Between the loss of her husband and then her family's money, Sarah Kelling is suffering from a bout of bad luck. Now strapped for cash, she opens up her home to an eclectic group of boarders, hoping to make ends meet and get back on her feet. With the exception of her butler, Charles, and maid, Mariposa, Sarah suddenly finds herself surrounded by strangers: There's the widowed Mrs. Sorpende, the scholarly Mr. Porter-Smith, and the young Miss La Valliere. Barney Quiffen is the most temperamental of her tenants, while William Hartler is his cheery, good-natured opposite. Finally, there's Max Bittersohn—Sarah's sleuthing partner from The Family Vault.
With so many people in one house, drama is inevitable—but that doesn't mean Sarah expects death to come knocking at her door.
When Mr. Quiffen "falls" in front of a moving subway, it seems like a tragic (albeit slightly welcome) accident. But in the following excerpt from Charlotte MacLeod's The Withdrawing Room, Sarah receives more unfortunate news that will make her wonder if something more sinister is actually at work...
Read on for an excerpt of The Withdrawing Room, the second installment of the Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn series.
She sat up, switched on the bed lamp, and snatched for her robe. The time, according to her alarm clock, was twenty-seven minutes past one.
“Who’s there? What’s the matter?”
“It’s me.” Charles must be badly shaken. “You better come. We got the fuzz downstairs.”
“The what? Oh, my God!”
Sarah couldn’t find the sleeves of her bathrobe, got her slippers on the wrong feet and had to change them, made an ineffectual sweep at her hair with a brush, then rushed downstairs. Police at this hour weren’t selling tickets to the Policemen’s Ball. Was it Uncle Jem? One of the boarders? Was he, or she, in jail, in the hospital, at the morgue?
By now Sarah was practically on first-name terms with everybody in the division. “Hello, Sergeant McNaughton,” she sighed. “What’s the matter now?”
“Hi, Mrs. Kelling. Sorry to keep bothering you. You got an elderly gentleman named—uh—Hartler living here?”
“Yes, I have. What’s he done now?”
“Would he be a little guy maybe five feet four or five, good head of hair for a man his age. Wearing sort of old-fashioned evening clothes with a black cashmere overcoat and black patent leather elevator shoes.”
“Is that what they are? I’ve always thought he had bunions or hammer toes or something and needed those orthopedic ones you have to have made specially. Yes, that’s Mr. Hartler, at least it sounds like him. I’m reasonably sure he didn’t stop to change after dinner. He was in a mad rush to get out.”
“Where was he going, Mrs. Kelling?”
“To look at some chairs that are alleged to belong at the Iolani Palace in Hawaii. Mr. Hartler’s been trying to collect furniture and whatnot for the restoration. Sergeant McNaughton, what’s this all about? Have you caught him trying to buy stolen property? Is he in jail?”
She ought to have remembered Sergeant McNaughton was too experienced a law enforcement officer to let himself get switched off from what he was doing. He waited politely until she’d finished talking, then asked, “Where were these chairs supposed to be?”
“He didn’t say, at least not to me. Mr. Hartler and I aren’t on the chummiest of terms at the moment. He’s had swarms of people in and out of here about this Iolani Palace business of his, and they’ve been making a nuisance of themselves. I got fed up this afternoon and pinned his ears back in no uncertain terms. He apologized and we more or less smoothed things over for the moment, but when he got going on those chairs, I was in no mood to ask politely interested questions. Charles, you got him a taxi and put him into it, didn’t you? Do you recall his giving the driver an address?”
“He did not do so in my presence, madam. Mr. Hartler was still thanking me in a profuse, not to say fulsome manner when the vehicle departed.”
Sergeant McNaughton didn’t bother to ask in which direction. Tulip Street, like so many others on the Hill, was one way and barely passable at that. The cabbie would have headed straight for Beacon Street because there was nowhere else he could go. Mr. Hartler needn’t have given him any direction until they were in a position to change course.
“If he was only going a short distance, like say over to Arlington Street, would he have bothered with a cab?”
“In this case, I should think he might,” Sarah replied. “He was all of a twitter to get at those chairs, and riding was faster than walking. And it was dark and raw, and though he’s lively enough for his years, he does have a heart condition.”
“How’s the condition of his bankbook?”
“Fine, as far as I know. I believe Mr. Hartler is quite well-off.”
“In the habit of carrying a wad of cash around with him?”
“I couldn’t say. He spent a fair amount of money on me this evening. After that blasting I gave him, he rushed out and bought me a big bunch of roses, and some expensive chocolates, and a bottle of benedictine. He probably paid cash, because he hasn’t been living back in Boston long enough to have charge accounts around the Hill, I shouldn’t think. What’s the matter? Has he been robbed?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Sergeant McNaughton. “We found nothing in his wallet except some personal papers and an I.D. giving this address. Loose change in the pockets, that’s all.”
“You mean you had to search him? Then he’s—”
“Afraid so, Mrs. Kelling. Hey, somebody catch her!”
After that, things became fuzzy. Sarah had a dim awareness that Mr. Bittersohn had somehow manifested himself in a maroon bathrobe and was yelling at the policeman. “Why didn’t you hit her over the head and be done with it? How much do you think she can take?”
Mariposa was being rude in Spanish. Charles was trying to get the madam to drink something that unfortunately turned out to be the benedictine Mr. Hartler had brought. Sarah got sick to her stomach just smelling it. Poor Sergeant McNaughton was trying to apologize. Sarah didn’t want any more apologies. She’d had one too many tonight already. She sat up, noting with surprise that she was on the library couch although she had no idea how she’d got there, and shouted, “Shut up, all of you!”
They were so astonished that they did.
“Charles, give that stuff to Sergeant McNaughton. He needs a drink more than I do. Mariposa, go make some coffee. And put some more clothes on before you freeze to death. And straighten your cap!”
Mariposa must have become suddenly aware that a sheer black nylon peignoir set and her ruffled cap worn backward with the orange ribbons dangling down over her nose did not constitute an adequate uniform, for she bolted toward the kitchen. Charles, with a low bow, presented the liqueur to the policeman. Sergeant McNaughton, having given it a suspicious sniff, drained the tiny glass.
At that point Mrs. Sorpende joined the party wearing a sumptuous ecru satin negligee that Sarah thought looked vaguely familiar although she couldn’t recall ever having seen the lady en déshabillé before. The other lodgers must still be asleep. With any luck, they’d stay that way.
“Now,” said Sarah, “would you all please quit dithering and sit down? You’re making me dizzy. Mr. Bittersohn, what are you doing with that whatever-it-is?”
“Covering you up,” he said, suiting the deed to the word. “You’ve got to be kept warm. You’re in shock.”
“I daresay I am and I’m sure I have every right to be, but isn’t that your good overcoat?”
“It’s the first thing I could find. Lean back.” Sarah did, and found a nest of pillows had been prepared for her. They felt extremely comfortable. She was tempted to close her eyes and drift back to wherever she’d been a moment ago. Perhaps she did, because after a while she heard whispering and rustling and scraping of chairs to which she did not deem it necessary to pay attention. Then she smelled coffee and somebody said, “Do you think we should wake her?” and somebody else said, “No, let her sleep,” and she sat up again.
“Set the tray here, Mariposa. Mrs. Sorpende, will you take sugar?”
“I’ll take the pot. You lie still and let me pour. Here, drink this. Mr. Bittersohn, would you be good enough to steady the cup for her?”
Mr. Bittersohn would be good enough. Sarah sipped, made a face though she knew landladies weren’t supposed to make faces, and said she didn’t care for sugar, thank you. Mr. Bittersohn and Mrs. Sorpende both told her to drink it anyway because sugar was good for shock.
Perhaps it was. At any rate, the room came slowly back into focus. Sarah made sure everybody else had coffee, too, especially Mariposa, who might have taken a chill, although Mariposa was now engulfed in a large and lurid robe that must date from Charles’s pre-Hudsonian period. Then she called the meeting to order.
“Now, Sergeant McNaughton, if you’re quite sure you feel up to talking, would you kindly tell us what this is all about? Where did you find Mr. Hartler?”
Sergeant McNaughton uncrooked his little finger, set down his empty cup, cleared his throat, and became official again. “I must remind you, Mrs. Kelling, that no formal identification has as yet been made. However, considering that the victim answers your description, has his name on identification papers, stamped inside a hat that was found nearby, embroidered inside his overcoat and suit coat, and printed in indelible ink on his underwear—”
“And he’s not here and his bed hasn’t been slept in,” Charles prompted sotto voce. “We looked, remember?”
“Oh yeah, thanks. Anyway, we can assume for purposes of investigation that he’s the guy. The body was found in the Public Garden right beside that fancy bird-house down by the pond on the Arlington side before you get to the bridge. The foot patrolman who discovered the body deduced from the evidence that the victim had been mugged and robbed. Acting on approved police procedure, he then—do you want the whole report?”
“No,” said Sarah. “Just give us the gist Was Mr. Hartler—had he already—”
“We don’t get ’em much deader, Mrs. Kelling. He’d been dealt a number of blows on both the front and the back of the skull with a heavy instrument. There’s no way we can see that it might have been anything other than deliberate homicide. The medical examiner’s report isn’t in yet, but we think he was knocked out from behind and then—well, you said to skip the details.”
“When did it happen?” asked Bittersohn. “Sometime close to midnight, probably. Not long before he was found, anyway.”
“Then I expect he’d have been on his way back here,” said Sarah.
“Walking? But you say he had a bad heart Why didn’t he call another cab?”
“Sergeant, how do I know? Maybe there wasn’t a phone where he was. Maybe he just decided to walk. Mr. Hartler was—unpredictable. Wouldn’t you say so, Mrs. Sorpende?”
“Totally, I should say, although I’d only known him a few days,” the older woman agreed in her deliberate, well-bred voice. “Mr. Hartler appeared absorbed in this project of his almost to the point of monomania. If those chairs did in fact prove to be what he was looking for, I’d think he’d have been so excited he wouldn’t know whether he was walking or flying. I must admit I amused myself this evening wondering what he’d be like when he came back. I pictured him rushing through the house waking us all up to spread the good tidings, and I was thinking what various people’s reactions would be if he did. Then of course I realized our excellent Charles would hardly permit such a disruption to occur.”
The excellent Charles allowed the merest ghost of a gratified expression to flit across his handsomely composed features. Mariposa said, “Damn right he wouldn’t.” Mrs. Sorpende kindly pretended she hadn’t heard.
McNaughton nodded to Mrs. Sorpende, then turned to Sarah. “This lady says she hadn’t known him long. What about you, Mrs. Kelling?”
“I’d met him a few times over the years at my Aunt Marguerite’s. Actually she’s only an aunt-in-law, but I’m sure you don’t care about that. Anyway, Mr. Hartler had heard, I suppose from her, that I was opening my house to lodgers and got in touch with me. At that time I’d already rented the room he wanted to Mr. Quiffen. Then when Mr. Quiffen was killed—would you all mind if I were to faint again?”
“Don’t be funny,” snarled Bittersohn. “Charlie, can’t you find something to give her besides that goddamn benedictine? McNaughton, do you think there’s any chance you can keep this away from the papers?”
“Jeez, I don’t know, Max. You mean this old Mr. Hartler had the same room Quiffen did, the guy that got hit by the train? Boy, that ought to be good for a few more headlines.”
“Remind me to recommend you for the tact medal, Mac. Why don’t you get out of here and go see if you can lose yourself somewhere?”
“Okay, Max, if that’s how you feel. Mrs. Kelling, I hate to keep pestering you like this, but do you know of any relatives we could notify?”
“Mr. Hartler had a sister, but he told us she’d gone to stay with a friend in Rome. No doubt he’d have her address in his room. Charles, did you lock his door after you looked in to see if he was there? If you did, go get the key.”
“Stay where you are, Mrs. Kelling,” said Bittersohn. “You’re not up to this.”
“I know, but it’s my responsibility, isn’t it?” Sarah untangled herself from the overcoat and stood up, Mrs. Sorpende assisting her on one side and Mr. Bittersohn on the other. “You might as well join the party, Sergeant McNaughton. It’s just across the hall.”
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