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The Death of a Billionaire

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Rose thought she was helping to ease her cousin's mind. What she found was a world of deception, mistrust, and unacknowledged ghosts. After the death of her cousin's husband, mystery writer and death expert Rose McFarland comes to their California mansion to look into the circumstances. A slip in the shower seems a perfectly accidental death for Conrad Benton, but enough people don't believe it that it leads her deeper into the technology mogul's affairs. She finds drugs, deception, danger, and ghosts. Everyone has a motive, but who has the opportunity? With the help of her aimless niece, Annabelle, she tries to untangle all the different threads in Conrad's life, including lovers, quarrels with his family, and work rivals. It would seem, the police say, that it could be nearly anyone. But when the lives of Conrad's daughters are put under the microscope, Rose finds new layers of unknowns and dangers that begin to connect dots. The most horrifying possibilities come to light, and Rose knows she must act quickly. Can she stop another death?

Mystery / Drama
4.7 3 reviews
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Rose McFarland stood staring at the luggage moving around for the third time, feeling out of place amongst the business-people and traveling families around her. Her face had long since given over the signs of middle age and gone firmly into what she called “old,” with sags and bags and creases more than wrinkles. Although she knew better to complain when she had aged gracefully compared with many other septuagenarians, she sometimes looked in the mirror at her gray hair and lamented the loss of the auburn in her curls, the color in her cheeks, the smoothness of youthful skin. Nowhere had ever brought this more keenly to her attention than Los Angeles.

Everything in Los Angeles International Airport felt strangely busy and loud to Rose, a woman who spent most of her time in a small town in rural upstate New York. The escalator felt uncomfortably crowded, the patrons appeared unnecessarily bustling, and the signs read more cryptic than she thought really prudent. But she managed to find the baggage carousels when she stopped to ask a TSA worker for directions.

She had not seen her favorite cousin Samantha for many years. Annabelle, Samantha’s youngest child, had been about ten the last time, and growing like a lint ball on a sock. Annabelle now aged twenty-two, and, from pictures in Christmas cards, appeared to be a graceful, attractive young woman. Given a choice, Rose favored pleasant and casual visits to ones like this, but her career had caused her life to be busy in a sudden way that hadn’t let up since it began more than a decade ago. But excuses meant nothing now Conrad was gone.

Conrad Benton had been Samantha’s husband, father of their four daughters, a respectable businessman. He was also recently dead, in what Samantha had insisted to Rose were more than slightly suspicious circumstances. The oldest Benton daughter, Evelyn, had called to tell Rose not to waste her time coming out, even for the funeral. She sounded certain her father slipped and fell, despite the fact the coroner and local police both hesitated in declaring the incident a sheer accident, and had both left the case open for further investigation. This was all very odd considering he was a man found dead from a head wound in his own shower, water still running when his wife discovered him. The combination would typically appear to be an obvious accident.

On the other hand, no one in an official capacity wanted to call the situation murder, as Samantha insisted.

Rose had more than enough of murder in her line of work. If Samantha hadn’t been family, flying across the country, even for a case, would not have easily earned a spot on Rose’s schedule. As it happened, Samantha was very close family, and Rose found herself between manuscripts and in need of a holiday.

Rose McFarland, though she appeared to simply be the average, grandmotherly woman – a member of her local knitting circle and clipper of coupons to unwind before bed – also happened to be a writer of detective stories of the cheesiest and most classic variety. While her books certainly sold well, she had really earned her fame as a consultant for both Hollywood – from a distance – and actual police departments. She knew more ways of killing a person than anyone in North America, and had the distinct honor of being the world’s foremost expert on rare and exotic poisons.

Slips in the shower weren’t outside her knowledge, but they were certainly not her daily fare. Still, family was family, and Rose had never known her favorite cousin to be so sure of anything.

“Auntie Rose?”

Rose turned from watching the baggage carousel turning to see two of Samantha’s daughters waiting for her.

Sonia was the elder of the two, her dark hair smooth, sleek, and falling just below her shoulders. Her cream designer blouse and tailored navy skirt added to Rose’s feeling of being an outsider, as Rose had never bought a designer item in her life. Adyson, the younger daughter, had long, blonde hair the same shade as her mother. Rose had actually seen the very royal blue sheath dress draping the girl’s athletic figure at JFK airport in a designer shop.

“Annabelle’s in the car,” Adyson said, hugging Rose firmly. The cardigan she wore over her dress struck Rose as strange for the weather, but then perhaps it didn’t grow much colder in California. Perhaps to Adyson this overcast afternoon spelled sweater weather. “She’s just like Daddy, always wanting to drive. Which bag’s yours, then?”

Rose described her basic brown suitcase for the girls. Almost everyone used black or some gaudy neon eyesore anymore, so it only took one more turn of the crowded carousel to spot her luggage, another to procure it. Adyson was the stronger girl, so she carried the bag. One of the ancient wheels had broken off years ago. Rose had never seen the point in replacing a perfectly good bag for the sake of convenience. Someone was often kind enough to carry a bag for an elderly woman. Rose followed Sonia out to the car, with Adyson trailing behind with the case, and Rose felt astonished, gazing at the glistening vehicle before her.

“In you get,” Sonia said, opening the front passenger door for Rose, who settled herself in the sparkling white Mercedes-Benz in a stunned state. Annabelle sat in the driver’s seat, grinning, her hands covered by black leather driving gloves.

Although the gloves were striking enough to steal the first impression with their strangeness, Annabelle’s long, dark waves and charming, heart-shaped face were pleasant enough to retrieve attention from the gloves after the surprise had worn off. The lavender slip dress she wore looked at a glance as though it might be some sort of silk, and judging by the attire of her sisters Rose wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it was designer as well.

“Good afternoon, Auntie Rose,” Annabelle said, leaning forward and kissing Rose’s cheek.

Annabelle’s long, espresso hair and smooth, personable manners were traits she’d inherited from her father. Those classic good looks and impeccable manners had been a large part of why Conrad Benton became such a legendary business success, but from what Samantha had been willing to say on the phone, Annabelle had taken no such steps toward success. She still glowed with youth, but at twenty-two could no longer be called a child. She was scarcely younger than Adyson, if Rose recalled correctly – a pretty pair of Irish twins.

“It’s good to see you, Annabelle,” Rose said honestly as Sonia and Adyson got into the backseat. “It’s been a long time. This car is a bit...fancy for a trip to the airport, isn’t it?”

“It’s one of our cheapest ones,” Adyson said, leaning forward as Annabelle shifted it into drive. “It’s Mom’s. Daddy obsessed over cars almost as much as Annabelle. How much did this one cost? A hundred thousand?”

“A little over ninety thousand dollars new, yeah,” Annabelle said, smoothly pulling away from the curb and into the moving traffic, finding their way out to the freeway. “But it’s a few years old.” She began rattling on about the car. For a woman who retained a lot of trivial information for her line of work, Rose had never been one to understand the various technical differences in cars. She understood from the lecture that she sat in a CLS-Class, rear-wheel drive, but she lost track of all the different standard suspension features (something hydraulic and sport something or other, but the rest fell utterly lost on Rose). What didn’t need highlighting was Annabelle’s obvious passion for not just this car, but cars in general. The transformation from ten-year-old child in pale pink dresses to a young woman with leather driving gloves astonished Rose.

“How is your mother?” she asked when they finally merged onto the freeway, cruising out toward the small but wealthy town of Vista Del Marina, where the Bentons had settled.

The girls exchanged uncomfortable looks before Sonia said, “She’s...a bit hysterical. Evelyn’s done everything she can to calm her, but there’s really no reasoning with her.”

“It can be very difficult to lose a spouse,” Rose said, stretching her legs a little. The plane ride had been a five-hour direct flight, and she debated whether or not to take off her shoes. She decided it would be a bit rude, and could wait until they reached the house.

The girls sat silent after this comment, and Rose did not press them for their thoughts. Either they thought Rose must be pondering the loss of her own excellent husband thirty years ago, or they were thinking of their mother’s typical lack of stability.

Samantha had never been dependable. When she met Conrad Benton, he had been a dreamer, ahead of his time. Ever the optimist, and drunk on his suave way of courting her, Samantha picked up, moved to California, and married him a week later, and her family had no say in the matter. For three years the family despaired of her, sure that any day now she would come back crying, talking of how she’d been heartbroken, disillusioned, and left desolate.

Instead, Conrad founded a technology corporation that innovated new ways to increase practicality and comfort of computing technology in the everyday world. At least, those words expressed the mission on Benton Tech’s website when Rose had looked at it two days ago, while her travel agent found her a plane ticket. Instead of coming home ruined, Samantha Benton had become a glamorous society wife, the role she’d been born to play, albeit born too poor to live up to on her own. More importantly for Rose, Samantha had been happy, pleased to be with Conrad, delighted with the four children they had together, and contented by her lavish lifestyle and all its rewards, in spite of its many stressors.

“Here we go,” Annabelle said, merging off the freeway, taking an overpass and turning a sharp left. Rose soaked in the sight of palm trees lining every bit of the street, and looked for the town center.

“The town’s the other way,” Adyson explained as Rose looked around in confusion. “We’re a bit north of town, right on the ocean.”

A five-minute drive later, the house came into view.

Casa de la Playa, Sonia called it, which she explained was the local name for the massive structure on the cliff overlooking the sea. The driveway was dizzyingly long, and when the car pulled to a stop before the grand house Rose found herself wondering how long it had taken to pave such a monstrosity. A servant opened the door for Rose, who allowed him to help her to her feet.

“We need to go,” Adyson said, holding out her hand for the keys. “We’ll see you at dinner, but Sonia and I have to run into town for a charity thing. Annabelle will see you settled.”

Rose allowed Sonia and Adyson to hug her before turning to the large, white stone house in front of her. She counted an incredible twenty windows on the front side of the house, and she wondered if there had been twenty windows total on the street Samantha and Rose had grown up on in Cranston, New York. Rose had seen the Benton’s second home at the Hamptons a few times and thought it massive, but this dwarfed it.

Annabelle took off her driving gloves and gave instructions in Spanish to a servant, presumably about Rose’s bag. Rose took the liberty of walking into the front hall. Again, she felt staggered by the hedonism of it all. Marble floors, gorgeously carved wooden handrails on the massive staircase, leading up to the exposed second story hall. The crystal chandelier above Rose’s head wasn’t the largest she’d ever seen, but it could certainly be called exquisite and tasteful, and it looked just large enough for its space without being oppressive. The hall trailed away, lined with alabaster shaded lamps on gold or gold-plated lampstands, and Rose recognized the hand-painted portraits on display as portraits of the family members, in the style of European aristocracy. She smiled at the pretentiousness of it, but this announced Samantha’s taste. The portraits bore unmistakable marks of excellence, perhaps especially the centerpiece: a richly painted rendering of Annabelle, several years old now, slightly larger than the other portraits and obviously a favorite by its placement and grotesquely ornamental frame.

Rose turned at the sound of heels clicking on marble and she saw the flesh-and-blood version of Annabelle tossing a bit of hair over her shoulder.

“Ah,” Annabelle said, gazing up at her portrait with a slight frown. “I see you’ve found the pride of Daddy’s art collection. Hard to miss, isn’t it? I hate that stupid thing. I hated it at sixteen, and I hate it now, but of course Mother won’t take it down because it was Daddy’s favorite.”

The Annabelle in the portrait looked mature for sixteen, but her hair fell about three inches shorter and her waist a little bit slimmer. The waist was highlighted by a figure-hugging evening gown in baby blue worn for the portrait, the long train and sweetheart neckline balancing the way it clung to her curves. Rose ached to ask more about the portrait, but she decided to save her questions for Samantha, who would, it appeared, be more interested in discussing the piece than Annabelle.

“It’s a very large house,” Rose said, looking up at the chandelier again. “It must cost a lot to run.”

“You should ask Evelyn about that,” Annabelle said, smiling. “She keeps track of all the finances for boring stuff like heat and electricity and water and everything. I know Mother is keeping more servants than she needs, really, but you know her. She’s biased toward the stuffy places in the east with a maid for every bedroom that never gets used. She’s too sentimental to let any of them go, and the lot across the highway is packed six days a week. Thirty is really too many; we could manage with fifteen or even ten, as Evelyn constantly reminds her. Shall I show you to your room? I imagine you’re tired from the journey.”

Rose agreed and followed Annabelle up the staircase.

“I apologize for us not managing to find you a room on the first floor,” Annabelle continued in a chattering tone. “We’re in transition with our housekeeper at the moment, and somehow Mother decided it would be a good idea to house you in the blue room because you like the color blue. I told her a room closer to everything would be better, but she insisted and, well, you know Mother.”

Rose smiled and nodded, not needing further explanation of Samantha’s behavior. She did, however, ask what Annabelle meant by “in transition.”

“I don’t know the details,” Annabelle said, leading Rose down a hallway with a lush cobalt carpet and shimmering, champagne-colored walls. “All I’ve managed to learn is our housekeeper for years, Gwenllian, was dismissed not too long before Daddy died. He’d not found a suitable replacement before he passed, and Mother’s been such a mess, so Evelyn’s been scrambling.”

Annabelle threw open a door to reveal a royal blue sofa with two matching armchairs around a cherry coffee table. Two doors flanked the far ends of the room, and a rather large bookshelf loomed in the near corner next to a table with a teakettle and a coffeemaker sitting atop it.

“Mother couldn’t recall if you drank tea or coffee,” Annabelle explained. “Just let a servant know which you’d like stocked, or both if you want. The bathroom’s on the left. The bedroom’s on the right. It’s all similarly furnished. I hope it’s enough blue for you. If there’s a book in the library you’d prefer to see here during your stay, let a servant know and he’ll move it to your bookshelf.” Annabelle tapped her fingers on the gold-plated doorknob thoughtfully. “Dinner’s at six; no need to dress tonight. Mother insists it’s casual and comfortable after your trip. But you can freshen up or whatever you’d like. I’m going to run a couple of errands, but if there’s anything you need...?”

Rose thanked her and said she felt more than content with the arrangements, and Annabelle nodded, pulling out her driving gloves again and tossing them lazily from hand to hand.

“See you at dinner, then,” Annabelle said, kissing Rose’s cheek before returning down the hallway toward the staircase.

Rose closed the door and soaked up the cool, pleasant blow of the air conditioning before kicking off her pumps and crossing to the bedroom. A servant must have brought her bag up by some back way, because it sat on the floor at the foot of the royal-blue dressed four-post bed. Rose ran her hands along the soft outer material of the bag, an anniversary present decades back from her dear husband. Her fingers knew right where to find the zipper without looking, and the satisfying buzz of the plastic zip coming undone was followed by flipping open the bag. Despite the fact she would not need to dress up, Rose had seen what Samantha’s daughters wore as casual wear now and she knew it would be imprudent not to change into a fresh shirt, at the very least. She took off her well-worn oxford shirt and changed into a looser, more modern lavender blouse. She also took a fresh pair of nylons out of her bag and laid them on the foot of the bed. She rolled off her worn ones and tossed them in a nearby hamper with her shirt.

A good foot soak sounded pleasant.

The carpet felt surprisingly soft, and Rose enjoyed feeling it beneath her bare toes as she crossed the main room to the bathroom. Even better, though, was the cool granite tile in the bathroom, sparkling and blue. Rose turned the gold-plated knobs on the porcelain tub and filled it just enough to sit on the edge and comfortably soak her aching feet.

Rose felt youthful for her age, but she was no longer a spritely young woman like Samantha’s daughters. Despite the fact she had never especially enjoyed driving, she’d reached an age where it held less appeal than ever, what with the need to stay more or less in the same position for however long she had to drive. If Annabelle drove as often as her father, as Adyson had hinted, she drove hours and hours on the PCH just for the pleasure of it. The thought of such bizarre behavior triggered Rose’s feet to throb afresh.

The lighting in the bathroom also felt harsh and uncomfortable, showing every age spot, every vein, every bit of sag in her skin. For someone young and beautiful this unforgiving lighting might not appear so daunting, but Rose wondered how Samantha kept her sanity, as she had turned sixty not long ago now. Surely it could not simply be a feature of the guest rooms.

About half an hour later, Rose’s feet felt refreshed and renewed, and she began to feel a bit anxious to make up properly for dinner. She glanced at the clock on the vanity and found she had a little over twenty minutes. Rose was a low-maintenance sort of woman. She ran her fingers under water and combed them through her curls to tame a few flyaways. Then she touched up her lipstick, rolled on the fresh pair of nylons, and replaced her shoes. This left her with enough time to meander back down to the main entrance, looking around, wondering where dinner would actually be. Annabelle had neglected to mention that important detail.

A servant paused, carrying a stack of neatly folded linens. Rose appreciated the strangely fascinating sort of beauty this woman had. Her graceful features fit just a little too big for her face, but the oddness of proportion looked beautiful in an uncomfortable way.

“Mrs. McFarland?” she said kindly.

“Yes,” Rose said, smiling at the young woman’s rosy cheeks and slightly frizzy hair. “I wondered, where can I find dinner?”

The woman nodded to the left.

“Mrs. Benton said dinner would be in the music room tonight, for a slightly more casual setting. It’s just through the green sitting room, on your left. You’ll know when you’ve hit it. It’s the only room with a harp.”

“Oh, one of the girls plays harp?” Rose asked.

“Ah, no, Mrs. McFarland. Mrs. Sinclair bought an antique harp three years ago, and Mrs. Benton wanted to maintain the superiority of her collection.”

If it had been a little less absurd, Rose might have laughed, but something very hollow and sad could be found in the thought of Samantha being petty over such expensive things. She thanked the girl and followed the directions, through a very green room to a pale yellow one with a grand piano in the corner, a harp beside it, and a very comfortable tea table set with six places for dinner.


Samantha stood to embrace her cousin, crossing the short distance between them with long, graceful strides. Her blonde, short hair should have been gray by this point, but Rose knew she’d been dyeing it for years to maintain one link to her youthful appearance. Samantha had been lucky not to be one of those California women who tanned incessantly when fashionable, so her wrinkles – though enough to suggest her face had not been worked on – measured relatively few for a woman her age. Of course her skin shone a little darker than it had growing up, but such was inevitable for a woman living on a California beach. Her champagne chiffon dress was tastefully cut for a woman no longer slender as her much-younger daughters, but it certainly did not suggest casual attire to Rose. Sonia and Adyson, sipping wine on one of the sofas, sat dressed still in their designer semi-casual attire from the airport. Adyson had pulled her hair back into a bun, but otherwise the girls had arrived unchanged for dinner.

“You look remarkably well, Samantha,” Rose said, leaning back and holding her cousin’s shoulders to examine her green eyes, which had always shined so bright. Instead they were dulled, perhaps from grief and stress, perhaps from the glass of wine she’d set down to greet Rose. “Time has certainly been good to you.”

“Oh, you’re too kind,” Samantha said, waving a dismissive hand and motioning for Rose to sit in an armchair. “The other girls should be here any moment and we can eat. I hope you still like quiche Florentine. I told the chef it was your favorite.”

Rose could barely wrap her mind around the Bentons employing their own chef, but she couldn’t find it in her heart to tell her cousin that quiche Lorraine was her favorite.

“I’m sure it will be lovely,” Rose said, and just then the final Benton daughter entered, immediately grabbing a glass of wine from a table beside the door, which Rose hadn’t noticed upon entering.

“Evelyn, say hello to your Aunt Rose,” Samantha chided.

No longer a gangly teenager, Evelyn cut the figure of a strong, powerful woman with angular features and short, dark hair cropping her face. She greeted Rose with less warmth than her sisters, but kissed her cheek as Annabelle had – so Evelyn had also inherited her father’s manners.

“A long day at the office?” Rose asked, watching Evelyn drink half the glass in one smooth draw.

“I’m sorry, yes,” Evelyn said, sitting down on the sofa beside Sonia, carefully turning her body away from her sisters. “Dad left things in a fairly good way, but at a very critical time. I can’t afford to let things drop, even if a lot’s happening in the family right now.”

Evelyn had gone into the company with Conrad as soon as she earned her business degree, and had been working her way up through the ranks with rapid speed. It sounded as though she had thoroughly earned her high placement as the new head of the company. Conrad had loved to boast how Evelyn chose to work her way up, to prove she knew the company and deserved a spot at the top more than anyone because of her qualifications and strength, not because of an accident of birth.

They sat with Samantha regaling them on pointless social concerns of the town before the clock struck a quarter past six and Samantha began to exhibit signs of irritation.

“Annabelle knew dinner was at six,” she said, standing and pacing, picking up another glass of wine. “I told her myself. I know she doesn’t think much of rules, but we have a guest. I would have thought....”

Adyson cleared her throat and said, “I think she stopped by the police station, Mother. She went for coffee with Blake. She’ll be back soon enough. I’m sure they just lost track of time.”

Samantha’s face softened marginally, and Rose looked around at the others.

“Who is Blake?”

“A childhood friend,” Evelyn explained, setting her empty wineglass on a side table. “They grew up together. They’ve been best friends for as long as I can think. He’s a police officer in town now.”

Indeed, not five minutes later Annabelle entered, heels clicking, driving gloves still on, leading a young man in a police uniform with neat, dark, gelled hair and a slightly crooked nose. He looked handsome in a way, but not in a classic way like Annabelle, so they looked like mismatched china standing framed by the doorway to the music room.

“I’m so sorry I’m late Mother,” Annabelle said in a breathless, bored voice. “We were caught up talking about Daddy, and I lost track of time.”

“It’s my fault, really, Mrs. Benton,” the young man said, clearing his throat. “I should have remembered your dinner hours.”

“It is really no trouble, Blake,” Samantha said in her loftiest voice, although Rose knew punctuality mattered very much to Samantha. Especially considering the stress of her husband’s death, she would almost certainly use strong words with her daughter later, when alone.

“Can he stay for dinner, Mother?” Annabelle asked, pulling him further into the room.

“Oh, that’s really not necessary,” Blake said, blushing faintly. “I can see you have company and I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“Nonsense,” Adyson said brightly, motioning to a servant, who disappeared into a small door in the corner, perhaps leading to the kitchen. “I’m sure Auntie Rose doesn’t mind. Do you Auntie?”

Rose certainly had no objection, and said so, and Samantha would have looked very rude indeed to do anything but insist he stay at that point, so she promptly insisted. Another setting was brought when the food was served, and they all sat around the tea table, slightly squeezed, a surface-pleasant crew.

“Let me introduce you properly,” Annabelle said, motioning between Rose and Blake. “Aunt, this is Blake Donaldson-Shepard. We’ve known each other forever. Blake, this is—”

“I know,” Blake said, smiling brightly. “I’ve read all of your work, Mrs. McFarland. I’m truly a big fan.”

“Please, call me Rose.”

Blake’s cheeks flushed again, something they appeared to do frequently. At first Rose thought he blushed because she had invited him to use her first name, but then she realized it also coincided with Annabelle brushing his arm as she reached for sugar for her rice.

“You’re in town for the funeral, Mrs.... Sorry, Rose.”

“Yes, of course,” Rose replied, cutting into the quiche with her fork, which glided through the steaming dish beautifully. The eggs felt incredibly fluffy. “And, I confess, Samantha asked me to inquire about the situation. I understand you work as a policeman?”

“Blake’s wanted to become nothing else since he started reading your novels,” Adyson teased. “We landed this brilliant new lieutenant, and Blake’s his protégé.”

“It’s not like that,” Blake said, blushing even more. “Michael just likes to work with me because I know everybody really well. I’m the only person on the force born and bred in Vista Del Marina. We attract a lot of people from LA who want a quieter place to work, small crimes and white-collar issues instead of murders. But then we land a case like Mr. Benton’s death, and it could be both.”

Rose raised her eyebrows as Evelyn’s fork clattered onto the plate.

“He slipped in the shower,” Evelyn insisted impatiently. “Let’s not ruin dinner with silly, paranoid speculation, Blake. Even if there were something sinister about it, it’s not corporate. The competition isn’t likely to sneak up on him in the shower.”

Blake simply shrugged. Evelyn made a very good point, that if Samantha was somehow right and this proved to be more than an accident, the killer would need access not only to the house, but also to Conrad’s private shower through however many servants were at the house at night and past his sleeping wife. That would take incredible skill or familiarity, possibly both. The likelihood a business competitor would go to such lengths to stage it as an accident were slim, even if they were capable of pulling it off.

Still, something intrigued Rose about the very sure way Blake had suggested corporate matters and murder contributed to Conrad’s death. Whatever the police department officially said, Blake appeared to at least believe such things possible, whatever he chose not to say in front of Evelyn Benton.

That night, after Samantha hosted polite but useless conversation about Adyson’s forehand and Annabelle’s many possible career paths (none of which remotely interested Annabelle when mentioned), and after Blake was shown out with a promise of walking Rose around the police station whenever she would like, Rose settled into her rooms and changed into her pajamas, before sitting on the end of her bed. The clock read nine at night. Her publisher’s New York clock would read midnight, but she would still be awake. Rose picked up her phone and called Agatha Hart.

“Hart Publications. This is Agatha.”

“Agatha, hello, it’s Rose.”

“Oh, Rose, I’m holding your manuscript in my hand, actually.”

Translation: Agatha was scrambling through manuscripts on her desk to find Rose’s so she could hold it in her recently manicured fingers.

“Oh, good. How is it looking?”

“Brilliant as always, dear. And your holiday? You said you’re in California, right? I’m very jealous. It poured down rain here today. It’s supposed to rain through Saturday, you know.”

“I’m not surprised. Listen, I told you I’m out here for a funeral, right?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, presumably while Agatha grabbed a pencil.

“No, I don’t recall you mentioning it. A client called you out?”

“A relative, actually,” Rose replied, letting her toes sift through the lusciously soft carpet. “My cousin’s husband died.”

“Oh, what a shame.”

“I don’t know anything for certain yet,” Rose said slowly, wanting to ensure Agatha didn’t start drafting the public relations campaign for her next book with this information. “Obviously I would change names, fictionalize and everything. It may not even be a murder, but.... I think there’s still plenty of fodder here. Corporate scandals, possibly, and certainly corporate battles. A staff change occurred that I could dramatize. And the tension in this house is so thick; it would jiggle if I poked it. Even if it turns into nothing, which I hope and even sort of expect, I might find some solid material here.”

“Have you talked with the police yet?”

“I met an officer. I’m going to the station with my cousin’s daughter tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.”

“Take notes, dear.”

“Of course,” Rose said, scratching her nose and trying to picture Agatha, with her middle-age-awkward braces and rhinestone-studded reading glasses. Her demeanor would depend on how many cups of coffee she’d consumed in the last hour, as would the state of her outfit.

Rose and Agatha tossed around a few very vague ideas of where to take the fictionalizing if she found little more than what she’d already turned up. Then, Rose began to yawn, and Agatha needed to retrieve another cup of coffee to keep herself fueled for a long night of work, and Rose called it a night. She crawled into the plush, over-stuffed pillowtop mattress and sank her head into the goose feather pillow. Rose didn’t know when Annabelle would expect her awake and ready to go in the morning for showing her around town, but she suspected it would be on the early side.

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