Kathy Lynn Emerson
In Book Four of the Diana Spaulding Quartet, scandal-sheet journalist Diana Spaulding and her fiancé, Ben Northcote, are back in Maine, getting ready for their wedding, when an old friend of Ben’s asks for his help. From murder on an island off the coast of Maine to archaeologists, deep sea divers, and a duel with fencing foils, the action never stops. Add in the long anticipated meeting between Ben’s mother and Diana’s and the return of other characters from earlier novels and you have a book you won’t want to miss.
“A cozy history mystery filled with idiosyncratic characters and a unique setting.” I Love A Mystery
“Emerson’s fourth and final mystery in her Diana Spaulding series offers plenty of intrigue, eccentric characters and well-researched history . . . Newcomers will find this period cozy works just as well as a stand-alone.” Publishers Weekly
Originally published by Pemberley Press in 2008
Schooners, steamboats, yachts, and fishing boats navigated the choppy waters of Penobscot Bay, but Ben Northcote was too deeply troubled by what he’d found on Keep Island to appreciate the attractive picture they made. The promontory upon which he stood was the highest point of land on the island and commanded a spectacular view of surrounding landmarks. He had a clear view of Eagle Island with its beacon light. Shifting his gaze just slightly, he could see North Haven, Vinalhaven, and the Gulf of Maine beyond. Still farther out was the Atlantic Ocean, and if one kept going, England.
Slowly, he turned until he could see almost the entire length of Islesborough with the undulating Camden Hills beyond. Rotating further, he found himself looking across a cluster of tiny islands to Cape Rosier and Castine Head, its lighthouse prominent on a rugged cliff on the mainland. As he completed his circle, he remembered another time when he’d stood just here on a clear day and been able to pick out the top of Cadillac Mountain on Mt. Desert Island.
He could not see that far today. Nor could he put off making his report much longer. If he didn’t go in, Graham Somener would come looking for him. Keep Island’s seventy-five acres was comprised of meadows, cliffs, pebble beaches, rocky outcroppings, a swamp, and a cave. The latter offered the only possible hiding place, but held little appeal to Ben as an adult.
When he’d been a young boy and stayed on Keep Island as a guest, he’d always had hopes that what they’d named “the pirate’s cave” would one day yield a buccaneer’s treasure. If such a thing had ever existed, he and Graham had never been able to find it.
Keep Island belonged to the Somener family and had for at least three generations. Graham’s grandfather, Jedediah Somener, had made his fortune in shipping and built the house. Jedediah’s daughter, Graham’s Aunt Min, had planted imported shade trees. Grown to respectable size now—black walnut, copper beech, and chestnut—they complimented the island’s fragrant native pine and cedar. When Graham moved back to the island five years earlier, he had made numerous improvements, the addition of indoor plumbing and a gas plant the most obvious.
Overhead a gull screamed in counterpoint to the sound of waves breaking on the rocks below. Ben breathed deeply of the salty air and squared his shoulders. Procrastination solved nothing. Resigned, he headed back down the path that led to the Somener mansion.
He found Graham in his library, seated at the huge partners’ desk that dominated the room. He was not alone. Miss Serena Dunbar had arranged herself in a most unladylike fashion in one of the overstuffed chairs, head resting against one arm, lower limbs dangling over the other. Just as well she was present, Ben decided. She needed to hear his conclusions, too.
“Well?” Graham was tall, only a bit shorter than Ben himself. Like Ben he had dark wavy hair, but where Ben’s eyes were dark brown, Graham’s were the color of agates.
“All three men were poisoned.”
Miss Dunbar did not move but her unfashionably sun-browned skin blanched, making her freckles stand out. “You’re certain? There couldn’t be any possibility of a mistake?”
A frown knit Graham’s brow. “Food poisoning, do you mean?”
Interesting, Ben thought. Miss Dunbar assumed and accepted the worst while Graham continued to search for a more benign explanation. He wasn’t sure if this change in his old friend’s outlook was an improvement or not.
“Unless Miss Dunbar’s assistants are habitual opium eaters, it is unlikely they could have ingested that much morphine through error. One man might take an accidental overdose, but all three show the symptoms of narcotic poisoning—sleeplessness and dizziness alternating with bouts of unconsciousness, vomiting, a yellowish tinge to the complexion, rapid pulse, and pupils retracted to the size of pinpoints.”
Miss Dunbar righted herself and stood, brushing absently at the wrinkles in her divided skirt. “Will they recover?”
“If they survive another twenty-four hours without respiratory failure, the prognosis is good, but I make no promises.”
“Morphine?” Graham couldn’t seem to grasp the concept. “Narcotic poisoning? How can that be? Where would anyone get such a thing on my island?”
“Morphine has come into wide use as a painkiller in the last year or so. It would not be particularly difficult to obtain, though it is hardly something one acquires on the spur of the moment.”
“Do you mean to say that someone intended to murder my crew?” Miss Dunbar glared at Ben as if that were his fault.
“Possibly, although if so, they made a poor choice of weapon. There are other poisons more readily available that would have done a better job of it. If I had to guess, I’d say someone wanted to make whoever ingested the morphine ill and simply didn’t care if one or more people died instead.”
“That’s horrible!” Miss Dunbar exclaimed.
“Yes, it is.” And it made Ben wonder who the real target had been. Paul Carstairs and Frank Ennis were new to the area. George Amity was a local man who’d been hired to do the heavy digging at the excavation site when Miss Serena Dunbar had somehow talked Graham into letting her conduct an archaeological excavation on his private island.
Ben took the chair Miss Dunbar had vacated and stretched his legs out in front of him. It had been a long day. He’d been up at dawn—around four at this time of year—and had gone early to his surgery in Bangor. Graham’s telegram had arrived just before seven, giving Ben barely enough time to catch the 7:15 train. He’d scarcely had a moment since to draw in a deep breath.
“You’re certain it couldn’t have been food poisoning?” Graham asked. “They weren’t particular what they ate. Meals out of tins half the time. Maybe that—”
“Why did you send for me if you thought the answer was that simple?” Ben interrupted. He did not move, but his sharp tone belied the relaxed posture. “There are other physicians closer to Keep Island. One on Islesborough, another in—”
“None I’d trust to keep silent about this!”
Alert for anything that might indicate a return of the mental depression and dementia from which Graham had suffered five years earlier, Ben watched his friend intently, albeit through half-closed eyes. The unfortunate and well-publicized collapse of
a building Graham had designed had culminated in claims that he had been responsible for the loss of several lives. Deeply affected by the tragedy, hounded by the press, he had retreated from the world to live on Keep Island year round.
“Are you certain you didn’t suspect foul play?” Ben asked.
“No! I swear to you, I was sure it was just food poisoning. But rumormongers might easily have turned that into something else.”
Ben hoped the sarcastic suggestion would jar Graham back to reality before he convinced himself that another spate of half-truths and false accusations was imminent. He had a deep-seated fear of attracting attention to himself and Ben well understood why. Unfounded speculation among his former associates and in the press had driven Graham out of Boston and very nearly driven him mad.
Miss Dunbar’s long strides took her back and forth over the diamond trellis design of leaves and flowers on the carpet. She came to an abrupt halt in front of one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and turned to face Ben. “Some people think there is a curse on this island.”
Ben’s eyes popped all the way open and he sat up a little straighter, thinking he must have misheard her.
“Don’t look at me like that, Dr. Northcote. I did not say that I believe in such nonsense. The notion came from Mr. Somener’s housekeeper.”
The redoubtable Mrs. Prudence Monroe. Ben remembered her well from his childhood. She was as prickly as a porcupine, but she could turn a bit of dough, a few apples, and a dash of cinnamon into ambrosia.
“Tell me about this curse.” Ben was certain he’d never heard of it before.
“What is there to say?” Graham’s exasperation had increased to the point where he’d raked agitated fingers through his hair, leaving clumps of it standing on end. “The locals never inhabited this island before my grandfather built here. They seem to have gotten it into their heads that it was a dangerous place. I don’t know why. The rocks off shore are no worse than anywhere else in Penobscot Bay. There have been no shipwrecks—”
“That you know of,” Miss Dunbar interrupted.
“No matter what happened here in the distant past, Keep Island has not been unlucky for the Someners. For me it has been a blessed refuge.”
“I understand your desire for seclusion,” Ben said, meeting Graham’s eyes, “but this looks like a case of attempted murder. You can’t just ignore it and hope it will go away. You need to contact the sheriff.”
“Out of the question. Besides, what good does it do to close the barn door after the horse has escaped?”
“Whoever poisoned those men could try again.”
Tossing aside the pen he’d been toying with, Graham huffed out an exasperated breath. “I do not see how some stranger could come to my island and tamper with supplies without anyone noticing. It defies logic.”
“Someone already here, then.”
At Ben’s suggestion, Graham sent a speculative look in Miss Dunbar’s direction. Affronted by the very idea that one of her crew would poison both himself and his associates, she swept across the room to within striking distance of Graham’s chair.
Hands on hips, lower limbs braced wide apart, she fixed Ben’s friend with a fulminating stare.
Graham slowly rose, regaining the high ground. “Perhaps we should ask—”
“The notion is absurd. I have total confidence in my men.”
“Well acquainted with each of them, are you?”
Ben interrupted before the quarrel could escalate. “My patients are too weak to be interrogated just yet, but I do have a few more questions for the two of you.”
They turned on Ben as one, identical glares scorching him. He found that strangely reassuring. Under the circumstances, Graham’s display of temper was a normal reaction.
“What do you want to know?” Graham asked.
“This house is huge. Why were those three men obliged to camp out while Miss Dunbar stayed in one of the guest rooms?”
“It was their choice,” she informed him in a lofty voice. “They preferred to be close to the excavation. I would have stayed with them had Mr. Somener not insisted I accept his hospitality.”
“And meals? Why didn’t they join you for those, or eat in the kitchen with the servants?”
This time Graham answered. “They chose not to.”
“Two of them are accustomed to living rough when on an expedition,” Miss Dunbar elaborated. “Mr. Ennis spent several seasons excavating in Egypt. Mr. Carstairs is just back from studying the Casa Grande ruins in Arizona. I believe Mr. Somener’s mansion intimidated them. It certainly awed Mr. Amity. They all felt more comfortable sleeping in tents and cooking their own food.”
“Then whoever administered the morphine expected it to be ingested by one or more of those men, but not by one of you,” Ben concluded.
Graham and Miss Dunbar exchanged a startled look.
“None of the victims seems likely to have provoked the wrath of anyone who would use morphine as a weapon,” Ben continued. “That makes me wonder if the motive was to close down the excavation.”
“Deliberately poisoning three innocent men seems an extreme measure if that was his only purpose.” Miss Dunbar boosted herself up to sit on the corner of Graham’s desk while he subsided into his chair.
“I agree, but if it doesn’t turn out to be the result of, say, a quarrel one of the victims had with someone, then you need to ask yourself if you have any enemies who’d resort to such measures.”
“I have professional rivals,” she admitted, a thoughtful expression adding creases to her brow. “There is one archaeologist in particular who seems to delight in ridiculing my theories. But why would he try to kill my men when he’s so certain I’m never going to find anything? Besides, no one knows what I’m doing here. I’ve been careful to keep it secret.”
“People are aware there is an archaeological excavation on Keep Island. They can see that much from a passing boat.”
“But they don’t know what it is I’m looking for.”
Neither did Ben, but at the moment that seemed irrelevant.
“Consider this rival carefully. Might he simply have meant to disrupt things? Someone who doesn’t understand how powerful a drug morphine is could have thought it would stop work by making your men sick.” A dangerous mistake, but possible. “Mischief like that could easily have turned into murder.” Ben heaved himself out of the chair. “I need to return to my patients. I’ll stay until they’re out of danger.”
“I appreciate that, Ben.” Graham managed a bitter laugh. “I don’t need any more deaths on my conscience.”
“Then reconsider calling in the sheriff.”
As a parting shot, Ben doubted it was effective. Graham guarded his privacy as ferociously as a lioness did her cubs.
Only for an old and dear friend, Ben thought, would he have offered to remain more than the one night he’d initially planned on. He had pressing obligations at home, not the least of which was his own wedding. He was to be married in just eighteen days.
He made one detour on his way back to the former nursery that had been converted into a temporary hospital. He stopped off in his own room to pen a brief letter to his intended bride. The last thing he wanted was to have Diana worry about him . . . or become curious as to why he’d left town so suddenly and mysteriously. He reckoned the letter would go out on the afternoon delivery boat and Diana would have it in hand by the following day.
Three Days Later
“Mother, please!” Exasperation laced Diana Spaulding’s voice. She willed her hands to remain folded and motionless in her lap. If she reached for her cup while she was in such an agitated state, she’d spill every drop of tea and likely put a crack the delicate china as well.
Elmira Leeves ignored her daughter. Calmly taking another sip of the beverage in her own cup, to which she’d just added a dollop of whiskey, she aimed her piercing blue- eyed stare at the third individual in the crowded parlor of Ben Northcote’s house in Bangor, Maine.
Diana’s future mother-in-law, Maggie Northcote, was a study in outrage as she sat enthroned on the rococo sofa. Swathed in purple fabric, from the loose gown flowing around her sturdy form to the turban that covered her graying hair, Maggie’s countenance had taken on a shade almost as vivid as her garments. It appeared to Diana that an explosion was imminent . . . or a fit of apoplexy. Although she looked younger—her complexion was smooth as that of a woman half her age—Maggie Northcote was in her fifties, just as Elmira was. Diana feared for her health.
“How dare you suggest such a thing?” Maggie demanded in a strangled voice. “Ben is no coward. Why he—”
“Where is he, then?” Elmira’s knowing smirk was almost enough to drive Diana to violence. “That’s all I asked.” She took another sip of her adulterated tea. “The wedding is only a fortnight from now and the bridegroom seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Has he changed his mind and fled? Or is he just off indulging in one last debauch?”
“He was called away on a medical emergency,” Maggie said through gritted teeth.
“He’s been gone for days and you haven’t heard a word from him. You don’t even know where he is,” Elmira persisted. “Do you?”
Diana’s hands ached from clasping them so tightly together. The delicious evening meal she’d consumed not a half hour earlier, before the ladies withdrew for tea and left Elmira’s new husband to his post-prandial cigar in the library, churned in her stomach. She drew in a slow, calming breath and tried to dismiss the disloyal thought that Ben might have left town solely to avoid being witness to the inevitable clash between Maggie and Elmira. Their faint hope that two such strong-minded, independent, eccentric women would find common ground and become friends had died a quick death. Barely twenty-four hours after their first meeting, they were at each other’s throats.
Worse, Elmira’s none-too-subtle hints had fallen on fertile ground. Diana could not help but feel abandoned. Ben hadn’t even told her in person that he was leaving town. He’d gone in to his surgery early on Tuesday morning. Diana had barely begun her own day when a note had arrived, delivered by a boy Ben had paid to carry it. The brief and unsatisfying message had contained no explanation and nary a hint of when Ben would return. Neither had it said where he’d gone. He’d left a similarly uninformative note on his surgery door, telling patients to go to Dr. Randolph in an emergency.
Maggie rose from the sofa, compelling Diana’s attention. In spite of her stature— she was only of medium height—she had a regal air about her as she looked down her nose at Elmira. “Foolish mortal. You do not realize how great your suffering will be. The gods punish those who offend them. You’ll be squashed flat as a bug under a schoolboy’s foot.”
Elmira’s braying laugh made the teacups clatter. “If you’re a deity, I’m the Empress of India!”
“I am descended from Gypsies. And from the nobility of Europe. The blood of a countess runs in my veins.”
Elmira lifted an eyebrow at this, then downed the last of the liquid in her cup. She stood slowly, brushing crumbs off her dark green skirt and squaring her shoulders. She was a stout woman, two inches taller than her daughter, and should have been able to cow Maggie Northcote by her greater size alone.
“Mother, you are a guest in this house,” Diana hissed.
Both women turned on her. Elmira’s gaze was acrimonious but the bemused look in Maggie’s odd, copper-colored eyes suggested she’d forgotten Diana was there.
With a sniffing sound Diana supposed was meant to indicate that her feelings were hurt by Diana’s criticism, Elmira stepped away from the grouping of sofa and loveseat and headed for the grand piano in one corner of the room. In no hurry, she paused in front of a mirror to check her appearance en route.
At fifty-three, Elmira’s mahogany colored hair, which Diana had inherited, was liberally streaked with white. In contrast to Maggie, Elmira’s face was scored with deep furrows and her cheeks got their high color not from raw good health or from the application of cosmetics but from tiny broken capillaries under the skin. She’d had a hard life, Diana reminded herself, but that was no excuse for rude behavior. It wasn’t as if Elmira didn’t know any better. For years she’d hobnobbed with the cream of Denver society.
Elmira plunked herself down on the piano stool and ran idle fingers over the keys. She winced at the sound this produced. “Don’t you ever tune this thing?”
“Why bother?” Maggie answered. “No one in this household plays.”
The enormous, long-haired black cat who had been asleep on top of the piano uncurled himself and stretched. With a hiss in passing at Elmira, he hopped down and crossed the room to Maggie, stropping himself enthusiastically against her skirts until she stooped to pick him up.
“Cedric always has had good taste,” his mistress murmured, cuddling him close and shooting Elmira a superior smile.
“Cats! Can’t abide them. They aren’t even good eating.”
“Cedric isn’t just a cat. He’s my familiar.”
Another bray of laughter greeted Maggie’s claim to be a witch. “Better get busy with your spells, then. Maybe you can locate your lost lamb. Diana tells me the minister insists on talking to them together before their nuptials. A nuisance, I’m sure, but there it is.” She hit a series of discordant notes before abandoning the piano to roam the parlor.
Maggie muttered something unintelligible.
“What’s that?” Elmira demanded.
“I said I tried that already!” Maggie all but snarled the admission.
“Well, then, it’s a good thing I took matters into my own hands.”
Diana sprang to her feet in alarm, setting the china rattling. “Mother, what did you do?”
“I searched his room, of course, and when that yielded nothing useful I sent my darling new husband to Ben’s office to search there. Ed is better than I am at getting into locked buildings.” When the cries of outrage died down, Elmira added, in a tone that set Diana’s already strained nerves on edge, “Men are always leaving their possessions lying about.”
“Well,” Maggie demanded in the lull that followed this statement, “what did you find?”
“A telegram, one sent very early on Tuesday, the same day Dr. Northcote so abruptly left Bangor.”
“You’re enjoying this,” Diana said with considerable asperity, “and enjoying drawing it out.”
Elmira shrugged. “Why not? I have so few pleasures in life.”
Maggie’s snort of disbelief threatened to start another round of snide comments and outright insults. Diana held up a hand to silence them both. “Enough! Where is the telegram now?”
“You never let me have any fun,” Elmira complained, producing it from a pocket in her skirt.
Diana had to shake off the eerie conviction that, had she not been staring at her mother, she’d have had difficulty telling which woman had spoken. She’d more than once heard Maggie accuse Ben of the same thing.
Taking the telegram, Diana unfolded the paper and read its contents aloud: “Need medical assistance. Meet noon Belfast. Tell no one. Somener.”
“Somener,” she repeated, recognizing the name from the list of wedding guests. “Graham Somener. He’s one of Ben’s closest friends.”
He was also a very wealthy man, one she intended to ask for an interview when they met. Was that why Ben hadn’t told her who had asked for his help? Diana bridled at the notion that tell no one had applied to her. Just because she refused to resign her position as a reporter for the Independent Intelligencer was no reason to shut her out. All
Ben had to do was ask her not to write about his friend. She had no desire to pursue reluctant subjects.
As she puzzled over the implications of the telegram, Maggie and Elmira resumed their seats. Maggie poured more tea.
“That perfume doesn’t suit you,” Elmira remarked to her hostess. “Lily-of-the- valley is all wrong. Almost as bad a match as the gardenia scent my daughter seems to have bathed in.”
Since the ornate crystal bottle of Eau de Gardenia had been a birthday gift from Ben, given to her only a few days before he’d left. Diana had to bite back a waspish response. Ben said her skin reminded him of gardenia petals. She’d always considered it a very pretty compliment.
Maggie didn’t bother with restraint. “Something with nettles would suit you, I think. Or adder’s tongue.”
Elmira chuckled. “Good one.”
Belatedly, it occurred to Diana that the two women were enjoying the exchange of insults. That was the final straw. Out of patience with them both, she left them to their verbal sparring and went out into the garden.
Twilight still lingered, although it would be gone in a matter of minutes. Diana relished the longer days and milder temperatures of June after the violent storms of March and the long, cold weeks of April and May. She needed no shawl as she wandered the paths that surrounded Ben’s house and the illumination spilling out through various windows was sufficient to light her way as the last of sunset’s rosy glow was swallowed up by the night sky.
Peaceful quiet engulfed her as she moved away from the house. For a time her thoughts roamed as freely as she did, but she was not altogether surprised when her ramble brought her to the carriage house. Aaron Northcote’s studio was on the upper level and Aaron, for all his peculiarities, was exactly the person she needed to talk to. However strange it might be to seek out Ben’s brother as the voice of reason, at this moment that course seemed to make perfect sense.
Diana smelled the distinctive scents of linseed oil and turpentine even before Aaron opened the door to her tentative knock. “If you’re working, I can come back another time.”
“My muse! Don’t you know you’re always welcome?”
The studio was a single large room, sparsely furnished. Aaron offered her the one comfortable chair, an overstuffed behemoth that was sinfully soft and yielding. He seized the bentwood chair off the small pedestal, where it usually served to seat artist’s models, turned it around, and straddled it, leaning his elbows on the curved back and fixing his intent gaze on her face.
She wondered what he saw in the half light. In contrast to the level below, here only one lamp had been lit and the room was deep in shadow. The finished canvases piled against the walls, many of them face out, created an eerie atmosphere, for the majority portrayed fantastic scenes of mermaids and monsters. A number of the former had Diana’s face.
“Be quiet!” Aaron spoke sharply, but not to Diana. His focus had shifted to a point beyond her right shoulder.
She ignored the interruption. She knew no one was there. Ben had warned her it was best to let Aaron deal with his voices as he saw fit, rather than try to convince him that they were imaginary. They were real to him.
After a strained moment or two, Aaron smiled at her as if nothing odd had transpired. “What brings you to my lair? No, let me guess. They’ve murdered each other and you want my help to dispose of the bodies? Or perhaps you’ve murdered them both. Yes, that’s more likely.”
Shocked and amused at the same time, she found herself returning his engaging grin. Like his mother, Aaron enjoyed saying outrageous things. “They were both alive and well when I retreated from the field of battle,” she assured him.
“I like your mother,” Aaron said. “She speaks her mind. When I met her earlier in the garden, she asked me straight out if I was the madman in the family.”
“Oh, Aaron, I—”
He cut short her apology with a dismissive wave of one hand. “Better she knows all, don’t you think? Besides, I had a comeback ready that put her in her place. I said I was one of them.”
“How can you joke about it?”
He shrugged. “How can I not? But that’s not why you’re here. What is it, Diana? You haven’t ventured into my studio alone since Mother locked you in the crypt and I had to rescue you.”
She couldn’t control a shiver at the memory, but if he was able to speak so calmly of events that had almost led to his death, then she could do no less than answer him honestly. “What do you know about Graham Somener?” she asked.
“Is that where big brother’s gone? To Keep Island?”
“So it seems. Not that he bothered to tell me that was his destination. Or let me know he’d reached there safely.” She’d believed she and Ben had the best of relationships. That they were friends as well as lovers. But friends didn’t keep secrets from one another or fail to send a reassuring note or telegram.
“You could go after him,” Aaron suggested. “It’s no great distance. Eighteen miles to Bucksport, then another twenty or so across the waters of Penobscot Bay.”
“Is there a ferry?” Her eyes narrowed as the expression on his face deteriorated into a smirk. “What?”
“Some might say this is divine retribution,” Aaron murmured. “Not me, of course. But it wasn’t so long ago that I had to listen to Ben rant and rave because you’d failed to communicate your whereabouts to him. Since he followed you to find out what was going on, I suppose it is only right that you imitate his action.”
“It’s not the same.”
“He was angry at you. Now you’re angry at him.”
“Annoyed.” The same emotion had her on her feet, too het up to sit still. She moved restlessly from chair to window and back. What she felt wasn’t so much anger as envy. Ben’s disappearance had not only gained him a respite from the hectic wedding preparations, but also from the responsibility of dealing with family members, more of whom were due to arrive any day. Since several of them were at odds with her mother, there would be no diminution in the bickering and backstabbing.
“As I recall, Ben was spitting nails, he was so furious with you.” “I had good reason for what I did.”
“I imagine Ben would say the same about the present situation.”
“Oh?” Now temper did simmer, setting sarcasm loose. She’d been hurt that Ben had failed to confide in her before he left. That oversight pained her every time she thought of it. “And who, pray, has been murdered on Keep Island?”
The moment the words were out, Diana regretted them. Murder was not a matter to be taken lightly.
“No one . . . that I know of.”
“I am very glad to hear it.”
“But I haven’t visited there in years. Why did Ben? Why now?”
Diana stilled. “There was a telegram. It said ‘need medical assistance.’ That must mean someone was ill or injured, but the message came three days ago. Even in the midst of treating the sick, Ben would have spared a thought for me. Wouldn’t he?”
Aaron’s troubled expression offered no reassurance. He didn’t try to tease her out of her concern. “Go after him, Diana,” he said. “You’re right. Ben should have sent word to someone before this.”
Diana returned to the house by way of the kitchen door a short time later, still undecided about following Ben. She’d intended to go straight up to her bedroom, but when she heard the faint rumble of a male voice from the direction of the parlor, she changed her mind. It was not Ben, she realized as she drew closer, but by then she was too curious to retreat.
Her footfalls nearly silent on the thick carpet, Diana reached the doorway and paused. There was no sign of her mother. Diana supposed she had retired early, as she had the night before. She felt heat climb into her cheeks, remembering the risqué parting comment Elmira had made the previous evening, just before toddling off to bed with her brand new husband.
A stranger now sat on the loveseat Diana and Elmira had been sharing earlier. He had a stocky build and dark brown hair, but Diana could tell little else about him save that his suit was well cut and looked expensive. He had inclined his body in Maggie’s direction, his head canted in a way that suggested he was staring at her intently. Maggie gazed back at him, a fatuous smile on her face.
“Ben has gone to Keep Island,” she said. “We do not know when he will return.”
Diana didn’t think she’d made any sound, but the stranger turned in her direction the moment she stepped over the threshold, pinning her with a steely gray-eyed stare. Maggie blinked rapidly several times and looked surprised to find Diana in the room.
The stranger rose, showing himself to be of average height. “Ah,” he said. “Mrs. Spaulding, I presume?”
“And you are?”
“This is Justus Palmer, Diana,” Maggie said. “I knew his father aeons ago.” Now her smile was flirtatious. “You look just like him, Justus. You even have his voice. I could never forget its remarkable resonance. Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were him.”
Mr. Palmer seemed a trifle taken aback by this statement, but he recovered quickly. “I have been told before that I resemble him.” He returned his attention to Diana. “Will you join us, Mrs. Spaulding. I am hoping you can help me on a matter of some importance.”
Responding to the innate charm of the man, Diana seated herself on the loveseat. He did have a wonderful baritone voice, she thought. Almost as captivating as Ben’s. She wondered if he was an actor.
Palmer chose one of several straight-back chairs in the parlor rather than crowd either of the women. Maggie, Diana saw, had poured him a cup of tea, but he didn’t seem to have touched it. “May I offer you a stronger libation, Mr. Palmer?” she asked.
“Thank you, no. I do not drink spiritous liquors.”
“Your father kissed me once,” Maggie announced. When they both turned to stare at her, she shrugged. “Well, he did. But it was before I married Ben’s father, so there was no harm in it. He was a very good kisser, as I recall. Quite romantic. Though now that I think about it, I did come away from it with a cut on my lip. My but that man had sharp teeth!”
Diana sent Palmer a sympathetic look. Maggie’s outrageous comments must be embarrassing to him, but he managed to keep a polite expression on his face. “How can we help you, Mr. Palmer? I presume it is a matter of great importance indeed to require a visit so late in the evening.”
“I do a great deal of work after dark, Mrs. Spaulding,” Palmer said. “I am a private detective by profession.”
He winced, as if he’d heard that question one too many times before. “No, I’m not one of the Pinkertons. I have my own detective agency in Boston. Just now I am employed by a client who is concerned about activities on Keep Island.”
“Activities?” she echoed, puzzled. “What kind of activities?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? Illegal activities, or so my client believes.” Diana felt herself go cold inside and had to struggle to preserve her outward composure. She had reported on crime in New York City and elsewhere for her newspaper. She and Ben had encountered murder more than once in their personal lives. She had no wish to become involved in “illegal activities” again.
“I understand Dr. Northcote is presently visiting the island,” Palmer continued.
Since Maggie had already told him that much, Diana saw no harm in confirming it. “He left three days ago in response to a request by an old friend.”
“That would be Graham Somener, I presume.”
“Are you aware of Mr. Somener’s past?” His eyes cut briefly to Maggie and, following that path, Diana saw the other woman’s face harden.
“All lies,” she muttered. “Scandal.” She gave Diana a pointed look.
“Newspapers made up stories about him that were not true.”
Diana said nothing. The accusation might well be justified. Her employer, Horatio Foxe, editor and publisher of the Independent Intelligencer, had been known to stretch the truth until it snapped. When it came to a choice between reporting only the boring facts or embellishing a bit to pique his readers’ interest, he always chose to print the more colorful version of a story.
“In this case,” Palmer said, “there seems to be some basis for the published reports. Mr. Somener was an architect, Mrs. Spaulding. An extremely successful one. Some years back, he was involved in a construction project for a very tall building. He cut corners to save expenses. When the building was finished, and occupied, it collapsed. People died. His callous disregard for safety was directly responsible for those deaths.”
“It was a terrible accident,” Maggie protested.
“It is true that no criminal charges were ever brought.” Palmer leaned closer to Diana, capturing her gaze and holding it. “Immediately following, however, Mr. Somener retreated to his island. He’s been there for five years now and if he’s left it more than a half dozen times I’d be surprised to hear it. That could mean the man is riddled with guilt. It could also be that he is a coward. And if he was, and is, a ruthless businessman, then he’d not be averse to increasing his fortune by other underhanded means.”
“Of what, exactly, are you accusing him, Mr. Palmer?” Diana asked.
“Crimes, Mrs. Spaulding.”
A flash of memory made Diana frown. She’d recently told Ben, in no uncertain terms, that she did not want to become involved with crimes or criminals ever again—not to write about, not to read about, and definitely not to encounter in person. She’d meant it at the time, but now found her reporter’s instincts roused by Palmer’s hints. Besides, she thought, if Ben’s oldest and dearest friend stood accused of being involved in criminal activity, how could she not pursue the matter? To exonerate Graham Somener, of course.
Palmer leaned closer and spoke in a low, compelling voice. “You must tell me anything you know, Mrs. Spaulding. Everything. All you know about recent criminal activity on Keep Island.”
Diana found the man’s steady regard unnerving. It almost seemed as if he were trying to mesmerize her with that concentrated stare. His voice, too, was hypnotic. She blinked several times before she answered him.
“I know nothing about Keep Island or Graham Somener.”
“Now if it were Jedediah,” Maggie mused aloud, “I’d believe it. He was an old reprobate if there ever was one!”
“Jedediah?” Diana repeated, confused.
“Graham Somener’s grandfather. He’s the one who bought Keep Island years ago for a song. Cheated the fellow that sold it to him six ways to Sunday, that’s the way I heard it, and the rightful heirs were some put out about it, too. Nothing they could do, naturally, except curse the island for all eternity.”
“My information indicates very recent crimes,” Palmer said. “It has been no more than a few months, perhaps only a matter of a few weeks, since these illegal activities began.”
“What nonsense! Graham Somener is an honest man.” Maggie placed one hand over her ample bosom as if this would add sanctity to her conviction.
Diana regarded Justus Palmer with suspicion. “Just what particular crime do you believe Mr. Somener has committed?”
“Oh, yes, do tell,” Maggie interrupted. “We’re all agog! Has he opened a gambling hell on the island? A brothel? Or is it smuggling he’s taken up for fun and profit.”
For once, Diana was grateful for Maggie’s foolishness. It broke the spell Palmer’s unrelenting gaze seemed to be spinning around her.
“You must be specific, Justus.”
If Maggie’s sarcasm irritated Justus Palmer, he did not let it show. His voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “I fear I am not at liberty to say more, and even if I could betray my client’s confidences, I would not wish to distress you ladies by discussing such unsavory matters.”
Maggie snorted. “We are more worldly than you think, Mr. Palmer. No delicate sensibilities here.”
He accepted that statement with laudable aplomb but would not relent. “My client requires discretion, ladies. I cannot reveal his secrets simply to satisfy your curiosity.”
“And we,” Diana said, “cannot answer your questions simply to satisfy his. Perhaps you should come back after Dr. Northcote returns.”
Accepting his dismissal with apparent good grace, Palmer stood. “I believe I will do just that, Mrs. Spaulding. Thank you.” He started for the door.
“I’ll see you out.” Diana didn’t know what to make of the man. He was charming, but there was something . . . odd about him. And he was much too secretive for her peace of mind. She wouldn’t put it past him to sneak upstairs and search the house the moment their backs were turned. She went with him to the door, intending to see him safely through it, to be certain he left.
He stopped at the coatrack, where he had left a tweed greatcoat with a double cape. He shrugged into the heavy garment, in which he would surely be too warm on this mild June night, making Diana wonder if this was a delaying tactic. She certainly hadn’t needed a coat to walk in the garden.
“Have you a hat?” she asked, not seeing one.
“Never wear them.”
“How very odd.” Even Ben, who did not particularly care to cover his head, wore one sometimes, and if Mr. Palmer needed a coat—
The sudden realization that his lips had quirked into a wry smile as he watched her watch him left Diana feeling disconcerted.
“I mean you and yours no harm, Mrs. Spaulding.” Palmer stepped outside, but he paused just across the threshold to glance over his shoulder at her. “I don’t suppose you’d heed a word of friendly advice?”
“Probably not, but feel free to offer it.”
“Keep Island is a dangerous place. By all means do everything you can to convince Dr. Northcote to leave, but under no circumstances go there yourself.”