Authors: Carol Higgins Clark
“Carol Higgins Clark has created some delightful characters who frolic through her well-crafted stories, creating humor and satisfying reading in the midst of mystery and mayhem.”
“Fun and frolic! Clark has penned a frothy . . . funny story of art theft and kidnapping in that winter playground of the rich, Aspen.”
“Clark writes with skill and humor.”
“Clark writes with great dialogue for her idiosyncratic but loveable characters.”
—San Antonio Express-News
“A nimble and entertaining writer.”
“A superb mystery writer…Shades of Nick and Nora and the other greats of the stylish thirties and forties.”
Deck the Halls
(with Mary Higgins Clark)
He Sees You When You’re Sleeping
(with Mary Higgins Clark)
The Christmas Thief
(with Mary Higgins Clark)
Santa Cruise (with Mary Higgins Clark)
For my nieces and nephews, in order of appearance
Elizabeth, Andrew, Courtney, David, Justin, and Jerry,
I would like to thank Dr. Larry Ashkinazy, a good friend and fine dentist, who encouraged me to visit Aspen and who allowed me to have some fun with his character in this book.
“I am a man more sinn’d against than sinning.”
(Also the sentiments of one Eben Bean)
Friday, December 23
E’RE ALMOST THERE,” Judd said quietly to Willeen, his partner in crime and in love, as he turned from the main road onto the private lane that led to the Bonnell home. It was five minutes before three in the afternoon, and the clouds over the surrounding mountains promised another snowfall for the holiday skiers at Vail. Judd’s eyes darted about. Just before the moment of breaking the law, every nerve in him vibrated. But this job had been elaborately planned and should be foolproof.
He had contacted Monsieur Bonnell using the name of a reputable art dealer with impeccable connections. Monsieur Bonnell was only too happy to invite him to inspect at close range the Beasley painting that was being offered for two million dollars.
“Now remember,” Judd said to Willeen as he drove up to the sprawling two-story stucco house, “we know that the housekeeper left at one o’clock, but in case there’s anyone else there, you have your Mace ready.”
On the off chance Monsieur Bonnell was looking out the window, they were wearing salt-and-pepper wigs made out of the finest human hair and had taped on fake gray eyebrows. Willeen had on a pair of bottleneck glasses that disguised her considerable sex appeal and Judd was sporting tinted sunglasses.
They parked in the driveway, positioning the dark gray sedan for a quick getaway, walked briskly up the steps to the front porch and rang the bell.
There was no answer.
A biting wind made Willeen shift from one foot to the other. “Did Claude get things screwed up?” she asked impatiently.
“Claude never gets things screwed up,” Judd growled, his tone low and annoyed. “You heard me talk to Bonnell an hour ago. He confirmed the appointment.”
Judd studied the knob expectantly, then noticed that the door was not flush with the frame. Cautiously, he put his hand on the knob. It turned easily and he pushed open the door. Instantly he grabbed his own can of Mace from his pocket.
He nodded to Willeen. “Let’s go,” he whispered.
As they stepped over the threshold, Willeen touched his arm and pointed to the security panel by the front door. The green light was on, indicating it was not armed.
They started down the hall.
“Do you think you should call out to him?” Willeen asked. Then she gasped as a muffled groan came from the closet on the right wall. The muffled sound was followed by loud thumping against the door in what could only be termed desperation.
A dreadful suspicion attacked every fiber of Judd’s finely tuned criminal makeup. The map Claude had prepared for him showed that the painting was over the mantel in the living room to the right of the entrance hall.
“Ohhhh pleassssse, nooooo,” he cried. With Willeen at his heels, he raced from the foyer, through the archway, circled around a couch, avoided a cocktail table and screeched to a halt in front of the raised hearth.
He looked up and stared. Big baby tears welled in his eyes, clouding the blue contact lenses he had affected as part of his now unnecessary disguise.
The ornate gold frame was still in place, hanging uselessly, deprived of its function to enhance an artistic master-piece. Instead of surrounding the Beasley painting of the railroad station in nineteenth-century Vail, it now framed the rough gray stones of the massive chimney.
“It’s happened again,” Judd wailed. “That friggin’ Coyote beat us to it!”
Saturday, December 24
BEN BEAN LOVED to ski. The magic, the joy, the excitement of it thrilled him. It made him feel free. And that was very important to someone who’d spent five years in the slammer. The ski slopes of Aspen Mountain, with their sweeping views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains, the very essence of nature in all its glory and splendor did his soul good. It was also a lot better for his nervous system than the claustrophobic view he had had from the bottom bunk in his tiny cell. He’d never gone to sleep without the nagging worry in the back of his mind that his hulk of a cellmate would strain the bed frame, which had supported the weight of scores of outlaws, to its breaking point.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I get squashed before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take”
he had prayed nightly for those five of his fifty-six years.
Since his confinement, Eben had developed a total love for the outdoors in all seasons. Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night wiped the smile off his face, just as long as he wasn’t surrounded by a chain-link fence. Even taking out the garbage had become a treat.
Of course, just because Eben loved to ski didn’t mean he was very good at it. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t very good at all. Just last week he had lost control and careened into the path of a fellow skier. She had desperately tried to avoid him but ended up taking a nasty spill, resulting in a very painful broken leg. Broken in two places as a matter of fact. Eben had watched as the ski patrol carefully strapped her into a sled, trying to ignore the slurs that the victim was spewing about his character. Oh well, Eben thought to himself. Sometimes it’s a healthy thing to let yourself vent your anger.
He tried to make it up to her. But he heard that the poinsettia he’d spent at least fifteen minutes picking out and delivered to the hospital himself was ordered out of her sight the minute she read the card. Not that he didn’t understand. Being in traction for six weeks didn’t sound like much fun.
And this was going to be a fun week, Eben decided, as he completed his first run of the afternoon at Aspen Mountain. It had taken a little longer than usual to get down. He’d stopped for a late bite at Bonnie’s, the bustling cafeteria-like restaurant on the slopes, which was crowded with skiers eager to refuel their bodies after a hard workout. It was one of a very few places on the planet where celebrities slogged through a lunch line carrying their own trays. Eben had hung around the picnic tables on the deck outside, where skiers clad in designer skisuits and sunglasses congregated to see or be seen as they nibbled their chosen edibles.
Sitting alone, Eben had felt a little unappreciated by mankind in general. But tonight, he thought, I’ll be the center of attention. They’ll all be looking at me at the big party. Okay, he thought, so I’ll be in a Santa suit. In a way, it was very freeing. He could act like a dope and everyone would think it was cute. He liked to dance around swinging his sack, ho-ho-ho-ing his way through the crowd.
It was Christmas Eve, and almost everyone was in a good mood. People were actually nice to each other the world over. Christmas was a great time to call a truce, no matter what religion you were. Hmmm, he wondered. I wonder if the lady with the broken leg would accept a holly wreath from me. Probably not, he decided as he dug his ski poles into the ground and awkwardly propelled himself in the general direction of the gondola. “Mush,” he mumbled. “Mush.”
Eben popped his feet out of his skis and hoisted them over his shoulder as he took his place in line. It was more than a fifteen-minute ride up to the top. This was the only lift where you had to take your skis off. The gondola was enclosed and you sat with anywhere from one to five other people, sometimes conversing, sometimes eaves dropping, sometimes lost in your own thoughts as you took in the unbelievable beauty of the mountains.
As Eben waited for the next free gondola to swing around, he realized that he would have it all to himself.
There was no one behind him. It was getting late. People were heading back for their apre`s-ski drinks, their Jacuzzis, and their preparations for the evening’s activities. Many of them would be at the ritzy party tonight, just waiting for his big entrance.
Nervously, Eben dropped his skis in the side pocket of the gondola and awkwardly clumped into his seat. He was always afraid that he’d be half in when it surged forward, or he’d fall and they’d have to shut it off as he hoisted himself up from the ground. That had happened more times than he’d care to remember on the lifts where you have to push yourself hurriedly off the chair and down the hill when it was time to disembark. It was usually a steep incline and more than once Eben had taken a belly flop. One of the lift operators had suggested that Eben try skiing at Tiehack, the mountain for beginners, which was just down the road. “It’s a lot easier, Eben,” he had said. Yeah, well, it’s a free country, Eben had thought as he skied off. Besides, he liked to have his lunch at Bonnie’s.
Eben settled himself in and stretched out sideways in the gondola. This way he had a view of the skiers swishing down the steep slopes above and at the same time could admire the charm offered by the village of Aspen below, a landscape dotted with snow-covered brick and wood buildings, ensconced between the protective surrounding mountains. When you were packed in with a bunch of other people, you either had to sit facing front or back.
This isn’t such a bad life, Eben thought as he listened to the creak of the lift and the gentle blowing of the wind. He never thought he’d enjoy life without crime, but after he was hatched from prison five years ago, he decided that that was it. A master of separating jewelry from the bejeweled, he had enjoyed considerable success until the unfortunate evening when he unknowingly targeted the wife of the police commissioner of New York. The occasion had been a dinner at the Plaza Hotel. Employed by the waiters’ union thanks to fake identification, Eben had gone around collecting dirty dishes while plying his true trade. Until that moment it had been a very successful night. A Rolex watch and a ruby pendant were concealed in the floating remains of a Banana Surprise.
As it turned out, the police commissioner’s photographic memory had already identified Eben and he had been watching him. An on-the-spot arrest was made, much to the oohs and aahs of everyone at the surrounding tables and the disappointment of the dinner speaker, who had just reached page eight of his address. In the confusion that followed, many of the guests who’d fallen into an involuntary trance sensed the opportunity to put themselves out of their misery and seized on it immediately. Jolted awake, they jumped from their seats and scurried to the coatroom with a grateful nod to the handcuffed Eben.