I looked out the window at the sunless morning with a knot in my stomach, hoping this call would help. The ringing stopped and a familiar voice answered. After barely a greeting Frank Shaw got right to the meat of the matter.
"That was intense," I said, coming in the door to my kitchen. Julius looked up at me with a questioning meow, or at least that's how it sounded to me. "Okay, so I'm talking to myself now," I said to the black cat. "You would too if you'd just been through what I have. How about I had to be the middle man between the Delacorte sisters, the so-called royalty of Cadbury by the Sea, and the love child of their long-deceased brother they didn't know about."
Julius did a few swirls around my ankles that seemed more about affection than plying for some of his favorite cat food. Who said cats couldn't be supportive like dogs?
"We're a pair, aren't we?" I said to him. "Two wanderers who found each other." I reached down to give his sleek black fur a pet and heard him let out a loud purr.
I saw him looking toward the refrigerator and realized our emotional moment was over and he'd moved on to his midmorning snack. I dearly loved him, but certainly wished he'd picked something a little less fragrant for his favorite food. I called it stink fish, and believe me, it lived up to that name. Despite multiple layers of plastic bags and wrapping, I could still detect the strong odor. I swear I could smell the fish even before the can was opened.
I assumed my closed-nose position and began the unwrapping. Finally I dropped a dainty spot of it in his bowl. He was lapping it up before I'd finished tapping the last of it off the spoon. "I hope you appreciate that I'm trying to make up for your tough life," I said as I began the rewrapping process. Or at least that was what I assumed he'd had. I'd first met the cat when he was an unwelcome guest at Vista Del Mar, the hotel and conference center across the street, and the manager had tried to shoo him away with his golf cart. I got the feeling the cat had been showing up a lot and I guessed that he'd been abandoned by someone. He must have recognized me as a kind spirit because he showed up at my door shortly after that. I let him in without question and he's been here ever since. Later I heard that cats do the choosing when it comes to their humans and it seemed that he'd chosen me.
The phone was ringing as I shut the refrigerator door. Julius was already giving his paws a little after-lunch cleaning. I grabbed the cordless without bothering to check the screen.
"So. Feldstein, how'd it go?"
"Not even a hello first, Frank?" I said.
"Okay, hello. So then how'd it go? I thought you were going to call me." Frank Shaw was a private investigator and my former boss during my stint as a temp worker in Chicago. Working for him had been my favorite of the short-term jobs. It was far more interesting than trying to get department store customers to let me spritz perfume on them, or standing on Michigan Avenue handing out samples of a new flavor of gum called Tickle Your Taste Buds. It was more like scorch your tongue. The chief ingredient was chili pepper.
Now there was almost two thousand miles between me and Frank, but we'd stayed in touch. Well, I'd stayed in touch with him when I needed help in solving a murder.
Before doing the temp jobs, I'd tried law school, but after a semester knew it wasn't for me. I worked as a teacher in a private school and baked desserts for a friend's bistro until it closed. I was at loose ends when I started the temp work and was faced with having to move back in with my parents.
I was in the middle of my thirties and that simply wasn't option number one for me. So, when my Aunt Joan offered me her guesthouse in Cadbury by the Sea, California, I pretty much jumped at it. She was the one who helped me get the job as dessert chef at the Blue Door restaurant and to set up my freelance muffin making for the coffee spots in town.
I still felt a tug when I thought about her. She'd died shortly after I'd moved to Cadbury. My only consolation was that I had determined it wasn't an accident and brought the killer to justice-with Frank's help.
"What's going on, Feldstein? You're not talking. I haven't got all day. Are you going to fill me in or not?"
"Sorry, Frank," I said quickly. I let out a sigh as I saw the get-together in my mind's eye. Cora Delacorte was wearing one of her Chanel suits and too much green eye shadow. Her older sister, Madeleine, was sporting a pair of boyfriend jeans rolled up at the ankles. Neither of them knew why I'd invited them to coffee in Maggie's coffee shop. Then Gwen Selwyn had hesitated at the door. It was hard to imagine her as a love child. The title conjured up peasant tops and faded-out jeans. Instead, she wore sensible slacks and a thick brown sweater I was sure she'd knitted with some yarn from her shop. Her daughter, Crystal, accompanied her. She looked more like my vision of a love child in her rainbow of colored shirts piled on top of each other and earrings that deliberately didn't match.
I'd waved them over to the table and for a moment the four women stared at each other with only two of them knowing why they were there. "I should have done more of a cat's on the roof' first," I said to Frank. "You know, made some comment about how there were rumors that the Delacortes had some mystery family members they'd never met."
"What did you say?" he asked.
"I just blurted it out. I said Gwen is your niece-your brother's child. Then I pushed the envelope with the paternity test across the table. Then I added that Crystal was their grandniece and reminded Madeleine how fond she was of Crystal's son Cory.
Cora started shaking her head and pushing the envelope away. Madeleine was stunned but then she at least smiled. Gwen wasted no time in speaking up, assuring them she wasn't interested in their family fortune. It was really all about Cory and how much he loved Vista Del Mar, which their brother had owned and the sisters had inherited. She mentioned that Edmund's will had stated the hotel and conference center was to go to his offspring. She'd said she just wanted Cory to have a share of the place.
"And then war broke out?" Frank said.
"Not exactly. Cora and Madeleine were too stunned by the news to say too much. Gwen seemed at a loss for what to say after that and Crystal kept looking at the two women. I stepped in and suggested they all let everything settle in and then they could get together again. Hopefully without me," I added.
"I told you not to get involved," he said. True, he had told me to mind m own business when I'd uncovered the truth about the identity of Edmund's secret child.
"And I probably should have listened to you, but I didn't. So here we are."
"Well, if they decide to run you out of that town, I could probably find some work for you here. Even with the Internet, there is still a need for PIs, and lately business has been picking up."
"Thanks for the offer," I said, "but I'm good for now. I have a retreat coming up this weekend." My aunt had left me everything including her house and the yarn retreat business. She actually left me her house and a guesthouse, though that sounded grander than it was. The house was small and the guesthouse was a converted garage. I'd already versed Frank on the retreats, but the usual question was What is a yarn retreat? Basically, a group of people gathered for a long weekend away from it all and spent their time doing yarn craft.
Vista Del Mar was the perfect spot for it. The hotel and conference center was located on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula, giving it an away-from-it all feeling. There was lots of fog, and the moody weathered buildings that housed the guest rooms were sprinkled around the one hundred or so acres of the grounds. Each of the buildings had a cozy living-room-like space with comfortable chairs and a fire going in the fireplace. A boardwalk ran though the sand dunes that bordered the property and then there was the beach. It was beautiful with waves that were actually sea foam green, and the sand was so soft that no one minded getting it in their shoes. But there were also Danger signs, particularly near the rocky area that went out into the water. The signs warned that coastline was dynamic with crashing waves and crumbling cliffs. Rocks were slippery and large unexpected waves could sweep you off your feet. They suggested playing it safe and not climbing on the rocks or going into the water and risk getting carried out to sea.
The fact that Vista Del Mar was unplugged made it seem even more of a getaway from the world. There was no cell service, WiFi or even a television in the main building. There was a row of vintage phone booths with pay landlines and a message board for communicating in the building called the Lodge.
I'd come a long way since I'd first inherited the business. I hadn't known much about yarn craft other than to admire the many pieces my aunt had left me. It was part of my ritual to add something to my outfit that she'd made when I dressed for a retreat.
I had learned to knit and crochet, but my skills were basic and I relied on real expert helpers for the yarn craft workshops. I looked at my job as being the arranger, the host and the fixer if there was a disaster. I shook my head, realizing that problems seemed to be more the norm than the exception.
"It's a group coming from San Jose. They all know each other and even told me what activities they wanted so it ought be an easy weekend."
"And you're having it at Vista Del Mar, right?" he said.
"Sure. That's where they always are."
"And isn't one of the rich sisters' new relative one of your helpers?" he said.
"You mean Crystal?" I said. "She's my only helper for this retreat." The meaning of his comment suddenly sunk in. The meeting between the Delacorte sisters and their new family was likely to have some fallout, with me possibly in the middle. "I'm sure it will be fine," I said, trying to sound confident.
"You know where to reach me if things go south. And remember there's a job for you here." And then he hung up.
I let out a sigh, wishing I had postponed the meeting until after the retreat. There was nothing I could do about that now. All I could do was go forward and hope for the best.