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“Every Margaret Maron is a celebration of something remarkable.” — New York Times Book Review
“Maron writes with wit and sophistication.” — USA Today
“There’s nobody better.” — Chicago Tribune
NYPD Detective Sigrid Harald is still reeling from the untimely death of her lover, acclaimed painter Oscar Nauman, when she is called to investigate the poisoning of two homeless men in the West Village. As she examines the mysterious deaths, Sigrid uncovers a grim neighborhood scandal surrounding two influential women: one a haughty mafia widow, the other a retired opera prima donna, both with dark secrets they’ve kept under wraps for decades. Was the poison really meant for the homeless men, or were they merely unintended victims as the decades-long feud between the two women comes to a head?
And still, Sigrid can’t stop wondering what brought her late lover so urgently across the country to the winding mountain road that took his life–until she meets a man who may hold the answers she seeks . . . .
“Opening a new Margaret Maron is like unwrapping a Christmas gift.” — Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Of today’s series writers none has been more successful at weaving the bond between star and audience than Margaret Maron.” — San Diego Union-Tribune
When her phone rang that afternoon in early June, Lt. Sigrid Harald, NYPD, was finishing up the paperwork that would close out the file on how and why she and her homicide team had arrested the owner of a tile store in the West Twenties for the murder of his business partner, a murder that would have gone down as an accident if Sigrid hadn’t noticed a trivial inconsistency when she questioned the victim’s wife. That tiny unnecessary lie was the loose thread that unraveled a complicated plot and led to a confession.
She moved the manila folders that covered her phone and in the process overturned a small bowl of Turkish puzzle rings. The bowl didn’t break, but rings scattered across the floor as she lifted the receiver and said, “Lieutenant Harald.”
“Sigrid? Oh, good,” said a familiar male voice. “You too busy to talk?”
She assured him that he wasn’t interrupting anything and waited to hear why he had called. Although he was slightly older and she was an only child, she had come to think of Elliott Buntrock almost as a younger brother in the brief time that they had known each other. She did not make friends easily, but circumstances had thrown them together, circumstances that continued to cast a bittersweet shadow on their friendship.
He was a rising star in the arts, a curator of modern exhibitions at important museums. She was a homicide detective who was carving out a reputation among her peers for solving difficult cases but was otherwise unknown outside the force until their worlds collided. One of the leading artists of the day had fallen in love with her and the three of them wound up in a murder investigation two Christmases ago.
“I know it’s short notice, but when I called Gottfried to tell him that the catalog galleys are in, he invited us both to supper tonight. He just sold another picture.”
“Let me guess where we’ll be eating,” Sigrid said dryly. “Tavern on the Green? Lutèce? La Côte Basque?”
“Only tourists go to Tavern on the Green these days.” Buntrock, born and bred in the Midwest, was now a consummate New Yorker who kept his fingers on the social pulse of the city. “He sold a picture, Sigrid. He didn’t rob a bank. Anyhow, you ought to take a look at the galleys, too. I told him six o’clock. That okay with you?”
“I’ll be there,” she said, and hung up the phone to retrieve the puzzle rings that helped her focus when a case presented similar complexities. The most difficult ring, an intricate ten-band version, had stayed intact, but several of the simple four-band rings had come apart and as she manipulated the thin circles, her mind wandered to the catalog copy Buntrock wanted her to vet.
As if she knew enough about modern art to critique a catalog of Oscar Nauman’s work.
It was the man she had loved, not his art, and she had made no secret of her preference for the exquisite portraits painted by the Dutch and Flemish of the sixteenth century. Too many women had been dazzled by Oscar Nauman’s twentieth-century fame and it amused him that Sigrid was totally indifferent both to his fame and to his abstract paintings.
Intimacy did not come easily for her and in the beginning, she had resisted him instinctively, as if sensing that her life would never again be the same if she allowed him past her defenses. He kept her off balance, showing up unexpectedly, coaxing her into trying new things, turning her well-balanced world upside down until she capitulated so completely that when he died in a car accident out in California, she was helpless with grief. Even worse was when his attorney informed her that Nauman had left behind a hastily drawn will that made her his sole heir, an irony that had not escaped Elliott Buntrock and many of Nauman’s associates.
That was a year ago. Time had not made it easier to deal with the repercussions of his death. She still wavered between grief and anger, but she had learned to cope and, with the help of friends like Buntrock, to make decisions about the large estate left in her care.
She slid the last band into its narrow slot and gave it the final twist to lock it into place. Twenty minutes later, she had read over her homicide report, signed it, and routed it for the DA’s attention.
Several blocks north of the twin towers, on a street where private homes butt up against commercial buildings, is an unpretentious diner where one can still get a meal that tastes home cooked yet will not empty an artist’s wallet if he feels expansive and wants to treat an infrequent guest.
Not that Rudy Gottfried’s wallet was exactly empty these days.
“Retro’s getting hot again,” the old artist said cynically as he added butter to his mashed potatoes and held up the empty saucer for the waiter to bring more. “And I’ve got a studio full of stuff that didn’t sell the first time around.”
When Oscar Nauman first came to New York, he had shared a loft with Gottfried and the two men had cut a wide swath through the city’s art scene. Gottfried never made it as big as Nauman, but they had stayed friends for forty years, so he was a prime resource for Elliott Buntrock, who was curating an Oscar Nauman retrospective at the Arnheim Museum of Modern Art. Planning had begun before Nauman’s death and the show was due to open in the fall. Both artists had spent time in Europe in the days long before email, and Gottfried had saved Nauman’s letters, letters that laid out complex theories of line and color that he explored in his work.
Embittered by his experiences with “helden curators” who considered the placement of art in a gallery more important than the art itself, Gottfried had been wary of Buntrock when they first met after Nauman’s death. Oddly enough, considering how undemonstrative and reserved she usually was, Sigrid Harald was the one who had forged their unlikely friendship. Because of her, the younger man now had Gottfried’s trust and cooperation. The only problem was that Gottfried kept dredging up intriguing conversations from the past and Buntrock was torn every time. The catalog was already over budget and behind schedule and to include something new, no matter how pertinent to the show, would mean cutting something too important to leave out.
Tall and thin with bony arms and legs, Buntrock often reminded people of a shore bird—a stilt or ibis, angular and stiff-gaited—and now, as Gottfried described how Nauman became fascinated by Cassinian ovals after attending a mathematics lecture in Zurich and how he had translated them into several of his major pictures, Buntrock looked like a heron regarding a particularly tasty shrimp just out of reach.
“Dammit, Rudy!” he groaned. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
The older man shrugged. “Leaky memory. Like a wet sponge. Things keep dripping out that I haven’t thought of in years.”
Buntrock shook his head in frustration. “When this is over, I’m going to squeeze your brain dry. There’s a bestselling memoir sloshing around in there.”
“Yeah?” After years of living on the edge of penury, Gottfried’s eyes brightened at the possibility of more income.
While the two men conferred over plates of meat loaf, Sigrid gave up on her overcooked broccoli and leaned back in the booth to watch the people who passed by the diner’s wide plate-glass windows. Rush hour was long over and daylight was fading, so foot traffic this mild spring evening was sporadic.
According to Gottfried, a world-famous soprano lived in one of the three-story Federal-style row houses across the way and the elderly widow of a Mafia don lived a few doors down in another. The don had been murdered, gunned down in this very street, while Sigrid was still in grade school and Gilbert and Sullivan were the closest she ever got to the opera, so she knew she would not recognize either woman should one of them suddenly appear in the street. Nevertheless, it was amusing to speculate.
Gottfried himself lived and worked in the basement apartment of a house directly opposite. The front of the apartment was dark and cramped with the low ceilings and small rooms deemed sufficient for servants’ quarters during the eighteenth century, but the back opened into a large glass solarium that had been tacked on sometime in the last fifty years. North light flooded the space and Gottfried had long ago cleared out the last anemic plants to make room for his riotous abstract paintings, two of which now belonged to Sigrid.
The situation still bewildered her. How, she wondered, could she be so involved with modern art that her off-duty hours would be taken up with meetings like this? Her taste in art leaned toward the precisely mannered portraits of the late Gothic, not the sloppy-looking chaotic works of her own time. She had fashioned herself an orderly life and had risen through the ranks by her ability to solve complex cases with a logic that fitted one fact with another until a pattern was revealed. Almost against her will, though, she had fallen in love with one of the icons of late twentieth-century art, and when Nauman’s car plunged off the road last year, she was shocked to learn that he had left her everything—not only his own work but also several works done by his friends, a list that read like a Who’s Who of the most important artists of the day.
The Arnheim show was shaping up to be the art event of the year. At least three private Midtown galleries would be linked to the show through their holdings, and both Buntrock and her attorney insisted that Sigrid keep herself fully informed. Thus tonight’s meeting.
At a diner.
An unlikely setting for stratospheric maneuverings, thought Sigrid. Almost as unlikely as the three of them—a late-thirties homicide detective, an eccentric mid-forties curator in a rainbow-colored Jeff Gordon racing jacket, and an elderly artist who looked more like a stevedore who’d spent his life unloading ships than someone who pushed paint around a canvas.
Nauman had been linked with several beautiful women over the years, from a violently temperamental Austrian artist to a titled Irish redhead who planned charitable events for the city’s movers and shakers. Knowing this, few people could understand his attraction to this police officer. Lt. Harald might be the daughter of a noted photojournalist, but she was tall and thin with none of the voluptuous curves of Nauman’s earlier women. Her neck was too long, her mouth too wide, her chin too strong. But her wide-set gray eyes changed from slate to silver, depending on her mood, and when they met after one of his colleagues was murdered, Sigrid’s prickly nature had intrigued him, especially when she rejected his advances and showed no interest in falling into bed with him.
She was like one of those Chinese puzzle boxes that take patience and perseverance to open and he had patiently persevered until she opened up to him with all her secret compartments laid bare, delighting him with their complexity.
After all these months, time had blunted the worst of her grief, but she still had irrational bursts of anger that his cavalier driving habits had done this to them both.
From the skid marks left on that mountain road in California, the reporting trooper theorized that Nauman had been driving much too fast to make that hairpin turn. What was he doing up in those hills anyhow? As chair of Vanderlyn College’s art department, he was supposed to be attending a meeting of the College Art Association in LA where he and Buntrock were featured speakers, not off sightseeing in an unfamiliar car. Yet, while Buntrock met with colleagues at the Getty Museum, Nauman had taken their rental car for a long drive out into the hills, where he lost control and plunged over the edge of a mountain road into one of the canyons.
Damn you, Nauman! Why, why, WHY?
She took a deep breath to gain control of her grief, willing herself back to calmness.
Across the street from the diner and two doors to the left of Gottfried’s building, a rather short old woman in a bulky gray cardigan climbed the stoop, one laborious step at a time. She carried a white shopping bag with a red-and-green logo that proclaimed delicacies from Giuseppone di Napoli, a Village institution known for its homemade pasta, its spicy sauces, fresh buffalo cheese, and imported olives. Holding on to the iron railing, she carefully drew one foot up beside the other before attempting the next step.
“Is that the Mafia widow?” Sigrid asked as the woman unlocked the door and disappeared inside.
Gottfried had been watching, too. “Naw. Her housekeeper. And before you ask, that’s not Charlotte Randolph either,” he said of the woman who approached the doorway to the immediate right of his own door.
“I do know that Charlotte Randolph must be nearly eighty by now,” Sigrid said.
Like Sigrid herself, the slender white woman who climbed the stoop and pushed the doorbell was probably thirty-nine or forty. Wearing form-fitting red tights and a long white tunic fringed at the neck and hips, she must have been hailed from farther down the street, because she turned and waved to a tall black man in a short-sleeved blue shirt. His tie was loosened around his neck and a jacket was slung over his shoulder. He carried a white paper bag in his free hand and took the steps two at a time to join her at the top of the stoop as someone from within opened the door for them.
“That’s the niece and stepson,” said Gottfried. “They come bearing dinner at least twice a month. She’s the granddaughter of La Randolph’s sister and he’s the son of her third husband.”
“Keeping themselves in the will?” Elliott Buntrock asked with an amused lift of one eyebrow.
“Why not? The niece is her closest relative and she’s certainly not going to leave it to the Met. Not after the board backed Rudolph Bing when she had that fight with him.”
Diverted, Buntrock paused with a forkful of meat loaf in midair. “Surely all those board members are long retired or dead by now?”
“Bing, too, for that matter,” Rudy Gottfried agreed cheerfully. “But Randolph’s famous for holding grudges. It was four years before she would sing there again. I hear she’s writing her bio. That catfight should be good for at least one chapter.”
“Why is it that whenever a woman takes a stand, it’s always called a catfight?” Sigrid asked. Her tone was not accusatory and appeared to express only genuine curiosity, but Buntrock grinned and Rudy Gottfried’s bulky frame stiffened.
“I don’t always do anything,” he protested. “But what else would you call it? He was bitchy. She slapped his face. Then they clawed each other to shreds. Too bad it happened before the National Enquirer hit its stride. These silly little feuds between rock stars are like powder-puff duels compared to that.”
He saw the amused glance Buntrock sent Sigrid and gave a sheepish grin. “Okay, yes. I do read the tabloid headlines.”
They laughed and as they turned their attention back to the timeline he was amending for the Arnheim catalog, Buntrock said, “So how much do you remember about Nauman’s first meeting with Rothko?”
It was a pleasant evening, not yet fully dark, so when supper was over, Sigrid and Buntrock walked the few short blocks to Houston Street.
“Did you hear?” he asked. “The new board of trustees at the Breul House fired their incompetent director.”
The Breul House was an idiosyncratic historical house where a longtime friend had almost persuaded Nauman to stage his retrospective. A murder had cancelled that venue, to Buntrock’s relief, and Sigrid had to smile, remembering that the director was both incompetent and not completely ethical. Something about deaccessioning art works at his former post. She had forgotten the details, but Nauman had introduced her to Buntrock in the course of the investigation and a friendship had developed based on a mutual fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan.
“Have they hired a replacement?” she asked, threading her way between some overflowing garbage pails at the curb and a vegetable stand that encroached on the sidewalk.
“As a matter of fact, she interned with me when she was finishing up her doctorate.” He paused in front of the cut flowers at the end of the stand. “Dorothy Reddish. Doctor Dorothy Reddish. I wrote a glowing recommendation.” He lifted two bunches of flower from their tubs. “Tulips or daisies?”
“You don’t need to buy me flowers.”
“Need and want are two different things, Sigrid. Which?”
He paid the grocer, who wrapped the stems in tissue paper and handed her the bright yellow blossoms with a broad smile.
They parted at the Houston Street subway, where he would take the Seventh Avenue train uptown to his apartment on West End Avenue, while she kept walking west to her own place near the river with no more thought of divas or dons.
Near the lower end of Sixth Avenue, on a corner where the windowless side of one building pulls back eight feet farther from the other, an opportunistic sycamore tree shelters a long metal park bench anchored in cement. The space isn’t big enough to be called a park—no grass, no flowers, but it’s a shady place to sit in the summer and with cardboard scraps to cover its slats in winter, the bench makes a warmer bed than the icy sidewalk, sheltered as it is on two sides by brick walls. Despite the city’s periodic efforts to rid the homeless from its streets, the bench does seem to invite them. The nearest bus stop is a block away and the storefronts on the other side of the street are not for browsing but strictly utilitarian—an electrician, a shoe repair, a locksmith, and a dry cleaners. Locals seldom use the bench and they don’t complain about the street people who do.
Live and let live.
Except when they don’t.
That mild June morning, a patrol car on the beat stopped at the corner. When the officer got out to prod the sleeping derelict onto his feet, he discovered that the man was dead with no obvious sign of violence. This was not a first for the young officer, nor even a second. Living on the streets too often meant dying on the streets. Too much rotgut whiskey, too many drugs, or an untreated medical condition, who knew?
Not his problem.
Ordinarily, he would have called it in, waited for the wagon to come take the body off his hands, made a note of it in his daily report, and that would have been that.
What made this death different was finding a second body under a dingy comforter at the far end of the bench.
“I thought it was the first guy’s belongings,” the officer told Lt. Sigrid Harald when the homicide team arrived. He pointed to the takeout cartons strewn under the bench where ants and yellow jackets were busy with the food scraps. A crumpled bag bore the logo of a nearby Italian restaurant. “It’s like he had supper and then slumped down against the armrest and went to sleep, but then when I saw the other one and he was bleeding, too…”
Sigrid watched the ME swab identical thin trickles of blood that had oozed from the mouths of the dead men. Both were white and both wore jeans and knit shirts. The first man was at least seventy. His white hair was worn in an abbreviated ponytail secured by a blue rubber band. His short white Santa Claus beard looked hand-trimmed. His green, long-sleeved cotton T-shirt was marginally newer than the faded gray shirt of his companion in death, and he wore thick leather sandals without socks while the other man had on ragged sneakers.
The younger man’s graying hair was close-cropped and he appeared to be in his early fifties, but he had the sunken cheeks and ashy skin of an addict, so he could have been much younger.
His immediate examination finished, Dr. Cohen stood and indicated that the detectives could begin searching the bodies.
“Overdose?” Sigrid asked him.
The ME shrugged. “The younger guy’s got the physical signs of a crystal meth user, but the other one? He’s got a pacemaker. No sign of meth and no tracks on his arms. Time of death for both of them was probably sometime between midnight and six a.m.”
“Food poisoning?” she asked.
“Botulism or ptomaine?” He cast a doubtful eye over the two bodies. “Won’t know till I open them up. No vomit, though, and it does look as if they had a good final meal, if that Giuseppone bag means anything. I’m not ready to call it a homicide, but it sure as hell would be a real coincidence if their deaths were natural. Not with that blood. I’ll take samples, but you know how long it takes to run a tox screen if it’s not something common.”
To be on the safe side, Sigrid sent several officers to canvass shops and houses in the immediate area, then walked over to Detective Elaine Albee, an attractive blonde in her early thirties, just as Albee pulled a roll of fifties and twenties from the older man’s pocket.
“Four hundred eighty,” Albee said as she finished counting, and slid the money into an evidence bag.
“Sorry, Lieutenant. Just a Duane Reade receipt from two days ago—the one on Ninth and Forty-Third—for a bottle of aspirins. Three subway tokens, a five, two ones, and some change in that other pocket. Nothing else except these two keys.”
The keys could have been for an apartment door, but there were no identifying names or numbers.
“The small bills were separate from the large ones?” asked Detective Tildon, glancing over at Albee’s findings. He had turned out the pockets of the younger man. No ID, but he’d found a flyer for a soup kitchen two blocks down, a small nondescript switchblade with a bone handle, a twenty-dollar bill, and a handful of change. “Four hundred and eighty in that guy’s pocket and a twenty here? You suppose that bankroll started out at an even five hundred?”
A few years older than Albee and Lowry, Tillie was Sigrid’s most trusted team member even though he occasionally tried her patience with his excessively detailed reports. Nothing was too small to escape his attention.
“You’re suggesting our first man shared his wealth?” she asked dubiously. “Why?”
Tillie had no answer to that. In the meantime, Albee’s partner, Detective Jim Lowry, had finished with the grocery cart parked behind the bench. It held an umbrella, a half-used roll of paper towels, a box of crackers, and some articles of clothing, but nothing to identify the owner.
“Probably belonged to the methhead,” Lowry said, “since he’s the one with the blanket.”
When their crime scene photographer had taken several instant pictures of the men’s faces, Tillie said, “Want us to go talk to the staff at the soup kitchen? See if they knew one of these guys?”
Sigrid nodded and Tillie signaled to Ruben Gonzalez, one of the newer detectives, as a uniformed officer rounded the corner and approached them. Holding on to his arm for support was an elderly white-haired woman who barely topped his elbow and who seemed to move with difficulty. A small group of curious pedestrians had collected behind the yellow tape that marked off the bench. When asked, none volunteered knowledge of the dead men.
“I’m ashamed to say I never look at street people very closely,” said one woman.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” said her friend. “What can one person do? It’s the city’s problem and City Hall keeps shifting the blame for why we don’t have more homeless shelters.”
“Lieutenant?” the officer called. “This lady may know one of them.”
Sigrid motioned them forward.
“This is Miss Orlano,” he said. “She lives just down the block. A guy in the diner says he’s seen her come this way with takeout pretty regularly and her employer said she came last night.”
Until then, Sigrid had not paid attention to their precise location. Now she looked more closely at the direction from which Miss Orlano had come and recognized the diner where she and Elliott Buntrock had eaten supper with Rudy Gottfried last week. And unless she was mistaken, this was the same woman who had entered the house across the street, the house where Rudy said the Mafia widow lived.
Seen up close, the old woman had a small wrinkled face overshadowed by thick eyebrows of coarse wiry gray hair that almost met over the bridge of her nose. She ignored Sigrid’s outstretched hand and shuffled straight over to the bodies still on the bench. Albee pulled back the paper sheets that covered them.
She stood gazing at the first one for so long that Albee gently touched her arm. “Did you know him?”
“That one I see many times,” she said with a distinct Italian accent. She gave the older man a cursory glance. “Him? Never.”
“But you brought the other man food?” Sigrid asked.
Those bushy eyebrows drew together over a frown and she spoke with obvious reluctance. “Not just him. Most places give too much food for two old women and when there are leftovers, we give to the hungry. If no one is here, I leave it on the bench. Someone always takes it.”
- "Margaret Maron is one of those authors whose devoted fans would follow them anywhere."—The New York Times
- "Excellent...If this is indeed Maron's final book, as she has announced, she is quitting while still in top form."—Publishers Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)
- "Maron's series finale and last book ends her distinguished writing career on a high note. Her many fans will enjoy this while wiping away tears of farewell."—Library Journal (STARRED REVIEW)
- "Every Margaret Maron is a celebration of something remarkable."—New York Times Book Review
- "Maron writes with wit and sophistication."—USA Today
- "[V]ery satisfying. If we must leave Sigrid Harald, this is the way to do it."—LA Review of Books
- "Sigrid Harald is smart, efficient, and sympathetic."—Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
- "There's nobody better."—Chicago Tribune
- "Opening a new Margaret Maron is like unwrapping a Christmas gift."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
- "You read a Maron mystery for the rich back stories of her main characters as much as for the whodunit, and she doesn't disappoint here."—The News & Observer
- PRAISE FOR MARGARET MARON'S DEBORAH KNOTT SERIES:
Maron knows how to adorn a solid murder mystery with plenty of ancillary entertainments. But her broader theme involves the way families flourish when they work together for the common good. While there are charming scenes of group projects like building a pond shed and assembling a bluegrass band, the clan members Maron really cherishes are those who devote themselves to caring for the elders of the family. Living saints they are, every last one of them."
—New York Times Book Review on Designated Daughters
- On Sale
- Mar 27, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing