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Authors: Mary Jane Maffini

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The Cluttered Corpse

BOOK: The Cluttered Corpse
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A disordered neighborhood.

“What happened, Emmy Lou? Please tell us.”

“I didn't mean it.”

“Mean what?” Lilith asked soothingly.

Emmy Lou's green eyes rolled, wild with panic. “I didn't know he was there.”

“Who?” I urged.

“I didn't see him.”

I glanced around for someone to help. There was no sign of Dwayne's Audi. The Baxters' driveway was empty. Bonnie was nowhere to be seen. No one but Lilith and me to help Emmy Lou.

“I'll go and check what's happened.”

Emmy Lou pushed Lilith away. “I told you what happened,” she screamed. “I killed him.”

I headed for the house. Emmy Lou was hysterical. She probably didn't know what she was saying. But just in case, I started to run.

Tony Starkman was the first sight that greeted my eyes when I opened the door. He was sprawled faceup at the foot of the hardwood stairs. He lay there, unmoving, surrounded by scattered plush toys…

PRAISE FOR
Organize Your Corpses

“A comedic, murderous romp…Maffini is a relaxed, accomplished, and wickedly funny writer.”

—
The Montreal Gazette

“A fast-moving story.”

—
Contra Coasta Times

“Maffini's new series starring professional organizer and amateur sleuth Charlotte Adams is off to a brilliant start with this fast-paced mystery.”

—
Romantic Times

The Cluttered Corpse
Mary Jane Maffini

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

THE CLUTTERED CORPSE

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2008 by Mary Jane Maffini.

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-1012-0716-1

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME
Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

For Lyn Hamilton,
fine friend and true woman of mystery

Acknowledgments

I would have been lost without the many people who provided help and encouragement behind the scenes with this book. Once again, I owe special thanks to Lyn Hamilton for friendship, support, and advice to me as well as to Charlotte. As usual, Mary MacKay-Smith offered her astute comments and eagle eye. Officer Chris Myers of the Troy Police Department kept me from getting in big trouble with the law. Victoria Maffini, Barbara Fradkin, Linda Wiken, and Janet MacEachen came through with insight and expertise in their own unique areas, while Elaine Naiman and Jan Kurtz helped out in the name department. Bless them all.

I also appreciated the many DorothyL librarians who sprang forward to help with details: Vicki Deem, Serena Brooks, Shannon Jensen, Matthew Kochan, Catherine Brown, and many others who generously offered assistance for future books. Thanks also to professional organizers everywhere, because like librarians, they make life better.

Thanks also to my agent, Leona Trainer, for her ongoing enthusiasm for the Charlotte Adams books and to Tom Colgan and Sandy Harding at Berkley Prime Crime for being cheerful and understanding, no matter what. A note of appreciation is due the mysterious copy editor, Caroline Duffy, who yet again has saved my bacon. Naturally, any errors are my own.

On the home front, Daisy and Lily continue to be fine role models for Truffle and Sweet Marie. My husband, Giulio Maffini, does everything he can to help me lead the ideal life of a mystery writer.

Keep a plan-B project ready to go in case
you have an unexpected hiatus in your activities.

1

“You have saved my life.” Emmy Lou Rheinbeck's green eyes glowed with gratitude.

“Oh, not really.” I stared modestly down at my patent leather wedge-heeled shoes.

“But you have.” A radiant smile lit her face.

I couldn't help smiling back at my latest client. There was something contagious about this woman's emotions. Even so, I felt uncomfortable. I like a pat on the head as much as the next girl. When I deserve it.

It seemed only fair to point this out.

“Nice of you to say that, Ms. Rheinbeck, but I haven't done anything yet.” In fact, we'd been chatting in her living room for fifteen minutes, as I listened for some clue to her problem.

She tossed her sleek copper hair. “Please call me Emmy Lou. I get more than enough
Mrs.
Rheinbeck at work. And, believe me, we are not dealing with my work side here.”

I'd gathered from our conversation that she had a high-powered management job at a large insurance company. She must have left the city early this Friday afternoon and come directly to our three o'clock meeting. She was dressed for success. The midnight blue fitted suit had a hint of sheen and probably a subtle touch of Lycra. The white satin shirt-style collar and oversize cuffs provided plenty of drama without diminishing her executive look. She might have had ten years on me, and when I get to forty, if I look half that good, I'll be euphoric.

I said, “Okay, Emmy Lou.”

“And you
have
helped me, Charlotte. You've come all the way across town to meet me. I appreciate that, considering that I did cancel our first consultation appointment back in the fall.”

“You and everyone else. I guess it was all that fuss about me in the news. A lot of people got cold feet.”

“I wasn't ready to deal with my problem. So, the fact that you're here has already made a difference.”

“Great. I'm happy.”

“You have no idea how much you've helped.” She wagged her perfectly French-manicured index finger at me. I couldn't miss the flash of chunky diamonds. They reminded me of my own engagement ring, now resting on the bottom of the Hudson. Too bad the cheating so-and-so who'd given it to me hadn't plunged after it. But as they say, you can't have everything.

I resisted the urge to sit on my hands, although I had no clue what this alleged problem was. I glanced around the living room. She'd mentioned a collection on the phone. What kind of collection? Danish silver? Lladro figurines? Christian Dior lipsticks? If she had an organizing or storage problem, there was no sign of it from where we sat. In fact, the Rheinbeck residence, a simple two-story wood-frame home dating probably from the 1930s, could have served as the “after” version on an upscale television renovation show, with its espresso-colored furniture, hardwood flooring, sleek glass, and trendy light fixtures. The butter-soft cognac leather sofa felt as good as it looked. I wouldn't have been surprised to spot television cameras zooming in for a tight two-shot.

She sighed. “It's a bit embarrassing, but I suppose I'd better get on with it.”

Taking that first step is always tricky. I was glad I didn't have to push her. You don't want to bully a client, but it's painful for people to get started.

Emmy Lou said, “So, how about a piece of cake?”

I recognized a typical stalling technique. “Not for me, thanks. Maybe we should talk about—”

“Double chocolate cheesecake. I made it myself. It's my signature dish.” She spoke like a woman who was used to getting her own way.

Of course, I like to get my own way too. “I'm trying to cut down on sweets.”

“For heaven's sake and you're so waiflike. I thought it was just us full-figured girls who fussed endlessly over calories.”

I am not waiflike. Okay, short maybe, four foot eleven and holding, but I weigh ninety-five pounds and that's normal for my height. I seem to be able to eat what I want. Of course, I have to be careful who I mention that to, as some people don't find it endearing. And for once I wasn't fussing, simply trying to get started. I knew it would help if Emmy Lou could describe her clutter problem. That didn't seem to be happening.

I smiled obliquely. It wouldn't pay to lose all control at this early stage of whatever it was we would be doing.

“I think I'll have some anyway.” She stood up and smoothed her skirt. “Not too late to change your mind.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

As Emmy Lou sashayed toward her kitchen, leaving a subtle trail of exotic fragrance, I wondered if that suit had been custom made for her. It hugged her assets and skimmed over anything that might have needed minimizing. She reminded me of a line from a song one of my mother's husbands used to sing: “Round and firm and fully packed, that's my gal.” Emmy Lou had definitely seen more than a few double chocolate cheesecakes in her time. But on her that looked good.

I watched her graceful progress toward the kitchen. I didn't need to walk the length of the first floor to see that the high-grade open shelves held immaculate dishes, artistically displayed. Even from the sofa you couldn't miss the gleam of the granite countertop that separated the dining area from the cooking section. The glimpse I'd had showed a stainless steel fridge with wide double doors. The six-burner gas cooktop was overshadowed by a dramatic range hood. I was betting there was a two-drawer dishwasher tucked away under that granite countertop.

I suppressed a wave of jealousy. My own kitchen occupies a former linen closet. Even as a linen closet, it hadn't been terrific. Never mind, the galley style serves my culinary needs, which mostly involve storing a variety of Ben & Jerry's finest. Normally I love everything about my cozy second-floor apartment, but normally I'm not sitting in a place like this. I did not have a chocolate cheesecake waiting for me at home, although chocolate cheesecake is one of my favorite things.

Emmy Lou's copper bob swung nicely as she moved from the massive fridge to the granite counter, carrying a footed cake plate and a small bowl. She reached elegantly into a cupboard, picked plates, then a
clink
here, a swirl there, and she was ready to go. Apparently, the stunning kitchen was for more than show. She glided back to the living room with two plates, each with a slice of cake. Both pieces were decorated with a dollop of whipped cream and a few pretty chocolate shavings. She placed the plates, forks, and napkins on the coffee table. She raised an eyebrow and smiled.

“In case you change your mind.”

Did I mention my mouth was watering? But it was time to get back on task.

I said encouragingly, “So you need help organizing…was it a collection?” Just because she was paying for my time didn't mean we needed to waste it.

The smile vanished.

I added, “Because everything in your home looks beyond perfect.”

She had a musical laugh, although this was the first time I'd heard it. “I guess there's more to me than meets the eye, Charlotte.” She took an elegant bite of her chocolate cheesecake.

I was resisting, but I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold out. Chocolate has always been my drug of choice.

I persevered. “What kind of collection?” Nothing in that room for sure. As far as I could tell, Emmy Lou Rheinbeck was better organized than I was. And that's something.

From the far end of the kitchen, we heard the click of a lock opening, then a door banging. Emmy Lou jumped, dropping her fork on the Berber carpet. Her hand shot to her mouth.

A voice rang out, “It's me, sweetheart. Forgot my briefcase. No point in getting to the bank without that.”

“It's in here, honey,” she said. Was it my imagination or were her hands shaking?

“Honey” strode through the kitchen. “Sorry to interrupt you girls. I'd forget my head if it wasn't so darn shiny.”

“Charlotte, this is my husband, Dwayne.” Emmy Lou glowed when she looked at him. I wasn't sure why she was so jumpy, but Dwayne didn't seem to be the cause.

Dwayne grinned. He was shorter than Emmy Lou and had a gloriously bald head. He wore a rumpled sport jacket and casual pants. His tie hung loosely knotted and not quite centered. But who cared? This guy's grin could fill a room. Add to that he had a voice like liquid honey. I could see how a glamorous woman like Emmy Lou could fall head over heels for him. I found myself grinning back. Dwayne looked like the kind of guy you could count on.

Emmy Lou said, “It's on the console. Tuck your shirt in, please, honey.”

Dwayne bent to kiss her cheek. Maybe he hadn't noticed the nervous little tic in her eyelid. Funny, because he looked at her intensely, the way my dogs might eye a juicy steak inches out of their reach.

Next he shook my hand. A warm, firm handshake. “Glad to meet you, Charlotte. We followed you in the papers with all that trouble last fall. We figured you'd be just the gal for Emmy's project, didn't we, sweetheart?”

“We did.”

“Sure glad you were able to come by. Whatever you decide, it's great with me. Nothing's too good for my lady. You dropped your fork, sweetheart. Can I get you another one?” He sprinted toward the kitchen without waiting for an answer.

Emmy Lou jumped to her feet. “Aren't you going to be late for your appointment?” She turned to me and laughed. “Dwayne owns a restaurant. It's doing so well, he's already planning to expand. That is, if he gets to the bank in time,
with
his briefcase.”

Dwayne hustled back with a fresh fork. “Plenty of time. You two keep having fun. And Charlotte?”

“Hmm?”

“Make sure you leave some of that cake for me. My Emmy Lou's cheesecake can't be beat.”

He stopped long enough to hand me his business card. I put the card on the coffee table and stood up to shake his hand again.

“Great meeting you, Charlotte. Good luck,” he said to me. Emmy Lou got, “See you later, sweetheart,” and a kiss that was slightly this side of X-rated. Even though he was at least two inches shorter than she was and his shirt wasn't completely tucked in, there was something very sexy about Dwayne Rheinbeck. Emmy Lou had two pink patches on her cheeks as she sat down again.

“Don't forget to lock the door,” Emmy Lou called.

Dwayne departed as fast as he'd shown up, out the front door this time, stopping long enough to turn the key in the dead bolt, leaving behind a hint of lime, delicious, yet manly. The room looked the same, but I felt as though a typhoon had blown through.

I was so distracted by the cheesecake, not to mention the smooch, that I actually forgot to put the business card into my purse. Instead, I admitted defeat and picked up my own fork. “I can't resist anymore. How about I try the cake and you tell me about the project?”

“As you can see, it's hard for me to talk about.”

No kidding. However, the cake was so good it practically brought tears to my eyes. Years from now, I imagine I will remember that dark chocolate taste and the velvety, melting texture. Emmy Lou was wasted in the insurance business, however high up. She should have been running some kind of global cheesecake empire.

She said, “It's stupid. You know I have a responsible position. I've worked my way up. I'm educated and competent and in charge of my life. I'm good at what I do. I am not afraid to face anything head-on.”

“Mmm.” Double meaning, I know.

“I've worked hard to make a lovely home for us. Dwayne and I are late bloomers. We haven't been married all that long. Not even a year.”

Okay. That explained a lot.

“He's such a lovely man and he puts up with so much,” she said, blushing.

Oh please. What did he have to put up with? A stunning wife, a gorgeous home, and food to die for?

“Well,” she said, “I guess there's no point in putting it off any longer.”

I put down my fork. The cake would be on the table when we got back. I followed her to the second floor. Halfway up, I stepped on something squishy.

It squeaked.

I gasped.

Emmy Lou shrieked and whirled.

I bent down and picked up a toy lamb, with a tiny smirk embroidered on its fluffy white face. It hung limply in my hand. I can't tell you how much that creeped me out.

She reached out and snatched the limp lamb and tucked it under her expensive silk and wool arm. “Oh! That's where you've been, you naughty boy.”

I was pondering that when I stepped on a pair of battered toy cats. Again, Emmy Lou held out her hands for them. “They get out of control sometimes.”

From that point on, I held on to the banister. By the time I reached the top stair, I'd stepped on and over more pastel fuzzy toys than I'd owned in my entire childhood. Had there been an explosion?

Emmy Lou said, “Now you see how silly I feel.”

“So this is the collection?” More stuffed animals lined the corridor, tiny guards against something. But what was the big deal? They were cute, clean, harmless. I thought we'd have no trouble getting these little guys into some sort of order.

BOOK: The Cluttered Corpse
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