I punched in the code to the Alexander mansion as if I owned the place. Not wishful thinking. Familiarity. I’d been in and out of the house so often lately, it felt like home. Ha! My entire condo would fit into the dining room I’d just finished—my first ever high-end interior design project.
A gardener wearing a Devil Rays cap was clipping shrubbery by the stone portico. I waved to him, opened the door and stepped into the foyer. Though the Alexanders were in Biarritz for a week, I helloed like mad anyway. Staff might be around, and I didn’t want to startle anyone.
The odor of lemon wax and gardenias floated through the air but not a single sound. Maria, the cook, and her husband, Jesus, the estate’s major domo, must have taken the afternoon off. Perfect. I’d have the Monets to myself.
Heartbeat thudding, I tiptoed across the cavernous living room into the dining room. The new draperies I’d installed were closed, shutting out the light. I fumbled for the wall switch, flipped it, and the fabric swished apart, revealing a room magnificent enough for Arab sheiks. To give the paintings star billing, I’d kept the décor opulent but discreet with ivory-colored paneling and heavy matching silk at the windows. The Baccarat crystal chandelier and wall sconces added the only glitzy touches, except, of course, for the glowing Monets.
I turned to the wall on the right. Ah…eyes hardly blinking, I worshipped Sunrise at Royan. Had there ever been a dawn as young? A sea as flawless? All apricot, peach and turquoise, the water gently lapped at the shore, not marring the scene with so much as a wave. My business needed every dime I could earn, but seeing this painting was almost payment enough. With a sigh, I tore my gaze away. I had to save some adoration for Sunset at Royan on the opposite wall. I swiveled to the left and saw—omigod!—an empty gilt frame.
The knock-off Chanel bag slipped from my arm and plunged to the floor.
I crept closer. Someone had sliced the canvas out of the frame. Only jagged edges still clung to the wood. Not daring to trust my eyes, I stared, unbelieving, at the sacrilege—a masterpiece cut and changed forever. Worse, it was gone, maybe for good.
The police. I had to notify the police.
Hands trembling, I grabbed the bag off the floor, plunked it on the mahogany table, for once disregarding its polished surface, and rummaged for the cell. My fingers fumbled, as limp as overcooked spaghetti. I couldn’t find a thing. In desperation, I dumped out the contents. No phone. It was sitting on the Audi’s front seat.
I remembered seeing a phone in the kitchen. Abandoning the mess on the tabletop, I pushed open the swinging door and rushed through the butler’s pantry into the kitchen.
I grabbed the receiver and dialed 911.
“My name is Deva Dunne. I want to report a theft.”
That was when I saw Maria—stretched out on the floor beside the food prep island—the toes of her oxfords pointing at the ceiling, a bullet hole in the middle of her forehead.
The phone slipped from my hand and dangled at the end of its cord.
A distant voice squawked, “Hello? Hello? Please verify your location.”
Heart pounding, I stared at Maria in disbelief.
“Hello. Hello. Your name, please?”
I yanked on the cord and pulled the phone back up to my ear. “There’s a dead body here. On the kitchen floor. A woman with a bullet in her head.”
“1570 Gordon Drive.”
I had to get out of there. The killer could be lurking in the house. The phone dropped out of my hand again and clunked against a cabinet.
I pushed open the swinging doors to the butler’s pantry and raced through to the hall, glancing up at the staircase as I ran. No one. Nothing.
My heel slipped, my ankle gave way, and I fell, striking my head on the foyer wall.
I came to with a start, right into the glare of Lieutenant Victor Rossi’s deep-set, penetrating eyes.
Uh-oh, déjà vu.
“You okay, Mrs. D?” he asked, kneeling beside me, rubbing one of my hands between his own. His blunt fingers were firm and warm, caressing. Someone moaned. That couldn’t have been me, could it?
“You hit your head pretty hard,” he said. “You’ve been out for a while.”
The room swam back into focus. “How long?”
“I don’t know. You were out when Officer Batano got here. I was in the neighborhood so I came right over. Not to worry. The doc’s on his way. He’ll take a look at that lump.”
“The coroner? No thanks.”
Rossi frowned and blew out a breath.
I waved a hand in front of my face. “You been eating garlic?”
He reached into a pocket, took out a mint and popped it. “Think you can sit up?”
Fingering the lump on my head, I eased into a sitting position against the wall. Three months earlier, Lieutenant Rossi of the Naples PD had investigated the murder of Treasure Kozlowski, my neighbor at Surfside Condominiums. Looked like he’d be on this case, too. I’d been scared of him then, but not this time. This time…oh God…this time…
“Maria’s dead, isn’t she?”
He nodded. “The woman in the kitchen? I’m afraid so.”
“I hoped I’d imagined it.”
“No, it looks like a homicide. You need to tell me what happened. Why you’re here. What you saw.”
I struggled to my feet and must have stood up too fast. The room turned fuzzy, but Rossi grabbed me before I landed back on my head. It was the first time he had ever put his arms around me, and his embrace was amazingly strong and comforting.
“Let’s get you a seat,” he said.
Resisting the urge to cling to him, I pulled free and, a little shaky, walked into the living room ahead of him and sank onto a sofa.
Rossi peered at me with what looked like concern on his face. “You feel up to answering a few questions?”
He reached into a pocket of the pink Hawaiian shirt he wore loose, hanging over his white slacks. With his wall-to-wall shoulders, the casual outfit looked as intimidating as a military uniform. Using a gesture I remembered all too well, he removed a notepad and a pencil stub.
Like death and taxes, there was no way out, so I told him everything I knew, which was next to nothing. He kept the pencil going as if he were whipping out a bestseller. Except when I asked, “Why did the thief only take one Monet? Why not both?”
That wasn’t an idle question. I really was puzzled. Why steal the larger of the two paintings and leave the smaller one? Was the missing one more valuable? To me, both were equally beautiful, equally precious.
He stopped writing for a second. “There’s a reason for everything, Mrs. D.” He jabbed his pencil stub in the direction of the dining room. “That’s what I’m here for, to uncover the reasons why a masterpiece has gone missing. And why a woman is dead.” He held the stub over the notebook again. “You notice anything else gone?”
“No, but I didn’t have a chance to look.”
A fleshy police officer barged into the room. “The cook’s husband is here,” he told Rossi. “A Jesus Cardoza. Batano’s got him on the terrace with the gardener. And the doc’s outside.”
“Tell Batano I’ll be right there. You can send in the doc.” Rossi flipped his notebook closed. “You sure you don’t want him to take a look at you?” he asked me.
I shook my head and regretted it. The room swayed then slowly steadied.
Rossi reached back into his shirt pocket, withdrew a business card and held it out to me.
“I have one, Lieutenant, and I remember the drill. If I think of anything else I’ll call you. Ditto if I leave town in the next few days.” My recital over, I asked, “Now may I leave?”
He tucked the card back in his pocket and gave me a sweeping head-to-toe glance. “You’re looking pale, Mrs. D. How about you go to the ER? Get that lump checked out? I’ll have one of the officers drive you.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m feeling fine now. I’ll just get my handbag and go home.”
He huffed out a sigh. “I could insist.”
“No, you couldn’t. I’m not under arrest.”
He shrugged. “Feel free to leave.”
On my way home, I did intend to go to the ER at the Naples Community Hospital, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it by pulling up in a squad car.
I was halfway to the door when he said, “You know something, Mrs. D?”
Exasperated, I turned around. “What?”
“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this.” He grinned. Right in the middle of a murder scene.
How crass. Not a word about the victim, or the missing Monet, or my clients’ loss. I shook my head. A big mistake. I couldn’t take another step until the room stopped spinning.
“One more thing,” he said, as I reached the door. “You’ll need to come to the station tomorrow and sign a witness statement.” He frowned and added, “I know tomorrow will be a tough day for you, but I have to ask.”
I nodded then hurried away before the tears blinded me.
Tomorrow. He had remembered.
Maybe he wasn’t so crass after all.