Authors: Elaine Viets
Dead-End Job Mystery Series
Shop till You Drop
Murder Between the Covers
Dying to Call You
Murder with Reservations
Clubbed to Death
Pumped for Murder
Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper Series
Dying in Style
High Heels Are Murder
Accessory to Murder
Murder with All the Trimmings
The Fashion Hound Murders
An Uplifting Murder
Death on a Platter
Murder Is a Piece of Cake
Fixing to Die
A Dog Gone
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First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,
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Copyright © Elaine Viets, 2015
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Viets, Elaine, 1950–
Checked out: a dead-end job mystery / Elaine Viets.
pages cm.—(Dead-end job mystery; 13)
1. Hawthorne, Helen (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women detectives—Florida—Fort Lauderdale—Fiction. 3. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely
John Singer Sargent really did abandon society divas to paint
and landscapes. You can view his alligator watercolors by appointment at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, or see one online at www.worcesterart.org/collection /American/1917.86.html. Don’t you love its primeval power?
Thank you, Kate Dalton, Worcester curatorial assistant, who checked auction results from the last ten years to determine the price of the mythical watercolor in
. There is no evidence that Clark Gable ever owned
but he did play poker.
To help research this book, I shelved books for my local library, the Galt Ocean Mile Reading Center, part of the Broward County Library. Librarian Marlene Barnes, circulation supervisor Larry Cosimano, and library aides Vicki LaRue and Brittany Christopher helped me understand the inner workings of a reading room. The Galt Ocean Mile Reading Center in no way resembles the Flora Park Library and its staff, except they both have lots of books.
I’d need another book to name all the librarians who helped me with
Thank you all. It’s true: Librarians are search engines with hearts.
I appreciate the many librarians who told me the interesting and appalling things they’ve found in library books.
Special thanks to retired librarian Doris Ann Norris, who helped with the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System. To
librarian Dave Montalbano, Imperial Point Branch Library, Fort Lauderdale. Jill Patterson, branch manager of the Orange Country Public Libraries. Thank you, Anne Watts, assistant director of the Boynton Beach City Library, for your help and for lending me your six-toed cat, Thumbs, for this series.
I’d rather write a whole book than a title, but three mystery writers brainstormed and named
on the way to a signing at the Ivy in Baltimore. Thanks, Marcia Talley, Frances Brody and Hank Phillippi Ryan.
Former Fort Lauderdale commissioner Tim Smith, who owns T.L.C.’s Greenery, helped me with the details of Phil’s undercover lawn care.
Thank you, Detective R. C. White, Fort Lauderdale Police Department (retired) and licensed private eye. You answered my e-mails, even on New Year’s Eve. Thanks to Houston private eye and mystery writer William Simon and poison expert Luci Zahray, who fortunately uses her powers for good.
The real Margery Flax is much younger than Helen’s landlady, but both love purple.
Thank you, Donna Mergenhagen, Well Read Bookstore and Gallery, Fort Lauderdale; Molly Weston, Dick Richmond, Richard Goldman and Mary Alice Gorman, who knew of John Singer Sargent’s Florida connection. Thanks to Jane K. Cleland, author of the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries. Deborah Sharp let me use Himmarshee, Florida, the imaginary home of her Mace Bauer series.
Café Vico is a real Fort Lauderdale restaurant and I recommend the tiramisu.
Thank you to senior editor Sandra Harding, her assistant, Diana Kirkland, and publicist Kayleigh Clark, as well as my agent, David Hendin, and Don Crinklaw, my award-winning husband and reporter. (Yes, he’s both.)
Thanks to supersaleswoman Carole Wantz, who can sell string bikinis in a Siberian winter.
Thank you, Femmes Fatales Charlaine Harris, Dana Cameron, Marcia Talley, Toni L. P. Kelner, Kris Neri, Mary Saums, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Donna Andrews, Catriona McPherson and Frere Dean James/Miranda James for your encouragement and advice. Read our blog at www.femmesfatales.typepad.com.
Thanks also to my fellow bloggers at Kill Zone for your entertaining writing advice. Read us at killzoneauthors.blogspot.com.
All mistakes are mine. You can reach me at
need your help,” Elizabeth Cateman Kingsley said. “My late father misplaced a million dollars in a library book. I want it back.”
Helen Hawthorne caught herself before she said, “You’re joking.” Private eyes were supposed to be cool. Helen and her husband, Phil Sagemont, were partners in Coronado Investigations, a Fort Lauderdale firm.
Elizabeth seemed unnaturally calm for someone with a misplaced million. Her sensational statement had grabbed the attention of Helen and Phil, but now Elizabeth sat quietly in the yellow client chair, her narrow feet in sensible black heels crossed at the ankles, her slender, well-shaped hands folded in her lap.
Helen studied the woman from her chrome-and-black partner’s chair. Somewhere in her fifties, Elizabeth Kingsley kept her gunmetal hair defiantly undyed and pulled into a knot. A thin, knife-blade nose gave her makeup-free face distinction. Helen thought she looked practical, confident and intelligent.
Elizabeth’s well-cut gray suit was slightly worn. Her turquoise-and-pink silk scarf gave it a bold splash of color. Elizabeth had had
money once, Helen decided, but she was on hard times now. But how the heck did you leave a million bucks in a library book?
Phil asked the question Helen had been thinking a little more tactfully: “How do you misplace a million in a library book?”
“I didn’t,” Elizabeth said. “My father, Davis Kingsley, did.”
“Is it a check? A bankbook?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s a watercolor.”
lizabeth sat with her hands folded demurely in her lap, a sly smile on her face. She seemed to enjoy setting off bombshells and watching their effect.
“Perhaps I should explain,” she said. “My family, the Kingsleys, were Florida pioneers. My grandparents moved to Fort Lauderdale in the 1920s and built a home in Flora Park.”
The Kingsleys might have been early local residents, Helen thought, but this pioneer family hadn’t roughed it in a log cabin. The Kingsleys had built a mansion in a wealthy enclave on the edge of Fort Lauderdale during the Florida land boom.
“Grandpapa Woodrow Kingsley made his money in oil and railroads,” Elizabeth said.
“The old-fashioned way,” Phil said.
My silver-haired husband is so charming, only I know he’s calling Woodrow a robber baron, Helen thought.
“For a financier, Grandpapa was a bit of a swashbuckler,” Elizabeth said, and smiled.
Helen decided maybe Elizabeth wasn’t as proper as she seemed.
“He enjoyed financing silent films. He often went to Hollywood. Grandmama was a lady and stayed home.”
The old gal was dull and disapproving, Helen translated. Grandpapa had had to travel three thousand miles to California to go on a toot.
“Grandmama would have nothing to do with movie people. She dedicated herself to helping the deserving poor.”
Heaven help them, Helen thought. Their lives were miserable enough.
“Grandpapa put up the money for a number of classic films, including
that starred Pola Negri—and Erich von Stroheim’s
The Merry Widow
Films with scandalous women, Helen thought. Did Grandpapa unbuckle his swash for some smokin’-hot starlets?
“Impressive,” Phil said. “Von Stroheim was famous for going over budget. He ordered Paris gowns and monogrammed silk underwear for his actors in
so they could feel more like aristocrats.”
A tiny frown creased Elizabeth’s forehead. She did not like being one-upped.
“When he was in Hollywood, Grandpapa would drink scotch, smoke cigars and play poker,” she said. “He played poker on the set with the cast and crew, including Clark Gable.”
“Wow!” Helen said.
“Oh, Gable wasn’t a star then,” Elizabeth said. “Far from it. He was an extra and Grandpapa thought Gable wouldn’t get anywhere because his ears were too big. Many men made that mistake. Until Gable became the biggest star in Hollywood.”
There it was again, Helen thought, that glimpse of carefully suppressed glee.
“Gable was on a losing streak that night,” Elizabeth said. “He was out of money. He’d lost his watch and his ring. He bet a watercolor called
“A painting?” Helen said. “What was Gable doing with that?”
“I have no idea, but he was quite attached to it,” Elizabeth said. “He thought gators sunning themselves on a mud bank were manly. Grandpapa won the painting with a royal flush, but he didn’t trust Hollywood types. He made Gable sign it over to him. Gable wrote on the back:
I lost this fair and square to Woodrow Kingsley—W. C. Gable, 1924
. Gable’s first name was William. He changed his stage name to Clark Gable about then.
“Grandpapa admired the watercolor, and was surprised that a roughneck like Gable owned a genuine John Singer Sargent.”
“Sargent painted muddy reptiles? I thought he did portraits of royalty and beautiful society women,” Phil said.
“He did, until his mid-forties,” Elizabeth said. “Then he had some kind of midlife career crisis and painted landscapes in Europe and America. Sargent painted at least two alligator watercolors when he stayed at the Florida home of John D. Rockefeller.”
“Sargent switched from society dragons to alligators,” Helen said, then wished she could recall her words. Elizabeth’s grandmother was definitely a dragon.
“Dragons in training, usually,” Elizabeth said, and again Helen caught a flash of well-bred amusement. “Most of his society belles were young women.
“Grandmama refused to display the painting in her house. Grandpapa couldn’t even hang it in his office. She said it was ugly. I suspect it also may have been an ugly reminder of his Hollywood high jinks. She banished the alligator watercolor to a storage room.
“Sargent died the next year and Grandpapa had a fatal heart attack seven years later, leaving Grandmama a widow with one son. The watercolor was forgotten for decades.
“Until about five years ago,” Elizabeth said. “My father, Davis Kingsley, inherited the family home in the fifties. Papa was eighty when he found the watercolor in the storage room. Sargent’s work
was fashionable again. He had it authenticated and appraised. The watercolor wasn’t worth all that much, maybe three hundred thousand.”
Helen raised an eyebrow and Phil gave her a tiny nod. Three hundred K might not be much to Elizabeth, but the PI pair thought it was a substantial chunk of change.
“But it was worth much more, thanks to what the art world calls ‘association.’ A painting owned—and signed—by a film star brought the price up to more than a million dollars. The story behind it helped, too.
“Papa told everyone he’d discovered a lost family treasure. My brother, Cateman, and I begged him to have it properly stored and insured, but Papa said it wasn’t necessary. ‘It’s in a safe place,’ he’d say. ‘Safer than any vault.’ But we were concerned. Papa suffered from mild dementia by then.
“He died in his sleep six months ago, leaving his estate to Cateman and me. Papa gave me the Sargent watercolor and my brother inherited the family home. When the will was made five years ago, I was happy with that arrangement. I was a single woman with a comfortable income.”
Comfortable. That was how rich people said they were rolling in dough, Helen thought.
“Since then, I’ve had some financial reversals. That watercolor has become important. I need that painting to save my home, and we can’t find it.”
“It was stolen?” Helen said.
“Worse,” she said. “I believe it was accidentally given away. We’ve looked everywhere in the house, checked Papa’s safe-deposit boxes and the safe, but we’ve found no sign of the missing watercolor. My brother even hired people to search the house. We can only conclude that my father hid it in one of his books that were donated to the Flora Park Library.”
“Who gave it away?” Helen asked.
“Scarlett, my brother’s new wife. Cateman recently married his third wife. It’s a May-December marriage. He’s sixty and she’s twenty-three.”
Did Elizabeth disapprove of her new sister-in-law? Helen thought Elizabeth had made a face, like she’d bitten into something sour, but it was hard to tell.
“Cateman and Scarlett moved into the family home immediately after Papa’s funeral, and Scarlett began redecorating.
“Papa had let things slide in recent years. Scarlett doesn’t love books the way he did. I doubt she reads anything but the magazines one finds in supermarket checkout lines.”
Yep, Helen thought. Elizabeth definitely doesn’t like her brother’s new wife.
“Her first act was to get rid of what she called the ‘dusty old books’ in my father’s library, which dates back to Grandpapa’s time. Scarlett donated more than a thousand books to the Flora Park Library. Most of the books were of little value. Papa was a great reader of hardcover popular fiction, and the Friends of the Library began selling those while they had the more valuable books appraised.
“The Friends put ten mysteries on sale for a dollar each, and the hardcovers were bought within a few days. But a patron found the birth certificate for Imogen Cateman, my grandmama, in her thriller. She returned it to the library. Then a man discovered the deed to property in Tallahassee in a spy novel.”
“The Flora Park Library has honest patrons,” Phil said.
“People of quality live there,” Elizabeth said. “I would expect them to return family papers.”
Elizabeth sat a little straighter. She considered herself one of the quality.
“We concluded that my late father hid valuables in his books, and the missing watercolor was in a donated volume.”
“Why don’t you look for it?” Phil asked. “Don’t you know the people at the library?”
“Of course I do,” Elizabeth said. “But my job as a facilitator for my college alumni association takes up all my time.”
Helen had no idea what a facilitator did, but Elizabeth said it so gravely, Helen felt she should have known.
“I could have taken the books back and searched them myself, but that would cause talk.
“I can only give you a small down payment,” Elizabeth said. “But if you find the watercolor, I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars when it’s sold at auction. The library director is a friend and she’s agreed that you can work as a library volunteer, Helen, while you discreetly look for the watercolor.”
“Me?” Helen said. A library, she thought. I’d like that. I’d get to read the new books when they came in, too.
“If Helen takes this job,” Phil said, “how do you know Scarlett didn’t keep the watercolor?”
Helen thought her husband would make a fine portrait—eighteenth-century British, she decided. He had a long, slightly crooked nose, a thin, pale face and thick silver hair. She dragged herself back to the conversation.
“I showed her a picture of one of the alligator watercolors and she said it was ‘gross.’ She prefers to collect what she calls ‘pretty things,’ such as Swarovski crystal.”
“What about your brother?” Helen asked. “Does he have the watercolor?”
“Cateman is an honorable man,” Elizabeth said. “Besides, he has more than enough money.”
Rich people never have enough money, Helen thought.
“He actually hired people to search his house. Why would he do that if he was trying to keep the painting for himself?” Elizabeth asked.
“The search was done after the books were donated to the library?” Phil said.
“Of course,” Elizabeth said. The frown notched deeper into
her forehead. She was annoyed. “My brother is most anxious to help me find that artwork. He has sufficient means for himself and Scarlett, but he doesn’t feel he can afford to support me. His two divorces have cost him dearly.”
Now, that’s convincing, Helen thought.