Excerpt from Death By Design

Prologue

With a hand clad in a sleek, black leather glove, the intruder punched in the code for the security system and silently slipped into the spacious condo located on the Upper West Side in New York City.  Satisfied no one had seen him, or if they had, they would not be able to provide a positive ID, the intruder took his time to peruse the condo, taking care not to disturb anything.

It was crucial no one realize that the intruder was looking for specific items–bits and pieces of precious polished rocks and crystals, small baubles that sparkled in the light and were worth a king’s ransom.

In fact, the gems had originally come from an Indian prince, who presented them to his English mistress many years ago, when India was still under the British Raj.

Decades later, when old and infirm, the mistress fearing a robbery, cleverly hid her baubles and died without revealing the secret of their location.

However, the story of the gems didn’t die with the old woman.  Generations since had searched for the treasure without success, but Her Ladyship’s diary made it clear she had hidden her treasure in plain sight, among her everyday things–but no one had been able to fathom exactly what that meant.

Knowing that the owner of the condo would be out for some time, the intruder took time to carefully examine antique furniture for hidden drawers, as well as searching for wall safes, dusty trunks, examining pockets of old dresses, backs of paintings, and the insides of bric-a-brac.  He even searched for mundane collections such as postage stamps.  The intruder hadn’t watched the classic film Charade with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, where a fortune was exchanged for rare stamps, for nothing.

But nothing was all he found–a big fat zero.

The intruder glanced at the clock and knew time was running short.  Frustrated, the thief felt he must have actually laid eyes on the treasure, but simply failed to recognize it.  Hurriedly, he took pictures with his cell phone until he heard the ancient elevator door whine open on the condo’s floor.

Damn it!  The owner was back early.  Quickly looking around to make sure nothing was out of place, he slipped out the servants’ entrance and hurried down the steps to exit via the service elevator, secure in the knowledge that no one would question his casual attire.

Once outside, the intruder sauntered into Central Park and began jogging, knowing full well people seldom took notice of a person exercising in their neighborhood.

Another clean getaway.

The intruder smiled at his escape.  He would soon have another chance to re-enter the condo and resume his search.  And search he would . . . until he found the treasure.

 

1

 

That’s great, but who was Irvin S. Cobb?  He was a Kentucky boy who went to New York, and became the highest paid staff reporter in America in the early part of the twentieth century.  He wrote sixty books and three hundred short stories, many of them about Kentucky.  In fact, he came to be known as a Kentucky writer, even though he spent most of his life in New York City.

It seems you have to live somewhere other than Kentucky to write about it.  I wonder if New Yorkers flee New York in order to write about the Big Apple.

That’s where I was now–New York.

I found New York is nothing more than a collection of villages jumbled together with no particular rhyme or reason.  Still, one does not expect to run into someone she knows back home amidst a collection of villages which are home to over eight million souls.  The odds are overwhelmingly against it.  Right?  So what happened to me had to be fate?  Right?

I was strolling down 75th Street on the Upper East Side when I heard someone call my name.

It’s hard to stop and turn around on a sidewalk in New York when a gazillion people are tramping in the opposite direction.  I thought I was imagining things, but then I heard it again.

“Josiah!  JOSIAH REYNOLDS!!”

I ducked into a doorway and cautiously peered around a column.  There did indeed appear to be a rotund lady wrapped in a beige cashmere coat with matching leopard printed hat and gloves, hoofing to where I was hiding–I mean waiting.  Okay. I was hiding.

Out of breath, she started to go into the building under whose portico I had taken refuge, when she spied me behind the marble edifice.  “Josiah Reynolds.  I thought that was you.  Then I thought, no, it couldn’t be.  June told me you were visiting New York, and that I should call you, and that’s exactly what I was going to do this afternoon, but then poof–there you were, right in front of me.  I never thought my luck could be that good.”  She peered closely at me.  “You are Josiah Reynolds, are you not, the woman who lives next door to Lady Elsmere?  I was tempted to call you Josie.  Josiah’s such an unusual name for a female.”

“And you are?” I asked.  Hey, I wasn’t going to admit who I was.  This woman could be a bill collector or a hit man for all I knew.

Don’t jump to conclusions.  I am not paranoid.

“I’m Bunny Witt of the Philadelphia Witts, not to be confused with the Boston Whitts.  They spell their name differently, with a h.”

“Unhuh,” I murmured.  “And why is Bunny Witt of the Philadelphia Witts calling my name on 75th Street?”

“I’m no longer of the Philadelphia Witts.  I live in New York now, when I’m not in Kentucky for the racing season, or if I’m not in Florida, you know, for the winter.  I can’t abide those frigid winters in New York and Kentucky anymore.  I have to have the warmth for my feet, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know,” I muttered, watching Bunny Witt’s hands flutter about her face like an injured bird trying to take flight.

“I was just going to call June and ask for your number when I looked up–and there you were.  It’s amazing.  I prayed about this, you know, only last night, but seeing you the next day, I mean, I didn’t think God produced results that fast.”

I interrupted, “Mrs. Witt, I’m very sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course not.  I haven’t explained my problem yet, have I?  But I so desperately need your help.”  She clutched my hand that wasn’t holding the cane–you know, the cane with the silver wolf’s head.  “Please say you will help me.  You simply must.”

Finally aware of the befuddled expression I was displaying, she pulled on my arm.  “The Carlyle Hotel is just around the corner.  Let me buy you a drink at Bemelmans Bar and I can explain my predicament.”  She gave my arm a little tug.  “Just give me twenty minutes.  Please.”

“You buying?”

“Assuredly.”

“In that case, you can have twenty-two minutes of my time.”

The anguish in Bunny’s face eased a bit and she smiled.  “I’ve heard that you have a quick tongue.”

“New York brings out the Dorothy Parker in me.  If you thought that was witty, you should see me after three drinks.  I’m more Oscar Levant than Oscar Levant.”

Bunny’s face went blank.  “I don’t mean to sound obtuse, but I have no idea of whom you are speaking.  Do the Levants own a horse farm in Lexington?”

I started to whip out a sarcastic barb, but why waste my considerable talent on this harebrained tootsie?  Should I squander time explaining that Oscar Levant was one of the great scathing wits of the twentieth century?  No, I would keep my quips to myself until someone worthy came along.  Right now my leg was hurting, and I needed to sit down.  To tell the truth, my dogs were barking, so Bemelmans Bar sounded just fine and dandy, especially if the drinks were free.

 

2

I ordered pink champagne while Bunny ordered white wine.  We sat in a dark corner of Bemelmans Bar.  I chose a seat with my back to the wall so I could see all the exits.  Not that I’m paranoid.  No–not me.  Quit thinking such things.

The bar was named after Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the popular Madeline children’s books, who painted delightful murals of picnicking bunnies and ice-skating elephants in exchange for free lodging for his family.  The murals gave the bar a whimsical ambience.  Who could resist pictures of children and bunnies in suits frolicking in Central Park, especially while systemically getting soused?

“Bunny.  May I call you Bunny?”

Bunny nodded while grabbing some nuts from a dish on the table to munch on.

“Un, Bunny, surely you realize that I had a severe accident over two years ago.”

“Oh yes, it made all the papers.  June was beside herself.  She thought you were going to die.  She didn’t like that.  Not at all.  She said to me, ‘What will I do for amusement without my Jo?’”

I nodded, as this was my intro.  “I didn’t like it myself.  However, because of the accident, I don’t remember things as well as I should.  Sooooo, I must confess I don’t remember you.  Obviously, you know Lady Elsmere, but my question is still–who are you?”

Bunny looked startled.  “Oh, I don’t know what to say.  I didn’t realize.  I mean, the last time we met we had such a good dialogue.  I should apologize for not introducing myself, or at least say I’m sorry for your disability.  June never divulged that you had memory problems.  If she had, I never would have said boo to you.  I didn’t know.  Of course, I would have said hello when I saw you on the street, but I never would have burdened you with my problems.”

I was growing very irritated with Miss Bunny’s rambling.  “Just who the hell are you?” I snapped, cutting to the chase.

Bunny nervously glanced around to see if anyone had heard my outburst.  “I’m Bunny Witt of the Philadelphia Witts, without the h.”

“I got that.”

“I met you at several of Lady Elsmere’s parties.  We talked about her new portrait where she posed like Queen Elizabeth by William Dargie.”

I shrugged.

“We met again at June’s private box at Keeneland.  My horse came in second, just behind her Jean Harlow.  My husband threw bourbon in our trainer’s face.  He was my husband then, but he’s not now.  June ordered him out of the box, and he fell over your cane. He threatened to sue you, saying you had tripped him on purpose.”

Knowing me, I probably had.

Suddenly a light bulb went on in my head.  “That ass was your husband?  What a waste of good bourbon!”

Bunny looked apologetic.  “As I said, he’s not my husband now.  We’ve been divorced over six months.  He embarrassed me so much I just had to get rid of him.  A nasty temper there, and I’ve got to tell you, he cost me a pretty penny and . . .”

I interrupted again.  “Bunny, I remember now.  Why do you need to talk with me so urgently?  Does it have to do with your ex-husband?”

Bunny looked panicked.  “Oh, no, it has nothing to do with him.  He’s gone.  I paid him a lot of money to get gone and stay that way.  I never liked him much anyway.  Such a bully.”

“Please get to the point, Bunny.”

“Yes.  Yes.  To the point.  Josiah,” she said, laying her hand on my arm, which kept me from taking a much-needed swig of my pink champagne.  What was the point of getting a free cocktail if one couldn’t drink it?  I wanted to shake her hand off, but she hung on to me like a tick on a hound.  She looked around and then leaned toward me.  “I think someone is stalking me.”

“You think?  You don’t know?”

Suddenly Bunny seemed frightened.  “I have an apartment here in New York, and one in London.  You don’t know this about me, but I’m very OCD.  Everything has to be in its place.  It has to do with my rigid upbringing by a German governess.  Personally, I think she was a former Nazi the way she . . .”

“Does your Nazi governess have anything to do with the stalking?”

“No.  She’s dead, thank goodness.”

“Okay, let’s skip the childhood reminiscences and get straight to why you think you are being stalked.”

“In both my London and New York apartments, I feel like someone has, on several occasions, entered and gone through my things.  London was the worst.  Yes, London was very bad.”

“Was anything taken?”

“Nothing, but certain things had been moved.”

Bunny was gaining my attention now.  I leaned forward in my chair, removed her hand from my arm, and took a sip of my champagne.  “How had things been moved?”

“Items only I would notice.  Like I said, I’m very OCD.  I line my hairbrush up with my comb very precisely.  Several times I have found my brush tilted, not straight.”

“Maybe your cat jumped up on your dresser.”

“I don’t have a cat.  I know you think I’m being silly, but that’s just one item I’ve noticed.”

“Dish.”

“I’m very particular about my clothes.  On several occasions, I’ve noticed a number of my blouses turned the wrong way.  I face all my coats, blouses, shirts, and jackets to the left.  It looked like a few blouses had fallen and someone put them back on the hanger but facing right.  I know it sounds crazy, but someone has been in my apartments.”

Bunny had my attention.  She was neurotic, but not stupid, and obviously very observant.

“Anything else?”

“Several times I have felt as though someone was watching me.  I once saw a man standing at a bar in a restaurant who seemed to be studying me.  At least that’s what I thought.”

“Can you describe this man?”

“No.  By the time I gathered my courage to confront him, he was gone.  Then another time, I happened to glance out my living room window and I thought I saw a similar man across the street looking up at my windows.  When he saw me, he walked away.  It just gave me the creeps.”

“You should call the police.”

“To say what?  That my blouses were turned the wrong way in my closet, and I think I saw a man staring at me from the sidewalk?  I can’t even describe him, except that he was white.  He was in the shadows both times.”

“Why are you sharing this with me?

“I called June to tell her what was happening, and she suggested I talk to you since you were in New York.”

“I’m just here for a few days before I head back to Lexington.  I don’t know how I can help you.  Perhaps you need to hire a detective.”

“Can you please come by and just look at my apartment?  I went out this morning and when I came back, some more of my things had been moved.  I want you to see it.  I was so frightened I ran out of the apartment, and was going to a friend’s house when I saw you on the street by accident.  But it couldn’t have been an accident, could it?  I think I was meant to run into you.”

In defiance of my doctor’s orders, I had drunk two champagne cocktails, and was feeling pretty loosey-goosey.  Sure, why not?  I had nothing important to do.  “Where’s your apartment?  I can’t walk very far.”

Bunny’s face brightened.  “Let me pay the waiter and then I’ll get a cab.  I live on the west side.”

Seemed okay to me.  But while she went outside to get a cab, I made a quick call to my old friend, June, aka Lady Elsmere, just to see if Bunny Witt of the Philadelphia Witts was on the up-and-up and thank her for taking the liberty of offering my services to one of her harebrained friends.

Now I mean it.  Quit thinking that.  I’m really not paranoid.

 

3

“You live at the Dakota?” I asked incredulously as I stepped out of the cab and onto the sidewalk with the assistance of the Dakota doorman.  Looking around, I muttered, “This is where John Lennon was killed.”

“Who?” asked Bunny while paying the cab driver.

“You know, John Lennon.  One of the Liverpool Lads.”

Bunny’s expression remained blank.

“John Lennon was shot right here four times in the back by Mark Chapman.  Right here.  John Lennon.  One of the Beatles.”

“Oh, the Beatles.  That was before my time.”  Bunny smirked.

“Well, I didn’t realize I’m such an old fart.  You do know the movie Rosemary’s Baby was filmed here?”

“I remember reading something about that.”

“Haven’t you ever seen it?”

“I don’t watch TV or read much.  Don’t have time.”

What little respect I had for Bunny took a nose dive, and I hadn’t had much to begin with, but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to see the inside of the Dakota.  So I meekly followed her through the massive portico and into the courtyard to the elevators.  We got on one.

My heart started racing.  When the elevator door opened, would I see Ruth Gordon standing there with a glass of herbal tea or maybe the Trench sisters going to the basement, where they killed and cannibalized children from the apartment building?

The door opened.

I drew a breath.  No one was there.

Bunny walked off.

I poked my head out, looking back and forth.  No Ruth Gordon.  No Trench sisters.  Such a disappointment.  The hallway looked normal, even inviting.

Bunny walked over to a door a few feet away.  “I’m very lucky to have an apartment overlooking Central Park,” she purred.

I followed Bunny, looking behind me several times, just to make sure no one was there.

Stop that grinning.  I AM NOT PARANOID!

We entered a bright, modern-looking apartment with cheerful paintings on the walls and artfully arranged, neutral-colored furniture.  What can I say?  Bunny had expensive taste. And her expensive taste was really, really boring.  Yawn.

I followed her into the master bedroom.  She showed me the cavernous chamber that served as her closet.  Jeez, I could fit my entire master bathroom and walk-in closet into hers.  I had no idea one person could own so many pairs of shoes.

I personally owned two pairs of good shoes to wear with nice outfits, one pair of high heels which I never wear anymore but refuse to throw out (hope springs eternal), one pair of winter boots, one pair of really good walking shoes, one pair of farm boots, and various pairs of shabby flip-flops.  This worked out to a total of ten pairs of shoes, not counting bedroom slippers.

“See here.  See how the blouses are hanging backwards?”

I peered closely.  Sure enough, there were two blouses with the fronts facing right instead of left.

“Who has access to your apartment?” I asked.

“I have a personal assistant and a part-time cook.”

“They have keys to the apartment?”

“Only my assistant does.”

“How does the cook get in?”

“She always works the same days as the assistant.”

“Which are?”

“Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

“And the cook can only get in via the assistant?”

“Yes.”

“Who else?” I asked, taking a small flashlight out of my purse.  Of course I carry a flashlight in my purse.  One never knows when she will need one. “Relatives, Dakota maintenance people?”

“Of course, the building super has keys for the maintenance people, but I have to be notified before they enter the apartment,” replied Bunny, watching me turn on the flashlight and peer at the carpet.

“Relatives?”

“No one else.”

“How do you receive visitors?  Do they just come up?”

“They usually make an appointment with my assistant, or the doorman calls to get permission to allow them inside the building.”

“Is the cook or assistant pissed off at you for any reason?”

Bunny looked astonished.  “Goodness, no.”

I gave her an appraising eye.  “No tiffs at all?”

“My assistant has been with me for years and the cook worked for my mother.  They are not part of this.  They would have no reason to be.”

“When you travel, who looks after the apartment?” I asked, gawking through her expensive garments.  It appeared Miss Bunny was a bit of a clothes horse.

“The building super.  My assistant usually travels with me.”

“Where is she now?”

“This is her day off.”

“What about the ex-husband?”

“I had the locks changed after he moved out, and all the people at my residences have been instructed not to let him in again.”

“Good girl.  So many women don’t get the locks changed when love goes bad.  It proves to be a fatal mistake sometimes.”

Bunny nodded.  So she wasn’t so dumb after all.

“What about boyfriends?  Current or exes?”

“I’m not seeing anyone at the moment.  No one from my past could get in, even if they had a duplicate key from an earlier time.”

I clucked in approval.

“What about the relatives of the help?”

“The cook is a widow who has a successful son in the theater.”

I cut in, “If he’s so successful, why is his mother still working for you?”

“As I told you, Josiah, she’s a widow, and she likes to cook.  It gives her something to do, and she’s been with my family for two generations now.  She’s like a second mother to me.”

“And the assistant?”

“She has no kin that I know of.  I wish you’d get off this train of thought.  My employees have nothing to do with this.”

“I know.  I know.  The mysterious man in the shadows.  Has anyone been in your apartment in the past two days?” I asked as I moved around the closet, flashing my light here and there.

“Today is Saturday, so my employees were here yesterday.”

“And when was the carpet last vacuumed in here?”

“Yesterday.  My assistant vacuumed my bedroom and closet right before she left.”

“And no one but you has been here since then?”

“NO!”

I flashed the light over to a corner of the closet.  “I believe you, Bunny.  If you walk carefully over to where my light is pointing, you will see the partial imprint of a man’s running shoe in the carpet.”  I looked around and saw only two pairs of tennis shoes that belonged to Bunny.  I pulled them from their slots and turned them over, checking the tread marks.  “None of your athletic wear matches the tread, and look at this.”  I bent over as much as I could, placing one of Bunny’s shoes next to the imprint.  It dwarfed Bunny’s shoe.  “Whoever was in here was tall.”

“I’m frightened.  What do they want?  Nothing is missing.”

“Could be some freak with a shoe fetish. I would advise you to have the apartment professionally swept for listening devices and hidden cameras.  Then I would suggest you have cameras installed.  After all, you’re rich.  Kidnapping is not out of the question,” I said.

Bunny looked aghast at this suggestion.  “I don’t want to stay here tonight.”

“I think you should stay with a friend until you get security beefed up.”

“When are you leaving for Kentucky?” asked Bunny.

“I’ll be flying out in two days.  I am loaning two Roberto Capucci dresses for a fashion exhibit in Lexington, and I have to get them ready.”

“Really!  So am I.  I’ve got several dresses in the exhibit.”  Bunny pulled out several Halston and Charles James dresses.  “What do you think?”

I gingerly felt the crepe of the James dress.  “I’ve only seen a Charles James in pictures.  This is beautiful.”

“These are the rejects.  I’ve already sent fifteen dresses to be in the exhibit.  I’m flying out as well in a couple of days.  We might be on the same plane.”

“Oh, goodie,” I replied.  If Bunny caught any sarcasm in my tone, she ignored it.  “Will you wait while I pack a bag and walk out with me?  I don’t want to be here alone.”

I shook my head.  “No overnight bags.  If someone is watching, you don’t want to let them know you’re leaving.  Borrow stuff from your friend.  Just take what cash, medicine, or documents you’ll need.  Let’s try to give whoever is watching the slip.  I’ll be waiting in the living room.”

Bunny didn’t look totally convinced, but she did as I directed.

While I waited in the living room, I took the opportunity to sit down.  My legs were turning to jelly, but my mind was turning facts over fast, so I turned on a lamp and went through her mail to see if there was anything unusual like hate mail.  Nothing.  I then studied the locks on her front door.  Good, sturdy deadbolts.  Nothing looked forced, but Bunny had an old security system that even I could disable.

Twenty minutes later Bunny came out of the bedroom with an enormous Dooney and Bourke handbag.

“Whatever important items you are not taking should be in a safe or better yet a safe deposit box.”

“Anything like that is already in my safe.”

“Who has the combination?

“Just me.”

“Did you call anyone?”

“No.”

“Not even your assistant?”

“No one.”

“Okay.  Let’s see how long it takes your stalker to figure out that you’ve left New York.  Just leave a note for your employees that you’re staying with a friend and that you’ll be in touch.  Don’t mention where you’ll be staying.  You should also have all your phone numbers changed before you leave for Kentucky.  In fact, I think you should leave your phone here and purchase a new one.  I understand a person can be tracked through their phone.”

Bunny pulled a phone out of her bag and left it inside a desk drawer.  “What about the doorman?”

“Leave that to me.” I replied. “Is there a service elevator?”

“On the other side of the building.”

“What about stairs?”

“The same.”

“Let’s walk down a flight and then catch the service elevator.  This is Saturday, so no one should be using it.”

I escorted Bunny down the hall to the stairs, and we silently entered the staircase to go down one flight.  Then we entered the third floor hall and made our way to the service elevator without anyone seeing us–or so I hoped.

Once outside, we took several cabs to make sure we weren’t followed, going downtown and then doubling back uptown to her friend’s address.  Her girlfriend was waiting on the sidewalk and escorted Bunny inside the building.

After that, I made my way to Asa’s (my daughter) apartment, hoping I had seen the last of Miss Bunny of the Philadelphia Witts–not the Boston Whitts.