Connecting rooms, p.4
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       Connecting Rooms, p.4

           Jayne Ann Krentz
 
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  “Find anything interesting?” Amy asked in a muted tone.

  “Interesting?” Owen paused to read the headlines that were moving slowly across the screen. “Let’s see. ‘Villantry Eagles Break Six-Game Losing Streak.’ How does that sound?”

  “About as exciting as ‘Raymond C. Villantry Dedicates New Library.’ ”

  Owen glanced around. “I guess that would be the old library now. The one we’re in.”

  The Raymond C. Villantry Memorial Public Library, a sturdy structure in the tradition of old-fashioned municipal buildings, was surprisingly busy for a small library on a Friday morning, Owen thought. As a book lover himself, he took a certain pleasure from that fact.

  In one corner a gaggle of preschool-age children had assembled to listen to fairy tales read by a librarian. Their shouts of glee and shrieks of horror drifted across the cavernous main room. The children’s mothers, no doubt grateful for the respite in parental duties, perused the display of new books.

  The janitor, a balding, middle-aged man in coveralls, set up a sign in front of the women’s room and disappeared inside with his wheeled bucket and well-used mop.

  Three elderly men sat at tables in the newspaper section poring over copies of the Wall Street Journal. Two librarians and a small group of what appeared to be concerned citizens hovered near the entrance to the new wing. They were apparently making final arrangements for Saturday’s dedication ceremony. As Owen watched, they were joined by Raymond Villantry Jr., who strode through the door wearing a business suit. When he appeared, there was a chorus of respectful greetings. Then the entire group disappeared into a conference room and closed the door.

  “Look, here’s a picture of Madeline Villantry standing next to her husband.” Amy leaned closer to the screen. “I’ll bet she was prom queen, homecoming queen, and head cheerleader.”

  “You can tell all that from a photo?”

  “See for yourself.”

  More than willing to take advantage of the offer to move closer to Amy, Owen shifted position to get a better view of her screen. “Right. Definitely prom queen.”

  The old black-and-white photo was grainy and blurred, but there was no hiding the fact that Madeline Villantry had been a beautiful woman in her younger days. She stood beside her husband, the late Raymond C. Villantry Sr., who was holding forth from a lectern in front of the library.

  Amy wrinkled her nose. “He looks like a politician.”

  “Yeah. Junior is a dead ringer for his old man, isn’t he?”

  “Yes.” Amy frowned at the photo. “I’ll bet that was not a happy marriage.”

  Owen glanced at her in surprise. “What makes you say that?”

  “I’m not sure. Something about the expression on Madeline Villantry’s face. Poised. Gracious. Aloof. Dutiful. Anything but happy.”

  “I think you’re trying to read a little too much into a thirty-year-old photo.”

  “Maybe.” Amy shrugged. “Not that it matters to us. Aunt Bernice said that Raymond C. Villantry Sr. died three years ago.”

  “And young Raymond Junior took over the company. Wonder how he likes being called Junior.”

  “Between you and me, he doesn’t look any nicer than his father.”

  “I don’t think that being nice is a job requirement for running a company the size of Villantry.” Owen took advantage of the situation to lean in just a little closer.

  He caught a whiff of the flowery fragrance of Amy’s hair and inhaled deeply. Along with it came a more intriguing scent. Warm, female, and deliciously spicy. He did not think he would ever be able to get enough of it. Of her.

  “Owen,” Amy hissed.

  “Sorry, I was just trying to get a better look at the picture.”

  “Never mind that. Look.”

  “At what?”

  “Arthur Crabshaw. He just walked into the library. See? Over there by the magazine rack.”

  Owen straightened reluctantly and turned to look at the racks. Sure enough, Crabshaw was leafing through a new copy of Newsweek. “So what?”

  “What’s he doing here?”

  “Reading a magazine?”

  “That isn’t funny. Owen, he told us that he was going to play golf this morning.” Amy scowled impatiently. “It’s not raining, so why did he cancel his game?”

  “Why don’t we ask him?”

  “Don’t be silly. He’s up to something. I know it. I told you there was something shifty about that man.”

  “Amy, the first rule in the investigation business is not to jump to conclusions. Crabshaw simply dropped into the library to scan a few magazines. Don’t make a federal case out of it.”

  “He’s leaving the magazine rack. Don’t let him see you.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because we want to keep an eye on him. We need to find out where he’s going.”

  “I think he’s headed for the men’s room,” Owen said.

  “Oh.”

  Owen rested one arm over the back of the hard wooden library chair and watched Arthur Crabshaw disappear into the men’s restroom. Amy looked severely disappointed.

  “Cheer up,” Owen said. “Maybe he’ll do something really suspicious when he comes out of the john.”

  “You think this is amusing, don’t you.”

  “I think you’re overreacting,” he said gently. “Why are you so determined to prove that Arthur Crabshaw is up to no good?”

  “I told you, I don’t want him to take advantage of Aunt Bernice.”

  “Just because he happened to return to Villantry a few months after your uncle died doesn’t mean he’s out to marry Bernice for her money.”

  “I still say the timing is very suspect. Be careful, he’s coming out.”

  Owen dutifully retreated a little farther behind the shelter of the microfilm reader. Arthur Crabshaw emerged from the men’s room and headed swiftly toward the front door of the library.

  “He seems to be in a big hurry all of a sudden,” Amy observed.

  Owen chewed on that for a while. He hated to admit it, but there was something about Crabshaw’s behavior this morning that was at odds with the genial man who had entertained them at dinner last night. Whatever it was, it reminded Owen of the look that had been in Crabshaw’s eyes last night when he had chatted with Madeline Villantry.

  Owen reached a decision.

  “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”

  He got to his feet and walked casually toward the men’s room. He passed the three elderly men bent over their financial papers. None of them bothered to look up from the stock market listings. The janitor, whose name tag read E. TREDGETT, had finished mopping the women’s room. He started off toward the new wing with his clanking wheeled bucket.

  Raymond suddenly emerged from the conference room, apparently intent on heading toward the restroom. He walked out just as the janitor went past the door. The toe of Villantry’s Italian leather shoe struck the bucket. Sudsy water sloshed over the edge.

  “Damn it, Eugene, watch where you’re going.”

  “Sorry, sir.” Eugene Tredgett seemed to fold in on himself. He hurriedly used his mop to clean up the spill.

  Raymond appeared to realize that Owen was watching the small incident. He scowled and then apparently changed his mind about his destination. With a disgusted shrug, he turned back into the conference room and closed the door.

  Owen gave the janitor a sympathetic smile. Tredgett acknowledged it with a wan nod and trundled off with his bucket and mop.

  Owen went through the swinging door of the men’s room.

  The gleaming, white-tiled facility was empty. Owen dismissed the two urinals with a glance and then considered the two stalls. Amy would never forgive him if he didn’t make a thorough search of the premises.

  He walked into the first cubicle and lifted the tank lid. There was nothing inside the tank except water and the usual float-ball assembly.

  He went into the second stall and tried again.

  A
sealed envelope was taped beneath the lid.

  Chapter 5

  “Take it easy, Amy,” Owen said. “Calm down. This may have nothing to do with Crabshaw. I need time to think. I’ve got to get more information before I can decide what to do next.”

  Amy scowled at him across the picnic table. It wasn’t easy. Every time she looked at Owen a flood of memories washed over her. She could still feel the heat of his mouth on hers. She was certain that his arms had left permanent impressions on her body. But his stubbornly slow, methodical approach to his work was going to drive her crazy.

  “Are you nuts?” she demanded. “It’s got everything to do with Crabshaw. There’s a thousand dollars inside that envelope and Crabshaw was the last man to go into that restroom before you. He must have been the one who left the money under the tank lid.”

  “It could have been left by someone earlier this morning.”

  “Hah. What are the odds?”

  “Okay,” he muttered, “I’ll grant you that a coincidence like this is something of a long shot.”

  “That’s putting it mildly.” Amy threw up her hands, exasperated. “Who else would have left that money inside a toilet tank? I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t that many people here in Villantry who could come up with that kind of cash.”

  “Amy, that envelope could have been taped inside the lid at any time during the past week, or even the past month. Hell, it could have been left there sometime during the past year, for all we know. No one checks the inside of a toilet tank unless the toilet acts up.”

  “You’re going to be difficult about this, aren’t you.”

  “I’m going to be careful. Methodical. I’m going to take it one step at a time. That’s the way I do things, Amy.”

  “Hmm.” Amy folded her arms on the picnic table and glumly surveyed Villantry Park. She and Owen had come here to discuss their next move, but so far all they had done was argue about it.

  They were seated at a table located near a magnificent mass of rhododendron bushes. The stately Raymond C. Villantry Memorial Public Library was at the far end of the park. The Villantry Inn was on the opposite side. There was a bandstand in the center.

  A pond, complete with ducks and a couple of geese, added eye appeal to the attractive setting. Banners announcing fireworks hung over the entrance of the park.

  Amy was frustrated by Owen’s approach to this startling new development in the case. On the other hand, she had to admit that he was the expert.

  “All right. Hypothetically speaking,” she said, making an effort to sound reasonable, “what sort of scenario do we construct to explain that envelope you found?”

  Owen raised one black brow. “Hypothetically speaking, I’d say that it looks as if Arthur Crabshaw is being blackmailed.”

  “Blackmail.” Amy tasted the word with a sense of dreadful wonder. “Holy cow.”

  Owen fingered the envelope in his hand. “It’s conceivable that he’s been told to leave the money in the men’s room of the library. Think about it. Anyone can go into a public library at any time when it’s open. A person can hang around for hours, a whole day even, without anyone taking much notice. The victim can leave the money at any time. The blackmailer can pick up the payoff whenever he feels like it.”

  Amy peered at him as she digested that. “You do realize what this means.”

  “Why do I have the impression that you’re about to enlighten me?”

  She ignored that. “It means Crabshaw really does have some deep, dark secret. Something he’s hiding from my aunt. Something that is worth paying blackmail to conceal.”

  “Maybe.”

  “What do you mean, maybe?”

  “It’s a possibility,” Owen conceded. “That’s all I’m willing to admit at this point. I will, however, add the simple observation that the blackmailer is probably male. Which does eliminate approximately half the people in town.”

  “Male? Oh, yes, of course. The payoffs are being left in the men’s restroom. So whoever goes in to retrieve them is probably of the masculine persuasion. Right. Good thinking.”

  “I try,” Owen said.

  “All right, Mr. Hotshot PI, what do we do next?”

  “We follow Plan A.”

  “Which is?”

  “We wait for some of my morning phone calls to be returned. I want a little more information in hand before I confront Crabshaw.”

  Amy’s mouth went dry. “You’re going to confront him?”

  “Sometimes a surprise frontal assault is the quickest way to get an answer. I’ll pin him down this afternoon.”

  Amy hesitated. “Shouldn’t we go to the cops or something?”

  “With what? A handful of money that we happened to find in the men’s room? There’s no way in hell to prove that it’s a blackmail payoff. They’d probably put an ad in the Villantry Gazette inviting someone to claim it.”

  “I see what you mean,” Amy said. “But confronting Crabshaw could be dangerous. If he’s so desperate to protect his secret that he’s willing to pay blackmail, he won’t take kindly to your questions. He might become violent.”

  Owen smiled slightly. “I don’t believe this. Are you actually worried about me?”

  “Yes, of course I am. I’ve hired you to solve this case. I would feel terrible if something happened to you.”

  Owen’s green eyes darkened with irritation. “Have a little faith, Ms. Comfort. I realize that I no doubt appear to be downwardly mobile, professionally speaking, but I think I’m still capable of dealing with the likes of Arthur Crabshaw.”

  Amy flushed. “I didn’t mean to insult you. And I don’t think you’re downwardly mobile just because you gave up your business in Portland and moved to Misplaced Island. Heck, I did the same thing.”

  “True.”

  Silence fell on the picnic table. Amy was suddenly acutely conscious of the chattering of a pair of ravens, the distant shouts of youngsters playing on the swings, and a large, furry dog that was pointing one of the ducks on the pond.

  “So why did you move to Misplaced Island?” she finally asked very softly.

  Owen shrugged. “Got burned out, I guess. After I got out of the military, I got my PI ticket.”

  “Somehow I don’t see you in the military. I’ll bet you don’t take orders well.”

  Owen smiled wryly. “You’re right. It wasn’t a good career path for me. But I had married young. No education to speak of. I needed a job, and the military provided a way to support a wife. She left me after I got out of the service. Said she couldn’t take the unstable income. She fell for someone else while I was working to get my business up and running. After the divorce I worked harder. Spent the last ten years doing other people’s dirty work.”

  “Dirty work?”

  “Staking out people who try to defraud insurance companies. Trapping embezzlers. Finding missing persons. That kind of thing.”

  “And you got tired of it?”

  “Let’s just say I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t like my clients any more than the people they paid me to catch. The insurance company executives spent their time trying to avoid paying legitimate claims. The corporate executives were more cold-blooded than the embezzlers who stole from them, and the missing persons usually had very good reasons for not wanting to be found.”

  Amy smiled sympathetically. “Nothing was black-and-white, huh?”

  “Just shades of gray. A lot of gray. I had made some money on the side by buying fixer-uppers, doing the repairs myself in my spare time and reselling the houses at a nice profit. I decided to invest some of the money and use the rest of it to fix up my own life.”

  “On Misplaced Island.”

  “That’s it.” Owen looked at her. “What about you?”

  “Me?”

  “What made you decide to move to Misplaced Island?”

  “Seattle real estate is hard on a body. I worked the downtown condo market. There was a lot of pressure. I guess I burned out, t
oo. Also, I wanted more time to write. And then something happened last year.”

  “Your aunt called it a ‘dreadful incident.’ ”

  Amy grimaced. “I still get occasional nightmares.”

  “What happened?”

  “Most people don’t realize it, but real estate agents tend to lead adventurous lives. They never know what they’re going to find when they open the door of what is supposed to be an empty house or condo. I’ve had a variety of surprises.”

  “Somehow, knowing you, that does not amaze me.”

  She smiled wryly. “I once showed a condo to a staid, elderly couple. I’d finished the tour of the front room, kitchen, and bedrooms. We walked into the master bath and found two people making love in the jetted tub. They were so involved in what they were doing that they never even heard us.”

  Owen grinned briefly. “Make the sale?”

  “Yes, I did, as a matter of fact. It was the jetted tub that clinched the deal. The elderly couple couldn’t wait to try it out themselves.”

  “I take it that was not the ‘dreadful incident’ that made you decide you’d shown one condo too many.”

  “No.” Amy propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands. “Walking in on a murder in progress did that

  “Murder.”

  “Uh-huh. I came through the front door just after a respected businessman named Bernard Gordon had shot his partner. A little dispute over investment capital, apparently. Gordon was on his way out of the condo just as I arrived. We collided in the front hall.”

  Owen’s gloriously unhandsome features shaped themselves into an ominous mask. “You could have been killed.”

  “Gordon tried to do just that. He knew I could identify him. Fortunately, he was already rattled because of the first killing. His shot went wild. I had a chance to hurl my cellular phone at him. He instinctively ducked. I ran back the way I had come and headed for the emergency stairwell. I didn’t dare wait for the elevators.”

  Owen closed his eyes briefly. “My God.”

  “Gordon tried to chase me down the stairwell. But he stumbled on one of the steps.” Amy shuddered. “He fell to the bottom. Broke his neck.”

 
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