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3

Fleeced

Regan Reilly opened the door of her parents apartment and picked up the three daily newspapers that had been plopped on the floor at some ungodly hour while most of New York City was unconscious. Backing into the apartment, Regan shut the door and made her way into the narrow kitchen. She opened the cabinet over the sink and pulled out a mug as the coffeemaker hissed and groaned, spitting the last couple of freshly brewed drops into the glass pot. Music to my ears, Regan thought. It means that caffeine is just seconds from my bloodstream.

Regan settled herself at the dining room table and took that first, best sip of coffee. Her eyes took in the unbelievable view of Central Park that her mother always said made the apartment. It certainly does, Regan thought. Her parents pied-`a-terre was a comfortable two-bedroom place to hang your hat, but it was the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the park from the sixteenth floor that made it to die for. And even on this cold and gray March morning, the view of the park was mesmerizing.

Coffee, the papers, and Central Park. A great way to start the day. And before the day is over, Ill get to see Jack, she thought. She was suddenly reminded of a discussion held in one of her college English classes. Expectation and anticipation are one half the joy of life. Regan smiled. True most of the time. But being with Jack was a whole lot better than looking forward to it. Ive had enough of looking forward! she thought. Its time to live.

Regan opened one of the tabloids, a paper she always enjoyed reading when she was in New York City. The first few pages included the usual stories about conflicts of varying degrees of seriousness taking place in the Big Apple. Crack-downs on motorists who cause gridlock and jaywalkers who dart in and out of the gridlock, a bank robbery in midtown, noise from a construction site that had the neighbors going crazy.

Then Regan turned the page and gasped. In the middle of the page was a picture of her with her mother at last nights opening cocktail party for the crime convention. A brief writeup described the plans for the four-day affair.

The caption under the picture read: Mystery writers gather today through Sunday to hear experts in all aspects of crime fighting share their expertise. Bestselling mystery writer Nora Regan Reilly is chairman of the convention. Daughter Regan is no stranger to law enforcement. She is a private investigator who jetted into town from her Los Angeles home to attend the lectures and seminars, and, of course, the festivities.

Los Angeles home! Regan thought. A one-bedroom apartment. Jetted into town! Coach class on a flight that served ice-cold bagels. Whoever said its all an illusion wasnt kidding. At least the picture was pretty good.

Regan, classified as Black Irish thanks to her dark hair, light skin, and blue eyes, had her arm around her mother who, at five feet three inches tall, was three inches shorter than Regan. They looked like mother and daughter, although Nora was a blonde. Regan had inherited her coloring from her father, whose hair was now a distinguished silver but had been dark in his youth. Luke was six feet five inches, so Regans height favored neither parents lineage. Since she was an only child, Regan was the sole result of the blending of their genes. Talk about the quintessential crapshoot.

That coffee smells great.

Regan turned to see her mother standing in the doorway of the kitchen, a pale pink silk robe wrapped around her slender frame. Her face, devoid of makeup, had a serene beauty. She yawned and reached for a china cup and saucer in the cabinet next to her. There was something about staying in the New York apartment that made Nora always want to use the good dishes. Regan thought it might be the view of the park that did it. When you drank from a china cup early in the morning, you felt as if you could be in a glamorous movie from the forties. Not a plastic cup or beer can in sight.

Anything interesting in the paper?

If you think were interesting, then the answer would have to be yes.

Huh? Nora peered over Regans shoulder.

Regan pointed to the picture. Mommy and me.

Nora laughed. How sweet, she said as she squinted and leaned down to examine it. Thats good publicity for the convention. I want to get down to the Paisley this morning before ten. Im sure therell be late registrants straggling in.

The Paisley was an old, midsize hotel off of Seventh Avenue in the mid-fifties that had clearly seen better days. But it had a certain musty charm and was the perfect size for the convention. It was big enough to handle all the seminars, but small enough to be cozy. Nora had made a deal with the hotel that included free coffee and as many folding chairs as there were behinds to fill them.

The phone rang. Regan glanced over at the clock on the mantel. Its not even eight oclock yet. I wonder who that could be?

I hope its not bad news, Nora said anxiously as she straightened up and reached for the phone on the kitchen wall.

Were so Irish, Regan thought. What was that line? The Irish have an abiding sense of tragedy that gets us through the good times. Which meant that any phone call before 8:00 A.M. and after 11:00 P.M. could only mean big trouble. It was never even considered that it might be someone who wanted to talk when the rates were cheaper.

Regan watched the expression on her mothers face. As soon as Nora recognized the caller, she relaxed and smiled.

Thomas, how are you?

Thomas who? Regan wondered.

Thats all right. Youre not disturbing us at all

Oh sure, Regan thought. Our hearts only skipped a few dozen beats. And that extra surge of adrenaline when the phone rang gave me a needed boost.

Yes, Regan is right here. Let me put her on Nora handed Regan the phone. Its Thomas Pilsner.

Regans eyebrows raised. Oh, she muttered with surprise. Thomas, a lovable eccentric, was the latest president of the Settlers Club down in Gramercy Park. He and Regan had become fast friends when she attended a Mystery Writers dinner with her mother there last fall.

Hi, Thomas, Regan said cheerfully, picturing his baby face and mop of light-brown hair that looked like one big wave. It seemed to Regan that he could step into a snapshot from a hundred years ago and not look out of place.

Regan! Oh my God, Regan! Thomas cried hysterically, apparently having kept his real feelings from her mother.

Thomas, whats wrong?

Ive barely slept all night. Then I saw your picture in the paper when it was delivered at six oclock this morning, and I waited as long as I could to call you. Oh God!

Thomas, calm down. Tell me whats wrong.

Last night two of our elderly members died.

Im sorry, Regan said, thinking that the Irish intuition about phone calls before 8:00 A.M. had for once proved to be true. She could just hear her grandmother crying triumphantly, I told you! What happened to them? she asked.

One of them had a heart attack in front of a bus and the other slipped in the tub last night. But if you ask me, something smells about the whole thing. Thomass voice was trembling, but his words came tumbling out in a torrent. Not just smells. Reeks! I just had lunch with the two of them yesterday. They told me they planned to sell four valuable diamonds and donate the proceeds to the club. It would have meant about four million dollars for us.

Well, wont that still happen?

The diamonds are missing!

Missing?

Thomas relayed to Regan the story of everything that had happened the day before. And the red box with the diamonds is not with the rest of the jewelry. Its gone.

What do the police say? Regan asked.

Well, Im not completely sure.

Why not?

Because I fainted.

Oh dear.

It was so embarrassing. When I came to, they brought me downstairs to my apartment, and the doctor gave me a sedative and told me to get a good nights sleep. I was in shock.

But you didnt get a good nights sleep.

Lord, no! After a couple of hours I was wide awake again. Its bad enough to think that Nat and Ben are both gone, but Im convinced that someone is trying to get away with murder and theft. The police think Nat just hit his head, but I think someone came in here and killed him and stole the diamonds.

You dont have anything in writing about their intention to give the club the money from the diamonds?

No. This all came up just yesterday. It was going to be made public on Saturday night at our one hundredth anniversary party.

But you saw the diamonds?

They were sitting next to my Cobb salad during most of lunch. Every once in a while they let me open up the box and stare at them. They were so beautiful.

Could Ben have taken the diamonds home with him? Regan asked.

That would be bad too.

Why?

Because his wallet was missing by the time they got him to the hospital. If he had the diamonds on him, they would surely have been taken along with his wallet. Luckily his Settlers Club card was found in his pocket.

That red box could be hidden in the apartment somewhere.

I dont think so.

Why not?

Because Nat mentioned at lunch that he was glad he wouldnt have to worry about forgetting the combination to the safe anymore.

Why did they own the diamonds together?

They were both jewelers. They were part of a group of four jewelers who played cards together every week for fifty years in Nats apartment. They called themselves the Suits, after the spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds in the deck. Of course the diamonds were their favorite. Way back when, theyd each brought the most beautiful, valuable diamond they owned to one of the games. They made a pact not to tell anyone about these jewels-except for Wendy, Nats wife, who was in the apartment that night-and the last one alive would get to keep all four diamonds. Survivor takes all, they called it. Well, two of them died last year before I started this job. They belonged to the club too. With the centennial anniversary coming up, Nat and Ben decided to do some good with the diamonds and not wait until just one of them was left alive to enjoy the money. But now theyre both dead!

I wonder what the police are thinking? Regan said.

They probably think that I took them!

Why would you say that?

Because I knew about them.

But you brought it up to them. Didnt you say the diamonds existence had been pretty much a secret?

Word had definitely leaked in the club. There were cries and whispers, Regan. Cries and whispers! People heard about the plans for Saturday. Maybe it was the waiter, I dont know. If I hadnt brought it up, and theyre not donated to the club, people would ask where they are! It would look like I was hiding them for myself.

I see, Regan said.

Could that make me a suspect?

Regan cleared her throat. Thomas, the police always take a look at everyone who might have had the motive or the opportunity to carry out a crime.

Thats why I need you, Regan.

What do you want me to do?

Regan, please come stay here. Help me solve this mess. Help me get back those diamonds. Help me clear my name. Help me secure the future of the Settlers Club!

Is that all? Regan wondered. Thomas, Im only in town for a few days. I have to get back to Los Angeles on Monday. Im in the middle of a case.

I dont care! Come for the weekend then. See what you can figure out in the little time you have. He paused and said plaintively, I need you, Regan. I dont know what else to do.

Regan looked over at her mother, who was sitting at the table, studying Regan with a quizzical look.

Okay, Thomas, Regan said. Ill come stay with you. I can be down there by about ten.

Regan, I knew you were the one to call. Youll get to the bottom of this.

I hope I dont disappoint you, Thomas. Ill do my best. When Regan hung up the phone, she turned to her mother. You always said you wanted me to work in New York City.


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