well-mannered titans.
Except for one.
But which one?
Theodosia knew that beneath the old-world gentility of Charleston there ran a few undercurrents of greed, anger, and hatred. But from what she’d observed at the museum, everyone had been in a congenial, almost hale-hearty mood. They’d been drinking Chinese tea and French champagne. They’d snacked on wonderful little dim sum treats. And they’d genially patted one another on the back, congratulating themselves on how civic-minded they’d been in donating funds to help purchase the tea house.
But one of them had murder in his heart.
Theodosia shook her head. It was almost incomprehensible. If you weren’t safe in a museum, with people you knew and trusted, where were you safe?
Drayton pushed back from the table and stood up abruptly. “We need to ready the tea shop.” Consulting the antique Patek-Philippe watch that was wrapped around his wrist, he nodded as if to underscore his words. “Yes, it’s definitely time to get moving.”
“I’m all set,” said Haley. She prided herself on always having it together.
“We know that,” Drayton said, smiling slightly. He was secretly pleased that Haley was such a stickler for punctuality and planning. He greatly admired those traits in a person.
“You’re right,” said Theodosia, pulling herself up from the table. “This is Friday, so it’s likely to be busy.”
“Fridays are always busy,” said Drayton. He was starting to bustle about, unfurling white linen tablecloths and draping them across tables. “It’s the end of the work week, so people tend to slack off.”
“You mean relax,” said Theodosia. “There’s a difference.”
She was following in his footsteps now, setting out small plates along with cups and saucers. They were lovely mismatched pieces of Shelley Chintz, Aynsley, and Spode that she’d picked up at various Charleston antique shops and tag sales.
“That’s what the Indigo Tea Shop is all about, don’t you think?” said Theodosia. “Relaxing?” She loved the notion that the tea shop served as a little oasis of calm for their work-weary customers.
With its brick fireplace, battered hickory tables, and leaded-glass windows, the Indigo Tea Shop exuded a cozy ambiance. Since it was autumn again, the pegged wooden floors had just gotten their annual red-tea wash, and the highboys were crammed with candles, tea towels, tea cozies, and antique silverware. A new crop of dried grapevine wreaths hung on the walls alongside antique prints that were also for sale.
And once the tables were set, the candles lit, and the faint strains of Vivaldi playing over the stereo system, the Indigo Tea Shop pretty much oozed its own blend of British and Victorian charm.
“I’m going to make a pot of that Grand Pouchong from Taiwan,” Drayton announced. He was bustling about at the front counter, where floor-to-ceiling cupboards were stacked with tins that held the world’s most exotic teas. Everything from delicately fruited Nilgiris to malty Assams to rich, dark oolongs.
“Sounds like a fabulous idea,” said Theodosia. After Webster’s demise she was craving a little fabulosity in her life.
Drayton carefully measured in the leaves and added a tiny bit extra. “And a pinch for the pot,” he told her.
“That always makes it better,” Theodosia agreed. Between Haley’s baked goods and Drayton’s tea offerings, the Indigo Tea Shop was redolent with the most amazing aromas.
“Uh-oh,” said Drayton. He was gazing past the filmy curtains that framed the front window. “Here come our first customers of the morning.”
• • •
The tea shop was half-filled and bustling when Delaine Dish burst through the front door around ten o’clock. Dressed in a bright fuchsia-colored skirt suit and matching jaunty hat and wearing great flashes of gleaming gold jewelry, she looked like (and was) a miniature volcano.
“Hello!” Delaine cried out to anyone who was even remotely in her vicinity. “Good morning!”
Theodosia hurried over to greet Delaine, who was the proprietor of Cotton Duck, one of Charleston’s premier clothing boutiques. Loud, gossipy, and self-centered, Delaine was not only a handful, she was certified mad as a hatter.
And this morning Delaine wasn’t alone.
“Theo,” Delaine said in a slightly grudging tone of voice, “I’d like you to meet my great aunt Astra.” She nodded in an offhand way at the tiny lady who accompanied her. “She’s here for a short visit. Well, hopefully it’s short.” She focused an intense gaze on Aunt Astra, who was dressed in a sedate gray dress and wearing what Theodosia always thought of as “old lady shoes.” That is, they were black leather lace-ups with clunky, low heels. Although now that Theodosia thought about it, maybe they were the latest in hipster fashion.
As Drayton ambled over to greet Delaine, she felt obliged to mumble another hasty introduction. Which prompted Drayton, always the proper gentleman, to give a formal half bow and lead Aunt Astra to a table.
Delaine rolled her eyes as she watched him being so solicitous.
“That woman on his arm is barely even a blood relative,” Delaine confided to Theodosia. “She’s, like, my great aunt once removed. And she’s about a hundred years old.” Delaine’s head whipped around. “But, Theo, she’s no doddering old fool. She’s still got all her buttons, and her tongue is sharp as a razor blade. That old bat will cut you to the quick if you don’t watch out.”
“Then I’ll be sure to watch out,” Theodosia said with some amusement. Surely Delaine had to be embroidering her words?
“And she’s constantly harping at me,” said Delaine. “Criticizing me.” She snuck a quick peak Aunt Astra’s way to make sure she couldn’t be overheard. “I’ve nicknamed her Aunt Acid because of all her bile and bitterness.”
“How long is she staying with you?”
“Too long,” said Delaine. She frowned, and then pressed an index finger against the frown lines forming between her brows, as if willing them to disappear. “I’m going to try to ship her off to my cousin in Goose Creek as soon as I can make suitable arrangements.”
“Come on,” said Theodosia, leading Delaine to her table. “You need to sit down and relax. Have yourself a nice cup of tea.” She settled Delaine alongside Aunt Astra and gave them a quick summary of the day’s specials.
When Theodosia returned with a plate of cream scones and a pot of English breakfast tea, Delaine shot a nervous glance at Aunt Astra, and said, “I’m sorry I missed all the excitement last night.”
“Don’t be,” said Theodosia. “It was pretty brutal.”
“You’re talking about the actual murder?” said Delaine.
“I’m talking about everything,” said Theodosia. Fresh in her mind was the furor that had ensued.
“Hmm,” said Delaine, savoring that little bit of excitement. “There was a delicious article about the murder in this morning’s Post and Courier. But they didn’t elaborate on what poor Edgar Webster was stabbed with. The reporter just kind of danced around it.” She paused. “Didn’t mention where or how he was stabbed, either.”
Theodosia dropped her voice. “He was stabbed with some sort of long, thin blade.” She hesitated. “Inserted in his ear.”
“Oh my,” said Delaine, fully relishing the details. “You mean like an ice pick?”
“I suppose it was something like that,” said Theodosia. “But the police haven’t revealed any specific details. I suppose they want to conduct a thorough autopsy first.”
“It would be fairly easy to conceal a weapon like that,” said Delaine.
“That’s exactly the problem,” Theodosia agreed. “A small weapon the size of an ice pick could have easily disappeared into someone’s pocket or handbag.” And disappear it had, she thought, since so many people had been stampeding their way out the door as the police and EMTs were rushing in. The weapon could have gone out the door in that first mad scramble of people. It could have just disappeared—poof!—into the dark of the night.
Aunt Astra’s eyes got progressively larger as she listened and methodically chewed her scone.
Delaine gave a faint smile. “I can just picture all of Charleston’s blue bloods positively fighting to get out of the way of a murder investigation. Nobody wants their family name dragged through the mud or attached to something as sordid as murder.” She took a demure sip of tea and the feather atop her hat bobbed. “You know, Edgar Webster may have moved in the upper echelons of Charleston society, but he wasn’t very well liked.”
Theodosia leaned forward. “Why would you say something like that?”
Delaine waved a hand. “No reason, really.”
“No, there has to be something,” said Theodosia. “You started to let the cat out of the bag, so now I’d like to hear exactly what you have to say.”
“So would I,” said Aunt Astra, touching a napkin to her lips as she finally spoke up.
Delaine made an unhappy face. “Well, you know about the trouble between him and his little wifey, Charlotte, right?”
“No, I certainly don’t,” said Theodosia. “What about him and Charlotte?”
Now Aunt Astra looked seriously interested. “There were problems in their marriage?” she asked.
Delaine pursed her lips. “I would have to say they had what might be termed an open marriage.”
“Ah,” said Aunt Astra, relishing this juicy tidbit.
“Okay,” said Theodosia. She was surprised but not startled. Both Charlotte and Edgar had larger-than-life personalities and were involved in charities and major social functions all over town. So they were independent people. And, of course, temptation lurked everywhere.
“Their marriage was open on one side, anyway,” Delaine said, selecting her words carefully.
“I’m assuming you meant on Edgar Webster’s side,” said Theodosia. She pondered this for a moment. “Charlotte must have been awfully upset about him stepping out on her.”
“Believe it,” said Delaine. “Why . . . up until a couple of weeks ago, Edgar was carrying on like a madman with Cecily Conrad.”
“What do you mean by ‘up until a couple of weeks ago?’” Theodosia asked.
“Webster and Cecily recently broke up,” said Delaine. “Of course, they chose to conduct their big brouhaha in front of about a million people at the Valhalla Country Club. And from what I understand, the fur flew like crazy.”
“Why did they break up?” Theodosia asked. And was it even a legitimate breakup if Edgar was still married to Charlotte?
Delaine scooped up a blob of Devonshire cream and deposited it on her scone. “Webster just got fed up with Cecily, I guess. She’s a very pretty girl, nice eye candy and all that, but she was a complete money-grubber. She talked Webster into buying her a new BMW as well as bankrolling her new furniture shop. So she probably sank her talons into him to the tune of at least a half-million dollars.”
“That’s a major chunk of change,” said Theodosia.
“But Webster was demanding his money back,” said Delaine.
“You mean calling in his loan?” said Theodosia.
Delaine nodded. “You might say that. Only, from the chatter I heard, Cecily never considered it a loan. She thought it was her due. That’s what their big fight was all about.”
“Money!” spat out Aunt Astra. “That’s always a huge motive to kill someone!”
“Of course it is, dear,” said Delaine. “Even though we all know Charlotte Webster is rich as Croesus.”
“So his wife controlled all the money?” said Theodosia.
“Pretty much,” said Delaine. “Don’t you know Charlotte’s been living fat and sassy on a ginormous inheritance? Edgar Webster did okay with his business, but he was a piker compared to his wife. I’d say he was mainly along for the ride.”
“But now poor Charlotte is stuck in a terrible middle ground,” said Theodosia. “Her husband not only cheated on her, he got himself murdered.”
“With a nasty ex-girlfriend talking smack about him,” said Delaine.
Theodosia shook her head. “Charlotte must be brokenhearted as well as angry.”
“Mostly angry,” said Delaine. “She’s an extremely volatile woman, you know.”
“She is?” said Theodosia. “How so?”
“Didn’t you ever hear about the Corvette incident?” asked Delaine. “About how Charlotte drove her husband’s classic 1976 Corvette right into an antique lamppost on Tradd Street just because he came sneaking into the house at four AM?”
“Sounds right to me,” said Aunt Astra.
But Delaine wasn’t finished. “And how about the time Charlotte had a bloody blue hissy fit right in the middle of a Broad Street Garden Club meeting?”
“What happened there?”
“Somebody proposed planting lowly zinnias in the garden between the Library Society and the Governor Aiken Gates, when what Charlotte really wanted were Juliet roses.”
“That does sound a bit unreasonable,” said Theodosia.
“Oh, Charlotte’s unreasonable,” said Delaine, touching an index finger to her lips and then helping herself to another scone. “In fact, the woman’s a complete whack job.”
Standing at the front counter, watching Drayton pull down a tin of Empire Keemun tea, Theodosia said, “Do you know Cecily Conrad?”
Drayton pried off the lid and looked pensive for a moment as the heady scent perfumed the air around them. “Yes. If I remember correctly, Cecily moved here a year or so ago and got caught up with the Opera Society, even though she’s a bit of a wild child. Her father is Colonel Josiah Conrad from down Savannah way.” He measured out two heaping scoops of tea into a blue-and-white teapot. “You know, Cecily was at the museum opening last night.”
“She was?” This was news to Theodosia. “Did you notice if she was, um, interacting in any way with Edgar Webster?”
Drayton looked at her sharply. “Why are you asking? For some reason, it feels like you have some sort of hidden agenda.”
“Not so hidden at all,” said Theodosia. “I just found out from Delaine that Edgar Webster had been cheating on Charlotte and that Cecily was the so-called other woman. And to top things off with a nice, fat maraschino cherry, Webster apparently had a recent and highly volatile falling out with Cecily.”
Drayton stared at her. “This is conjecture, right?”
“I know it sounds like an episode of The Good Wife, but I swear it’s the honest truth.”
“Hmm.” Drayton seemed to mull everything over for a moment. “You’re sure about this affair?”
“Then your information, even though it’s dreadful and gossipy, might possibly . . . um . . . impact the police investigation?”
“Is that a question?” said Theodosia.
“Mmn. No, I guess not.”
“So you’re saying that Tidwell and company might not look at suspects who are fairly close to home?” said Theodosia. “That the investigation could go off in a another direction? Maybe questioning past and current business associates, or something like that?”
“That could be the case,” said Drayton, looking a little worried.
Theodosia drummed her fingers against the counter and fidgeted with a Royal Vale cup and saucer decorated with a sprightly yellow daffodil. “So both Charlotte and Cecily should probably be regarded as prime suspects,” she said slowly.
“Your newly procured information,” said Drayton, “even though it came from an unreliable source like Delaine, could definitely point to motive.”
“Because Charlotte might have been jealous and Cecily might have been angry,” said Theodosia. She tilted her head to one side. “So what do you think? Should I call Detective Tidwell and drop a few heavy-handed hints about Webster’s extracurricular activities? Sort of clue him in?”
Drayton stared back at her, his gray eyes practically boring into her, his brow furrowed. “Knowing what you do now, I think you have to share this information with him.”
Theodosia set the cup and saucer down on the counter. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
• • •
They got busy then, brewing tea, ferrying plates of scones and pots of tea to all their customers. And because it was Friday, with its usual onslaught of weekend tourists as well as regulars, morning teatime at the Indigo Tea Shop stayed rush hour busy as they eased their way through the morning. And then, suddenly, it was time for Theodosia to duck into the kitchen and consult with Haley about lunch.
“The tea shop is jammed,” Theodosia told her. “And in about two minutes we’re going to have a few of our guests inquiring about lunch offerings.”
Haley spun around like a ballerina, dipped a ladle into a pot of steaming sausage and gnocchi soup, tasted it, and said, “So you’d like to know what’s on the menu?”
Theodosia smiled. “That would be the general idea, yes.”
“Okay.” Haley dug into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a three-by-five-inch index card. She glanced at it for all of one second, and then handed it over to Theodosia. “Here you go, boss.”
“Thank you,” said Theodosia. “And please don’t call me boss.”
Haley cocked her head. “Why not?”
“Because we’re all in this together.”
Theodosia chuckled. “I’ve always looked at it that way. Besides, I don’t want to be that one lonely soldier who’s always walking point.” She scanned the card quickly. “Haley, this is just super.” In her cramped, left-canted printing, Haley had listed sausage and gnocchi soup, chicken and wild rice salad, prosciutto and fig tea sandwiches, apple and Cheddar cheese scones, and chocolate cupcakes.
“I just hope our customers like everything,” said Haley.
“Are you kidding? They’ll love it.”
• • •
And love it they did. Theodosia served bowls of soup until the pot was empty. Then she tried to steer customers to the salads. When those started to dwindle, she had Haley whip up extra prosciutto and fig sandwiches.
“Another success,” said Drayton. He was lounging against the counter, his eyes focused on the busy café even as he sipped a cup of Darjeeling.
“Don’t get too relaxed,” Theodosia told him. “This is going to be a long slog of a weekend. Remember, we’re going to be open on Sunday, too.”
“How could I forget?” said Drayton, smiling. “Our Titanic Tea.”
“A night to remember,” said Haley as she dashed out to deliver a plate of fresh apple and Cheddar scones. “Just like the title of that old black-and-white Titanic disaster movie.”
“And to think the Titanic Tea was all Drayton’s grand idea,” said Theodosia. “We could have gotten off easy by hanging up ghost and goblin decorations, but no, he wanted to go all out.” Halloween would be arriving in a few days’ time, and this Sunday’s Titanic Tea was Drayton’s clever homage to that quasi-holiday. No witches, ghosts, or goblins for him, just the grand, haunting memory of the Titanic tragedy.
Revue de presse
“Tea lovers, mystery lovers, [this] is for you. Just the right blend of cozy fun and clever plotting.”—Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author of Death Come Quickly
“With humor, plenty of action, and a tantalizing array of teas and recipes, Theodosia is sure to win more followers with this enjoyable whodunit.”—Publishers Weekly
“Murder suits [Laura Childs] to a Tea.”—St. Paul (MN) Pioneer Press
“Will leave readers feeling as if they have shared a warm cup of tea on Church Street in Charleston.”—The Mystery Reader
“Kept me hooked from opening page to ending.”—Central Oregonian
“A love letter to Charleston, tea, and fine living.”—Kirkus Reviews