The winner of the final book in the giveaway is Liz Arnold. I'll be emailing her soon. Thanks all who joined in and one of these days I'll have another contest. It's been fun reading the comments and also in giving a bit back to those who have become members of my blog.
The Midas Murders
Janet Lane Walters
Published by DiskUs Press.
El Sueno Dorado
This year the Christmas season held little joy for me. There were a few brief moments of pleasure that vanished all too soon. Seeing a small child’s delight in the twinkling tree lights. Selecting gifts for my family, friends and neighbors. Watching my granddaughter perform the role of Clara in a local production of the Nutcracker. Those times did little to halt my feelings of regret and grief.
On Christmas Eve I sat with my family in a pew in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and huddled in my coat. The chill I felt had nothing to do with the voices of the choir raised in joyful celebration, or in the message of hope and peace contained in the sermon and the liturgy. My feelings were caused by things I had and had not done.
Though we sat several rows in front of the place where death had stained the stones of the floor, my awareness of past events nearly drove me to leave. Remembering last month’s Evensong and the death of the choir master brought frost-filled memories and stirred my guilt. For my covetousness had brought him here, and I’d been the one to discover the body.
Your fault. Your fault. Those words had circled in my thoughts for weeks.
As the candles were lit at midnight, I prayed my role in Roger Brandon’s death would fade and I could forgive myself. I also knew my decision to welcome the New Year in Santa Fe, New Mexico with my dear friend, Lars Claybourne, was mete and right. Thoughts of the trip had become my golden dream.
The night before my departure, I carried a half dozen tins of dried mint to the bedroom. These were the last items for the suitcase on the antique sleigh bed. As I paused in the doorway, the urge to laugh was almost impossible to contain, but a stern approach was needed.
“Robespierre, an open suitcase is not a bed.” I glared at the Maine Coon cat who had curled among my neatly folded clothes. “You aren’t being abandoned. Maria and the baby are excited about your visit.”
The look of disdain on his face brought my laughter bubbling forth. I dumped the tea on the bed, scratched his head, then lifted twenty-five pounds of cat from the case. “Be gone.” As he stalked from the room, his tail twitched to signal his displeasure at being banished.
After tucking my stash among my clothes, I closed the case. With a supply of teas for every occasion, I felt prepared to face my flight to an unfamiliar destination. I wheeled the suitcase and carried a hanging bag to the kitchen where they would be on hand for my early morning departure. My son had grumbled about the hour, but he’d promised to get me to the plane on time.
Robespierre now lay on the kitchen floor and stared at the case containing my belated Christmas present for Lars’ granddaughter. I plugged in the electric kettle, this year’s gift from one of my neighbors, selected an assortment of mints and stuffed a tea ball.
Once the tea had steeped, I poured a mug and headed to the living room where I settled on the window seat. The lights from the Tappan Zee Bridge vied with the moonlight dancing on the dark waters of the Hudson River. Stars formed patterns in the sky. I never tire of watching the river and my early morning walks often end at the river’s edge.
The shrill ring of the phone startled me. I grabbed the receiver. “Hello.”
“Lars, is something wrong?” Why was he calling when he’d see me tomorrow? Had something happened to make it necessary for me to postpone my visit?
“Jitters. Afraid you’ve changed your mind. You’ve never come before. And...there is something...” His voice drifted into silence.
Something was bothering him, but extracting a story long distance is hard. Face to face is better. “My bags are packed and the tickets are in my purse.”
“Good. I’m looking forward to having you here.” He paused. “What are you doing with the cat?”
“He’ll be staying with Maria and the baby.” I chuckled. “At this moment he’s peeved. He tried to use my suitcase as a bed and I chased him.”
Lars laughed. “Guess he wants to come along. You could bring him.”
“Are you out of your mind? You want me to bring the creature who hates cars and being confined. He’ll be fine at the Prescott’s house. I’m looking forward to freedom from his tyranny.”
“He does tend to act like a dictator. Kate, we’ll have a grand time while you’re here. I’ve so many things planned for us to do.”
I set down the mug. “That’s not why you called. What is bothering you?”
His deep sigh rumbled in my ear. “The problem is...I’m not sure what’s going on.”
“So tell me what you can. Are Don and Megan all right?”
“And...” I hesitated to ask if his daughter had staged a scene when she learned I’d accepted his invitation. “Is there a problem because I’m coming?”
“I’m not sure there is a problem.” He paused. “It’s just...vague...and...You know I plan to retire. I’ve been avoiding all the paperwork necessary for months. Last week I looked at some of the companies I’ve seeded. Something odd is going on.”
For years Lars has looked for new and sometimes unique businesses and provided funds for expansion and promotion. Most of these ventures have been successful and repayment of the loans with interest has made him a wealthy man.
“Someone’s stealing.” The words just popped out.
“Maybe, but I hope not. Except just before Ramona’s accident, she hinted she’d discovered a number of discrepancies. We found nothing in her records or her computer. I figured whatever she’d learned had been destroyed when her car burned.”
Eight months ago Lars’ daughter-in-law had died in a tragic accident. A chill crawled along my spine. “Do be careful.”
His laughter boomed. “You’re telling me to be careful. This warning comes from a woman who set herself up to be robbed, who had tea with a murderer, and who single-handedly trapped a killer.”
“I wasn’t in any danger.”
“If you say so...What time does your flight arrive? I’ll meet you at the airport.”
“No need. I’ve rented a car.”
“Why? I’ll be on hand to provide taxi service.”
The image of a glowering Lars stomping after me while I flitted from shop to shop made me chuckle. “How wonderful. Are you volunteering to go shopping with me? I plan to spend at least a day in the shops. Probably more.”
He groaned. “You win. See you tomorrow. You’ll need to announce yourself at the gate so I can buzz you in. Oh, bring an assortment of your mints.”
“And warm clothes.”
“Yes, Lars. Let me go so I can head to bed.”
“Do you remember the name of the estate?”
Why was he so reluctant to let me go? Tomorrow I planned to ask him a lot of questions and discover the answers. “How could I forget? Good night, Lars. See you tomorrow.”
After I hung up, I stared at the night sky. Something troubled him and I’d learned nothing from our conversation. Was I headed into another messy situation?
Stop it! Just because my nerves were frayed didn’t mean trouble lurked in Santa Fe.
Robespierre leaped to the window seat and rubbed his head against my hand. His rumbling purr soothed my nerves. An uneventful visit was my goal. There’d been enough mayhem in my life.
A plaintive cry rose from the carrier on the front passenger’s seat. When the cry rose to a shrill pitch, I tapped on the mesh.
“Don’t blame me. My cat made me do it.”
Actually, a small girl’s fascination with Robespierre had led me to select my
howling companion. The kitten’s wails grew louder.
“Your brother wouldn’t protest so vocally.”
Robespierre seldom voices an opinion. He has other methods of communication. To gain attention he butts with his head and to show disapproval when he’s been banished, he’s been known to trash my bedroom.
Bringing a kitten from my Hudson River village to Santa Fe wasn’t among my greatest ideas. From the moment we’d arrived at the airport in Albuquerque, the kitten had loudly protested. Stroking and cajoling had had very little effect on the creature’s unhappiness. She wanted out of the cage, but I wasn’t willing to let a kitten free to roam around the car.
With a prayer music would soothe the wee beast, I turned on the radio and dialed around. An excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem filled the car. My abdominal muscles tightened. A scream raised by memories pulsed against my vocal cords and demanded release. As guilt curdled my thoughts, tears threatened. I wallowed in remembrance and tried to block the comforting voices that sounded in my head.
Stop blaming yourself. How could you have known the woman was insane?
I should have and I should have found a way to divert her anger. I should have pushed the search committee to investigate the choir master’s past.
Mom, stop beating yourself. There were other committee members. Didn’t Edward Potter hire the man on the spot? Did the Vestry protest?
The words my son had said time and time again were true, but I had aided and abetted the selection. I’d trusted Roger Brandon. His charismatic charm and his mastery of music had blinded me to his manipulative nature. Lives had been radically changed because of my silence and because I had coveted his music for St. Stephen’s.
The music on the car radio slid from Mozart to Handel. My thoughts drifted to Lars. I prayed this visit would permit me to forget what I had and had not done and that I could help solve whatever problem troubled my friend.
For the first time since leaving the airport, I noticed my surroundings. Though the road rose toward the distant heights, the ascent was gradual. On the left, a vast plain of barren earth studded with bushes stretched toward the horizon, and to the right, sharp hills and tumbled rocks provided a contrast. Patches of snow clung to brown slopes. Towering snow-covered mountain peaks rose in the distance.
I’m not sure why the sight of snow bothered me except I’d thought of the area as desert, hot and covered with sand that would gleam like a golden road. Not the case at all. Santa Fe lays seven thousand feet above sea level.
For years Lars had been after me to join him during one of his stays in New Mexico. Part of my reluctance had stemmed from the animosity of his two youngest children.
There’d been a time after the deaths of our spouses when Lars and I had considered marriage. His only daughter, Bonnie, had been opposed. Her twin, Don, had echoed her protests, though he’d thrown none of the tantrums followed by threats to run away from home the way Bonnie had.
Lars and I had put our plans on hold. His family’s wishes had prevailed. Rather, Bonnie’s had. He’d never been able to deny her demands or deal with her tantrums. We had remained friends and ignored the yearnings for a more permanent relationship.
A year ago Don, his wife and young daughter had come east to a gallery exhibition of his paintings. Ramona and I had instantly found rapport. Don and I had reached, not friendship, but accord. Megan had fallen in love with Robespierre, thus the kitten.
A meow sliced into my thoughts. “Right on cue. You’ll be out of confinement before long.” At least I hoped we’d soon reach our destination.
Lars lived on an estate within the city limits. His son and daughter also had homes on the property. This meant I’d have to deal with Bonnie, a thought that made me uneasy. In the past, her attitude toward me had been insultingly rude. Had she changed?
When I reached the turnoff to the street where Lars lived, the temptation to drive into the old town to explore clamored and was pushed aside. The constant complaints of the kitten added a discordant theme to Beethoven’s Fifth. Another day I’d drive there and browse in shops and visit the historic sites I’d read about.
Lars had promised a tour of the town and surrounding area. As I recalled his invitation, I smiled. “Can I tempt you to stay longer than three weeks? You’ll need months to see everything.”
I couldn’t stay. A young couple who were friends of mine had planned a February wedding. Since neither of them have a living mother, I’ve been tapped to play a dual role -- mother of the bride and groom.
The directions Lars sent took me into an area of large houses. Most of them were behind walls. I counted gates. Had he said four or five?
Then at the foot of the dead end street, I saw the sign. Casa de Oro. House of gold, indeed. Bonnie had chosen the name, but in a way it suited Lars. Years ago my husband had teased Lars about his Midas touch for nearly every business he touched prospered.
The gate stood open. I frowned. Lars had said I’d have to announce myself and he’d open the gate. I’ll surprise him, I thought and drove into the compound.
At the top of the rise I saw the reason for Bonnie’s choice. Bathed in sunlight the two-story house at the top of the rise appeared to glisten. The golden adobe wasn’t my destination. On the lower end of the horseshoe drive were two smaller houses.
The adobe with a long porch on the left side of the drive was Don’s. The H-shaped ranch on the right belonged to Lars.
Though Bonnie’s choice was above the gate, Lars’ name amused me. He called the estate Las Casas de Los Tres Osos. The houses of the three bears.
Laughter bubbled forth. Was I Goldilocks? Not according to my hair color. Mine is a rich auburn shade courtesy of my beautician.
I pulled into the carport beside Lars’ silver Mercedes, twin to the car he drives back east. The house seemed larger than my “Painted Lady,” circa 1890. The difference was that mine has two stories and an attic while this house is on one level.
With the kitten carrier in one hand and my purse in the other, I walked to the front door and rang the bell. To my surprise, the door was ajar.
When no one answered, I rang a second time. Where was Lars?
What now? My foot beat an impatient rhythm against the flagstone walk. The kitten cried and scrambled around the carrier making my hold iffy.
I pushed the door open. “Lars, I’m here.”
He didn’t answer. I set the carrier on the slate floor of the foyer. Since the door was open and his car sat in the carport, he was probably in the rear of the house or at one of his children’s. I returned to the car for my suitcases.
I left my luggage in the foyer and stepped into the living room. A portrait of my friend hung above the massive fieldstone fireplace. Several Navaho rugs hung on the cream colored walls.
Through the archway I glanced into the dining room. The table was set for one. The sight of a partially eaten breakfast sent fear surging through my veins.
“Lars, are you here?” My voice echoed in the deserted room.
What if he’s had some kind of attack? A stroke or his heart.
Those thoughts propelled me through the dining room and into the kitchen. I glanced into the pantry and stepped into the sunroom.
Lars, where are you? Had something dreadful happened? Was my visit responsible for his disappearance?
Don’t be a fool. The world does not revolve around Katherine Miller. He’s at Don’s or Bonnie’s.
Those thoughts failed to staunch my rising panic. Though I felt like an intruder, I made a quick tour of the house. I found three empty bedrooms, a deserted office, two powder rooms and three bathrooms and nowhere was there a sign of my friend.
I returned to the dining room. The food was cold. A fork lay on the oak floor. What had happened here? Lars and I are in our sixties. He’s my senior by six months, but his health has always been excellent.
In the living room I reached for the phone. Whom could I call? Other than Lars and his children, I knew no one in Santa Fe. I opened the directory. Were their numbers even listed?
My legs trembled. I sank on a chair and glanced through the bay window. Don and his daughter walked across the drive. I went to the door.
Megan, clad in a bright pink puffy jacket, dropped her father’s hand and ran up the walk. “Told you she come.”
Don reached us and hugged me. Warmth infused my thoughts. I believed we’d moved beyond accord.
“Aunt Katherine, you look wonderful.”
The spicy scent of his aftershave was a welcome addition to the sterile air of the deserted house. “You look great and Megan has grown.”
The dark-haired child danced around us. Her blue eyes sparkled with excitement. She pointed to the carrier. “That’s a suitcase for pets. You bring Rose Prairie. Let me see him.”
Momentarily I pushed my concern for Lars aside. No need to upset Megan, especially since she’d lost her mother just eight months ago. “He didn’t come this trip.” I looked at Don. “You may hate me when you see what I’ve done.”
“Never.” He ran his fingers through his hair, a color between blond and brown. “Never hated you. Back then I let my sister run my life.” He closed the door.
I opened the carrier and lifted the kitten. “This is who I brought.”
“Rose Prairie, you shrink.” Megan’s blue eyes widened and she touched the kitten’s brown, white and sable fur. “Him soft.”
“This is Robespierre’s baby sister. Thought you might like to take care of her.”
“Me! Daddy, can I?”
“Yes.” Don met my gaze. “Thanks. This is the most animated she’s been since Ramona...” Sadness clouded his blue eyes.
I grasped his hand. “The kitten will help Megan with her grief. Rose Prairie has had all her shots and you won’t have to worry about offspring.”
“Megan, why don’t you take the kitten to the sunroom and let her run? I need to talk to your dad.” Ever since they’d entered the house, I’d wanted to blurt what I’d found, but my concern for Megan had stopped my tongue.
“What’s wrong?” He trailed me to the living room. “Where’s Dad?”
“Hoped you would know. When I arrived the gate was open. So was the front door.” I halted in the archway to the dining room. “This is what I found. Looks like he left in a rush.”
Don frowned. “That’s not like Dad. Maybe he went to the office.”
“His car’s outside.”
“He could be at Bonnie’s.” He put his hand on my arm. “She’s planning a bash for New Year’s Eve and might have needed his advice.”
Don did. The housekeeper said Bonnie was out.
“What now?” I asked.
“Maybe Carl drove him to the office.”
That explanation didn’t quell the fear that had grown steadily since my arrival. Was Lars’ disappearance linked somehow to the problem he’d spoken of in vague terms last night. He’d mentioned his dead daughter-in-law. Had he learned Ramona’s death hadn’t been an accident but was part of something more sinister?
I wasn’t ready to ask Don those questions. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know anything other than Lars was all right.
“Try the office.”
He nodded. “First let me show you the guest room. Then I’ll make a number of calls. Don’t worry. I’ll find him.”
He carried my suitcase and the hanging bag to the bedroom and put them on an ornate Spanish Mission oak bed. If my neighbor had been here, he could have told me if the room’s furniture was antique or just excellent reproductions.
After hanging my clothes in the closet and filling the bureau drawers, I carried my stash of mint to the kitchen. Don followed me. The kettle on the stove held water so I turned on the burner.
“Did you learn anything?” Hope filled my voice.
Don slumped at the table. “Carl and Damon were in a meeting. The secretary refused to disturb them. She said Dad wasn’t with them and she hadn’t seen him since the middle of the month.”
He rested his elbows on the inlaid painted tiles of the table. “Have you seen Consuela? She’s usually here by eight.”
“No one was here.” The kettle whistled.
As I reached to turn off the burner, a stout woman with ebony hair entered by the kitchen door. She carried two bags of groceries.
Don jumped up to help her. “Aunt Katherine, this is Consuela.”
“Welcome, Senora.” She looked around the room. “Donaldo, where is your padre?”
“I don’t know. He wasn’t here when Aunt Katherine arrived. Did he say anything about going out?”
“Nada.” She opened one of the bags. “This morning I make his breakfast. Then he gave me the list for the store. Was very crowded today with people buying food for the New Year celebrations. I have lunch with my cousin and come back.”
I added a selection of mints to a tea ball. “Was he expecting anyone?”
“Just you, Senora. He was happy for the visit. He tell me you have been amigos for years.” She opened a cabinet and took out a teapot. “Maybe Senora Bonnie come for him.”
“She isn’t home,” Don said.
Consuela shrugged. “Senora Bonnie is always on the move. Maybe they go somewhere.”
My choice of mints included one to clear my thoughts and several to calm my nerves, a badly needed thing. Not knowing where Lars was and fearing something awful had happened to him made me want to scream.
Consuela showed me where they kept the mugs. “While you wait for the tea, I’ll show you the bedroom for the guests.”
“Already done,” Don said. “Just what did Dad talk about this morning?”
“He talk about the Senora’s visit and tell me how she grow the mint in her garden. He laugh and say when he drink a cup at night, he think of her.”
“Lars?” I laughed. “Always thought black coffee was his preference.”
She shrugged. “I never see him drink the tea, but he is a truthful man.”
Megan ran into the kitchen. “Consuela, look. Rose Prairie.”
Consuela took the kitten from Megan. “La gatita.”
“Megan, why don’t you get her dishes from the carrier?” I asked. “She’s probably hungry and thirsty.”
“Okay.” Megan darted away.
Don followed her. He returned with the litter box and took it into the sunroom. “Looks like Button and I need to go shopping.”
“I’ve a bag with enough food and litter for several days in the bedroom.” I filled a mug with tea. “Remind me to get them before you leave.”
“Will do.” He smiled. “It’s hard to believe she was out of my sight for more than five minutes without crying. This is the first time for months.”
“How are you doing?”
“Coming to grips.” He sighed. “Considering a drastic change. Hope you don’t mind being used as a buffer when I tell Dad. He has his own ideas about my future.”
His mention of Lars brought my uneasiness to the fore. “We need to do something about your father, but I can’t think of anything.”
My knowledge of what happens when a person is missing is limited. There was
something I’d heard about twenty-four hours except when a child was missing. I think there were other factors like age and mental status.
“I’m not sure they can do anything yet. We don’t know how long he’s been gone.”
His shoulders slumped. “Hours, but he could have left just before you arrived.”
“We need professional advice, but I don’t know anyone here. Are you acquainted with any of your local police officers.”
He straightened. “I know who to call. Ramona’s cousin Rafe. He’s a former cop and does some investigative work for Dad. He’ll know where to begin.” He strode to the living room.
My knowledge of this area was based on books. What I knew about my friend’s life here was limited. Though we indulge in bi-weekly phone calls, our conversations center around family and mutual friends. As I sipped the tea, a shroud of helplessness settled over me.
Lars, where are you?
Consuela stored the rest of the groceries and joined me at the table. “Senor Lars has given me the vacation while you are here. He said you would take good care of him. If you wish me to stay I will.”
“There’s no need. He’ll be home soon.” I had to believe Lars would walk in the door and tease me about my fears.
“Now let me show you where things are kept. Then I finish my work and go.”
She opened the door to the pantry and showed me the staples. Then we entered the laundry room that opened into the sun room. In the kitchen she opened cabinets and drawers. Stoneware canisters on the counter held flour, sugar, tea and coffee.
As we passed through the living room, Don covered the phone with his hand. “I’ll be here a bit.” He pointed to the couch where Megan and the kitten were curled on one end, asleep.
Consuela beckoned and I followed. Now that I wasn’t frantically searching for Lars, I could appreciate the paintings in the hall and on the bedroom walls. Some were Don’s, but other artists were represented.
“The linen closet,” Consuela said. “Here are the extra blankets, sheets and towels. In your bathroom, you will all you need for the bath.”
I nearly lingered in the office to look through the papers on the desk. There might be some clue, but I had no idea what I wanted to find.
Consuela paused in the hall. “I will finish with my work and go. Do not worry. Senor Lars will come.”
I leaned against the wall. Did she know something about his disappearance? Intent on asking, I followed her. A cold draft eddied around me. I dashed into the foyer. When I reached the door, my eagerness turned to disappointment.
“Daddy, we have to talk.”
Lars’ beautiful and willful daughter had arrived.