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12

Fleeced

Thomas, now try to think happy thoughts.

Thomass girlfriend, Janey, clad as ever in a cardigan sweater, straight skirt, sensible shoes, her outfit pulled together by her most cherished possession, a single strand of pearls, was doing her best to comfort her agitated boyfriend. They were in his office. She was standing behind him, massaging his temples.

How could everything have gone wrong so fast? he asked, his voice quivering. We had so many plans for the club. Tea dances, brunches, ballroom dances, lectures, culture

Its not all over. And the brunch you had last Sunday was very successful, Janey said as her fingers now disappeared into Thomass bushy hair and kneaded his scalp.

Not really, he whined. When that group of college kids left, I heard one of them say hed seen younger faces on cash.

Janey shook her head from side to side. We shouldnt have invited kids on spring break. A gracious brunch is not what they were looking for. But everyone else enjoyed it.

The only two who didnt complain about the food were Nat and Ben, and now theyre both dead.

Janey sighed. They were the two nicest people in the club.

Thomas reached up and took Janeys hands in his. How do you think that red box ended up in my wastebasket?

Janey came around and sat, very ladylike, on the edge of Thomass desk. Someone threw it there, she said with steely resolve. Someone who was on these premises yesterday and stole the diamonds.

But who? Thomas cried.

A knock on the door caused them both to jump.

Yes, come in, Thomas called as he sat up straight.

When the door opened, he saw that it was Regan Reilly.

I hope Im not interrupting anything.

No, no, Thomas insisted. Regan, this is my girlfriend, Janey.

Hello, Janey. Regan extended her hand.

Hello. Janeys response was meek.

Thomas, we have a lot of things to discuss, Regan said.

Janey glanced down at her watch. Id better run.

You can stay, Thomas said in an almost pleading tone.

No, sweetness, Ive got to get to work. Janey grabbed her beige coat off the chair. It seemed to Regan that everything about her was beige. Ill see you both later.

Shes very nice, Regan remarked when she and Thomas were alone.

She is simply wonderful. The most wonderful woman that ever lived, Thomas insisted.

How do you know? Regan thought, but asked, Where does she work?

At home. She has a business cooking meals for people too busy to cook for themselves. People order up to a weeks worth of meals and then store them in the freezer. Shes so wonderful, she gives a discount to the elderly. And on top of that, shes the biggest good-deed doer Ive ever met.

Thats wonderful, Regan found herself saying, thinking of a girl who lived down the hall from her in college who was always going around collecting money for some good cause or other. Regan spotted her years later at an airport with a shaved head, a fixed grin, and the same tin cup ready for donations. But Regan had to hand it to her. She was committed. Janey seemed like the same type.

Regan! Thomas suddenly blurted. I have nothing to do with that red box being in my garbage.

I believe you, Regan said simply. But it makes it pretty clear that someone took those diamonds. I think the whole thing was well planned. Including Nats death. She filled him in on what the maid had told her.

Thomas cocked his head. I cant imagine someone not liking baths.

Inwardly, Regan groaned. But if he didnt, whatever the reason, it makes his death much more suspect. And it makes me question whether Ben had a heart attack because someone actually pushed him in front of that bus.

A murder in the club! Its never happened before.

And I want to do my part in making sure it doesnt happen again, Thomas. I have to talk to the woman across the hall who had the party.

The Princess of Love.

Whatever.

Right away. Thomas picked up the phone and a few minutes later they were knocking on her door.

Fleeced

Are you a quality single? Lydia inquired with a big smile when Thomas introduced them.

It depends on who you ask, Regan answered.

Lydia laughed as though that was the funniest thing she had ever heard. Regan smiled in spite of herself. People who laugh at your jokes certainly do gain extra points, she thought.

Well, come in, Lydia said, stretching out her expensively bangled arm. With her jewelry and makeup and sexy lounging outfit, she looked as though she were about to pose for the cover of a romance novel.

Makes sense, Regan thought. She dresses for the job.

Thomas turned to Regan. Your bags are still out by the front desk. Ill bring them upstairs. Heres the key to the apartment.

Regan looked at her watch. After I talk to Lydia, Ill go in and call Nats brother.

Ill be in my office, Thomas said, and like a shot, he was gone.

Regan followed Lydia inside. The apartment was architecturally a mirror image of Nats, but the resemblance ended there. The living room contained six pastel love seats. No couches. No chairs. Just love seats. Pale pink carpeting covered the floor, and large murals of blooming floral arrangements brightened the walls.

I like a happy feeling in a home, Lydia explained, following Regans glance around the room.

Very nice, Regan said, thinking that the decor was oddly interesting. I see you like love seats.

My singles parties are much more successful since I bought the love seats. People are forced to sit closer to each other. It either turns them off or on. Either way, you find out fast if theres interest. Its a big time-saver.

And what no one seems to have enough of is time, Regan said as she took out her notebook.

Look at Nat. His time is up. Hes on a different plane now. But hes happier, Lydia pronounced.

How do you know? Regan asked.

I just have a feeling. Im a little psychic, you know. Hes reunited with his great love, Wendy, and thats whats most important. And he didnt suffer.

Once again Regan asked, How do you know?

If he slipped in the tub and hit his head, it was over fast. He didnt have a long illness.

But he could have had several more good years, Regan said. He was full of plans.

Lydia sighed. He did seem to enjoy life. I didnt know him all that well. I just moved in here last fall. My first party here was held on Valentines Day, and I invited him in, even though hes way over my target age group. I wanted to be neighborly. He loved to tell jokes. They werent always the best jokes, but he was fun.

Did he come to any other parties?

Sometimes hed knock on the door and just stay for a few minutes. Usually because he had a new joke to tell.

Regan decided to get to the point. Lydia, do you think I could get a list of who was at the party last night?

Lydia looked aghast. I know there are supposedly diamonds missing. But if you go questioning my guests, youll ruin my business.

What did you hear about the diamonds? Regan asked.

My butler, Maldwin, told me that hed heard there was going to be a big announcement about Nat and his friend Ben donating the money from some diamonds they owned and were planning to sell. The announcement was planned for the anniversary party on Saturday night. We were both so happy. Regan, we want this club to stay open. Weve set up our businesses here.

And other people knew too?

Well, people were talking about it at the party.

Who?

There was a cameraman here whos doing a story on us and the club. He had heard the news and was asking people if they might want to join the club now that it was going to get a lot of money. It was all done in fun. Everyone was in a good mood.

Then its in both of our best interests to get those diamonds back, Lydia.

I know but

Lydia, all I want to do is talk to the people who were here. They wont think theyre suspects. I just want to see if they saw anything or heard anything. Believe me, most innocent people love to be involved in investigations. They think its exciting.

Lydia cocked her head. But a lot of people dont want others to know they go to singles events. They get embarrassed.

Whos going to find out? Besides, do you want to live across the hall from where a crime may have taken place and have it go unsolved? Or worse yet, have someone coming to your parties who is a criminal?

Lydia sat up straight. Of course not.

Im here to help Thomas get this straightened out. He could lose his job over this. He told me that he made a deal with you to let you have these parties and the butler classes in this apartment. If he goes, I doubt youll find another manager who is so agreeable. And if this place closes down, youre really out of luck.

Lydia stared at her long, red fingernails. Finally she looked up. Regan, I believe that everyone has a soul mate out there. It is my journey in life to help people find that special someone?

Oh, brother, Regan thought. As long as they pay you.

I invite people into my home to open their hearts. To open their souls. To allow a little love and light into their consciousness, which was dark, dark, dark

The list, Lydia?

I was getting to that. Lydia cleared her throat. Because confidentiality is a big part of my business-you know people like to tell stories about how they met their soul mate on a crowded train its rarely true. Anyway, what I am willing to do is invite everyone back here tonight. Itll be a free party. Ill tell them its because of all the excitement last night. You can talk to them at the party. It wont seem so much like you think one of them is guilty.

Will people be available to come on such short notice?

If its free, believe me theyll come. At least for a drink.

What if someone cant make it?

Then Ill give you their name.

Regan stood up. All right, Lydia. Tonight then. I understand your butler had his students serving at the party. Can you arrange for them to all be here as well?

Lydia jumped up from the couch and stretched out her arms. Well re-create the evening.

Lets hope its not a complete reenactment.

Lydia laughed merrily.

Ill be in and out today. Let me know how many of the group you can round up.

Lydia wiggled her fingers. Im ready to start dialing for dates.


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