Monday, January 28, 2019

Curses, Boiled Again Nominated for an Agatha Award!

I learned the true meaning of the word "gobsmacked" when I received a call telling me I'd been nominated for an Agatha award in the Best First Novel category. The Agatha Award recognizes traditional mysteries, best exemplified by the namesake of the award, Agatha Christie.

I'd been watching the live TV broadcast of RENT and let the call go to voicemail. When I realized it was a call from Bethesda, Maryland, home of the Malice Domestic Conference I hurried to call back. And got the news.

I'm over the moon! Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, and shared CURSES. Your support means the world to me.

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Announcing the 2018
Agatha Award Nominees

Best Contemporary Novel
Mardi Gras Murder by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Beyond the Truth by Bruce Robert Coffin (Witness Impulse)
Cry Wolf by Annette Dashofy (Henery Press)
Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge)

Best Historical Novel  
Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen (Berkley)
The Gold Pawn by LA Chandlar (Kensington)
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime)
Turning the Tide by Edith Maxwell (Midnight Ink)
Murder on Union Square by Victoria Thompson (Berkley)

Best First Novel
A Ladies Guide to Etiquette and Murder by Dianne Freeman (Kensington)
Little Comfort by Edwin Hill (Kensington)
What Doesn't Kill You by Aimee Hix (Midnight Ink)
Deadly Solution by Keenan Powell (Level Best Books)
Curses Boiled Again by Shari Randall (St. Martin's)

Best Short Story
"All God's Sparrows" by Leslie Budewitz (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)
"A Postcard for the Dead" by Susanna Calkins in Florida Happens (Three Rooms Press)
"Bug Appetit" by Barb Goffman (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
"The Case of the Vanishing Professor" by Tara Laskowski (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)
"English 398: Fiction Workshop" by Art Taylor (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)

Best Young Adult Mystery
Potion Problems (Just Add Magic) by Cindy Callaghan (Aladdin)
Winterhouse by Ben Guterson (Henry Holt)
A Side of Sabotage by C.M. Surrisi (Carolrhoda Books)

Best Nonfiction
Mastering Plot Twists by Jane Cleland (Writer's Digest Books)
Writing the Cozy Mystery by Nancy J Cohen (Orange Grove Press)
Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox (Random House)
Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson (Pegasus Books)
Wicked Women of Ohio by Jane Ann Turzillo (History Press)

The Agatha Awards will be presented on May 4, 2019
during Malice Domestic 31.   
Congratulations to all of the nominees! 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Pet: A Short Story

This story is a bit of a departure for me. I wanted to try something a bit more noir. I hope you enjoy it. 

by Shari Randall
This story originally appeared in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (2018)

Katya left her Redondo Beach apartment, hurrying along the cracked pavement past nail salons, empty storefronts, and a crowd of cat-calling men outside a car wash. She tried her best to ignore them, the way her boyfriend, Lev, instructed as she headed to the pet shop. Black and white letters affixed to pink lattice spelled Rosie’s Pet Spa. Despite being located in an area dominated by surf shops and fast food restaurants, the pet spa had a reputation that lured the well heeled.
Katya pressed her face to the window, the tension in her body ebbing as she admired dogs that cost more than everything she and Lev owned. When she and Lev left Russia two years earlier, he’d promised that they’d live in a mansion. That they’d be free. That every day the skies would be the same color as her eyes. Most days the skies were blue, but she felt trapped in the tiny apartment they shared with four other young Russians.
Behind her a pink van lumbered to the curb. Katya turned. A Chihuahua poked its little head out the window and yapped. 
The driver pulled the dog from the window and got out. Katya heard “Reaper, stop!” as the Chihuahua raced around the van and ran to her, barking. Katya laughed and bent to stroke it.
Nyet, nyet,”Katya said, but when she saw the driver approach she switched to the English she’d learned from the video games played by the young men who lived with her and Lev. “Chill little man, chill.” The Chihuahua vibrated madly, licking her toes and worn rubber flip flops.
The driver, a stocky woman with pink streaks in her hair, set a carrier on the sidewalk with a grunt. “I liked the Russian better.” She scooped up the Chihuahua. “And you should chill, Reaper.”  The woman held out her hand. “I’m Rosie.”
Katya hesitated, then shook the woman’s hand. “Katya.”
“Reaper sure likes you. You like dogs.” It wasn’t a question. “I’ve seen you here before.”
Katya nodded slightly, unsure if watching the dogs was allowed.
“I’m looking for someone to give baths. One of my shampoo girls took off with some asshat surfer.”
“Asshat surfer?” Katya said.
Rosie laughed, a short bark. “Sounds better with a Russian accent. You looking for work? A job?”
Katya thought of the boys who shared her apartment, the way they looked at her when they thought Lev didn’t notice and of the other girl she lived with, Anya, how she only left the apartment to buy cigarettes, how her eyes always looked dead. “Yes. A job. Please.”
“You’re what, eighteen?”
Katya nodded. That’s what the papers Lev had bought said.
“I’ve got dogs out the wazoo needing baths. Come on in.” A bell chimed as she pushed open the door into a bright pink storefront that smelled like peppermint and dog. “Let’s talk.”
Three months later on a Saturday afternoon, Katya helped Rosie ready the shop to close.
“You need to get a life, Katya.” Rosie flicked off the lights in the bath area. “I’m your boss and I think you work too much.”
“It’s not work. I like it.” Katya nuzzled a Pomeranian that now sported one of Rosie’s trademark pink bows.
“That dog hates everyone, but she likes you. Whatever you’ve got, it works on Cujo. Sorry,” she bent toward the fluffy ball in Katya’s arms. “Caro. She belongs to Mrs. Ashburn. Richer than God. Can you believe it, the old bag gets to name a dog and what does she name it? Her. Own. Fricking. Name. Changed one whole letter, sure. But still. Gotta get her ready for the chauffeur, right, Cujo?” Rosie called all the biting dogs Cujo.
“She’s just nervous because she’s so small,” Katya said.
“You have to make sure Caro’s ready outside. Her mama’s time’s worth billions. Don’t forget the carrier.”
“I’ll take you out for some fresh air, Caro.” Katya picked up the carrier. “Come.” Caro followed on her heels, tail wagging.
“Fresh air in LA. You keelme, Katya. See you Monday.”
Katya sat on the neon pink bench outside the door and lifted Caro onto her lap.
Lev turned the corner, strutting in slim designer jeans and sunglasses. Katya froze. Lev rarely left the apartment during the day and he had never come to Rosie’s.
The Pomeranian yipped and jumped off her lap, leaping at Lev’s legs, scratching at his tight jeans and latching her tiny pointed teeth onto his ankle.
“Caro!” Katya jumped up.
“Overfed rat dog,” Lev sneered. He kicked out, his boot catching the Pomeranian under the ribs.
Caro yelped and skittered across the sidewalk.
Katya winced. She’d felt the impact of Lev’s pointed leather boot as if he’d kicked her and not Caro. She scooped up the trembling dog. 
“How could you?” She whispered, her heart thudding as she cradled the tiny body. She whirled toward the door, but Rosie was nowhere to be seen. Cars flowed by, nobody stopped.
“You want me fired?”
“Katya, they’re stupid, spoiled dogs!” Lev straightened the collar of his shirt and checked his jeans for tears. “What a joke.”
“This joke pays the rent.” She pressed Caro to her shoulder, the dog’s fluttering heartbeat matching her own.
Lev snorted and looked away, the reflection of a passing Lexus sliding across his Ray Bans. “Katya, Katya, we didn’t come here to wash dogs.”
A black limousine slid to the curb. A chauffeur heaved himself out, tugging on his too-tight jacket. He stepped slowly around the car, his glance moving from the top of Katya’s head to her rubber flip-flops. He frowned. Katya felt her cheeks burn.
“Madame would like to speak with you.”
Katya turned to Lev, Caro pressed to her hammering heart. Lev put his hand on Katya’s lower back and pushed until she moved forward. Had they seen Lev kick Caro? Katya thought wildly. Lev’s lips curled in a smile and he whistled as he picked up the dog carrier.
The chauffeur breathed heavily as he opened the rear door. A blond, smiling woman reached out her arms from the rear seat.
“Caro, come to mommy!” Katya mutely handed the dog to her then stepped backwards, bumping into Lev’s chest.
Mrs. Ashburn, the “richer than God” lady who owned Caro, had a deep voice, smooth as honey. Katya was dazzled. The woman’s wide white smile and silver blond hair reminded Katya of a woman she had seen in a movie once, a woman in a pink dress draped with diamonds, dancing with dozens of sleek men in tuxedos.
“Caro, my baby!” She held Caro to her shoulder, just as Katya had.
“You’re Katya.” Mrs. Ashburn smiled even wider and waved Katya closer. “It’s okay, pet, I don’t bite.” Diamonds glittered like fairy dust on every finger.
“My baby is so pretty and happy when she comes home. I thought, who is the girl who makes Caro so happy? I’ve got to meet her.”
Relief flooded Katya. Mrs. Ashburn hadn’t seen the kick. She felt Lev’s hand on her lower back, again pushing her toward the open door. “I’m, I’m Katya.”
“So nice to meet you, Katya. Call me Carol.” Katya watched Mrs. Ashburn’s eyes slide past her to Lev. “And who is your handsome friend?”
If Lev hadn’t pushed her into the limousine, Katya would have said no thank you and gone back to the little apartment that reeked of stale beer and cigarette smoke. But Lev had always had a nose for money. 
“What do you say?” Carol had enthused on the drive to The Manse. “I need someone to live in and take care of Caro. You can have the little pink bedroom. It will look so pretty with your blond hair.”
And that was it. Katya moved in to care for Caro full time. The little pink bedroom was one of twelve bedrooms at Carol’s home, The Manse. The Manse was a half-mile away from Golden Oaks. Carol had grown up at Golden Oaks, a mansion so stuffed with artwork, antiques, and artifacts that she had turned it into a museum and moved down the road to the smaller house.
Just days after Katya began working at The Manse, Carol Ashburn’s chauffeur, Morton, retired to Florida.
Carol asked Katya, “Why doesn’t your boyfriend take Morton’s job and move into Morton’s old quarters over the garage?
Why not? Just as Carol had said to Katya, “Why don’t you come take care of Caro? She loves you so.” 
“You’re a nanny for a dog,” Lev sneered, but he took the job, as Katya knew he would, and he behaved properly around the other employees. Carol’s staff was old and well-paid enough to be loyal.
Several months later, Katya and Carol sat on the floor of Carol’s dressing room. An engraved silver tray with porcelain cups of tea and Oreo cookies gleamed under the mellow light of an 18thcentury chandelier. The women laughed as Caro chased a small rubber ball across the Aubusson carpet.
Faces on three oil paintings watched from the wall. One was Carol’s deceased husband, an amiable investment banker who had the good manners to leave Carol even wealthier after his early death. One was five-year-old Carol with Caro number one, wearing matching emerald green ribbons. The last, a slightly smaller painting, was of Carol holding her son, Max.
From the time she was a little girl, Carol always had a Pomeranian, always named Caro. This particular dog was the latest in a long line of Caros, all female, all purebred, all spoiled. When this Caro died, she, too would have her portrait hung in the gallery outside the music room. She, too, would have her small remains interred in a pet cemetery at the feet of the statue of Diana in the parterre garden with the other Caros. Carol would buy another Pomeranian to replace her.
Carol pulled open drawer after velvet lined-drawer, putting bracelets that had graced the wrists of murdered princesses around her dog’s neck. Carol’s ancestors had swept through Europe in the days after World War Two, buying art and jewels. It was a time when a ruby bracelet was a small price to pay for a loaf of bread.
The dog regarded herself seriously in a gold-framed, floor length mirror. Carol and Katya laughed and Katya snapped photos with her phone. 
Carol set aside her teacup and reached into a cupboard. “This is where I keep my special things.”
The cabinet was stuffed with leather jewelry boxes, but also, on the bottom shelf, a green satin covered photo album, a teddy bear, and a roughly carved wooden box.
Carol touched the box and shuddered. “When Max was little he and his friends used to get into my grandfather’s stuff from the Amazon. They shot blow darts with curare at Caro!”
Katya blanked for a moment, then remembered the oil paintings of the different Caros outside the music room. 
“Curare?” Katya asked.
“The tribes used it to hunt. It paralyzes the animal, makes it easy to catch and kill.” Carol patted the box. “Safely tucked away. Actually, I wanted to throw that stuff away, but my husband said”--Carol pulled herself up and lowered her voice--“Doll, those professors at UCLA would give their eye teeth for that stuff. You can’t just throw away priceless artifacts from the Amazon!”
Carol giggled and Katya laughed. Caro barked and turned in a circle, tail wagging.
Carol opened a blue velvet ring box and pressed the ring into Katya’s hand.
“It’s the Star Mountain diamond. Bigger than the one Onassis gave Jackie O,” Carol crowed. The little dog cocked her head and watched as Katya slipped the ring onto her slim finger. The diamond burned with a cold fire that made her think of ice coating the iron gates at the orphanage back in Russia. Katya reached out to stroke Caro. 
“It’s so heavy,” she said, pulling it off. “I think it would catch in Caro’s fur.”
Carol slowly took the ring back, then nodded. Her wide movie star smile flashed.
She slid open a different velvet lined drawer and took out a pearl choker, three strings of glowing ivory pearls, linked with a diamond and emerald clasp. She put it around Katya’s neck.
“This belonged to an Austrian princess. I want you to have it. Don’t say no, pet.”
Katya felt the pearls tighten around her neck as Carol did the clasp. Like Caro’s collar she thought, but pushed the thought away when she saw her reflection in the mirror.
“Lovely,” Carol sighed.
Katya noticed that Carol was looking at herself in the mirror, not Katya.
“Thank you,” Katya whispered. Caro climbed onto Katya’s lap.
A week later, Carol’s son Max’s silver Porsche Spyder skidded into the drive twenty minutes before Carol’s 75th birthday party, the same day Lev discovered the pearl necklace Katya had left in her underwear drawer. Lev whistled, then put it back among the faded cotton panties. “Finally, you’re doing something right,” he said.
Katya met Max at the party that night.
“You’re the Russian girl,” Max slurred. Max was tall and broad, his graying hair shaggy and long. A diamond winked on his earlobe. He waved his drink, spattering the bodice of Katya’s dress. “We’ll have to drink some serious vodka together.” Katya yearned to escape as he stood too close to her and talked about his collection of cars.
“So what about you?”
“Me?” Katya whispered.
“What do you do for fun?”
Katya felt Lev watching from the bar where he helped serve drinks. She was trapped in a circle of glittering women, all smooth hair and white smiles, all intent on Max’s words, his broad shoulders, his expensive watch, his expensive jacket.
“Caro. I play with Caro,” she whispered.
“You are single minded, Katya, I’ll give you that.” His laughter boomed and the circle laughed, pulled tighter as the impossibly beautiful women squeezed her out, but not before Max took her hand and whispered, “So am I, Katya.”
Max spent more and more time at The Manse. Katya often saw him with Lev in the garage, Max’s broad shoulders dwarfing Lev’s slim frame as they bent over whatever sports car Max had driven from his apartment in West Hollywood. Whenever she felt Max’s eyes on her as she walked Caro or sunned by the pool, Katya remembered Babushka’s stories of clever foxes and hungry wolves. She made sure that whenever Max arrived, she was busy with Caro or in the kitchen with Mrs. Floris. Both growled when Max appeared.
At first Lev had been wary, but he warmed to Max.
“Katya, he’s a cool guy. The old lady won’t live forever. He will inherit and be our boss. Be nice to him.”
After several weeks of Max’s surprise visits, Katya started avoiding the main house and took Caro to a pool in a garden by Carol’s private wing. The marble lined Arbor Pool was for staff only, but one Tuesday afternoon Max walked to the pool’s edge, holding two glasses. He lifted his eyebrows and set the glasses on a table.
“If you get thirsty.” His words were only a little slurred. Mrs. Floris joked that there were three taps in Max’s bathroom suite: one for hot water, one for cold water, and one for vodka.
Caro worked herself into a frenzy at Max’s approach. Her tiny body shook with an intensity that made Katya fearful.
“You’d think she’d like me by now,” Max laughed. “No love for old Max from that pooch. Actually, I don’t think any of the Caros ever liked me.”
Katya pulled Caro into the pool, away from Max. Caro was fifteen years old, old for a Pomeranian. Caro also growled at Lev, but she suffered his presence, clearly doing Katya a favor.
“So Katya, you’ve made a lot of friends here. The hound from Hell sure likes you.”
Caro, Katya thought, but she said nothing. The way he looked at her made her blush and slip back into speaking Russian, which she knew Max enjoyed. Max slid a terrycloth robe from his shoulders. The chaise creaked under his broad frame as he stretched out in the sun.
Caro yapped and Katya soothed her, walking across the shallow end of the pool away from Max. She leaned on the wall opposite, turning Caro away, but Caro growled and lunged over her shoulder as Max settled back on the chaise.
Lev hurried down the marble steps to the pool. “Max, Mrs. Ashburn sent me to ask you to join her in the library.”
Max groaned as he sat up. “She who must be obeyed.” He winked at Katya, knocked back his drink, and then rose.
Caro broke from Katya’s arms and ran around the pool at Max, leaping at his right leg.
“Ow! Little beast scratched me.” He grabbed his robe and hurried toward the house. He turned and waved at Katya. “Don’t worry, just a flesh wound!”
Lev looked from Katya to Max but said nothing. A flash of green in the window overlooking the pool made Katya look up just in time to see Carol turn away.
“Mrs. Ashburn’s going to change her will,” Mrs. Floris whispered later that afternoon as she and Katya watched Max slam the door of the Spyder and roar down the gravel drive. “He gets all this, The Manse, Golden Oaks, and all the companies in the trust, but his mother’s money is separate. And that bad boy needs money bad.”
Katya turned from the window in the breakfast nook of the staff kitchen. She wasn’t exactly sure what a trust was, but she had seen the phrase “The Ashburn Family Trust” on all the museum exhibit signs throughout Golden Oaks and on the programs at the Opera Hall when Carol took her to see The Queen of Spades. “There’s even more money?”
Mrs. Floris nodded. “Even more. As the will stands, the money goes to Caro and Max.”
“Caro! A dog gets money in a will!”
“Yes, the money goes to Caro. And the staff all gets bequests, too, don’t you worry.” Mrs. Floris patted Katya’s hand. “But Mrs. Ashburn’s sick of the way he’s throwing money around, and who he’s spending it on.”
Mrs. Floris leaned toward Katya. 
“His first two marriages went kaput. Didn’t even give Mrs. Ashburn any grandchildren.”
Mrs. Floris sipped tea from a heavy ceramic mug, leaving a deep red stain on the rim.
“And now he’s dating one of those awful televisionpeople. You know the show. The one with the kids of those famous actors. The ones who lived with the monkeysfrom their dad’s movie. Max is going to propose to the oldest girl and told reporters he promised to give her the Star Mountain diamond. He didn’t ask his mother first. Oh, was she steamed! The girl’s twenty years younger than he is. Her name’s Trinket.”
The thought of living with monkeys intrigued Katya. “Still, there are monkeys?”
“There might as well be,” Mrs. Floris said drily. “One of the housekeepers heard Mrs. Ashburn say to Max, ‘You’re out of the will. Now, you’re the monkey.’”
Three days later, Carol stopped Katya as she walked past the music room.
“Katya, you work so hard.” She stroked Katya’s hair, then patted her shoulder. Katya felt the strength of Carol’s grip through her thin cotton blouse, the heaviness of her hand that had two jeweled rings on each finger. “You must take a vacation.”
“But Caro”--
Carol waved a finger. “Now I won’t take no for an answer. Off to my little beach house. You and,” she hesitated, “your friend, Lev.”
Katya’s cheeks burned. She tried to keep her overnight visits to the chauffeur’s quarters secret, but the garage was just beyond the Arbor Pool and gardens outside Carol’s suite of rooms. It was hard to keep secrets at The Manse.
Carol smiled. “You must take a week. Relax. Then come back next Friday night so you’ll be here for Max’s engagement party on Saturday.”
Carol scooped up Caro and hurried down the hallway. When Katya turned back to the broad staircase, she was surprised to see Lev exit Carol’s suite with an armful of boxes. She hurried after him.
“Isn’t she wonderful, Lev?” Katya breathed as Lev put the boxes on a shelf in a closet down the hall. “Did she tell you about our vacation?”
As Lev closed the door, his lips twisted into something that was not quite a smile. “Da.Let’s go.”
Carol insisted they take the Bentley. Once at Carol’s “little beach house”-- another mansion fronting the Pacific with a staff of three--Katya forgot about Carol. But not Caro.
“I hope she’s okay,” Katya fretted. “She must go to Rosie’s for her grooming appointment.”
“Who’s crazier, you or the old lady?” Lev handed her a glass of champagne. A heavy gold watch encircled his wrist.
Katya brushed it with her fingertips. “Is that a gift from Carol?”
Lev nodded, then took her shoulders and turned her to face the view. The Pacific headlands rose over marble goddesses that stood sentry over an infinity swimming pool perched on the edge of the ocean.
He kissed her shoulder and slipped his finger under the strap of her bikini top. “Now, let’s forget those crazy people.”
The Manse was dark when they returned late Friday night, but their headlights illuminated the silver Spyder when they pulled into the drive. Katya sighed. “I’ll stay in your room tonight.” Lev looked from Katya to the Spyder, then nodded. “Da.”
When she woke several hours later, troubled by a dream about Caro, the sheets beside her were cool and empty. Katya noted the light under the bathroom door before she drifted back to sleep.
As sunlight warmed her face, Katya felt the bed give slightly under her. She rolled over.
Caro yipped and licked Katya’s face.
“I missed you! How did you get inside?”
Katya stroked the little dog and smiled as she remembered the week with Lev. He had never been so attentive. Perhaps this was a sign that their relationship was changing. Perhaps he was becoming softer toward her. Usually he wouldn’t allow Caro to visit his room, no matter how much Katya pleaded.
Caro’s tail wagged and she circled on the bed, her nails pulling at the sheet.
Katya lifted Caro’s paw and exclaimed in dismay. Caro’s nails were much too long.
“Carol must have been too busy with the party to take you to Rosie’s for your grooming.” Katya pulled her hand away and grimaced. A sticky brown substance smeared her fingertips. “What have you been into? I will give you a bath and trim your nails and make you pretty again!”
Lev exited the bathroom, tossing a towel to the floor. He lit a cigarette.
“Good idea, make her pretty again.” His words were joking, but his body was taut as he blew a stream of smoke.
Katya carried Caro into the bathroom, kicking aside a pile of Lev’s clothing. She held Caro to her shoulder as she ran the bath water, then put Lev’s clothes in the hamper. The t-shirt and running shorts were damp.
“Did you go for a run?” She cuddled Caro and stood by the bathroom door. “Where did you find Caro?”
“Mrs. Ashburn asked that we keep her here.” He drew on the cigarette and looked out the window. “There’s been an accident at the house. Max got drunk and drowned in the Arbor Pool.”
After bathing Caro and trimming her nails, Katya reluctantly closed the door of Lev’s apartment. Lev insisted that Mrs. Ashburn wanted Caro to stay in his apartment while the police were at The Manse. She could hear Caro whine as Lev hurried her down the stairs.
“Mrs. Ashburn said that many of the other staff were away this week also,” Lev muttered. “We didn’t hear anything last night. We were asleep. Max got drunk and went for a swim alone. He must have been drunk enough to hit his head and drown.”
“Why are you talking like a robot? Is that what Carol said? It’s terrible.” Katya hunched forward in the cool breeze as they skirted police cars crowded into the circular drive of The Manse. They hurried around the house to the kitchen door, past the vast patio bedecked with flowers and tables for the engagement party.
“I saw Mrs. Ashburn early this morning when I couldn’t sleep and went for a run,” Lev said.
“She found Max dead?” Katya shuddered.
Mrs. Floris opened the door and rubbed her eyes as she poured cups of coffee. “What a mess. What a scandal.” She nodded her gray head toward the television. “Reporters will be at the gates soon, sniffing around, mark my words.”
The intercom buzzed. Carol’s honeyed voice called down that the police wanted to talk to Lev.
“I was with Mrs. Ashburn after she found the body,” Lev said to Mrs. Floris’ surprised expression.
Mrs. Floris patted him on the shoulder. “Mrs. Ashburn is lucky to have you to rely on.”
Katya and Lev hurried up the narrow servants’ stairs and then across the gallery, their footsteps soft across the oriental carpets. Lev pulled her along, but she stopped at the windows that overlooked the Arbor Pool. 
“Wait.” Below on the patio by the pool, Katya saw several people in police uniforms conferring with others in white coveralls. How strange they looked from above, their heads and shoulders making shapes like a computer game, she thought. Max’s body, still solid and vital looking, sprawled full length by the pool. A large bottle lay by his head. She leaned forward and caught her breath. She could just barely see scratches that ran along the front of both his calves.
Caro, she thought, remembering the scene by the pool. Caro must have scratched him again. Her heart beat faster as she thought of the brown substance under Caro’s untrimmed nails. Katya shook her head. The brown stuff didn’t look like blood.
“Could Caro push him into the pool? Could she make him hit his head?” She whispered to Lev.
He spun on her, his face red. “Katya.” He embraced her with such force she was breathless. He took her shoulders and held her in front of him. He smiled, a smile that struggled then surrendered. Lev was slight, just an inch taller than Katya. His green eyes bore into hers and for a moment she was afraid. “You’re being crazy. That little dog? Couldn’t hurt a flea. Ha!” Now his smile was genuine.
Katya sighed. Yes, the thought was really silly. Max was a big man. How could a little dog push such a big man into the water?
Two men in dark suits and sunglasses waited in Carol’s suite when Katya and Lev entered a minute later. They were police officers, she was sure, trying to act cool as they walked past a French king’s clock on the marble mantle piece, the Picasso over Carol’s bed, the little cross studded with dusky gems on the dressing room wall.
“Oh, good.” Carol was dressed in a jade green tunic over white leggings, heavy gold bracelets on her wrists. “Lev, before you talk with these nice gentlemen, could you help me with the picture over the safe?”
“Of course, Mrs. Ashburn.” Lev walked over to the second portrait, the one of Carol and Caro, took it down, and set it next to the wall. Then he went into the bedroom and brought a little embroidered footstool and set it in place for Carol. He helped her step onto it. Carol smiled her thanks.
As she watched Carol press numbers on the safe’s keypad, Katya wondered when Lev had gotten so familiar with Carol’s bedroom. And with the safe.
“The officers had heard the report of the engagement and the Star Mountain engagement ring. They’re just making sure there was no theft.” Carol reached into the safe and pulled out a box. All the men raised their hands to support Carol’s arms as she stepped off the footstool, like footmen helping Cinderella step from her pumpkin coach.
 “I know you must investigate every angle.” Carol’s voice dipped on the last two words, expressing the skepticism she was, of course, too polite to put into words. “But my son had a drinking problem,” she shook her head. “I tried to help him. A mother tries. And as you can see gentlemen, the ring wasn’t stolen.” Carol held out the blue velvet box. Katya could feel the excitement of the men next to her. Carol’s charm turned everyone into a child in a cave full of treasure.
The men bent their heads close as Carol opened the ring box. Katya lifted her eyes to the safe and caught sight of the carved wooden box she’d seen Lev move from the dressing room to the storage closet down the hall. She looked at Lev, but he was watching Carol.
 “Bigger than the one Jackie O got from Onassis. Max was going to” –- Carol bit her lip and closed her eyes –- “going to propose to his girlfriend.” She took a deep breath and then leaned heavily on Lev’s arm. “Dearest Trinket.” 
Katya’s heart beat faster as she wondered about the wooden box, now in the safe. The sticky substance under Caro’s nails. The scratches on Max’s legs. Lev’s damp clothes on the floor of the bathroom of the chauffeur’s suite. But she lowered her eyes and stayed with Carol as the men left the room.
Two weeks later, Katya walked with the other servants along the path from the private chapel at Golden Oaks to the private cemetery on a rise just outside the walls of the parterre garden. Black fabric swathed the grand doorways of the mansion. Tours were canceled.
Trinket and her family walked ahead, also swathed in black. Trinket wore a black pillbox hat with a full veil, the fragile lace brushing the deep V neckline of her bandage dress. Katya watched in wonder as Trinket tottered on stiletto heels down the gravel path.
Katya took a seat between Carol and Mrs. Floris. She held Caro on her lap. Lev had stayed behind at the house to help manage the valet parking for the funeral.
Mrs. Floris pressed a crumpled tissue to her dry eyes. With a dreamy expression, Carol stared at the carved cherubs on the Ashburn family crypt. She stroked Caro’s head in time to Trinket’s wails. Katya looked around at the other household staff, all somber, respectful, and dry eyed. Her hand flew to her necklace as she realized that Mrs. Floris and every female servant at the funeral also wore a pearl choker.
The sky was blue, so bright it hurt to look at it. At least Lev hadn’t lied about that.