Stan had seen her share of dead bodies, but nothing compared to this one. The horror of it had her torn between paralysis and the urge to throw up. And she couldn'tâshouldn'tâdo that on this beautiful grass. Or the crime scene.
Get it together. Get to the house. Call someone.
Whimpering, her skin clammy with a cold sweat, Stan gave the scene a wide berth. She dragged Nutty, who strained to get closer to the body, nose going furiously as he tried to sniff everything. She stepped carefully, trying to avoid the blood spattered on the beautiful white stone, the furniture, and Lord knew where else. Then she raced like a maniac the few steps to the French doors and turned the knob.
Trying to hold back a scream, she pounded on them, then fumbled in her pocket for her cell phone. She yanked it out and somehow managed to dial 911 after three tries, and finally heard a voice on the other end.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?” the female operator's voice droned.
Stan opened her mouth to speak and realized she had no idea where she was, since she'd arrived blindfolded. It probably wouldn't do to tell the operator that.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?” the operator repeated in a stern voice.
“Someone . . . someone's dead. M-m-murdered. I'm in Newport, Rhode Island. Not sure of the address.” She pounded on the door again. Where on earth were they all?
“Ma'am, can you stay on the phone with me while I determine where you are? Are you in danger?”
Crap. She hadn't thought of that. She spun around to take stock of her surroundings, as if expecting whoever had killed Pierre to lunge at her from one of the perfectly shaped shrubs next to the house. “I . . . don't think so. I have no idea. Oh, thank God,” she muttered as Sheldon approached the door from inside. “One second, I'll get you the address.”
He yanked the door open, frowning at her. “Really, my dear, I started the tour in front for a reasâ” His words trailed off as he followed her pointing finger, stunned into silence.
“Sweet Mary, mother of God,” he finally breathed, his face going from white to green. “What the . . . ?”
She thrust the phone at him. “Tell them the address.”
He stared at the phone like he'd never seen one before.
“The address!” she hissed. “It's the police!”
Sheldon snapped to attention and took the phone while she picked up Nutty and slipped past him inside the house. Her stomach still lurched and the queasiness threatened to overwhelm her. She pulled out the first chair she saw and sat, dropping her head to her knees and sucking in air.
Don't faint. Don't faint.
This group seemed like the type who would never let her live it down. Hopefully they were all occupied touring the rest of the house and wouldn't come in here. She heard Sheldon's voice in the distance, talking to the operator.
“This is Sheldon Allyn. Four-one-three Sunset Avenue in Newport.” He disconnected without waiting for further instructions, then shut the door. He yanked the heavy curtains over the glass, a shield against the hideous sight outside. His face had turned even whiter than his favorite powder, and his mouth sucked air like a fish searching for water. “I don't want the others to see. My God, Stan. Who . . . how?” Either he couldn't bring himself to say Pierre's name or he didn't realize it was him. Or he was asking who killed himâshe wasn't sure.
“It's Pierre,” she said. She knew it instinctively, though she'd never met him. And since he'd never arrived . . .
But he had arrived. Early, it seemed. Along with someone elseâwho had slit his throat. She shivered. The air-conditioning cranked, but that wasn't the reason. If this was such a top-secret mission, how had Pierre known where to go before the scheduled time? And even more disturbing, who had known he would be here early and slaughtered him?
Voices and laughter from the other room came closer and Marcin poked his head into the room. Nutty growled, long and low. Stan hadn't heard him do that ever, but it reinforced her fear.
“Sheldon, we're waiting for the rest of the tour,” Marcin called. “Leo wants a drink and feels like he can't have one until he's properly
over the house.” He paused and took a closer look at Stan. “Darling, what on earth is wrong? You look like you just lost your best friend.” He eyed Nutty suspiciously. “Why is he making that dreadful noise?”
“Marcin, not now,” Sheldon said, his voice strangled. “Please keep the others occupied.”
“What's going on?” Marcin stepped into the room.
Sheldon jumped up, blocking him. “Please,” he said. “Keep the others occupied. And out of this room.”
Marcin picked up on the tone, Stan could see, because he didn't argue. He slipped away. A minute later, she heard him say to the others, “Let's go in here and find the booze, shall we?”
It sounded like everyone could get on board with that. The noise dimmed as they moved farther away.
“Sheldon,” Stan said. “How did Pierre know to come here if it was a big secret?”
Sheldon stared at her, shaking his head. Stan could see the pulse jumping in his neck. “I have no clue. This is just . . . sickening. Sickening,” he repeated. “Are you sure it's him? I need to see.” He moved to the door.
“No! Don't go out there,” she said. “I've already walked through the crime scene. You shouldn't do it, too.”
He hesitated. Then the sirens sounded, from a distance but quickly coming closer. A minute later, the doorbell rang.
Sheldon went to answer it. He returned a minute later with two Newport cops. They zeroed in on Stan. “Did you place the nine-one-one call?” the younger of the two asked, without so much as a
are you all right?
. He was heavyset and had clearly suffered from acne as a boy, given the scars on his face.
“Can you come with me, please?” the older cop said to her. He had a droopy mustache and had to keep hitching his uniform pants over his stomach.
Still clutching Nutty's leash, she followed the cop into another spacious sitting room. Living room or den? She couldn't tell. All of it belonged in a magazine spread. Her next insane thought:
At least they didn't kill him inside the houseâit would've made such a terrible mess.
The cop motioned for her to sit. She sank down on a red ottoman and pulled Nutty into her lap. “Wait here,” he said, and left her there alone.
She had the fleeting but disturbing thought that she wasn't in Frog Ledge anymore.
Stan waited alone for half an hour. More cops arrived. She heard a lot of activity outside the windows. Nutty finally settled into a big, furry circle on her lap, tail swishing as he kept an eye on his surroundings.
She wished they would hurry up and get this part over with. They were all probably gathered outside with the crime scene people looking at the body. The thought made her shiver. She wondered if they'd found the murder weapon. If she'd walked right past it somehow and not even noticed.
Why had she gone out back, anyway? She cursed herself for not following the group inside. Then maybe Sheldon would've had the honors of the gruesome discovery. She had no desire to sit through the endless questions the police were sure to ask. They'd be suspicious of her. They were always suspicious of people who found dead bodies.
Unfortunately, she knew this from experience. Since moving to Frog Ledge a year and a half ago, she'd stumbled upon more murder investigations than most people probably had in their lifetime. When it happened in Frog Ledge, she had to explain herself to Jake's sister, the resident state trooper. But at least Jessie Pasquale knew by now that Stan wasn't some serial killer. Just unlucky. Her first meeting with Jessie over a dead body had been sub-par, so she didn't expect anything different with these detectives.
The first detective in the room, an African-American man, was tall enough that he might have to duck despite the cathedral ceilings. Thin and lean, a smattering of gray at the temples of his curly black hair hinted that he might have been older than her first impression. His female companion, by contrast, stood about five-five. Stocky build. A bit of muscle combined with some padding. Pin-straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail accented her plain, unexceptional face. Both of them looked at her curiously. Probably wondering why she held a cat on a leash.
“I'm Detective Genske,” the female said. “This is Detective Owens. What's your name?”
She gave Stan a skeptical look. “As in Stanley?”
“As in Kristan.”
“Odd nickname for Kristan,” Detective Owens said, scratching his head.
Stan didn't comment. They had a dead guy in the backyard and they were asking about her nickname? He must know her mother.
Unlike her mother, though, Owens let it go. They both sat opposite her on the sofa, after wary glances at the modern, odd-shaped chairs. “Tell us what happened.”
“I have no idea what happened. We just arrived for the weekend. I went out back to see the ocean, and found . . .” She trailed off. “Is it Pierre?”
They exchanged looks. “We can talk about the victim in a bit,” Genske said. “First we have some questions for you.”
“Okay.” She stroked Nutty's fur nervously. His tail swishing had kicked up a notch.
Genske eyed Nutty. “That your cat?”
“He is. His name is Nutty.”
Genske stepped forward and held out a hand for Nutty to sniff, then pet his head. Nutty blinked at her.
“What else did you see out back?” Owens asked. “Anything look out of place?”
“I have no idea. I've never been here before.”
“Oh yeah, this isn't your house,” Genske said. “Whose is it?”
“Sheldon's, I guess. You'd have to ask him. It's either his or he's renting it.”
“Tell us about this weekend,” Genske said in a conversational tone, looking up from petting Nutty. “What's everyone doing here?”
Nutty didn't seem to like this line of questioning. He stared at the detective with open disdain. He looked like he might smack Genske with his big paw. Which could land them both in the clink.
“It's a chef's weekend. I'm a pastry chef.” She decided to leave the pet part off. “We all work with Sheldon. We're preparing for a dinner event at The Chanler Monday night.”
As if on cue, Sheldon appeared in the doorway, the young acne-pocked cop trying to hold him off.
“Are you harassing my chef?” he called. “This poor girl has already been through the mill, finding that grisly scene outside. Don't you think you should be catching the person who did this?”
“That's the idea,” Owens said, turning to give Sheldon the once-over. He took in the metallic suit, the hair, the silver-lidded eyes and matching shoes, and one eyebrow went up. “And you are?”
Sheldon stopped and puffed his chest out. “Who am
? My dear boy, I am Sheldon Allyn. Don't you people eat dessert?”
Owens stared blankly at him. “Okay, Mr. Allyn,” he said finally, and it was clear he didn't have a clue. “I'd ask that you wait out there, and we'll be with you momentarily.”
Sheldon didn't look happy. “You don't need to talk to them without a lawyer, you know,” he said to Stan, then turned and marched out. The cop trailing him gave his colleagues an apologetic look, then went after him.
Genske smiled for the first time. “You don't know Mr. Allyn?” she said to her colleague.
“I'm afraid I don't,” Owens said. He didn't smile.
Genske looked at Stan and tipped her head at Owens with a mocking look. “He works out for fun. I eat for fun. Do you need a lawyer, Ms. Connor?”
Stan shook her head. “Why would I need a lawyer?”
Genske shrugged. “Just asking. So tell me about the work you do with Sheldon.”
“He and I are negotiating a joint business venture. We're opening a pastry shop for pets in Connecticut.”
Genske raised an eyebrow. “For pets?”
“What about the rest of them?” Owens jerked a thumb behind him. “Same deal?”
“I'm not really sure about the different relationships,” Stan said. “You'll have to ask them. But they all do human food.”
Owens made a note in his pad. “So the shop isn't open yet?”
Stan shook her head. “We found a suitable location and were finalizing price negotiations. I'm hoping to open by end of year.”
“And will Allyn be involved in the day to day?”
“Nope. It's all me. He'll check in, I'm presuming, when it's time to review the profit and loss statement.”
Owens shifted in his chair. “Walk me through the day. The rest of you all got here at the same time?”
“Yes,” she said cautiously. She had no idea how to explain her trip here, blindfolded and in the back of the pastry truck.
“Was Pierre supposed to get here at the same time also?” he asked.
“I assume so,” Stan said. “I wasn't involved in the planning.”
“So who noticed he wasn't here?” Genske asked.
“There were some rumblings about someone being missing. I couldn't tell who, since we were all blindfolded.”
“Blindfolded?” Owens and Genske said in unison.
Stan nodded. “Sheldon likes games. He organized an . . . experience for the chefs. He didn't want us to know where we were going. He thought it would be fun to send us all to a parking lot, blindfold us, and drive us here.”
Owens and Genske exchanged glances that clearly said,
I knew it. These people are nuts.
“This some kind of kinky foodie thing? Or is the chef stuff a cover?” Owens asked.
“Neither,” Stan said through gritted teeth.
“Huh,” Genske said in an
I don't believe you
tone. “He really blindfolded you?”
“Yes. Well, he didn't. His assistant did.”
“And you let him.” Dumb, her tone suggested.
Stan raised a shoulder in a shrug. “Yeah. Hey, Sheldon's kind of quirky. You never know with him.” In hindsight, it could have ranked as Something Potentially Really Stupid, considering she didn't know either Kyle or Joaquin. But she didn't say that to the cops. It would confirm the “crazy” assessment.
Another glance passed between the two.
“So where did you go first? To get blindfolded?” Owens asked.
“To the parking lot downtown. Sheldon bought passes for us to park for the weekend. I left my car there and the mobile pastry truck came and picked up me and Kyle.”
“The mobile pastry truck,” Owens said.
“Yeah. Sheldon has a bakery in Providence and he went mobile last summer.”
“What's the name of the shop?”
“Every Sweet Thing.”
“Okay. So you were blindfolded and put in the back of a pastry truck. With Kyle. Kyle who?”
“McLeod. The blond guy. He's a vegan chef,” Stan added.
“How did everyone else arrive?”
“I didn't see. Since I was blindfolded. Different cars, same drill.”
“And someone didn't show.”
“Right. Pierre LaPorte. He's another well-known pastry chef.”
“Was anyone looking for him?”
“People speculated on his whereabouts.”
“But no one thought to look around. Except you.”
“I wasn't looking around for him. I wouldn't have thought to look for him. No one would, since none of us . . . planned to be here. I wanted to see the ocean.”
Owens and Genske exchanged glances. “Sheldon identified the body. It's Pierre LaPorte, like you thought,” Genske said to Stan.
She nodded, swallowing against the lump in her throat. She hadn't even had a chance to talk pastry with Pierre. She wondered if he'd been as insufferable as the others suggested, then immediately pushed the thought away. Even if he was the world's biggest jerk, he didn't deserve to have his throat slit.
“That would leave me with one important question,” Owens said slowly. “How is it that he showed up at this house if everyone was supposed to meet somewhere, get blindfolded, and arrive together? And presumably didn't know the location to which they were going?”
Stan didn't answer. She had the feeling a lot of people were going to ask that question.