Better Homes and Corpses (Hamptons Home & Garden Mystery)

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9781515951582: Better Homes and Corpses (Hamptons Home & Garden Mystery)

In between scouring estate sales for her new interior design business, Cottages by the Sea, Meg Barrett visits the swanky East Hampton home of her old college roommate, Jillian Spenser. But instead of seeing how the other half lives, she learns how the other half dies. Jillian's mother, known as the Queen Mother of the Hamptons, has been murdered. Someone has staged a coup. When she helps a friend inventory the Spensers' estate for the insurance company, Meg finds herself right in the thick of things. Cataloging valuable antiques and art loses its charm when Meg discovers that the Spenser family has been hiding dangerous secrets, which may have furnished a murderer with a motive. As Meg gets closer to the truth, the killer will do anything to paint her out of the picture.

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About the Author:

Kathleen Bridge started her writing career working at the State News, the student newspaper of Michigan State University. She is an antiques dealer on Long Island and the author and photographer of an antique reference guide, Lithographed Paper Toys, Books, and Games.

Vanessa Daniels has worked as a professional actress in theater, film, TV, commercials, and voice-over for almost two decades. She holds a BFA in drama from New York University and is a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors' Equity Association.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

CHAPTER

ONE

It seems I’m always at the wrong end of the stick. The pointy end. The one you can’t see until you trip over it and it pokes your eye out, or worse yet, your heart. I got the flat tire at the intersection of Old Montauk Highway and Route 27. Earlier, my spirits had scaled the upper limits of antique-picker heaven. Now I’d be late, and Caroline Spenser would never tolerate lateness.

My rescuer came in the form of a PSEG power grid worker in a cable truck. When I offered him my last ten-dollar bill for a job well done, he refused and said, “But I’ll take that woody golf club in the back of your Jeep.”

I’d scavenged the club the day before from the front of the demolished Tiki Motel, along with a set of what I prayed were ivory mah-jongg tiles hidden in a moldy suitcase.

“Well, if you’re ever on the lookout for any more clubs, give me a call.” I handed him my business card.

“‘Meg Barrett, Cottages by the Sea,’” he said, reading the card. “What are you, some kind of home builder?”

“No, more like a nest builder. Sorry, I have to run. I’m sooo late.” I glanced at his ring finger. Darn. It would be nice to meet someone with the same collecting bug I had, instead of the cheating jerk I’d been engaged to who hated all things old. The only thing Michael and I had in common was Jeopardy! and an obsession with home décor magazines—he loved minimalist modern and I was more of a vintage upcyled-trash gal.

At the sight of the East Hampton windmill, my pulse quickened. Only a few rain-drenched souls trudged along Main Street. It was March, but come June, the beautiful people would descend and the east end of Long Island would morph into the American Riviera, double-cheeked air kisses on every corner and celebrities in every café. National Geographic voted East Hampton “America’s Most Beautiful Village,” and it was easy to see why, with its clean, tree-shaded streets and quaint storefronts.

When I veered left onto a narrow blacktop lane, I got occasional peeks at mammoth estates hidden behind tall privet hedges. My palms itched, forecasting good things around the corner—or disaster. I hoped the flat tire wasn’t an omen for my upcoming appointment. After all, it was just a casual meeting with one of the most important antique and art collectors in the Hamptons, scratch that, Long Island, scratch that, the entire East Coast. Now I was really nervous.

The road dead-ended at Seacliff, the Spensers’ estate. I passed through open iron gates and followed a long, curving driveway. Poplars, even without their foliage, guided me toward a jaw-dropping Greek Revival manor house set on a bluff overlooking a tremulous Atlantic. Once upon a time, Seacliff had been the nineteenth-century summer “cottage” of industrialist and robber baron Thaddeus Spenser. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, Seacliff was rumored to be the prototype for the Vanderbilts’ castle, Marble House, in Newport. Even against the dark-shrouded sky, its largeness and whiteness took my breath away.

Caroline Spenser was Seacliff’s twenty-first-century occupant, a former London socialite and fine art connoisseur with bloodlines to the Queen of England, hence her nickname, “Queen Mother of the Hamptons.” Caroline, now widowed, had married Charles Spenser, our very own American royalty. She lived alone with her daughter, Jillian, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Jillian and I ran into each other on Thursday, at the library in East Hampton. We’d only been roomies at NYU for a semester. My schedule left us little time to bond. I was a teaching assistant for the head of the journalism school during the day, and a waitress at a dive bar in Greenwich Village at night. When I had hung out with Jillian, she’d seemed introverted, always seeking others’ approval. Never had an opinion of her own. An odd duck. I chalked it up to her privileged upbringing. But it was thanks to her that I was allowed a short viewing this morning with her mother, the Queen, to discuss a business proposition that might give my fledgling interior design firm a much-needed shot in the arm.

I parked next to a boxwood maze and went up the wide marble steps. Under the sweeping portico, I pressed the button for the intercom. No response. Had I gotten it wrong? Was my appointment for next Saturday? Maybe I was too small a fish to fry, a minnow, a tadpole—oops, that’s an amphibian. Time to get a grip. This wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo. Actually, I’d never been to a rodeo, but I’d dealt with the snobby upper crust before. They weren’t any better than me. Then I thought about yesterday’s cocktail party. And the underwear.

I rang the buzzer again. With one last effort, I raised the brass knocker and let it thud against the door. To my surprise, the door groaned slowly inward.

“Hellooo, anyone home?” I stepped inside. The cathedral-ceilinged foyer had pale marble floors, dark early American furniture, and artwork even a first grader would recognize. I was admiring an enameled vase the size of my Jeep Wrangler when a sound came from behind the staircase.

I tiptoed toward it. Prickles of sweat formed on my upper lip.

Then I found them.

Jillian Spenser sat on the floor, rocking her mother’s limp body. Caroline’s mouth gaped open, oozing a pinkish froth. Her nightgown was a study in crimson—a macabre Jackson Pollock painting.

I skated across the blood-slicked marble and got down on my knees, gagging on the stench. “Jillian! What happened?” My father liked to recount tales of grisly homicides from his days in the Detroit PD, but he’d never warned me blood had such a sweet, sick odor.

Jillian pulled away when I tried to embrace her, cradling her mother closer. I felt Caroline’s wrist for a pulse but couldn’t find one. I crawled to the next room so Jillian wouldn’t hear my call, dialed 911 on my cell phone, then vomited into a Ming Dynasty vase.

When I returned to the hallway, I said, “Let’s go outside and wait.” I was worried Caroline’s killer might still be inside. “Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.” Who am I kidding?

Jillian wasn’t about to let go of her mother’s body. She mumbled, “Col . . .”

I draped my jacket on her quaking shoulders and noticed a lump on the back of her head. Jillian stuttered, “Col . . .” one last time then transferred her glassy stare to a nearby closet door.

Taking my best Charlie’s Angels stance, I twisted the knob to the closet and pulled. My feet gave way and my tailbone hit marble just as the front door opened and a sea of law enforcement rushed in.

CHAPTER

TWO

Two hours later, I was seated in an East Hampton patrol car. A young policeman, his face shielded by a hat, sat next to me entering data into his tablet. The estate around us buzzed. There were no sirens or flashing lights. Even in the off-season, the police were careful of making a spectacle of themselves in the prestigious Hamptons community.

“You okay?” the officer asked.

No, I’m not okay and never will be again. All that came out was a hiccup that sounded more like a beer belch.

Caroline Spenser’s body remained inside. The paramedics carried Jillian out the front door, her thin body wrapped papoose-style in a navy blanket. Before she disappeared inside the ambulance, Jillian’s pleading eyes found mine. I’d let her down.

After the ambulance pulled away, the officer extended a well-muscled arm. His smile revealed chalk-white teeth—a welcome contrast to the gruff Detective Shoner I’d met inside. “I’m Officer Bach.”

“Meg Barrett.”

“Where to, Ms. Barrett?”

I pointed to a bumper sticker on the back of my Jeep that read, MONTAUK—THE END, referring to the town’s location on Long Island.

Up until this morning, I’d always thought of Montauk as the beginning.

“Can’t I take my car?”

“Evidence. Needs to be processed.”

Officer Bach put his tablet in the backseat and we pulled away from the estate. After a few wasted attempts at chitchat, we continued in silence. In Amagansett, undulating sand dunes played peekaboo with the ocean. The Seafood Shanty, a shell of its former self, was covered in plywood and hidden behind scraggly beach grass. In a few months, cars would line both sides of the highway for a chance to sample the Shanty’s pricey lobster roll. Delicious, but three bites later you were done. I’d discovered better places to score fresh seafood without breaking the bank.

When we reached Montauk, I exhaled. Even though the small town was only a short distance from East Hampton, it felt like I was miles from civilization. Montauk was the un-Hampton. Unpretentious and untamed.

We passed the IGA, the only full-service grocery store in town, which stocked my basics: milk, bread, and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. After what I’d just seen at the Spenser estate, the thought of food, even Super Fudge Chunk, made me queasy. I closed my eyes and thought back to my first trip to Montauk. I knew I was home when I saw a sun-faded sign in a restaurant window—HELP WANTED—PIANO PLAYER WHO CAN SHUCK CLAMS.

Officer Bach left me at my door. I walked in and dropped my keys and cell phone into a yellowware bowl—a thank-you from decorating guru Molly McPherson after I worked with her in my former life on an American Home and Garden magazine spread. Like Molly, Caroline Spenser had a grand passion for collecting. Did that passion have anything to do with her murder?

At the French doors I looked out at the beautiful seascape and thought back to Thursday, when I saw Jillian Spenser at the East Hampton Library. It had been so long since we’d shared a dorm room, that to be perfectly honest, the only time I thought of her was when I read an article in Dave’s Hamptons about her mother, Caroline, and her legendary collections.

After I’d filled Jillian in with the reason I moved to Montauk, she asked, “Are you sure your fiancé was cheating?”

“Sure enough to leave Manhattan with a packed U-Haul of ‘vintage crap,’ as Michael called it, and move to the easternmost tip of Long Island.”

“Oh, Meg, you’re so hot, you’ll have no problem finding a guy. Mother’s having one of her cocktail parties tomorrow. I’d love for you to come. She’s invited her usual stable of men. Hopefully they’ll swarm around you and leave me alone.”

I accepted, thinking of all the advantages of rubbing elbows with Jillian’s mother and her elite group of friends. It would be the perfect opportunity to pass out my Cottages by the Sea business cards. Only I, woman of big cojones and little capital, would try to erect an interior design business in the glitzy Hamptons.

Initially, the cocktail party had been a disappointment until Jillian’s mother had stopped at the bottom of a flight of steps leading to a fourth-floor attic and mentioned in her perfect snooty English accent that it was filled with artifacts from her deceased husband’s family, a family that had been one of East Hampton’s first. Attics were my number one fantasy, right behind a date with my latest movie-star crush or a winning Mega Millions lottery ticket. Not necessarily in that order. On my way out, I handed Caroline Spenser my business card. She gave me a disgusted look and said in front of the entire line of guests waiting to say their good-byes, “What’s that sticking out from the back hem of your skirt?” I turned and saw something ecru. Not toilet paper. No. Something much worse. I tugged and out came a huge pair of underwear. Granny panties. Not mine. The static from my Lycra skirt must’ve picked up someone’s stray from the commercial dryer at the Wash n Dri. Any chance I had of her calling flew out the door with me.

So I was floored when Jillian phoned later that night to tell me her mother wanted to hire me—not to decorate the thirty-four-room, fifteen-thousand-square-foot mansion, but to separate the worthy from the undesirable in the attic.

*   *   *

Now I shuddered, thinking of how it had all gone so terribly wrong. The carnage I’d just witnessed seemed surreal. I held back my gag reflex for the hundredth time and instinctively picked up the phone and called Elle. Elle Warner was also an American Home and Garden magazine alumnus. She recently quit as antiques and collectibles editor, much to the managing editor’s, aka my former fiancé Michael’s, dismay. Go, Elle! She now owned a packed-to-the-rafters antique shop in nearby Sag Harbor, which she inherited from her great-aunt.

“Mabel and Elle’s Curiosities, your junk’s our treasure,” Elle answered.

“Thank God you’re there.”

“Whatzzz up, cheeky monkey?”

“Just went to the Spenser Estate . . .”

“And you found an unsigned Monet and they told you to keep it because they have gazillions of dollars?”

“Not exactly. There’s, um . . . There’s been a murder.”

“Bloody hell. Bugger! A murder! Whose?”

“What’s with the UK slang?”

“I was practicing for my first meeting with Her Highness.”

“Well, I don’t think that will be happening too soon. Caroline Spenser is the one who was murdered.”

“The Queen Mother of the Hamptons? Oh my God! Are you okay?”

Elle knew about my appointment at the Spenser estate and had even planned to help me go through the contents of the attic.

I described my interrogation with Detective Shoner, from the East Hampton Town Police Department, followed by an hour of questioning by the chief of homicide from Suffolk County, not to mention four escorted trips to the bathroom. I told her I would call later with the details once I’d digested the morning’s horrors.

I lit a fire in the flagstone fireplace and grabbed a bottle of water from my vintage turquoise “icebox,” as my rental agent and friend, Barb, called it. My cottage was Montauk’s last four-room 1930s holdout, located directly on the ocean. It was slated to be torn down when my two-year lease ran out. Apparently, the owner’s architect wasn’t available until then. Wish I could say my Cottages by the Sea business was booked that far ahead.

I loved the cottage’s simplicity. The main floor contained a vintage kitchen and great room with wide wood-plank floors, a fireplace, and three-sided ocean views. Upstairs were a bedroom and a bathroom. The bedroom had an attic ceiling and tiny Juliet balcony. An old claw-foot tub was the star of the small bathroom and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten it up the narrow staircase.

Up until now, I’d always felt safe and secure in my tiny haven. I had a goose bump premonition that all was going to change. I took ten steps from the kitchen to the sofa and dissolved into the down cushions.

A shrill cry and thump, thump, thump startled me awake. The first thing I thought of was Caroline Spenser’s corpse.

Outside noises didn’t usually bother me, but I’d breached the first rule in hearing aid etiquette when I’d dozed off wearing my hearing aids. Luckily I’d fallen asleep on my back. If I’d turned on my side, the feedback would have been earsplitting.

I grabbed my coat and stepped onto the wood landing that overlooked the beac...

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Book Description Tantor Media, Inc, United States, 2016. CD-Audio. Book Condition: New. Unabridged edition. Language: English . Brand New. In between scouring estate sales for her new interior design business, Cottages by the Sea, Meg Barrett visits the swanky East Hampton home of her old college roommate, Jillian Spenser. But instead of seeing how the other half lives, she learns how the other half dies. Jillian s mother, known as the Queen Mother of the Hamptons, has been murdered. Someone has staged a coup. When she helps a friend inventory the Spensers estate for the insurance company, Meg finds herself right in the thick of things. Cataloging valuable antiques and art loses its charm when Meg discovers that the Spenser family has been hiding dangerous secrets, which may have furnished a murderer with a motive. As Meg gets closer to the truth, the killer will do anything to paint her out of the picture. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9781515951582

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Book Description Tantor Media, Inc, United States, 2016. CD-Audio. Book Condition: New. Unabridged edition. Language: English . Brand New. In between scouring estate sales for her new interior design business, Cottages by the Sea, Meg Barrett visits the swanky East Hampton home of her old college roommate, Jillian Spenser. But instead of seeing how the other half lives, she learns how the other half dies. Jillian s mother, known as the Queen Mother of the Hamptons, has been murdered. Someone has staged a coup. When she helps a friend inventory the Spensers estate for the insurance company, Meg finds herself right in the thick of things. Cataloging valuable antiques and art loses its charm when Meg discovers that the Spenser family has been hiding dangerous secrets, which may have furnished a murderer with a motive. As Meg gets closer to the truth, the killer will do anything to paint her out of the picture. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9781515951582

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