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The Bantam Menace, Chapter 2



The sheriff’s cornflower eyes narrowed. “Oh, are they?” A shadow slanted across the brim of her hat and sliced across her pale face.


I winced a little. Sheriff McCourt and I preferred to keep our crime-solving partnership quiet. A Steller’s jay fluttered to the low stone wall bordering the patio. The blue bird cocked its head as if curious about what would happen next.


“With your assistance, of course,” Anabelle amended with a gracious nod. The sheriff’s face pinched.


Arsen’s smile was tight. “I think it’s best if Sheriff McCourt manage this.”


I squeezed his hand. Of course we would investigate. How could we not? But Arsen knew we couldn’t make it public we’d be helping the sheriff. And I loved that Arsen and I were in sync about this. It was just one reason why we were perfect for each other.


Though an investigation would make it harder to deal with this week’s wedding tasks. But plans were made to be revised. I ran my free hand across my oversized purse with my equally oversized planners inside.


Deputy Hernandez approached us on the patio. He ruffled his curling dark hair and replaced his hat.


“But you and Susan have solved so many murders,” Anabelle said to Arsen. “Really, I don’t know how the sheriff would get on without you.”


The deputy’s mouth quivered. He looked away from the sheriff, whose expression had turned glacial.


My own mouth puckered. Anabelle had never been known for her discretion.


“Susan and Arsen will be too busy preparing for the wedding for that sort of nonsense,” Judith said.


Wait. What? My body heated. Nonsense?


Deputy Hernandez cleared his throat. “We’ve taken statements from the others.”


The sheriff nodded, her Shirley Temple curls bobbing. “You can let them go.”


“Thanks,” Arsen said to her, and the deputy strode away.


“I’m not doing you any favors,” the sheriff told him. “It’s procedure.”


“Why would anyone want to kill Sophie?” I asked. She’d only arrived from France yesterday. I hadn’t even had a chance to meet her. There hadn’t been enough time for her to become a target for murder. “It seems so strange.”


“Of course it is,” Anabelle said. “That’s why it must be a hobo. No one who knew her would want poor Sophie dead.”


Judith exhaled sharply. “Please stop saying hobo.”


“What room did you put her in?” I asked, eyeing Arsen’s aunts. My impression had been that the aunts and Sophie hadn’t kept in touch. How well did they know her?


“The mountain doors room,” Judith said.


“And you’re not going in that room until we’ve gone over it,” the sheriff told me. She turned on her boot heel and strode into the house.


“Well that’s not very useful,” Anabelle said. “How can you investigate if you don’t examine Sophie’s things?”


“If it was a random crime,” Judith said, “what’s in Sophie’s suitcases won’t matter. We should see to our other guests.” She angled her head toward the mansion’s massive windows. They’d turned to sheets of gold against the morning sun.


Anabelle nodded. “Mimosas, I think.” The two older women ambled into the house.


“Arsen,” I said helplessly, squeezing his hand. “I’m so sorry.” I hadn’t known Sophie, but she’d taken care of Arsen when he was young. She’d been a part of his life. But that wasn’t the only reason she mattered. Everyone mattered.


He pulled me into his arms. “I know. But you have nothing to be sorry for.”


“Did Sophie have any family?” I rested my head on his muscular chest and wrapped my arms around his waist. The fabric of his golf shirt felt rough against my cheek.


He sighed, his chest rising and falling. “I don’t know. The invitation was Sophie plus guest, and she didn’t bring a guest. I only have vague memories of the woman. Good memories, but vague. At least until the end.”


He paused, and I listened to the steady beat of his heart. A squirrel scampered across the rock wall beside the swimming pool.


Arsen sighed. “She left not long after my parents’ car accident. Things were in flux. My aunts took over, moving into the house to take care of me. They didn’t need an au pair. I’m not sure why they invited her to our wedding. Maybe some idea that my parents...” He trailed off.


We held each other. What a thing to happen. Even if Arsen only had vague memories of her, she’d been here, alive. And to have that life taken… I pressed my eyes shut. We would find out who’d done this. Sophie deserved that.


Arsen released a long breath. “I should see how my aunts are doing.”


“Yes.”


But we stood there another minute or two before turning and walking inside. I paused. “I’ll meet you in the bar.”


He nodded and continued on. I hurried upstairs. Obviously the sheriff hadn’t meant it when she’d said I couldn’t nose around Sophie’s room. She just wanted to keep our relationship on the QT. But I could do that. I’d just be casual.


I walked down the spacious hallway to the mountain doors room. We called it that because its sliding wooden doors had an inset design of blue and brown mountains.


No deputy stood outside the open doors. Feeling more confident, I stepped inside the room.

With gloved hands, the sheriff dug through a suitcase open upon the bed. It was still made-up with a white duvet and blue throw pillows. So Sophie hadn’t gone to bed last night.


The headboard looked like an elegant, dark-wood bench shaped like a mountain vista. Except instead of seats, there were two inset thick-wood end tables. To the right was an open doorway. It led to a private seating area containing leather sofas and low wood tables. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the rear of the property and beyond.


A deputy turned from the long wooden chest of drawers. He held up a newspaper clipping. “The Doyle Times,” he said, “from thirty-some years ago.”


The sheriff straightened and noticed me. “Well?” Her lips pressed into a white slash. It was an excellent simulacrum of someone who was annoyed. The sheriff was an amazing actress.


“Do you need anything up here?” I asked innocently. “Coffee? Tea?”


The deputy brightened. “That’s—”


“No,” the sheriff said.


Glancing around the room, I nodded then returned downstairs. I strolled past a modern, open kitchen and lounge area to the bar. Like so many of the other rooms, it had a spectacular window view, overlooking the pond. But the bar had a high ceiling, extending two-stories.


Three people—a woman seated between two men—sat on cowhide barstools at the distressed wood bar. Behind it was a modern fridge, a wine rack, and all the accoutrements of a commercial bar.


Frowning pensively, Arsen leaned against the other side of the bar, his bronzed arms folded. His aunts were nowhere in sight.


At the sound of my footfalls on the wooden floor, the fit-looking woman with pixie-cut brown hair swiveled in her seat. Nanette Fortin looked to be in her early forties, but she had to be in her late fifties. She and Arsen’s father had started up their computer chip business together. Nanette was still running it.


Her smile was grim. “What a way to kick off your wedding week. I’m so sorry, you two.”

The two other men turned to face me. They were a study in opposites, Louis Culshaw, the lawyer, silver haired and elegant. Arsen’s cousin, Junior Payne, wore a messy, untucked t-shirt. His loose jeans looked like they hadn’t seen a washer in a week.


Junior scraped a hand over his thinning hair. “I didn’t know the woman,” he said pettishly. “I don’t know why the police kept asking me about her.”


In his late forties, he was over a decade older than Arsen. But he was just as athletic, with broad, muscular shoulders. His blue eyes were piercing, sharklike, against his tanned skin.

“Because she died in a house we were staying in,” the lawyer said in a weary tone. Louis was a patrician fifty-something. He wore his white dress shirt open at the collar. A champagne flute filled with orange liquid dangled loosely from his hand.


“She didn’t die in the house,” Junior said sharply. “She died outside. That’s what Judith told me.”


“It’s a distinction without a difference,” the lawyer replied.


“You’d know all about loopholes and distinctions.” Junior sneered.


“This isn’t about us,” Nanette murmured and glanced past me.


Involuntarily, I turned to follow her gaze. On the wall above the seating area were three narrow black and white photos, blown up to at least six-feet tall. They were stripey images of three faces—Arsen’s parents and Arsen as a baby.


Every time I saw those images, my heart and throat clenched. This morning my reaction was no different. The aunts kept the photos there in celebration of those lives. But all I could see were two lives cut short, and a baby who had never gotten to know his parents.


“Did you know Sophie?” I asked Nanette in a quiet tone.


“Not well. I met her a few times back in the day.” The CEO smiled at Arsen. “John was so proud of you. He’d use any excuse to get someone to drag you into the office. Though usually it was Sophie or Bergdis who’d bring you. They gave you a Norwegian name in honor of your mother, you know.”


“Yes.” Arsen walked from behind the bar and looked around as if uncertain what to do next.

“Mimosas seem too festive for the occasion,” the lawyer, Louis said. “Don’t they?” He studied the champagne flute in his hand. “I didn’t know Sophie well either. I remember seeing her around this house when you were young. But I’m not sure if we ever exchanged more than a few words. Somehow now I wish we had.”


“What is your family going to think?” Nanette asked me, her voice tired.


“My family...” I straightened, my pulse jumping. My family. My parents. I checked my watch. They’d be here any minute. I gulped. “Arsen, my parents—”


“Go,” he said. “I’ll take care of things here.”


I hurried around the bar and kissed him. Then I raced away. After all, one doesn’t leave semi-retired assassins waiting, even when they’re family.


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