|Howard Phillips Lovecraft|
The Providence Journal is back in the short story contest business with this summer's H.P. Lovecraft competition. I helped judge. Read the finalists here and comment, if you'd like.
Combined with a recent reader's inquiry, this prompted me to dig into The Journal's archives for the four-part reader-finished contest that we launched 15 years ago. I wrote the first story, setting the scene with characters and the crime to be solved; readers in a contest wrote Part Two, that winning entry led to the contest for Part Three, which ended with the contest for Part Four.
Like this year's Lovecraft competition, which drew almost 200 entries from as far away as New Zealand and Pakistan, The Baby Hope Theft was very popular.
Herewith, a reprint of all four parts. Enjoy!
MYSTERY WRITING CONTEST
THE BABY HOPE THEFT
Chapter One: Bon Soir
By G. WAYNE MILLER
Publication Date: July 16, 2000
The call came in like most of them: after hours to my unlisted number.
You probably think that's funny, a private detective keeping his name out of the book. And you might wonder why I live at the end of a dirt road in the woods of Foster. The fact is, I'm not looking to make a fortune in this business. I spend most of my waking hours slogging away at the great American novel, and I need peace and quiet. I also need to pay the rent.
I go to bed with the birds, so the phone woke me from a sound sleep. I checked Caller ID but the number was blocked. Everyone's so paranoid these days. The machine picked up. A woman with one of those Park Avenue accents began to speak.
"Mr. Nolan," she said, "this is Claire Benson Spencer."
She sounded shaky. I knew immediately that she'd been robbed of either a painting or jewels, I assumed.
"You don't know me," Mrs. Spencer said, "but your services come highly recommended, and I am in need of your help."
Actually, I did know her about her, that is, from previous clients, all of whom are people of means. Claire Spencer was one of the wealthiest women in Newport, a Doris Duke type who was 68 years old and was rumored to own the most expensive collection of jewelry in all of New England. What wasn't rumor was the size of her house: 36 rooms on 27 acres of oceanfront property on exclusive Bellevue Avenue.
"Nick Nolan here," I said, picking up the phone.
"Thank God," said Mrs. Spencer. "My secretary wasn't sure this was your number."
"You've been robbed," I said.
Her gasp was audible. "How did you know?"
"I hear the mournful bale of material loss in your voice," I said. I like throwing fancy phrases at rich folks. They're always extremely impressed.
"My educated guess," I continued, "is jewelry. Most likely, a diamond ring." I knew it couldn't be cash. These Bellevue Avenue types never keep much of that on hand.
"It's as if you can read my mind," said Mrs. Spencer.
No, I wanted to say, your friends have big mouths. Claire Benson may have been a recluse, but everyone in high society Newport knew she owned the fabulous Baby Hope Diamond: a 22-carat rock said to have come from the same place in India as the larger Hope diamond itself.
"So how can I help you, Mrs. Spencer?" I said.
"Find my diamond," she said. "It was stolen during a dinner party at my place tonight."
"Have you called the police?"
I knew she hadn't police logs are public records and pesky reporters drool over them.
"Lord, no," the woman said. "You can just imagine if the press ever got hold of this."
I could. I'd lived through the von Bulow case. I'd been a reporter myself back then.
"I don't come cheap, Mrs. Spencer," I said. Actually, I have no set fees: I decide how much I need to support me through the next chapter of the Great American novel, and I ask for that. I'd be asking a lot from Mrs. Spencer. I was experiencing severe writer's block again.
"Money is no object," the woman said.
I did a quick mental calculation and said: "Fifty thousand dollars whether I find your diamond or not."
"But you haven't heard my terms," I said. "Fifty grand, payable via electronic deposit direct to my account by tomorrow at 1, when I shall arrive at your place for lunch. And no foie gras. I hate liver, whether from cow or bird."
"But the banks are closed until Monday."
"Mrs. Spencer," I said, "you are listed on the Forbes 400. Surely your investment advisers can find a way."
I gave Claire the name of my bank and my deposit-only account number.
"Now if you will forgive me," I said, "I must go. You've already stolen six minutes of sleep."
The next morning, a Sunday in August, found me up at my usual hour, 6 a.m. I made coffee, checked the Weather Channel, read the Sunday paper and started banging away at the kitchen table on my Underwood typewriter.
I'm an old-fashioned romantic like that. I own computers, DVD players, digital cameras, a Palm Pilot, you name it, but when it comes to writing, I need the clang of old-fashioned keys. They remind me of my earlier self, when I was an investigative reporter for a big-city daily. I loved newspapering until the bean counters took over and made the bottom line the bottom line. So I quit. I wanted to write the Great American Novel, anyway.
Let me tell you about this book. It revolves around the perfect crime and how this onetime newspaper reporter, obsessed with the challenge of such a nefarious deed, conspired to pull it off. Art imitating life, I guess you'd call it or is it the other way around? Anyway, my novel abounds with witty observations on the human condition; it features myriad of subplots and intriguing secondary characters, and it even offers a dash of irony for more sophisticated readers and the New York critics. If only I could finish it, I'd have a bestseller.
One reason I haven't is, I'm easily distracted. That morning after Claire Benson's call, for example, I banged out a few sentences, immediately detested them, ripped up the paper, and retreated to my garden, where I checked on the tomatoes, onions, sweet red peppers, basil, and oregano. They make a fabulous spaghetti sauce.
I was distracted, of course, by the Baby Hope Diamond.
I hadn't asked Claire for the details, but I knew she'd probably hosted a dinner party for eight an earlier client had confided that's the most she believes can properly interact at one table, and Claire never wavers from her beliefs. I guessed that Claire's best friend, Lucy Hamilton, a widow who lives on Providence's East Side, attended and also probably her son, independent filmmaker Charles D. "Charlie" Baxter III, and Charlie's fiancee, the beautiful actress Gloria Rodriguez. You know these artistic types: they never really can support themselves. Having a rich mommy sure comes in handy.
After watering the tomatoes, I went on line. I read my E-mail and confirmed Claire's deposit it had been recorded at 12:13 a.m., less than an hour after we'd spoken. The old girl was all right. It would be a pleasure working with her.
By now, it was 9 o'clock. I went upstairs to wake my daughter and only child, Nancy Nolan.
"Rise and shine," I said, snapping the shade open. "We've got work to do."
Nancy rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed. She'd been out until 2 in the morning with her friends, but at 23, you can keep those hours. A youthful metabolism is a wondrous thing. So is a good-natured daughter.
"Is the coffee on?" she said.
"Is the Pope a Catholic?"
I went back downstairs and a few minutes later, Nancy joined me. Over coffee, I filled her in on Claire Spencer.
You may think a 23-year-old is an unlikely partner for a private investigator who's never failed to solve a case, but you don't know my daughter. I raised her alone after her mother died of cancer Nancy was 5 and she's turned out to be the best. Smart, athletic, and pretty, Nancy is possessed of an unusual perception. She sees things in ways a middle-aged guy can't, and I'd be lying if I claimed she was anything less than the secret to my success. Valedictorian of her high school class, Nancy decided to take a year off before college: wanted some "real-life experiences," is how she put it. Well, one year stretched into five, she traveled the world and then came home, and now she's decided she wants to write. I've tried to talk her out of that, but the truth is she has talent more than her old man.
"Do you know Charlie Baxter?" I said.
"By reputation," said Nancy. "He's only my age, but already a director in his own right he's also worked with the Farrelly Brothers as a second unit director or something. I hear he has a problem with cocaine."
"What about his girlfriend, Gloria Rodriguez?"
Gloria was a Trinity Repertory Company actress. Twenty-seven, she'd already played lead roles in half a dozen productions, most recently an awesome Laura in The Glass Menagerie.
"She's clean, as far as I know," said Nancy. "Sings for a rock band on the side, I forget the name. Grew up in Central Falls but lives now in Pascoag, of all places."
"What about Lucy Hamilton?" I said.
"Get real, Dad. How would I know her she's, like, 100 years old."
"Actually, she's 68, same as Claire Benson," I said. "Anyway, honey, please get dressed for Newport. We're lunching at Bon Soir today."
We drove in my 1966 Corvette Stingray convertible, which puts out 425 horsepower and top ends somewhere past 140. This car is my most precious possession, with the exception of my Underwood, so it ought to speak volumes that I was letting my daughter drive. I do whenever she asks.
Claire Spencer hadn't given me directions, but they hardly were necessary. Bon Soir has the longest wall on Bellevue Avenue and the widest ocean frontage. Also, an electric gate with a video surveillance camera and a call box. We buzzed inside, identified ourselves, and the gate opened. We proceeded down a tree-lined driveway that I clocked at four-tenths of a mile in length to a house that almost took my breath away it's one thing to say 36 rooms, another to see what they come packaged in. Built of ivy-covered stone, with porches on three sides and two indoor swimming pools one saltwater, one fresh Bon Soir stands apart, even in Newport.
"How much are we getting paid for this one?" said Nancy.
"Fifty grand," I said.
"I think you're getting soft in your old age."
"I may be. If only I'd seen this place first."
We parked the 'Vette next to three gray Mercedeses and walked up to the house, where a butler answered a door so big and oaken it could have graced Notre Dame cathedral.
"Mrs. Spencer is expecting you," he said. "Please have a seat while I tell her you are here."
He showed us to the drawing room, which was larger than my garage and featured an enormous marble fireplace, Louis XIV furniture, antique Egyptian and Chinese vases, and oil portraits of six or seven generations of her ancestors.
"Carrara marble," I said, pointing to the fireplace.
"What makes you so sure?" said Nancy.
"Those beautiful flecks of gold give it away. And that vase it's Ming dynasty."
"How do you know?"
"I saw it in a Sotheby's catalogue. My source told me Claire Benson bought it for a cool three million."
"What's the Baby Hope worth?" said Nancy.
"It's priceless literally. I know, because no company would insure it if she insisted in keeping it anywhere but a safe deposit box. She wouldn't: 'Something so dear to my heart must never leave my side,' she supposedly said. Now you understand the magnitude of the predicament Claire Benson Spencer has gotten herself into."
A moment later, the woman walked in.
She was tall, honey-blond, and she had a pointed nose. She wore a large yellow straw hat, a flamingo-pink dress and an exquisite pearl necklace. "Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Nolan," she said, extending her hand.
"Likewise," I said. "Meet my daughter, Nancy. She assists me on all my cases."
"My pleasure," Mrs. Spencer said. "Shall I show you the safe where I kept the diamond?"
"Just as soon as we finish lunch."
"Whatever you wish. You're the boss."
I love it when rich folk talk to me that way. My Irish ancestors would be proud.
We followed Mrs. Spencer into the smaller of her two dining rooms, where the table had been set for four. Lunching with us today, she explained, would be her secretary of 15 years, Helen Washington, and a weekend houseguest, Richard Lombardo, Rhode Island's Republican congressman. Political bedfellows, Lombardo and Mrs. Spencer went back many years. Word was Lombardo had romantic interest in this woman who was 10 years his senior, now that Claire had divorced her third husband.
"I'll have Ted set a place for your daughter," said Mrs. Spencer. "The rest of our party shall be with us shortly."
Lunch was perfect in every regard: mesclun salad with vine-ripened tomatoes, cream of asparagus soup, cold poached salmon, chocolate cheesecake for dessert, and no foie gras.
"So this is where you were when the diamond disappeared last night," I said.
"From eight until eleven-thirty," said Mrs. Spencer. "We were all at this very table."
"That's an awfully long dinner," said Nancy.
"On the contrary," said Mrs. Spencer, "with five courses, it was just the right length."
"A dinner for eight," I said.
"No, we had seven," said Mrs. Spencer, explaining that one of her guests had canceled at the last minute.
"Okay. Let's see if I have this straight." I ticked off the names of Mrs. Spencer, Charlie Baxter, Gloria Rodriguez, Helen Washington, Richard Lombardo, and Lucy Hamilton.
"You forgot Chips Morton," said Mrs. Spencer.
"That's her second husband," Lombardo said. "A real loser. Lives in squalor on a houseboat in Newport Harbor and distinguishes himself solely with his drinking."
"She feels pity for him," Lombardo persisted. "The rest of the world considers him a worthless toad. You need look no further than him for your chief suspect."
"Chips would never do such a thing," Mrs. Spencer said. "He may not have much, but at least he has class."
I darted a glance at Nancy. She was taking everything in.
"Well," I said, finishing my chardonnay. "Shall we see the safe?"
Lombardo and Washington rose as if to join us.
"If you don't mind," I said, "we need to be alone. Detective-client privilege, you understand."
We rode the elevator to Bon Soir's third floor, where Mrs. Spencer unlocked a door that seemed to belong to a closet but actually was a large, windowless room filled with enough clothing to outfit a Broadway theater company. It smelled of mothballs and cedar. I saw no sign of a safe.
"My Newport wardrobe," Mrs. Spencer explained.
"Your secretary has a key?" I said.
"Yes she and no one else."
"Not your son?" said Nancy.
"Why would he?"
"I thought I saw some of this stuff in Dumb and Dumber," said Nancy. That's another thing I love about my daughter her quirky sense of humor.
Mrs. Spencer evidently had no clue what Nancy was talking about. She let it pass.
"So where's the safe?" I said.
"Behind here," said Mrs. Spencer. She parted a rack of fur coats to reveal an ancient Mosler safe one of those two-ton jobs that kept legal tender dry for almost a century after the Titanic went down. I got on my hands and knees for a good close look while Nancy dusted it for fingerprints that I would send for analysis to a good buddy I have inside the FBI. Like most of my sources, I met him during my reporter days.
The safe was locked. I could find no evidence it had been jimmied.
"You're sure the Baby Hope was here before your party," I said.
"Positive," said Mrs. Spencer. "I opened it to take out this pearl necklace I'm wearing now and I locked it again immediately. No one was with me. I took nothing else out."
"Your secretary doesn't know the combination," I said.
I was stating fact, not asking a question. There are some things these folks won't entrust even to longtime employees safe combinations and Swiss bank account numbers, for example.
"Helen does not," Mrs. Spencer confirmed.
"Does anyone else besides you know it?" asked Nancy.
The woman seemed suddenly flustered. She broke eye contact with me and my daughter.
"Only perhaps Chips, if his poor memory held," she said in a near-whisper. "He watched me open this the last time I wore that ring. It was the night we were married."
"When was that?"
"Eleven years ago," she said.
"Has anything else disappeared in that decade?"
"Not one thing. To be honest, I hardly ever wear jewelry anymore. I only brought this necklace out to please Congressman Lombardo. He's been pestering me for weeks."
Mrs. Spencer noted my studied interest.
"He is the last person who would commit such a terrible crime," she quickly stated. "He is the most honorable person in all of Washington."
"I believe that's called damning with faint praise," I said.
"Just a little joke, nothing worth repeating."
Nancy shot me a look that shouted SHUT UP. She knows how indiscreet I can be.
"Now Mrs. Spencer," I said, "about last night's dinner. Was there anyone in this house besides you and your guests?"
"Only Ted. I gave everyone else the night off."
"The gate and doors were locked?"
"At all times."
"Have you examined the tape from the surveillance camera?" Nancy asked.
"Ted did and found nothing."
"No funny noises or lights."
"During dinner," said Nancy, "did anyone leave the table?"
"Of course everyone did, at one time or another," said Mrs. Spencer.
"To answer the call of nature, I presume." I knew she would appreciate how delicately I'd phrased that.
"Exactly," she said.
"Did they answer the call alone or together?"
"Alone, as I recall all except for Charlie and Gloria. But of course they're all but joined at the hip, they're so in love with each other."
After interviewing Lombardo, Washington and O'Hara all denied involvement, of course we left Bon Soir.
"Any hunches?" I said to Nancy. I had to shout we had the top down and the radar detector on, and we were zipping up Route 6 at 129 miles per hour. I was driving this time.
"Definitely not Chips Morton," said Nancy.
That surprised me.
"Why not?" I said.
"Because he's still madly in love with her and she, I suspect, with him. Stealing the crown jewel would hardly be the way to demonstrate affection, even if he is a drunk."
See what I mean about Nancy's perception? It's especially keen on matters of the heart.
"And I'd feel funny about that congressman dude, except he's too obvious," my daughter said.
"What about Claire Benson Spencer herself?" I said.
"What would she have to gain?"
"But she hates publicity."
"Maybe she doesn't want that kind of notoriety. Maybe she's desperate for attention from her own circle."
"Stranger things have happened. Or perhaps she's trying to frame someone her son's girlfriend, for example. Maybe she wants Gloria Rodriguez out of Charlie's life. The Central Falls background can't win her any points."
"There are easier ways, Dad. You're starting to sound like a bad Ellery Queen story."
"These folks are funny all that money does something to them. They see the world different than you and I."
"Well, duh. So what's our next move?"
"Gloria Rodriguez," I said. "We need to pay her a visit. But first we need to find out more about her. Do you know anyone inside Trinity Rep?"
"Plenty of people," said Nancy.
We were pulling into our little dirt road now.
"Go work your magic and let's regroup first thing tomorrow morning," I said. "I've got work to do. I feel sudden inspiration for this chapter that's been tormenting me so."
Chapter 2 in our interactive mystery: Pascoag
BY CHRISTINE A. FRANCIS
Publication Date: August 13, 2000
This is Chapter Two of The Baby Hope Theft, a four-part interactive mystery on projo.com and in the pages of The Sunday Journal. Chapter One appeared on July 16 and still resides on line at www.projo.com/specials/babyhope/
The story so far: Newport socialite Claire Benson Spencer has hired a father-and-daughter detective team, Nick and Nancy Nolan of Foster, to find the Baby Hope Diamond, apparently stolen during a small dinner party at Mrs. Spencer's home, Bon Soir.
The potential suspects include Mrs. Spencer's son, filmmaker Charles D. Baxter III; his girlfriend, Trinity Rep actress Gloria Rodriguez; Helen Washington, Mrs. Spencer's personal secretary; Congressman Richard Lombardo, R-R.I.; Chips Morton, second of Mrs. Spencer's three husbands; Lucy Hamilton, Mrs. Spencer's dear friend; and Ted O'Hara, her butler.
This chapter is written by Christine A. Francis, of Providence, in the voice of Nancy Nolan. What happens in chapter three is up to you.
* * *
I woke up to a scrawny orange-and-white cat relentlessly pawing at my face for his breakfast.
Above my head, the ceiling sloped at a sharp angle and a mustard yellow stain ran down the wall from the edge of an open skylight.
I noticed a clock nearby on the floor. 9:43 a.m.
It was coming back to me. I was supposed to be at Gloria Rodriguez's house in 17 minutes, and I wasn't going to make it.
I was in one of those East Side triple-deckers that have had no one but students living in them for the past 30 years. I'd slept on an old futon on the living-room floor and would still be asleep if not for the cat.
I gave the cat the remaining food from a half-empty Tender Vittles bag, called Dad, and told him I'd meet him at Gloria's. He gave me directions and I hung up fast. I didn't want to get into it with him right now.
I washed my face and grabbed a shirt and some shorts from a pile on the floor. I could already feel the August humidity filling the former attic and didn't want to spend the day in last night's long-sleeved shirt and jeans.
I sniffed a clear plastic bag of questionable bagels on the kitchen counter and decided not to take the risk. I ran down three flights of back stairs and stepped out to my car. At least it was a bit cooler outside. Upstairs I hadn't bothered to say good-bye to anyone, as I was sure they'd prefer to sleep until noon. As would I.
I really wasn't looking forward to this meeting.
First, I was late. When I called Dad to tell him I'd meet him there, I could hear the annoyance in his voice. Or maybe it was more disappointment. I knew he thought the world of me, but all it took was one little mistake to ruin my image. Abandoning his usual relaxed pride, he'd look at me with that dismissive skepticism and it was as if I were 8 years old again. It didn't matter how much praise he routinely gave me, or how highly he typically spoke of me to others. That look just killed me, and I knew it was coming.
Second, I didn't know if Gloria Rodriguez knew about me and Charlie. It had been a short-lived romance. Just two weeks last summer. Maybe they weren't even involved then. I just wished, heading to Gloria's house, that I knew one way or the other if the woman knew I'd slept with her fiancé.
Finally, I was in desperate need of coffee. I'd had about three too many beers last night at Lupo's and decided to just crash in the city rather than risk the drive back to Foster. I'd stayed with some grad-student friends in Providence, and was lucky to find a bar of soap at the place this morning, let alone a functioning coffee-maker.
Now I was zooming along Route 44 in my Civic. If there is a fast way to Pascoag, I don't know it. At least the construction at the Apple Valley Mall was just about finished, instead of that one-lane dirt-road nightmare I'd encountered the last time I came out this way.
I turned up Stevie Ray Vaughan and flicked my cigarette ashes out the window as the light changed to green. It was difficult driving a standard while smoking but I'd mastered it. I wished the guy leering at me from his friend's pickup was admiring my driving skills, but I doubted it.
I reviewed what I knew about Gloria Rodriguez as I drove along.
* * *
She was, of course, at Claire Benson Spencer's dinner party the night the diamond was stolen. According to Mrs. Spencer, she and Charlie were together all night.
She grew up in Central Falls, found herself an acting career with Trinity Rep, and settled, for some unknown reason, in Pascoag. What I hadn't had time yet to tell my father was that I'd made some calls to friends at Trinity for more information. Evidently, Gloria's favorable reviews as an actress are deserved, although I'm sure the fact that she is drop-dead beautiful doesn't hurt. She is not a prima donna, and doesn't go for a special dressing room or private buffet. She is pleasant to all the crew, and isn't prone to fits.
She is, however, extremely meticulous about things. At times, according to one of my lighting technician friends, to the point of mania.
Evidently there was one incident where a prop curtain got trapped at an odd angle in a doorway on the set. Gloria kept obsessing about it from offstage, then, when she went on, she actually changed her scene to fix the curtain while on stage.
More recently, during The Glass Menagerie, she kept complaining that the colors of her shoes didn't match each other, and made the wardrobe people find new shoes that matched before she could go on. I wasn't sure what these stories had to do with diamond theft, but they were interesting to think about.
I flicked my cigarette butt out the window and imagined my father's voice. "How can you seriously lecture me about eating meat when you smoke those things?"
He was right, but I wasn't about to admit it.
I was driving through Harmony headed to Chepachet. On my left the word FURNITURE hung in bright red over what otherwise appeared to be a house. Across the street another house claimed to be an Antique Store. Junk filled both yards, both porches, and pressed against the glass from inside each building. I have driven by these buildings countless times and have never seen them open for business. I wonder if they are a front for something, abandoned, or just two of the most poorly managed retail shops in Rhode Island.
I drove down through quaint Chepachet center and turned right onto Route 100 headed to Pascoag. It was only 10 a.m. but my bare legs were already sticking to the vinyl seat. I cursed the long-dead air conditioning but was glad the tape player still worked as I popped in some early Bonnie Raitt.
"You've got to give it up or let me go . . ."
I hadn't mastered simultaneous air-guitar and stick-shift yet so I kept one hand on the wheel and one on the stick as I negotiated the right-hand turn into downtown Pascoag.
The cliché is true that if you blinked you might actually miss the tackle shops, pet-grooming store and liquor stores that make-up the downtown Pascoag area. As I drove past the biker bar and former mill houses, I started to speculate as to why Gloria chose to live here. Would she feel as much at home at the Mad Dog Saloon as she does at Trinity?
I reached into my front pocket and pulled out a crumpled scrap of paper with my notes from this morning:
Right onto 107
Straight past downtown
Stay right at fork
Look for Slack Lane on right (just past cemetery)
1³4 mile down Slack Lane. #6
I found Slack Lane just beyond a cluster of mailboxes and pulled off 107 a little too fast, my rear tires skidding a bit on the dusty dirt road. I glanced at my watch. 10:24. We were supposed to meet Gloria at 10 a.m. and I had no doubt my dad was already here.
I checked my odometer and cruised the quarter mile along the potholed road as quickly as my Civic could handle. It was one of those roads the residents like to keep in disrepair, as it keeps out unwanted visitors. I could glimpse an occasional house peeking through trees as I made my way to a simple pale yellow sign with the number 6 painted on it.
I turned up the driveway, admiring the secluded feeling of the property and glad to see so many of the old-growth trees untouched. My father's '66 Stingray was unmistakable beside an equally impressive 2000 Explorer in Hunter Green. Both were parked at the end of the driveway beside a modest but pretty Cape.
I pulled up in my worn-but-loved '89 Civic, yanked on the emergency brake and headed for the front door.
* * *
The house was well-kept, with a distinct feminine touch.
Flowers cascaded out of window boxes, and neatly painted turquoise shutters and trim contrasted with the weathered shingles. A slate pathway was bordered by robustly blooming ornamental hedges, which were themselves surrounded in neat white gravel.
The few short stone steps to the front door displayed colorful bunches of impatiens growing from pots placed in old wire clamming buckets. On the front door, a wreath of sea heather surrounded a brass door-knocker shaped like a hummingbird. Martha Stewart would be proud.
I knocked, and, a moment later, Gloria Rodriguez opened the door.
"You must be Nancy. Please come in."
She extended her hand and smiled. If she knew anything about me and Charlie, it didn't show. I shook her hand as I stepped into the house.
"Please excuse me for being so late. I hope I haven't kept you waiting."
"No, not at all. Your father and I have been talking baseball."
My father is a huge Pawsox fan, and, I'm sure the conversation started because of the gray Pawtucket Red Sox T-shirt Gloria was wearing. If I wore that T-shirt, I'd look sporty. Somehow, Gloria still managed to look glamorous.
"Can I get you something? Coffee?"
I tried to mask my rabid desire for coffee with feigned nonchalance.
"A cup of coffee would be great. But only if it's no trouble."
"Oh, no. It's already made. Your father is in the living room. I'll bring your coffee to you in there."
She waved me in one direction as she headed in the other and I turned to walk into the living room.
It was the first time since I'd stepped inside that I'd really looked around the house. I gasped. Every surface I could see was covered in glass. Actually, it was covered in blue glass.
Blue bottles lined the window sills, and clear glass shelving provided support for more rows to extend across the windows themselves. Glass-fronted curios housed an assortment of shapes and sizes of blue glassware. Dishes, glasses, serving pieces, and vases. Anything you could imagine was there.
An old hutch was filled with nothing but blue glass kitchenware looking to be from the '40s and '50s. An elegant mahogany sideboard displayed what appeared to be a complete set of antique Depression-ware glass. All the same pattern in cobalt blue.
I was so taken by the glassware that I didn't at first notice my dad sitting calmly on a couch near the center of the room. The expression on his face said two things: "Isn't this glass collection insane?" and "You're late."
"Hey, Dad. Sorry I'm late. I set the clock at Deb's last night but I guess it was set at the wrong time to begin with. Have you been waiting long?"
The part about the clock was not entirely a lie. I had tried to set it, but gave up when my inebriated brain could not convince my dulled fingers how to set the darn thing.
"Well, I've been here since 10, but Gloria and I have been talking about the great game Jared Fernandez had last week against the Clippers. I suggested we wait for you before discussing the party."
"The party" he referred to was of course the dinner party hosted by Claire Benson Spencer. The dinner party held the same night that Mrs. Spencer's Baby Hope diamond disappeared.
As I sat beside my dad on the couch, Gloria arrived with my coffee. I took a rounded spoonful of sugar from a cobalt pressed-glass sugar bowl, and poured cream from a matching creamer on the coffee table. I took a grateful sip and placed it in one of the neat little blue glass coasters on the table.
"So, you're into glass." I said. Why avoid the obvious?
Gloria was now sitting in a chair across from the couch. She sort of smiled and ducked her head.
"Yeah, it has sort of taken over the house, I guess."
"Do you mind if I ask why you collect blue glass?"
"No, not at all. I guess it started years ago with my grandmother. She had a collection of beautiful blue bottles on her kitchen windowsill and I was fascinated by them. My grandmother was very important to me, so when I was away at college I kept a blue bottle on my dorm window to remind me of home. As I got older, the collection just grew from there."
My father shifted in his seat to look around the room.
"To be honest, Gloria, you don't seem old enough to have collected this much stuff!"
"I agree. I guess it was all the time I spent traveling with different productions. I was living in at least fifteen different cities each year for a few years. Hunting for blue glass gave me something to do in a new place and before I knew it, I had all this. Luckily, the recent steady work at Trinity enabled me to buy this house as a home for me and the glass."
We all laughed.
"Well, Gloria," my dad said, "since we've started so late we should probably get down to business, so we don't take up your whole day."
I took another sip of coffee and refrained from giving him a dirty look.
"Can you tell us what you remember about the night of Mrs. Spencer's dinner party?"
* * *
"Okay. It started at about eight. Mrs. Spencer's dinners always start at eight. There were supposed to be eight people, but I think there was some problem with one of the guests, so there were seven of us."
"What do you mean by 'problem?' " I asked. I clearly recalled Mrs. Spencer saying her eighth guest had canceled.
"I'm not exactly sure. Mrs. Spencer said that a guest had canceled, but Charlie whispered something about 'canceled' being Newport-speak for being un-invited. Later, after dinner, I overheard Congressman Lombardo make a comment about the missing guest. Something to the effect that he'd get his just desserts, even if he didn't get his dessert. I guess he was making some sort of joke, but I wasn't really following the conversation."
"Did you ask anyone, Charlie maybe, to explain why the eighth person was not there?" my father asked.
"No," she answered. "It didn't seem to be any of my business. I don't typically listen in on conversations not meant for me, but it was a small group and not a very lively one, so I was a bit bored. It didn't seem that remarkable then, just typical Newport social-trashing."
Gloria seemed especially comfortable talking about high society for a girl from Central Falls. I guessed her acting training helped with that. I wondered what, if anything, could get her to shed the fa Áade and bring out her less genteel roots.
"You talk about Newport society as if you are an outsider." I said. "Is that how you feel?"
"Well, I'm not exactly an insider!" she snorted. "I mean, I love Charlie, and Mrs. Spencer has been like a mother to me, but it is very clear that I am not a part of the 'inner circle.' "
"What do you mean?" I probed.
"Oh, you know, Nancy," she said. "You have to be practically off the Mayflower to fit in down there. Not only that, but my being Hispanic . . . come on!"
I smiled at her to show I understood. The cynicism in her voice at least let me know she was human. My dad was getting restless with this line of conversation, I could tell.
"About the dinner, Gloria," he interjected, "Mrs. Spencer said that you and Charlie left the table together at one point."
"Yes. Like I said, it was a pretty lame group and we were bored as hell, so we ducked out for a second to get some air."
My dad was not one to beat around the bush.
"I have heard that Charlie has a problem with cocaine. Are you sure the two of you did not actually leave to 'liven' things up that way?"
Gloria turned red and stood up.
"First of all, Charlie does not have a cocaine problem. And second, the fact that I'm from a tough area doesn't make me a drug user. I don't like your questions and think I need to ask you to leave!"
My father could be as diplomatic as he was blunt.
"I'm very sorry, Ms. Rodriguez. Please sit down. You understand that I am working for your future mother-in-law to find her most prized possession. In order to do this, I must ask difficult questions of everyone who may have had access to the diamond. I did not mean to offend you or pass judgment on your fiancé. I am just trying to find the truth."
Gloria seemed to relax a bit. She sat down again and took a deep breath.
"Charlie did have a problem but he got help. It's not a problem any more."
I decided things might go better if I were to ask the next question, so I changed the subject.
"Do you know of anyone that might have reason to steal the diamond?"
She looked at me. I could see the acting skills within her working to regain her composure.
"I honestly don't." She said. "Everyone at the party was either family, like family, or so wealthy they wouldn't even need it. I do hope you find it. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry I have ever seen."
I realized that my dad and I were now officially playing good cop/bad cop. I was the good cop. He saw another opening and dove right in.
"You say you've seen the diamond?" he asked. Her face froze. It was just a split second before she recovered, but you could see it.
"Yes. Mrs. Spencer wore it to a dinner party a few weeks ago."
It was painfully obvious she was lying.
"Gloria," I said. "Mrs. Spencer told us that she hardly ever wears jewelry anymore."
"And the last time she wore the Baby Hope," my dad added, "there was an armed guard at each door of her house and a front-page article in The Journal. You did not see that ring on Mrs. Spencer, Gloria, so where did you see it?"
Gloria started examining her tennis bracelet as if she'd never seen it before. I could see her lower lip trembling.
"Please Gloria," I asked. "We are not the police. Just tell us where you saw it so we can return it to Mrs. Spencer."
She looked up at me.
"It was before it was stolen, almost a year ago. Charlie showed it to me."
"What do you mean, Charlie showed it to you?" my father asked.
"We had just started dating and I guess he wanted to impress me, so he took me upstairs one day and said he wanted to show me something. He made me close my eyes and put out my hands and when I opened my eyes there was the diamond in my hand."
"Did he take it from the safe?" I asked.
"I'm honestly not sure. I think he went into Mrs. Spencer's closet for the diamond, but I stayed outside."
"Does Mrs. Spencer know that Charlie showed you the ring?"
"No. Absolutely not. Charlie made me swear not to tell anyone that he'd shown it to me. In fact, the other day Mrs. Spencer made a comment about what a shame it was that I had never seen the diamond and now it was gone."
Just then we heard the roar of the engine as a motorcycle pulled up to the end of the driveway. A split second before the door opened it hit me that I was not only going to encounter Gloria this morning, but I was also about to see Charlie.
* * *
Our romance, if you could even call it that, lasted for barely two weeks last summer. I had been staying with friends in a rented house just off Spring Street in Newport, and Charlie, I now knew with the clarity of hindsight, had been looking for a low-class fling.
I couldn't really blame him. I think I'd get tired of the squeaky-clean prep-school types he'd normally been linked with as well.
We'd met on the beach and went out to the clubs at night. I really thought he was just a "regular" guy summering in Newport until he made a comment about his mother one day and I finally realized who he was.
I'm not sure if it was my realization that we were from different worlds, and the extreme self-consciousness that resulted from that realization, or that the relationship had just run its course, but it ended soon after that.
Gloria's earlier comment about seeing the ring made me think he met her after we were together, which gave me some relief. Still, I hadn't seen him in a year and was not prepared for this.
Charlie came through the front door.
"Hey, Gloria, are you ready? Don't forget th -"
Obviously, he didn't expect us to be there.
His years of prep-school upbringing and training in the social graces of Newport kicked in immediately. He walked over to my father and extended his hand.
"You must be the detective my mother hired to find the diamond. I'm Charles Baxter. Please call me Charlie."
"A pleasure to meet you, Charlie. Nick Nolan. This is my daughter Nancy." My dad shook Charlie's hand and gestured to me. I had not told my dad about my fling with Charlie and I was glad.
I stood and shook Charlie's hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Charlie."
He was as amazingly good-looking as I'd recalled. I looked into his eyes and honestly could not tell if he remembered me or not. I'd like to think he couldn't forget, that he was a better actor than Gloria. But he looked pleased to meet me, nothing more. I was crushed and relieved at the same time.
"Pleased to meet you, Nancy."
Charlie turned and kissed Gloria on the cheek, then sat in the armchair beside her and across from me.
"Please excuse me for intruding. If Gloria told me you'd be here this morning, I'd forgotten."
My dad got in another zing. "We are running a bit later than planned."
I took another sip of coffee to calm myself. It was cold. This did not seem like a good time to ask for a new cup.
"We are just asking Gloria some questions about the other night," my father continued. "If you have a minute, perhaps we could ask you some questions today as well and save the trouble of meeting with you again later?"
"No problem." said Charlie. "As long as we are done by 11:30. Gloria and I are meeting some friends at the club at noon."
I checked my watch. 11:14. Only 16 minutes left of this awkward situation.
I glanced at my dad but he seemed to be totally unaware of my discomfort. I felt all my detecting skills fly out the window as I fought to just breathe. I suddenly realized I hadn't even washed my hair that day. I wished I'd worn a clean T-shirt. The one I was wearing was borrowed from Deb and had "They Might Be Giants /The Living Room" printed on the front, and a hole in the right armpit.
I kept my right arm low as I replaced my coffee cup.
"So, Charlie, Gloria was just explaining to us how you showed her the Baby Hope last summer."
No one could accuse my dad of not earning his 50 grand.
I could see Charlie's knuckles tighten on the arms of his chair. He looked quickly at Gloria, who was again suddenly very interested in her tennis bracelet. Her lips resumed their earlier trembling.
"It . . . just . . . came out. I'm sorry. Really, Charlie, I did not mean to say anything. I told . . ."
It suddenly occurred to Charlie that he'd better take control of this situation before it got worse. Although I could see his initial anger at her, he rearranged his face into a relaxed, mischievous grin and shrugged his shoulders as he cut her off.
"Well, you caught me. I have the combination to the safe. Had it since I was a kid. I used to sneak in the closet before my mom went in to get her jewelry for a party. She has so many damn clothes, she never even noticed me in there. It took me a few times watching, but then I got it. I've known it ever since."
"And your mother has no idea you can open the safe?" my dad asked.
"I'm pretty sure she doesn't. There was one time, a few years ago, she almost caught me. I was trying to get one of her necklaces," he looked over at Gloria, "to show a friend. Mom came upstairs and caught me coming out of the closet. I claimed I was looking for a sweater to loan my friend." Again, he glanced at Gloria. "She seemed to believe me."
Gloria had regained her composure again.
"It's really silly anyway. Why would Charlie steal a diamond from his own mother?"
Good question. I was hoping my father had some ideas, because all my brain was saying was "Get me out of here."
My father looked at me, then looked back at Charlie. Then did it again. I looked over at Charlie and I knew why. He was staring at me with an odd look on his face.
"Do I know you from somewhere?" he asked.
"I think we may have mutual friends." I lied. I decided I'd better end this now and looked at my watch. "Wow, it's almost 11:30. We'd better get going."
I could tell my father was annoyed but I stood up and extended my hand.
"Thank you for meeting with us Charlie. Thanks Gloria. And thanks for the coffee."
I shook both their hands and headed for the door.
My dad stood up and thanked them as well.
"I may be calling if I have more questions. Charlie, where is the best place to reach you?"
"Either here at Gloria's, or at my cell phone. Here's the number." He handed my dad a card.
My dad put the card in his pocket.
"Thanks again," he said, "I'll be in touch."
"Good luck finding the diamond," said Gloria.
* * *
As I left the house, I turned and looked back toward the glass-shelved windows. Gloria was adjusting one of the bottles to another position. Light filtered through the glass and sparkled like diamonds. Blue diamonds.
As soon as we were alone outside, my father let loose. "What the heck is going on with you today? First you're late, then you rush us out of there before we can even ask Charlie any questions. What's your problem?"
"Look, Dad, I'm sorry. I can't get into it right now."
I really wanted a cigarette badly, but I didn't dare start that lecture, too.
"Nancy, you're supposed to be the brains behind this operation but sometimes I wonder what you are thinking. It seemed like you were not even paying attention to Charlie's confession about the safe combination in there. We could have gotten more out of him, I'm sure. What about that eighth party guest? We didn't even get a chance to ask him about that."
"Dad, can we talk about this at home? I really need some food. I haven't eaten yet today."
My father opened his mouth, glanced at Charlie's motorcycle, then at the house and closed it again. After a moment he said, "Okay, I guess we should talk at home. I need to get some gas on the way home, so I may be a few minutes behind you."
I got in my car, did a three-point turn and headed back down the driveway and along the dirt road. Once on the paved road heading south I waited to confirm there were at least two cars between me and the Stingray before lighting a cigarette. Why does something so bad feel so good?
As I smoked, I thought about Gloria and Charlie. They didn't seem like the especially affectionate couple that Mrs. Spencer had described, but I guess my dad and I were not exactly creating a cozy atmosphere. Charlie was always like that, though. Very attentive and affectionate in private, but cool and indifferent in public. He's such a player, he could be hiding anything.
And Gloria? There was something odd about that girl. I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
As I headed back down through Chepachet center and right onto 102, I realized my dad's Stingray was no longer behind me. He must have stopped for gas. I hoped he wouldn't still be mad at me when we got home.
I was getting bored with the folksy blues I'd been listening to, so I put on WBRU. They were playing a catchy pop tune by Smashmouth. I sang along and bopped around in my car until I was just about home. I decided I'd make a big garden salad for lunch as a peace offering to Dad. Maybe I'd even fire up the grill for burgers. Veggie-burgers for me.
I parked and walked towards the house. As I opened the door, the phone began to ring.
* * *
I picked up on the second ring. "Hello."
"Hello?" the woman's voice sounded like a whisper. "I'm trying to reach Nick Nolan. Do I have the right number?"
"Yes," I answered. "You've dialed the right number. This is his daughter, Nancy. Can I help you?"
"Perhaps. This is Helen Washington. I am the personal secretary to Mrs. Claire Spencer. I understand you work with your father, Ms. Nolan?" Her voice was so faint I could hardly hear her.
"Yes, I do. Ms. Washington, can you speak up? It's difficult to hear you."
"I'm afraid I cannot. And I cannot stay on the phone much longer. I am wondering if I could meet with you and your father tomorrow?"
I knew we were meeting Lucy Hamilton for afternoon tea on the East Side tomorrow. Considering my track record for mornings, I suggested we might be able to make it to Newport by 4:30.
"Oh no, not in Newport. You said you'd be on the East Side? How about 4 p.m. in Providence?"
"That sounds fine. I'll need to check with my father, of course. Is there a number where he or I can call you back this afternoon?"
"No, no" she whispered emphatically. "I'll call you back. When do you expect him in?"
"Any minute now, actually." I said.
"I will call back in 20 minutes. I must go now."
I heard her hang up before I could say "good-bye."
Still mulling over this strange conversation, I walked out onto the back porch to survey the garden.
Something was wrong.
* * *
It took me a minute, but I suddenly realized that the garden was bare. I mean, there was greenery, but it was bare of all fruit, vegetables or flowers. Any tomato, onion, pepper, bean, squash or flower had been stripped right off the plant.
I looked to my right and saw something odd at the end of the porch. As I walked down to get a closer look, I noticed an enormous pile of squashed and chopped garden remnants in a big dusty pile just beyond the end of the porch. It looked like someone had taken a hoe and boots to them.
So much for lunch.
What had originally caught my eye was even more bizarre. Written out on the porch floor with a combination of string beans, flower stems and tomato scraps were the words "GIVE UP HOPE."
Instinctively I turned and looked around the yard. There was no one else there. I looked back at the words. Either a wayward fatalist had suddenly taken offense at our garden or someone was sending us a message about our search for the diamond. I preferred the former but suspected the latter. No one had ever threatened us before. I didn't know whether to be scared or flattered.
I heard the Stingray pull into the driveway on the other side of the house. Taking care not to disturb anything, I walked back up onto the porch and through the back door. I couldn't wait to tell Dad about the strange call from Helen Washington and the even stranger message out back.
My stomach growled loudly. I realized I still hadn't eaten.
I wondered if I could salvage a tomato from that pile.
What happens next? It's up to you. For the rules on writing Chapter Three, see Page X.
* * *
About the author
This is the first published fiction for Christine A. Francis of Providence, who is auction director for Channel 36, a freelance illustrator and a teacher of two-dimensional design at the Rhode Island School of Design.
"The irony," she says, "is that I am an illustrator who planned to write a chapter and send an illustration along with it. I got so caught up working on the story, I never had time for the art!"
Judges for this segment of the contest were Journal staff writer G. Wayne Miller (who also wrote Chapter One), projo.com features and interactive producer Sheila Lennon and Arts Week editor Alan Rosenberg.
"Although several entries were prize caliber, and we would have been happy with any of them," Miller says, "we unanimously chose Christine Francis's chapter because it best combined all of the elements we were looking for: crisp dialogue, further development of the principal characters, advancement of the plot, and touches of ironic humor.
"Even though her chapter switched from Nick Nolan's voice to Nancy's, she remained true to the tone of the first chapter she knows Nancy and Nick, and their actions and words flow seamlessly forward. The reader is compelled to turn pages.
"Christine also adhered to the chapter guidelines, as is necessary to ensure that the final story comes together as a whole."
Second place went to Cynthia Perkins of Rehoboth, and third to Robin Petro of Bradford. Honorable mentions were given to Walter J. Berry of North Kingstown, Cynthia Anne Bowen of Coventry, and Betty L. Hackmann of Middletown.
THE BABY HOPE THEFT
Chapter 3 in our interactive mystery: Gazpacho
BY JULIA CROWLEY PARMENTIER
Publication Date: September 10, 2000
This is Chapter Three of The Baby Hope Theft, a four-part interactive mystery on projo.com and in the pages of The Sunday Journal. The previous parts can still be read online at www.projo.com/specials/babyhope
The story so far: Newport socialite Claire Benson Spencer has hired a father-and-daughter detective team, Nick and Nancy Nolan of Foster, to find the Baby Hope Diamond, apparently stolen during a small dinner party at Mrs. Spencer's home, Bon Soir.
The potential suspects include Mrs. Spencer's son, drug-troubled filmmaker Charles D. Baxter III, with whom Nancy previously had a fling (a fact her father doesn't know); Charlie's girlfriend, Trinity Rep actress and glass collector Gloria Rodriguez; Helen Washington, Mrs. Spencer's personal secretary; Congressman Richard Lombardo, R-R.I.; Chips Morton, second of Mrs. Spencer's three husbands; Lucy Hamilton, Mrs. Spencer's dear friend; and Ted O'Hara, her butler.
Nick and Nancy have interviewed Gloria and Charlie at Gloria's Pascoag home, but came up with little. Meanwhile, Helen made a mysterious, frightened phone call asking to speak to the detectives and Nancy has discovered that someone trashed their garden, leaving vegetables in a pattern that spelled out, "GIVE UP HOPE."
This chapter is written by Julia Crowley Parmentier, of Foster, in the voice of Nick Nolan. What happens in Chapter Four is up to you.
I let my daughter go on ahead. What on earth was going on with her?
First, she's 40 minutes late for our meeting with Gloria. Second, she arrives looking, quite frankly, like something the cat dragged in I swear I have never seen that T-shirt before in my life, and I hope I never see it again. Finally, she rushes us away like there's a flood coming or something.
Maybe if I took my time getting home she would pull herself together so we could do some concentrated work on this case. I felt like it was getting away from me. There were no solid leads, no significant motives. Everyone and no one looked to be equally suspect.
I stopped at the gas station at Routes 6 and 102, ducking in for a carton of eggs. They stock local eggs there, really fresh ones. As I was filling the tank and simultaneously grousing about the price of gas and thinking about what would go best in the omelets I was planning for lunch, I noticed a gray Mercedes, coming north on 102 and turning east on Route 6. The license plate read REP 1.
Now what was our friend Lombardo doing out here? As far as I knew, he limited his territory to Newport and Providence's East Side. The farthest west he ever ventured was Mario's Club in Johnston.
I pulled into my driveway 10 minutes later, only to find my daughter standing in the side yard lobbing handfuls of smashed tomatoes at the compost bin. I really thought either I was losing my mind or she had already lost hers.
"Nancy," I shouted, getting out of the car, "what the hell are you doing?"
"Look, look at what they did to your garden!" Her temper, like her hair, she gets from her mother.
I have the most peaceable of natures, but even I was driven to lobbing a few tomatoes when, walking around to the back of the house, I saw the damage. Simmering pots of savory spaghetti sauce dumped into the compost. Winter looked bleak.
"Who would have done this?" I asked. "And what did they mean by that moronic message, 'Give up hope'?"
"I have no clue," retorted my daughter. "I came home, took a phone message from a semi-hysterical old biddy, went outside and saw this mess and this message, I heard you and was coming out front to tell you about it, and just lost it. I haven't had breakfast, let alone lunch. I'm going to take a shower."
She went into the house, slamming the screen door behind her.
I noticed that, while the vegetable garden was in a shambles, this vandal didn't know an herb from a hosta, so omelet aux fines herbes was still on the menu for lunch. I picked a few handfuls of basil, thyme and parsley and retreated to the kitchen.
Twenty minutes later, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and toasted English muffins lured my daughter downstairs, scrubbed and looking her usual immaculate self.
"Hey, Dad" she said. "I'm sorry."
"Food," I replied, sliding a golden omelet onto a plate, "is what you need."
She looked so young with her hair wet and slicked back, I couldn't help remembering the tantrums she'd thrown as a child as a result of hunger, and how quickly she'd revert to sunshine with a square meal inside her. Picking up the coffeepot and two mugs, she followed me out to the picnic table on the back porch.
We didn't talk much as we ate, but afterward she told me of Helen Washington's phone call and of the interview she had tentatively scheduled for tomorrow.
"She hasn't called back, has she?" Nancy asked. "We didn't settle on a meeting place."
"She will." I was banking on it. Mrs. Washington was high on my list of people we needed to talk to.
I refilled my coffee cup and sat back.
"Let's review the facts," I said. "We're looking for motive and opportunity. Who knows the combination to the safe?"
"Claire," said Nancy. "Chips Morton, maybe. Charlie for sure. And if Charlie could find it out so easily, how hard would it be for Helen Washington to find out the same way?"
"Or Lucy," I replied, "or even Tom the butler or . . . no." At the same time we both had an image of Richard Lombardo, skulking among the evening dresses and fur coats, and convulsed with laughter.
"Not Lombardo," gasped my daughter. "It's just not his style."
"Speaking of Lombardo, I saw his car going north on 102. Did you pass him?"
"Not that I noticed. Do you think he might be responsible for this?" Nancy waved her arm at the devastated garden.
"Do you?" I countered.
"He's certainly vindictive enough, the way he talked about Chips Morton, and according to Gloria, what he said about the uninvited guest. But no, I can't see him ripping up vegetables, getting his hands dirty and mud on those polished Gucci loafers."
"Well, if he wasn't destroying our garden what was he doing out this way?" Neither of us had an answer for that, so we shelved it for the time being.
"Why would anyone steal the diamond?" That was the question that kept haunting me. Maybe there was some private collector of infinite resources who desperately needed this one stone to complete his or her collection. But among Mrs. Spencer's dinner guests, who would know such a person?
"Gloria collects blue glass," said Nancy, "but I don't see that as being in the same league as precious gems. Besides, I didn't notice that she wore any jewelry. Most collectors like to display some portion of their collection."
"What if it was stolen for spite - just to upset Claire Spencer or to get even with her for something?" I suggested.
"What if it was being held for ransom? Would Claire be willing to pay to get the ring back without publicity? Especially if she suspected her son." I told you my daughter was smart. This suggestion made the most sense of any of them.
"We should check on Charlie's background, see if he's in any financial trouble, and whether he's really off the drugs," I said.
"We should also check up on the others. There might be a good reason to have it look like Charlie's to blame. I don't think Charlie would like Richard Lombardo as a step-papa."
At that moment the telephone rang.
"That must be Helen Washington," said Nancy, getting up to answer the phone, and returning with it a moment later.
"Yes. Yes my father's here," I heard her saying into the receiver. "Yes, we'll see you tomorrow at 4. Yes, I know where that is. You're sure you can't tell us anything now. . . no, I see. All right. Until tomorrow. Bye."
"She knows something," said Nancy. "But she's not telling. We're to meet her tomorrow at a cafe in Waterplace Park."
"Probably wants to admit that she too knows how to get into the safe," I said gloomily. "As far as we know, that rock could have been in and out of there 50 times in the last decade. I'm going to take a break from this."
"I'm going to go see what the Internet can tell me about our list of suspects," said Nancy, heading back inside with the empty plates.
"Don't forget to include Ted," I called after her.
"You know, Ted, the butler," I said.
Nancy looked at me incredulously. "Dad, you don't seriously believe the butler did it?"
One never knows.
I retreated to the garden and started to shovel the debris into a wheelbarrow. At least it would make good compost.
Later that afternoon, I headed into Providence for a few beers and an early dinner with some old newspaper cronies. Yes, I felt a little guilty leaving Nancy slaving at the computer, and the Great American Novel languishing in the Underwood, but I hoped the diversion would provide a little distance and some new insight into the case, not to mention a few more anecdotes for my book.
Nancy was up before me the next morning and greeted me with several neatly typed sheets of paper, together with a cup of coffee.
"I think we've got some leads here," she said.
I don't talk before my first cup of coffee, but I can read, so I stuck my glasses on my nose and reviewed her finds.
First, Lombardo's campaign finance report. Looked like he might be heavily in debt for this campaign, for which he had some strong Democratic opposition in the upcoming election. As a lawyer, he was comfortable but not wealthy. Mrs. Spencer's millions would look very attractive. Now this was an interesting piece of information: Apparently, he held a second mortgage on Gloria's house in Pascoag. This was the first I'd heard of any connection between the two of them.
There was little on Gloria, apart from the Trinity P.R. material. Her credit report showed her to be virtually blameless, up to date on all her payments. Her parents had been divorced. Her mother was dead; her father, still living, was a machinist in North Providence.
Charlie had a more checkered vitae. A couple of run-ins with the Newport and Middletown police for loud partying and suspicion of drug use, but nothing more serious than warnings. Heavy credit-card use and a pattern of late payments showed him to be careless with money to be expected of a spoiled rich kid, I thought cynically. I backtracked to the Lombardo campaign finance report. There was a significant contribution from Charlie to Richard. Hmmm.
Lucy apparently kept her affairs well shielded from prying Internet eyes. Apart from a few references to her positions on several boards there was no information that couldn't have been gleaned from reading the Society section of the newspaper. A clever woman.
Chips Morton's file could have made a book on its own. Several arrests for DWI, no convictions. Occasional large cash influxes to a pretty shaky bank account. Letters demanding payment from more than one collection agency. My guess was that Claire was keeping him afloat as best she could.
And there was nothing on Helen Washington or Ted O'Hara, apart from the fact that Helen had a driver's license and drove a 1993 Ford Escort.
Ted didn't even appear to have a driver's license, which made one wonder whether O'Hara was his real name. Helen had a telephone listing in her own name for the Bon Soir address on Bellevue Avenue. Ted did not.
"I called Mrs. Spencer for some more information on Helen Washington," said Nancy as I looked up from the sheaf of printouts. "She's been her secretary for the last 15 years. There's no husband Claire thinks she's a widow. She has one brother who lives in Indiana. Helen goes to spend Christmas with him every year. There was one interesting piece of information: Her brother owns a jewelry store in Gary, Indiana, a franchise like Zales or something."
"I like Ted more and more," I said. "We don't know anything about him. What if he is really Helen's husband, grew up in New York City as the nephew of a diamond merchant, knows where to dispose of diamonds. I bet he knows any number of Arabian sheiks who would pay handsomely to add the Baby Hope to their collection. Helen finds out the combination, steals the diamond, during her brief absence from the dinner table, turns it over to Ted, who takes off for New York. Where is he now, by the way?"
"Dad," interrupted Nancy, "this isn't the Great American Novel. Ted answered the phone when I called Mrs. Spencer."
"Oh, right." Creating fiction is a lot more fun than real detecting.
"Dad?" Nancy was looking antsy, clearing breakfast plates and cups, wiping off the countertop, tidying up. "Dad, I have to go. I've got stuff to do. I'll figure on meeting you at Lucy Hamilton's at 3."
"Yeah, okay. See you later. Don't be late." I waved her off. I was going back to work on my novel.
At 2:15, I was on my way into Providence, taking the scenic route over the reservoir. There were thunderclouds piling up behind me, casting shadows onto the still water of the reservoir. Late summer, the trees looked dusty and dry, the vivid greens of July muted to olive drabs.
Ignoring the newly painted double lines, I pulled out to pass an overloaded trash truck lumbering up the hill like a snapper up the bank of a pond. I roared past the entrance to the landfill, catching a sulfurous whiff as I passed by, then joined the suburban stream of traffic on 295.
I love the approach to the city from the west. You come over the hill and see the downtown buildings rising elegantly to form a miniature skyline. Gotham City's landmark is still easily identifiable among all the new construction. I do miss the view of the State House, now blocked by the massive new mall. Oh well, you never used to be able to see it before all the railroad tracks were moved.
I was early. Stopped by the light at Waterman Street, just before working-class Gano Street changes its name to the more tony Taber Avenue, I started to shift my mind to the upcoming meeting.
Lucy Hamilton. Widow, long-term Providence social activist. On the boards of Keep Providence Beautiful, City Year, League of Women Voters. I heard an irritated honk from behind me.
Lucy lived east of Blackstone Boulevard in one of the big brick houses that stop just short of being mansions. Unlike the opulence of Newport, these houses just look solidly wealthy. I parked on the street in front of a neatly manicured lawn. Ten seconds later, Nancy pulled up behind me.
The first surprise was the garden. Unlike the neighboring houses, looming with overgrown evergreens, this front yard bloomed with life. Of course, there were the ubiquitous hostas. Nothing much else will grow in the shade of the giant elms. But a sunny corner by the east wall glowed with yellow and rose giant dahlias, pink spider plants and lavender liatris.
Lucy Hamilton answered the doorbell herself. No servants were in evidence. Dressed in khaki slacks and a denim shirt, she looked as if she might actually have been gardening. As she led us across a wide hallway and through a wall of French windows opening onto a bricked terrace and small but sunlit garden, a basket with clippers, a trowel and a pile of weeds indicated that she had indeed been gardening. A plastic bucket full of water held recently cut blossoms. I mourned my lost garden.
Lucy excused herself to get tea, while Nancy and I roamed the miniature garden. Nancy seemed restless and uneasy. She picked a browning leaf from a rose bush and shredded it between her fingers. Lucy returned bearing a lacquer tray, tall glasses of ice tea and a plate of lemony cookies.
"Sit," she said, indicating a wrought-iron table and some rather uncomfortable looking chairs. I sat. Nancy continued to wander for a few moments, then returned to join us.
"Does it take a large staff to keep this place up?" I asked nosily. I was curious that she was doing all the work herself.
"I mostly take care of things myself," said Lucy. "I prefer it that way. I have a housekeeper for the heavy cleaning, some help with the cooking and for company. We used to have a large staff when my husband was alive, and did a lot of entertaining. He was a lawyer."
I remembered her husband was also into politics. While never running for office himself, he influenced who was chosen to run and reportedly was close friends with former Senator Pell.
I jumped right in. "Mrs. Hamilton Lucy, you must know that we are looking into the disappearance of Claire Spencer's diamond." She nodded. "Can you tell us anything about the dinner party that might be useful?"
"Well," she answered. "It wasn't the dinner party that was originally planned. Claire had originally invited Alex Frost. She hadn't invited Lombardo." From her tone of voice I could tell that Lombardo wasn't high on her list of popular people.
"Who is Alex Frost?" asked Nancy, looking suddenly more attentive.
"He owns a chain of excellent restaurants here and in southeast Massachusetts. They're especially well known for their desserts. Alex met Claire at some charity function or another, I forget which one, and they became friendly. He was coming to dinner until Charlie called and said he was bringing Richard. Richard and Alex are not on good terms. Claire told me she didn't want Richard sniping at Alex all night, so she called and asked him not to come."
One question answered the mysterious eighth guest and another lead.
"I didn't know Charlie and Richard were particularly close," I said.
"Charlie met him while researching a movie he'd like to make about a small-time politician who goes to Washington. Charlie was interviewing him for background material and Richard somehow cadged an introduction to Charlie's mother. Now he acts as if the two of them are a hot item, which may be a good way to dredge up money for his campaign, but . . ." Lucy stopped.
"How are Richard and Gloria connected?" interjected Nancy, following her own line of reasoning.
"Richard used to squire Gloria around. Just window dressing for political parties and fundraisers. She's so beautiful. Charlie met her at one of these parties and the switch was inevitable."
"How does Claire feel about Gloria," I asked.
"Resigned." Lucy answered. "But she believes Charlie is too young to settle down."
"Why?" I asked, surprised. "How old is he?"
"Twenty-five or so."
Oh, those apron strings. I looked at my daughter, a competent full-fledged partner in my business. Must be the rarefied air of high society that slows down the maturing process.
Lucy seemed to follow my thoughts. "Charlie's pretty much his own person, but he humors his mother. Still, I don't see him opting for marriage for a while."
I glanced over at my daughter, who was looking a little too disinterested to be believable. Catching my look, she straightened and started her own line of questions.
"Lucy, has Claire ever shown you the Baby Hope, or maybe let you in on the combination to the safe?"
"Yes, of course I've seen it on those rare public occasions when she's worn it. Then once I asked out of curiosity if I could see it close up. She went into that closet room she has and brought it out. She let me try it on. We both fell over laughing, as I was dressed pretty much as I am now. But she's never said anything about the combination to the safe.
"How long ago was this?" I asked.
"Oh, maybe three or four years ago."
"Do you have any idea who could have taken it?" Nancy continued.
"None," answered Lucy. "I mean, what would you do with it? It isn't like you could auction it on eBay or something. That diamond belongs in a museum. It's absolutely worthless as it is."
I had finished my tea and I couldn't think of any more questions. Which didn't mean that I wouldn't like to spend another hour or two in that garden. But we had a four o'clock appointment downtown. I looked at my watch and Nancy stood up quickly.
"We have to go. Thank you for your time."
"I hope I've been helpful. I know Claire's upset. If you can get it back for her, I swear I'll see that it either goes to a museum or into a safe deposit box."
I didn't much care for that if.
With Lucy's permission, we left my car to retrieve later and drove Nancy's car downtown. With her usual parking karma in full force, she pulled into a tiny space at the end of Angell Street. We walked across North Main Street and down the steps to the walkway along the river. We were to meet Helen Washington at a cafe next to the Tidal Basin.
As we approached the cafe, we noticed a crowd forming. An older man, obviously inebriated, was hanging over the railing of one of the bridges, shouting. Below him a woman was thrashing in the murky water, grabbing wildly for the float of one of the wire baskets that hold the logs for the WaterFire displays.
As the float bobbed away from her, she disappeared underwater. A man in a canoe was paddling toward her from the canoe-rental dock. Pulling alongside her, he threw her a life jacket.
"Dad." Nancy was pointing to the woman in the water.
"Isn't that Helen Washington?"
"My first venture into mystery fiction"
About the author: Once again, our winning chapter is the author's first published writing. Writes Julia Crowley Parmentier, 48:
"I am a former environmental consultant, retired to be a full-time mom. I live with my husband, two girls and a dog in Foster, Rhode Island. I have been writing seriously for the last year and a half, mostly children's stories, some science-oriented, some not. This is my first venture into mystery fiction, and my first published piece of work."
About the winning entry: Judges for this segment of the contest were Journal staff writer G. Wayne Miller (who also wrote Chapter One), and Arts Week editor Alan Rosenberg.
"In her winning entry," says Miller, "Julia Crowley Parmentier switches back to the Chapter One voice of Nick Nolan and does so convincingly. She captures Nick's nuances, and especially his quirky sense of humor. She also knows Nancy inside-out.
"Julia is adept at setting scenes, her dialogue is strong, and she leaves the reader hanging with her last paragraph, which is just what we wanted. Thanks to Julia, contestants for the fourth and final chapter have plenty of material to work with and many loose ends to tie up."
Runners-up were Anne Roche of Jamestown and Kathleen Moffitt of Saunderstown.
Note: Other than the authors of our winning Chapters 2 and 3, all previous contestants are eligible to enter the contest for the fourth and final chapter. Please adhere to the chapter guidelines (and solve the mystery of the mangled garden, too!).
The last part of this story will be published on Sunday, Oct. 8.
THE BABY HOPE THEFT
Capter Four, in which the thief's identity is revealed
BY KAREN ANTONIO DEQUATTRO
Publication Date: October 8, 2000
This is the fourth and last chapter of The Baby Hope Theft, a four-part interactive mystery on projo.com and in the pages of The Sunday Journal. The previous parts can still be read online at www.projo.com/specials/babyhope
The story so far: Newport socialite Claire Benson Spencer has hired a father-and-daughter detective team, Nick and Nancy Nolan of Foster, to find the Baby Hope Diamond, apparently stolen during a small dinner party at Mrs. Spencer's home, Bon Soir.
The potential suspects include Chips Morton, second of Mrs. Spencer's three husbands; her son, filmmaker Charles D. Baxter III, whom Nancy previously had a fling with (a fact her father doesn't know); Charlie's girlfriend, Trinity Rep actress and glass collector Gloria Rodriguez; Congressman Richard Lombardo, R-R.I.; Lucy Hamilton, Mrs. Spencer's dear friend; Ted O'Hara, her butler; Helen Washington, her personal secretary; and restaurateur Alex Frost, who was invited to the dinner party and then "uninvited."
Nick and Nancy have interviewed Gloria and Charlie at Gloria's Pascoag home, and Lucy Hamilton at her lavish place on Providence's East Side. They've learned about a mortgage the congressman holds on Gloria's house and seen him racing away from their own home in Foster just after someone trashed their garden, leaving vegetables in a pattern that spelled out, "Give up HOPE." Meanwhile, Helen made a mysterious phone call asking to speak to the detectives and now appears to be thrashing about in the water at Waterplace Park, where she was to have met them.
This chapter is written by Karen Antonio DeQuattro of Westport, in the voice of Nancy Nolan.
It was indeed Helen Washington who was pulled from the water. The man on the bridge was still carrying on, his tirade at this point directed at the officers who'd arrived on the scene. Dad and I both glanced over at a gray Mercedes haphazardly parked on the sidewalk near Cafe Nuovo.
"Chips Morton?" I suggested, recalling the small fleet of gray Mercedeses in the driveway of Bon Soir. I had no doubt that Chips still had access to his ex-wife's many resources.
Dad nodded. "That'd be my guess. Although I'm more than a little disturbed to think that he drove here all the way from Newport in his condition.
"I'll see what I can find out over there." He tipped his head toward the bridge, where Chips appeared to be settling down. "You go do your feminine-comforting thing with Ms. Washington."
Helen Washington was wrapped in a blanket and sitting on a park bench with a female police officer when I reached her.
"Thank you," she said as the officer rose and left. I took the space the officer had vacated.
"Helen, what happened?"
"I never will understand what Mrs. Spencer sees in that man," she said, her eyes cast downward.
"You mean Chips Morton," I said.
Helen nodded. "Some kind of bizarre codependency, I suppose. I just don't see how she's supposed to get on with her life with him always harassing her."
"How did he end up here?" I asked.
"He followed me, I guess. He knows how I feel about him, and he was angry with me today."
"Angry with you? Why?"
Helen bit her lip. "I don't always tell Mrs. Spencer when he calls. I don't see the point in upsetting her when he's just, well, drunk and looking for money or sympathy or whatever.
"He started in at nine o'clock this morning, calling repeatedly. I made excuses, told him Mrs. Spencer had meetings on the East Side and would be gone all day. He showed up at the house just as I was leaving to come here to meet you.
"Ted heard us arguing and came outside. He occupied Chips just long enough for me to get into my car and drive away. I never imagined he would follow me."
"But he did," I stated, encouraging Helen to continue.
Helen nodded. "I'd just sat down at the cafe over there when I saw him pull right up onto the sidewalk in one of Mrs. Spencer's cars. I got up and went to confront him. I thought at the very least I should get the car keys away from him.
"He met me on the bridge. He was so drunk, I'm amazed he made it here alive. He started yelling, accusing me of keeping him from Claire. He thought I was meeting her here. He demanded to know where she was. Then he grabbed at my coat. I backed away and fell."
"Why do you suppose he grabbed at your coat?" I asked. I hadn't yet heard anything that indicated Chips Morton was an aggressive person.
Helen Washington looked down and shook her head. "I haven't a clue. In any event, he startled me, enough to make me fall, though I don't think that was what he intended to happen. I explained to that officer that it was an accident. I won't be pressing charges."
Dad returned to join us. "Chips Morton is in custody. DWI." He looked at Helen, who'd begun to dry but was a mess just the same. "I know you wanted to speak to us in confidence, but this hardly seems the time or place. Could Nancy drive you back to Newport?"
Helen paused and glanced at her watch. "I suppose. Mrs. Spencer won't be in. She should be leaving right about now for an evening out with that congressman." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "What a mess this has all become."
Dad and I both noted the way she said, "that congressman." Lucy Hamilton was apparently not alone in her negative opinion of Lombardo.
"Nancy," Dad said, "if you don't mind, I'm going to take your car. I have an errand to run, then I'll meet you at Bon Soir."
I raised an eyebrow at my father, whose "errands" usually consist of chasing down hunches, and whose hunches are usually right on the money. Dad smiled, took my car keys, and jogged off in one direction while Helen and I went in the other.
It was nearly 6:30 when my father arrived at Bon Soir. I was in the kitchen with an odd impromptu dinner party.
Charlie and Gloria had arrived just as Helen and I pulled into the drive. Ted, the butler who was, as far as I was concerned, the only person who definitely didn't do it looked so confused as he opened the door I almost laughed. Then Charlie brushed past me into the drawing room and I remembered that, among those other aspects of the current situation that could fall into the not-a-laughing-matter category, there was the secret that he and I shared and I still wasn't even sure if he remembered me.
Helen had managed to slip upstairs without explanation, leaving all eyes on me in the silence of the drawing room. It was Ted to the rescue with the suggestion of sandwiches in the kitchen. Gathered on barstools around a massive counter, I told the greatly abbreviated version of what had occurred in Waterplace Park.
Dad sniffed as he entered the room.
"Lox," he said with a frown. "As if driving in the Marlboro lady's vehicle of torture for the last two hours wasn't bad enough."
I let that dig slide, although I would have liked to comment. No matter how awful my father considered the smell of cigarettes to be, it couldn't have been as bad as the rather distinct odor of the Providence River that I'd endured on the drive to Newport in Helen Washington's tiny Escort.
Dad scanned the room with practiced nonchalance. I knew he was dying to ask just how we'd all ended up in the same place. "Nancy, if you don't mind, I'll need you to come with me for a moment."
I excused myself, hoping my sigh of relief wasn't audible. Dad led me down a hallway to the opposite wing of the house. Helen was waiting in the library. Dad closed the door behind us.
"There was something you needed to tell us," Dad said to Helen. "Go ahead."
Helen took a deep breath. "The night of the dinner party. I left the table . . . to . . ."
". . . answer the call?" Dad finished for her. I could tell he was still amused by all these people unable to admit they used the bathroom.
Helen nodded. "Mr. Lombardo had left the table a short time before, presumably for the same reason. Only as I was going down the hall, I saw him coming from upstairs. I don't think he saw me. In fact, I'm sure he didn't. He paused at the bottom of the stairs to check his teeth in the mirror."
"Why didn't you mention this before?" I asked. "Why not say something to Mrs. Spencer."
"I thought it would be best to speak to you. I wasn't even sure Mrs. Spencer would believe me. She's so enamored of that congressman."
"But why the wait?" Dad asked. "And why the secrecy?"
"Mr. Lombardo is a very important, influential man," Helen said slowly. "I didn't take it lightly, pointing a finger in his direction."
"Is there anything else?" Dad asked. I thought he was rushing Helen, and had half a mind to say so, but I thought twice and stayed silent. Helen shook her head and Dad walked her to the door, asking that he and I be left alone for a few minutes.
"Well?" I asked when the door closed behind Helen. "What was the 'errand' this afternoon?"
"Remember Ben Wallace?"
I nodded, trying to figure where Dad was going with this one. Ben had been an attorney in a large real estate practice in downtown Providence in the '80s. He'd helped expose corruption in his firm, and had granted my father interviews when he was covering the story for The Journal. Dad and Ben had become friends in the process and stayed in touch over the years. Ben had since given up his law practice and now worked as a real estate title examiner.
"I had Ben take a look at that mortgage you found," Dad said, "the one Lombardo holds on Gloria Rodriguez's house. I met him while you were driving back here with Helen and he gave me a copy. The mortgage is in the amount of $18,000, and it's due and payable on October 10, 1999."
"October 10, 1999," I repeated. "Isn't that the date Charlie made his contribution to Lombardo's campaign?"
Dad nodded. "In the amount of $18,000. There's no record of Lombardo discharging Gloria's mortgage, but then again, there's no reason to assume Charlie intended to pay off the mortgage."
"It's quite a coincidence, but how would funds intended to pay off a mortgage end up as a campaign contribution?" I was genuinely confused.
"A mistake." The voice was Charlie's, and there was no mistaking the sarcasm in his tone. I hadn't heard the library door open, but there was Charlie in the doorway. "The congressman's a lucky man, though. These mistakes somehow always work in his favor."
"What do you mean by 'mistake'?" my dad asked Charlie, but Charlie's eyes were focused on me.
"I remember you, you know," he said, and I felt my face get hot. I was painfully aware of my father's presence in the room. "I'm sorry for how things ended, I really am. I know the kind of reputation I've got, and I can just imagine what you thought, but I didn't mean for it just to be a fling. I thought there might really be something between us, but then Gloria she needed me . . . "
Briefly, I forgot about my father. "You mean you were already seeing Gloria when we ó "
"No," Charlie said, shaking his head. "She and I had just met, and she was dating Richard, or something like that. Then she called me, out of the blue. She was so shaken up. Things just snowballed from there."
I glanced at my dad, who at this point appeared to be catching on. I tried to ignore the hurt in his eyes, but it was plain and unavoidable. I'd never kept something from him before, not in the course of an investigation.
"Why was Gloria shaken up?" Dad asked Charlie, dedicated to the task at hand.
"It's a condition she has," Charlie explained. "Social anxiety disorder."
Involuntarily, a laugh escaped my lips. I put a hand quickly to mouth, surprising even myself with my complete lack of tact. "I'm sorry. I just social anxiety disorder? She's an actress, for chrissakes."
"I know," Charlie said, "I had to have it explained to me, too. The Gloria Rodriguez you see onstage isn't the real Gloria. She literally becomes whatever character she's playing. The audience doesn't bother her because she doesn't have to interact with them. She has a script, she plays a role. She's perfectly comfortable unless something is out of place."
"Like the curtain, or mismatched shoes," I said, thinking aloud. Gloria's remote residence and her meticulously arranged collection of blue glass began to make sense.
Charlie seemed to realize I'd done my homework. "She couldn't take it," he said, "Richard dragging her to all those fundraisers, showing her off and then leaving her to fend for herself with people she didn't know. The thing was, she couldn't break it off with him, either."
"Why not?" Dad asked.
"They had an agreement, of sorts. Gloria had bills to pay - medical bills from a hospital stay ó "
"For the anxiety disorder?" Dad interrupted, and Charlie nodded.
"She was already maxed out with her house. Richard promised to pay the medical bills, if Gloria would let him parade her around during election year.
"He did pay some of the bills, but then it got to be too much for Gloria. She tried to break things off with him. She called me. I'm still not sure if what she wanted was my money or my influence on Richard, but we ended up negotiating sort of a trade."
"Your mother for Gloria," Dad said. It sounded so tasteless, especially the way my father said it.
"I guess you could say that," Charlie agreed reluctantly. "And Richard paid off the bills, but held that second mortgage on Gloria's house.
"I didn't know about that until it was signed, notarized and recorded. I was furious, but there was Richard, slyly insisting he was just looking out for his interests. He never took any payments from Gloria. He just used it as leverage, to ensure that I would continue to include him in my mother's social circle.
"When the mortgage came due, I told him I'd pay it. I wanted him to issue a discharge so that we could all just be rid of him."
"But instead you got a letter thanking you for you generous campaign contribution," I ventured.
"Yeah," Charlie said, tightening his hands into fists. "And my hands are tied, because if I try to touch him now, while he's got everything to lose, he'll leak what he knows about Gloria's hospitalization. That would kill her."
"You really care about her," I said. It was a statement, and a hollow and misplaced one at that.
"You think Lombardo stole the Baby Hope?" Dad asked Charlie.
"He's as good a suspect as any," Charlie said. "The guy's a bottom-feeder. I don't know how he'd get into the safe, but anything's possible. The way he's been hounding my mother to wear her jewels lately . . ." his voice trailed off.
"One more thing," Dad said, "What do you think of Alex Frost?"
"Alex Frost?" Charlie looked as puzzled as I was at the sudden change of subject. "Alex Frost is a great guy. In truth, I'd love to see him get together with Mom, but that's just one more thing Richard keeps standing in the way of."
Dad nodded slowly, and I began to get a feeling for what was going on inside his head.
Just then, we heard a commotion down the hall.
Dad, Charlie and I left the library and walked to the drawing room, where Mrs. Spencer and Richard Lombardo had joined Helen and Gloria. Ted stood uncomfortably in the doorway.
"My goodness," said Mrs. Spencer, "It appears to be a good thing we came back after all."
"Claire forgot our theater tickets," Richard explained. He turned to Mrs. Spencer with a toothy smile. "I swear, Claire, what doesn't go missing at your house?"
"Forget the theater," Dad said, addressing Mrs. Spencer. "All the action's right here."
He turned to Lombardo. "By the way, I couldn't help but notice you were out our way the other day."
"Couldn't help but notice," Lombardo spat. "I thought it was rather rude of you to go out when I'd come all the way to your house, at her request." I blinked, realizing Lombardo had just indicated me. "I'm happy to help in any way I can, of course, but the common courtesy ó "
"But I didn't ó " I began, but Dad stopped me with a look.
"Mrs. Spencer, I know where you can find your diamond," he said. All eyes were now on my father. "It is in Congressman Lombardo's house, most likely somewhere in his home office."
Mrs. Spencer's jaw dropped. Lombardo began sputtering in protest. Dad put up a hand.
"If I could finish," he said. "Richard Lombardo, lowlife bottom-feeder though he may be, is not the thief."
Eyebrows were raised, breaths held I loved it when my dad came into the home stretch. I folded m arms across my chest and smiled, waiting.
"It was Helen Washington who took the diamond from the safe," Dad said, not missing a beat as the color drained from Helen's face, "but she was not motivated by personal gain. Helen was concerned for you, Mrs. Spencer.
"A person in her position sees and hears things that others simply assume she does not. She could see the way Richard was using you, and she may well have suspected that he was manipulating Charlie and Gloria as well.
"Worse, along came Alex Frost, a genuine person with genuine interest in you, but you repeatedly passed him over in favor of Richard. My guess is that Lucy Hamilton shared her own concerns with Helen, and they worked out a plan together.
"It most likely was Lucy who planted the diamond in Richard's home office. She and Richard have both supported several of the same charitable organizations, and I can see her easily convincing a housekeeper to let her into Richard's home office, maybe to leave some fundraising documents with a personal note. Easier still if she knew that Richard would be all the way out in Foster, responding to a call that Helen made, pretending to be Nancy.
"Helen was at our house in Foster that day too, ruining a perfectly good sauce with a feeble attempt at thickening the plot."
"Wait," Charlie interrupted, turning to Helen. "I don't understand. Why such drastic means to get Richard out of my mother's life? You must have known this would ruin him."
Helen had that godawful deer-in-headlights look. I'd seen it before, working with my father.
"May I?" Dad asked, saving her. "Think of how your mother handled this, Charlie. Did she call the police? Of course not, and Helen knew she wouldn't. Helen knew your mother would call me, I'd find the diamond and return it to her quietly. The public would never know, but Richard would be forever banned from Newport society and from your mother's life."
"I thought it was Chips Morton you considered such a negative influence in Mrs. Spencer's life," Ted commented to Helen.
I smiled at that one. "Negative maybe, but Chips is no threat. At least his feelings for Mrs. Spencer are genuine when he's sober, anyway."
"How did you figure it out?" Helen whispered.
"The direct-deposit," Dad stated simply, then continued in response to the quizzical looks around him.
"The dinner party ended at 11:30. Sometime shortly thereafter, Mrs. Spencer discovered that the diamond was missing, requested that Helen find my unlisted phone number, called me and explained her predicament, and still managed to have my fee in my deposit account by 12:13 a.m.
"Remarkable timing, unless someone was expecting the diamond would go missing, ensured that Mrs. Spencer discovered the theft immediately, and had my number ready and waiting. Let me guess, Mrs. Spencer: Helen urged you to put your necklace in the safe right after dinner?"
Claire Benson Spencer nodded. "But how did you get the combination?" she asked Helen.
"I watched Charlie," Helen explained. "He had the combination written on a piece of paper."
Mrs. Spencer's eyes went to her son.
"Ah, the tangled web we weave," Dad said as he faced me.
I couldn't help but think there was a message I was supposed to be getting, loud and clear.