The place looked like one of those English manor houses—I think they call them “Georgian”—all red brick and right angles and perfectly-spaced windows, and it was bizarrely, disorientingly out of place in a clearing in a Northern California forest. The grounds around it looked like they had been laid out with great care, then the gardener left on a long vacation. The vibe translated to: “Looks like money … but get it up front.” The front door opened straight onto the gravel area where the coaches or whatever were supposed to pull up and let out their duchesses or whoever, and there was no cover above the front steps. I had no umbrella. I shouldn’t have needed an umbrella, because at this time of year it shouldn’t have been raining. All bets are off nowadays; last May, they tell me, it snowed in Atlanta.
The whole thing started off badly, since at first I couldn’t even find the place, and that’s kind of galling for a detective, especially the kind of detective that I was supposed to be. But the rain was blinding, and the turn off the highway was unmarked and apparently known only to the robot lady inside my GPS. After about the fourth time she said, “Please turn around,” I assume only Asimov’s Laws kept her from adding, “...you frigging moron.” Finally I realized that a little lane, despite looking like an abandoned logging road, must be where I was supposed to go. A hundred yards off the blacktop and through the thick trees, there it was.
So I was already in a bad mood even before I was left standing there in the pouring rain imagining a nonagenarian butler shakily setting down his tray of crumpets and arranging his swallowtail coat before slowly plodding up the stairs from the servants’ quarters to answer the door. Eventually a voice inside said, “Come in.” By that time, I was ready to walk in, punch whoever was standing there, get back in my car and drive home. That changed when I stepped through the door. It wasn’t Jeeves, the butler; it was the Lady of the House.
And what a lady.
Larry, my partner, told me I’d be dealing with a Mrs. Beresford. Larry is a first-class hound, so when he shoved the case off on me (“I got a doctor’s appointment,” he said. “My back.” Yeah. My ass.) I figured that meant the woman in question, like most we deal with in our line of work, would be no prize. Because Larry would knock you down to get to a prize, even one that would barely make it in a Cracker Jack box, and that “Mrs.” in front of her name wouldn’t make any difference to him. Usually I at least Google the family first, but you know what? With most of them, even that isn’t really necessary. So this time I went in blind, and when I saw the house I was more certain than ever that I’d be dealing with some blue-haired type, probably with more cats than teeth.
Boy was I ever off the mark. This one was a prize, all right. Forget Cracker Jack: she was a Powerball Jackpot. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for coming.” I guess I should have said something back, but I had momentarily forgotten how to talk.
She was in her mid-thirties, and first off, she was a redhead. I’m a sucker for those anyway, but this one was a redhead for the ages. The dark, copper hair tumbled over her shoulders in a cascade of perfect disorder, the natural kind of tousled that you couldn’t get with a curling iron if you took half a day. Her eyes were green, her skin translucent. Her mouth, with its tentative, nervous smile, would have made Da Vinci take up knitting. As for her body … come up with your own adjectives. Whatever they are, they won’t be good enough.
She was wearing what I guess is called a dressing gown. It was turquoise blue and looked like silk, and oh how I wanted to touch it and find out. I didn’t know what she was wearing under it, but it didn’t look like much, and when she stepped back as I turned to close the door, it parted to show one leg from above the knee down to the delicate slipper on the even more delicate foot. A more clear-headed guy, or even me in a more clear-headed moment, might have wondered why, if she was expecting a caller, she hadn’t bothered to get dressed. No such question entered my mind then, however. If it had, doubtless my mind’s only reply would have been, “Shut the hell up.”
“I hope I didn’t keep you too long,” she said. “I was …” She sort of glanced over her shoulder toward the back of the house.
“It’s no problem, Mrs. Beresford,” I said, which must have been pretty rich coming from a guy who looked like a drowned rat. “You are Mrs. Beresford?” Every time I said, “Beresford,” she seemed to twitch a little.
“Desiree,” she said.