Amanda's friend Sasha's stepmother has just committed suicide—although, according to Sasha, Phoebe Ennis would never have killed herself, especially not while having a drink and wearing a red silk blouse and red sandals with four-inch heels. Amanda isn't persuaded, but reluctantly agrees to help investigate the woman's demise, though the evidence for foul play is slim. True, the middle-aged compulsive collector of knickknacks wasn't universally loved. Phoebe's own son hated her, and she bored her friends to death with hints of her "royal" lineage. And with four marriages behind her, she was already preparing to announce her renewed availability on the Net. But when another woman is found dead in Phoebe's house, it becomes clear that something is indeed murderously amiss, and much closer to home than Amanda or anyone else could have imagined.
We stood in her kitchen, and I could see the beginnings of dinner on the counter. I’d interrupted a busy woman who was being more than patient with me.
“Would you like coffee or something?” she asked, perhaps thinking that’s why I had glanced around the tidy room. I declined and thanked her, and asked again about repeat visitors, although Phoebe had told Ramona that the visitor her final night of life was a surprise, an unexpected person, so my questions became ever less potentially useful.
First Neva shook her head, looking a little impatient with me, and I couldn’t blame her. Then she frowned. “Well, actually, they weren’t the same. I mean not all of them, though maybe somebody came back more than once. First of all, I couldn’t see, or didn’t happen to see most of the time. Lately, he’d have had to be wearing neon or something, because it’s been dark, or at least dusk. Anybody could have been there. And second, one of the visitors was quite tall and thin. I remember that. Another one was rather stocky. So more than one man visited her.”
The nice thing was that unlike next-door neighbor Ramona, back-fence neighbor Neva did not try to make something shady out of Phoebe’s visitors, who could have been, after all, insurance and medical people, or old friends—even former husbands.
“I don’t know who they were or what their business was,” Neva said, as if she’d been reading my mind. “I do know that at least one was a date. A fix-up, she told Ramona. And I think Ramona was mad because she wanted to have been fixed up.”
“Mad at Phoebe?”
Neva shook her head. “Maybe. I think Ramona’s been angry with Phoebe since the woman was widowed, but I’m not sure Ramona knows it. She seems to resent Phoebe’s having—well, having had, a life. But this time, she was jealous maybe of Phoebe, but mad at Sally, who did the fixing up. Ramona told me—the side of my backyard fence touches the side of hers, too, you know. She said she’d known Sally for twenty-two years, and she thought this was a real breach of friendship. After all, eligible men are few and far between, and here Sally had been hiding away a perfectly good cousin, then had given him to a relative stranger!” Neva laughed and shook her head slowly. “Those widows. They’re really something.”
“I have to ask: Did the fix-up work out?”
She shrugged. “As I say, Phoebe and I weren’t confidantes.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I know you’re busy, and you’ve been really generous with your time.”
She shrugged. “I don’t think I helped, and I still can’t imagine what all this is about Phoebe’s will. Wasn’t that what you said?”
“Her estate,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “You mean her stories were true? That day we had tea, she talked about her treasures, but my grandmother was the same way, loving her carnival prizes and calling them treasures. Of course, in both cases, they were ordinary five-and-dime knickknacks. At least most of them were. I thought she was kidding, or I just understood it to mean that they were treasures to her.”
“Did she by any chance give you any?”
Neva’s eyebrows elevated, then she nodded. “Is this about that? A sort of inventory? Because I’d happily return it to the estate. Maybe somebody would actually want it. I didn’t and don’t.”
I shook my head. “No, thank you. I’d only heard she was…generous.”
“She certainly was with me and I think she gave something to Sally, too. Kind of sad, which is why I kept it, even though I keep it in a closet now that she’s gone and can’t drop in and see that I’d hidden it. I’d said I liked it because it felt imperative to compliment something in her house. She was so proud of her so-called treasures. I think she gave us things because she was trying to make friends, fit in.”
As she spoke, she moved toward a door to the side of the room, which, once opened, turned out to be a closet. She bent down and dug back and pulled out a gilded equestrian statue, or statuette, as it was only about six inches high. An equally gilded warrior, sword held high, sat atop the horse. The poor creature was a ludicrous, diminutive hero, proportions out of whack, and not at all as elegant or triumphant as surely the artist must have intended.
“A little garish, don’t you think?” she asked. “A little stupid? And when we had it one week, it fell onto Lizzie’s foot and broke her little toe. But what could I say? We were in her house, and Ramona was oohing and ahhing—it’s all so weird because Ramona thinks of everything as dust collectors, and Phoebe’s house was the central collection spot of the universe. But it felt necessary to join in and compliment her collections. And then the next day, there she was, with the horse I’d happened to choose to praise.”
She held up the horse, which looked ridiculous in her well-worn living room. “Sure you don’t want it back?” she asked.
“No thanks,” I said.
“I’m going to take it to a flea market or Goodwill.”
“As you choose. Nobody’s asking for it, but about that fix-up, that man…?”
“Ah,” she said. “She obviously left something special to somebody you have to find. I wish the thing she’d left was this stupid horse. My grandmother, collector of carnival prizes, would have loved it, if only she were still alive. But in any case, you should talk to Sally Molinari,” she said. “She’s the one who did the fixing up. She’s on Phoebe’s block, across the street from her. If he mattered to her, whoever he is, I hope she left him something more valuable or good-looking than this thing, or the rest of the things in her living room. I mean all the work and trouble and expense that’s going into hunting for him. Hope it’s worth it. And if he has a yearning for this horse—it’s his.” She laughed again. “But don’t bother trying to find Sally tonight. It’s Monday, so she’s visiting her married daughter over in Philly. It’s a regular thing. You could set a clock by it. She takes the bus over, then the son-in-law drives her back here around ten o’clock.”
“I’ll try her another day,” I said, and with more thanks, I bid Neva adieu, and set out around the block once more.
I turned at the bottom of her short walkway and looked back. Neva Sheffler was still standing in her doorway, the light behind her silhouetting her form and the golden horse and rider in her arms, as if still silently hoping I’d take it.