I'm an outsider, but I don't look like one. Some people think I'm a
rebel, but I've never been the in-your-face kind. No matter where
my travels take me, I find most people have to compartmentalize
the world in order to deal with it. They make it into a landscape of
black and white, with a box for everyone and everyone in their
I hate being put in a box.
I feel this hatred so deep in my bones that I'm sure when I die
the undertaker will have to battle my flailing arms and legs to shut
me into my coffin.
Even so, I sometimes think I've put myself into one of those
suffocating little cubicles. Now that I have reached the mid-point in
my life, I've been giving this some thought.
It seems a lot of people get a great sense of security from
such neat, well-defined compartments. I suppose that's what they
aspire to right from the beginning and then have no difficulty
molding themselves, over the years, to fit. Then there are others
who, upon reaching middle age, wake up one morning to the
sudden realization, This box is killing me. They try to break out
and the results are sometimes deadly.
Hell, I was almost murdered because of someone's mid-life crisis.
It all started that Monday morning when Charlotte Oakley visited
me at Trail's End Farm.
Monday, August 16
"I want you to investigate Victor Lloyd."
I peered over my tea cup, not sure I'd heard Charlotte Oakley
correctly. She perched in a tense posture on the edge of the
overstuffed sofa in my sitting room. The grandfather clock in the
foyer ticked softly.
"You want me to what?" I said, putting my cup back down on its
saucer. Standing on the coffee table, next to the serving tray, was
the antique brass elephant toy I'd brought back from India. He
stared back at me. He'd been through a lot -- one ear was missing
and his wheels were kind of wonky -- but his wide-eyed look
seemed to say he was just as startled by Charlotte's request as I was.
Charlotte fingered her chunky, gold button earring and turned it
back and forth. "I want to hire you to look into Victor Lloyd's
"You mean that developer? That Barnum and Bailey guy who's
always doing some flamboyant stunt to announce his latest project?"
Charlotte tilted her head back, pushed her fingers into her
streaked blond hair and swept it off her forehead. Each strand of
hair seemed to know exactly where to land, like on those irritating
models in the hair color ads.
With her chin still pointing at me, she said, "Yes. The same one
you're reading about in The Enquirer -- the one with all the big
ideas for the Kentucky side of the river."
"Charlotte, I'm a caterer, not a--"
"I've heard rumors he's connected with gangsters." She pushed
her words at me as though she'd trumped any reasons I could
possibly have for refusing.
But I had other cards. "And what does this have to do with you?"
"It's my daughter Melissa. She's about to make the biggest
mistake of her life. Last night she tells me she wants to marry Mr.
Lloyd's son, Eric. You know we have to be careful who our children
marry. It's not a simple matter of falling in love with someone.
There are things to consider. Like reputation, character, background--"
That sounded like something my mother, Tink Cavanaugh, would
say. Even though Charlotte was the same age as me, forty-three,
she was talking in old Clairmont matriarch lingo. Kind of a Tink-in-
training. I don't have kids of my own, but I understood where
Charlotte's fears were coming from. At the same time, I felt
sympathy for Melissa. After all, I knew first hand what it was like to
be pressured by your mother into choosing the suitable box to
cram yourself into. Come to think of it, that's probably one of the
reasons I'm still single -- I see marriage as a box.
I held my hand up to interrupt her. "I suggest you hire a private
investigator. I'm sure, if you ask around, someone can refer you to
a reputable one."
Horrified, Charlotte almost choked on her tea. "I don't want
anyone to know I need a private investigator." Her cup clattered
in its saucer as she deposited it on the table in front of her. "And
I don't want any seedy stranger in a rumpled trench coat slinking
around with his camera knowing my family's business."
"You'd be hiring him or her -- there are plenty of female
investigators -- to snoop into Victor Lloyd's background. Not yours."
"Snoop? Oh, that's a nasty word."
I said, "Sorry," got up and walked over to the little gaming table
in the corner of the room where I kept decks of cards and pencils
"Anyway, they're professionals," I called back to Charlotte.
"They wouldn't be able to stay in business if they weren't discreet
and didn't adhere to a code of confidentiality. Keeping their
mouths shut is part of the service."
I pulled a sheet of paper out of the drawer, jotted down a
telephone number, and returned to stand in front of Charlotte.
"This is my Uncle Cliff's office number. He's a lawyer and I'm sure
he's had many occasions to use private investigators."
Charlotte stared up at me with a pained expression on her face.
I realized two things. One, she didn't like the answer I was giving
her. And two, her neck was craned at an uncomfortably severe
angle, and if I didn't bring my six-foot-three-inch frame down to her
level she was going to need a chiropractor.
I sat down and laid the piece of paper on the table in front of her.
Charlotte didn't touch it. "But just the idea of a stranger having
personal knowledge -- ooh--" She closed her mauve-tinted eyelids
and shuddered. "It sends chills down my spine."
She leaned towards me, placing her delicate fingers with their
mauve fingernails on my kitchen-beaten paws. "Besides, I know I
can trust you. And you did solve a couple of murders this past
year. I'm just trying to insure my daughter's future happiness. I
don't want to wake up one morning to find she's married to the mob."
"But I wasn't hired to solve those murders. I was pulled in by
the circumstances. I mean, those were my friends who were
accused of committing those crimes. Their lives were going to be
destroyed. I had to help them."
Charlotte jerked her hand from mine and frowned slightly. She
looked a little miffed. "Aren't I your friend?"
"Why Kathleen Cavanaugh! I was practically your next door
neighbor for eighteen years. We went all through school together.
I've known you all my life -- except for those few years you
disappeared and never wrote to anybody. But still, I considered
we were friends."
Damage control. "We are. But you're asking me to do something
I don't think I have the training for."
"But you're already being called the Amazon Chili Heiress
Detective and for years you've been catering all of Clairmont's
important parties, listening to all the gossip and rumors -- you know
everything about everybody."
She leaned forward again. "More importantly, people trust you
because you keep your mouth shut." Her heavy charm bracelet
jangled as she tapped my knee. "I think you're eminently qualified
to take on this job."
The reason I hear everything, know everything, and don't talk
about it, is because I'm always just an observer at these parties
and don't involve myself in the antics and intrigues of Clairmont
blue blood society. Charlotte seemed to think that because I was
born here and understood the rules, I was one of them. But I
never was. Even as a kid, though I was included in the popular
groups, I felt different from the others -- partly because I physically
towered over everybody, even the boys who called me Giraffe
Face. But more than that, there was a rebellious voice inside me I
couldn't shut up. It kept shouting, This is not enough.
Obviously, Charlotte had placed a big black mark beside Victor
Lloyd's name because he was "not one of us."
I sighed. "I wouldn't know where to begin searching his background."
"Well, you could start by eavesdropping while you mingle at the
party on his riverboat this Friday."
"How did you know I was invited?"
"Melissa told me. She said you, your mother, and your uncle,"
Charlotte looked down at the piece of paper on the table in front
of her and picked it up. "Your Uncle Clifford would be representing
Crown Chili. Melissa's ... um ... Eric Lloyd told her who was on
the guest list. She's going to be there with him, of course."
Charlotte slapped the innocent piece of paper back down on the
"Kate, Melissa's my baby. All of a sudden I'm being shut out of
her life. She spends more time with that Lloyd family than she does
with me and I don't even know who they are, what kind of people
they come from. I've tried to get this Eric person to talk about his
family tree, but he's been very evasive, mysterious. It's obviously
something Eric doesn't want me to know about. The whole family
makes me feel kind of edgy. They seem to be friendly and
neighborly, acting like they're trying to be part of the community,
but there's something phony about them -- not like us.
"Ever since that family moved into Clairmont four years ago,
people have been talking about them. So all I have to go on is
rumor and whatever I've seen of them in public. The Lloyds have
never invited me over or said more than a few words to me. If
you've ever been to some function with them, you'd know Mrs.
Lloyd, Tammy," she rolled her eyes, "is a drunk. So when Melissa
told me she and Eric were talking about getting engaged officially,
I -- I just couldn't ... it's too much ... I'm at my wits' end."
Charlotte looked at me and nervously bit her lower lip. "But
then, I had this brilliant idea: hire the most trustworthy person in
Clairmont who also happens to be famous for digging up the truth.
I will pay for your services, you know. Whatever the going rate
is -- whatever is fair."
"Charlotte, I have no idea--"
She stood up and tried to smooth the wrinkles from her linen
dress. "At least think about it. Give it a few days. Call me
I walked her out through the foyer to the front door. "Charlotte,
I'm not promising anything."
She turned to me before stepping outside. "Well, even if the
answer's no, you could still do me an enormous favor when you
attend that riverboat party. I'd appreciate it if you would at least
keep an eye on my precious little girl."
"Okay, Charlotte. I'll get back to you as soon as I can." I leaned
my head against the door jamb and watched her walk down the
flagstone steps towards her car.
I was used to the people of Clairmont hiring me to help them
celebrate their children's weddings -- not prevent them from taking
place. But over the past few months, an unhappiness had grabbed
hold of me. I was getting tired of walking into my kitchen and
trying to generate enthusiasm for that day's list of parties and the
awaiting crowds of hungry mouths. Was it a case of career
burnout? I don't know, but I couldn't even get psyched up for the
big Casablanca theme party fast approaching on my catering
schedule. When Charlotte first arrived that morning, I was steeling
myself to drag out my book of menus and prices and cake designs.
At first, her plea for help caught me off guard. It had the
surprising and unsettling effect of putting a finger on that very
part of my life I was struggling with. I resisted what my gut was
telling me. I know, in the past I said I had no intentions of changing
my career from caterer to full-time private eye, no matter how
many friends of mine became murder suspects. But as I'd sat
listening to Charlotte, I'd realized my next meal might be my very
own words. Not that I wished any ill will on Melissa Oakley or the
Lloyds, but all of a sudden the idea of conducting an investigation
appealed to me more than baking and decorating a wedding cake.