Death of a Toy Soldier

Bridal Bouquet Shop Mysteries

(Writing as Beverly Allen)

Floral Depravity

For Whom the Bluebell Tolls

Bloom and Doom

Death of a Toy Soldier
A Vintage Toyshop Mystery

Barbara Early

NEW
YORK

This is a work of fiction. All of the names, characters, organizations, places, and events portrayed in this novel either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real or actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Early.

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.

Crooked Lane Books and its logo are trademarks of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.

Library of Congress Catalog-in-Publication data available upon request.

ISBN (hardcover): 978-1-62953-838-9

ISBN (ePub): 978-1-62953-839-6

ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-62953-840-2

ISBN (ePDF): 978-1-62953-841-9

Cover design by Louis Malcangi.

Cover illustration by Hiro Kimura.

www.crookedlanebooks.com

Crooked Lane Books

34 West 27
th
St., 10
th
Floor

New York, NY 10001

First Edition: October 2016

Dedicated to all those who reached adulthood without forgetting how to play.

Chapter 1

Cathy slammed the receiver down, and the phone’s eyes wiggled. Yes, our telephone has eyes. These things happen when you work in a vintage toyshop and your phone was custom painted—and mounted on wheels—to resemble an iconic pull toy.

I winced. “Please tell me that wasn’t a customer.”

“Not a customer, Liz.” Cathy tucked a strand of her now mostly black hair behind her ear. A pink tendril still dangled between her eyes, so she went back for it. “Just another Julia Roberts wannabe thinking we’re offering acting classes.”

I shook my head. “Next time maybe just explain we’re not a drama club.”

The phone rang again and Cathy answered. “Thank you for calling Well Played.” She smiled sweetly at me before adding, “We’re not a drama club.”

While she fielded the phone call, I made a solemn vow never to hire another relative, then inspected our most recent estate-sale acquisition: a
Bionic Woman
lunchbox, complete
with thermos. A gentle, thorough cleaning had revealed only one minor nick in the finish, but otherwise, it could have perched on a store shelf back in the seventies. I found it a prominent place on our display wall and returned to the front of the shop by the time Cathy was hanging up—this time not so forcibly.

“I vote again for changing our name,” she said. “What’s wrong with Good Ol’ Toys?” She gestured dramatically, allowing me a good view of her spiky, pink-and-black leopard-print fingernails. Cathy considers herself an artiste—yes, with an
e
—and claims people expect her to show it in her appearance.

When I didn’t respond, she continued. “Toy Meets World? Toy Wonder?”

“If I had to pick, my favorite was Backstreet Toys. But you know Dad once he’s decided something.”

“You always take his side.”

The bell over the door interrupted our argument. Not that this discussion was heated or that Cathy and I bickered often. I doubted my sister-in-law could focus on a single topic long enough. She wasn’t flighty, exactly, just smart and so enthusiastic about a million things that her mind tended to wander.

Cathy swept back to the doll room, and I spun to face our newest customer. He deposited an old cardboard box on the floor and took his time stomping the snow and salt from his boots. He removed a pair of glasses that were fogging up and wiped the condensation from the lenses.

But I doubted this man was a customer. People who came in with boxes often wanted to sell or consign old toys. He
lingered in the doorway way too long, appearing nervous. Or perhaps he was just being a little OCD about clearing the snow from his boots. His skin was pockmarked but tanned—odd in itself for Western New York in the winter—and he wore scrubs under a heavy parka. I hadn’t laid eyes on him before, so he wasn’t one of our local collectors. He finally hoisted his box and headed my way.

“May I help you?” I asked.

“Uh, I have an appointment with Hank McCall.” The man shoved his glasses back onto his nose and began rubbernecking the shop.

There’s a lot to tempt the eyes in a vintage toyshop. Colorful classic toys of every decade lined the shelves, the most expensive in glass cases. Toy cap guns were displayed in a glass cabinet we’d obtained from an old gun shop. If we left them out, the place would fill with young boys staging shootouts, twenty-four seven. Action figures, play sets, and miniature vehicles jammed several aisles. About a foot below the ceiling, all around the perimeter of the shop, ran Dad’s prized toy train tracks. Not that we operated the trains much these days, since Othello, our black-and-white tuxedo cat, had commandeered the tracks as his personal catwalk and often snoozed in the tunnels.

“Cathy?” I didn’t have to raise my voice. She was still hanging in the doorway to the doll room. “Could you tell Dad he has a guest in the shop?”

“Will do.” Cathy headed to the back room and the roped-off stairway to the second-floor apartment where my father, Hank McCall, and I lived. At thirty-something, I took little
pride in admitting that I lived with my father. In fairness to myself, I suppose I should add that I moved in mainly to cut costs until the business turned a regular profit.

While Cathy’s footsteps echoed up the stairs, I turned back to the customer. “I’m Liz McCall.” I didn’t offer to shake hands, mainly because his were full. “My father should be here in a moment. He’s the expert, but I’m fairly good at evaluating toys myself.” And if I didn’t know something, that’s why they printed value guides. I reached for the box. “Shall we take a gander at what you brought?”

The man shrugged and shifted the box onto the counter, almost reluctantly. Why was I under the impression that he was terrified to be here?

“Are these items you’re looking to sell?” I asked.

“For now, I just want to know what they’re worth.”

Toy collectors tend to obsess over toys from their own childhood. We call it the nostalgia factor. This man was probably in his forties, so his collection would likely hearken from the late seventies or early eighties. Early Ninja Turtles? Star Wars action figures, maybe? I was eager to get my hands on some more Masters of the Universe.

The cardboard box smelled musty and felt brittle, like it had been in storage for a long time. I held my breath to avoid inhaling the swirling dust as I lifted the flaps.

These were no Ninja Turtles. “Oh! These have some age.” The box contained tin mechanical toys, the kind that you wind up, and they whir and move. “Antiques.” I wasn’t about to remove them from the box. I’d leave that to more expert hands. No harm in looking, though.

A tin elephant occupied one corner. I suppose it drew my attention first because of the bright colors. The red and gold paint on its elaborate blanket still shone bright, with only a few minor chips and dents. Based on the joints, I suspected it could pick up a coin in its mouth and swallow it.

Next to it, two tin boxers squared off, staged on one pitted platform. The condition seemed excellent, although the colors were more muted. The figures were mounted on wheels. I wasn’t sure if you pulled the toy or if there might be a winding key underneath.

Next to them, an overweight tin mother pushed a child in a wheelbarrow. The child was missing a hand but otherwise seemed in good shape. A winding key jutted from the mother’s white apron.

Suddenly it made me ill that these toys were jostling and bumping against each other in a cardboard box.

“They all, uh, work,” the man said. “I can show you.”

I quickly flipped the lid of the box shut, letting the dust fly. “These are liable to be fragile. I think you’re right in asking my father to look at them. He has a lot of respect for antique toys.” Respect? I think he worshiped them. Lionel trains. Toy guns. Even old dollhouses. Running the toyshop was his lifelong dream. Too bad it had to wait for his retirement, and under difficult circumstances.

Cathy hurried down the stairs, making even more noise than she had going up. “Liz, I’m afraid your dad . . .
stepped out
,” she said in a voice that sounded calm. Her wide eyes told me that was a lie. “His, uh, stuff is gone.”

Instantly my heart began to race. “How much of his stuff?” I asked with a forced smile, mimicking Cathy’s fake good humor.

“Quite a bit of it, actually.
You know
.”

I kept my smile, but only by gritting my teeth. “Stuff” served as our code word for the accoutrements of my dad’s former profession.

Now, many retirees dabble in their former occupations. They become consultants. Advisors. But most of those aren’t cops. And they certainly aren’t chiefs of police who had sustained a near-fatal gunshot wound in the line of duty.

After that came retirement and fulfilling his lifelong dream of opening Well Played. Most of the time he appeared happy in his new line of work. But on a bad day—and I had a feeling this was a very bad day—he’d seem to forget all about his grand retirement party and hefty settlement and would gather his “stuff,” including handcuffs and his legal firearm, and head back out to maintain law and order on the not-so-mean village streets. Last time, he arrested five people. Citizen’s arrest, of course.

I forced a grin at the customer, realizing I still hadn’t caught his name. “It seems my father is tied up at the moment.” I only hoped he wasn’t
locked
up. The new police chief didn’t seem too fond of Dad’s “little sprees,” as he called them, and had threatened to nail him with an obstruction of justice charge. “It’s probably going to take some research to find good numbers on these anyway. Could you leave them for a day or two?” I put my hand on the box. I didn’t want these babies to go anywhere. If this man let us handle the sale of these toys,
the commission could pay our burgeoning heating bills until February.

His mouth opened but nothing came out. For a moment, I feared he would whisk the box right away from us and take his chances on eBay. Instead, he said, “Sure. That’d be okay. I’ll check back in a couple of days.”

He’d made it halfway to the door when I called after him. “Do you have a card or contact information in case we need to reach you?”

“Uh . . .” He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a business card, looked at it, and held it out to me. Then he walked back out into the cold.

As soon as he’d cleared the threshold, I kicked off my flats and shoved my feet into my boots, which I kept near a heating vent behind the counter. Cathy ran out of the back room with my blue wool pea coat. I slipped it on and whisked my gloves out of the pockets. “Mind the shop!” I said as I pushed open the door. I raised my collar against the chill and did a spin, taking in the 360-degree panoramic view of the village’s idyllic Main Street. Banks of snow lined the brick thoroughfare and slush covered the sidewalks. Folks who’d braved the cold hurried to get where they were heading. Other times of the year, the walkways would be teeming with strolling visitors who came for various festivals in the spring and summer and later to see the leaves change, or maybe just to visit the historic and delightfully corny five-and-dime store that anchors the street of small shops and eateries. Still, the months prior to Christmas might be when the town put on its best show, with twinkling lights, red bows, and evergreen swags gracing
almost every surface, as well as the old-time animatronics, rescued from failing department stores, doing their thing in various shop windows.

If I were a lucky person, Dad would be standing in front of one of the storefronts, watching the old mannequins carry out their jerky motions. I’ve never been that lucky.

Dad, where are you?

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