Grab Bag - Charlotte MacLeod - ebook
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Seventeen priceless stories from the author often referred to as "America's Agatha Christie." Charlotte MacLeod's heroes were men and women like Peter Shandy and Sarah Kelling-genteel sleuths who fight crime with brains, not brawn-and her settings were the drawing rooms and servants' quarters of New England and beyond. With a keen wit and a strong eye for detail, she crafted some of the most memorable victims, murderers, and innocent bystanders of twentieth-century detective novels. In this volume, she proves herself a master of the short story as well. Here is the original Peter Shandy story, featuring the school that would eventually metamorphose into Balaclava Agricultural College. Here is peculiar Cousin Claude, who strangles himself with his own necktie. And here is the tale that answers the question, "What does Max Bittersohn do when his wife is not around?" Whether the characters are familiar or not, the style is irresistible, and the mysteries are as delightfully puzzling as ever. Review Quote. "One of the most gifted mystery authors writing today." - Sojourner Magazine. "The screwball mystery is Charlotte MacLeod's cup of tea." - Chicago Tribune. "Charlotte MacLeod does what she does better than anybody else does it; and what she does is in the top rank of modern mystery fiction." - Elizabeth Peters, creator of the Amelia Peabody series. Biographical note. Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005) was an internationally bestselling author of cozy mysteries. Born in Canada, she moved to Boston as a child, and lived in New England most of her life. After graduating from college, she made a career in advertising, writing copy for the Stop & Shop Supermarket Company before moving on to Boston firm N. H. Miller & Co., where she rose to the rank of vice president. In her spare time, MacLeod wrote short stories, and in 1964 published her first novel, a children's book called Mystery of the White Knight. In Rest You Merry (1978), MacLeod introduced Professor Peter Shandy, a horticulturist and amateur sleuth whose adventures she would chronicle for two decades. The Family Vault (1979) marked the first appearance of her other best-known characters: the husband and wife sleuthing team Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn, whom she followed until her last novel, The Balloon Man, in 1998.

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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page

Author’s Note

Homecoming

Monique

Rest You Merry

Fifty Acres of Prime Seaweed

It Was an Awful Shame

The Mysterious Affair of the Beaird-Wynnington Dirigible Airship

A Snatch in Time

Clean Slate

The Felonious Courtship of Miles Peabody

Force of Habit

Better a Cat

Lady Patterly’s Lover

Journey for Lady G.

Father Knew Best

Assignment: Marriage

More Like Martine

The Dastardly Dilemma of the Vicious Vaudevillian

Looking for more suspense?

Cover

Begin Reading

About the Book

Seventeen priceless stories from the author often referred to as “America’s Agatha Christie.”

Charlotte MacLeod’s heroes were men and women like Peter Shandy and Sarah Kelling—genteel sleuths who fight crime with brains, not brawn—and her settings were the drawing rooms and servants’ quarters of New England and beyond. With a keen wit and a strong eye for detail, she crafted some of the most memorable victims, murderers, and innocent bystanders of twentieth-century detective novels.

In this volume, she proves herself a master of the short story as well.

Here is the original Peter Shandy story, featuring the school that would eventually metamorphose into Balaclava Agricultural College. Here is peculiar Cousin Claude, who strangles himself with his own necktie. And here is the tale that answers the question, “What does Max Bittersohn do when his wife is not around?” Whether the characters are familiar or not, the style is irresistible, and the mysteries are as delightfully puzzling as ever.

About the Author

Charlotte MacLeod (1922–2005) was an internationally bestselling author of cozy mysteries. Born in Canada, she moved to Boston as a child, and lived in New England most of her life. After graduating from college, she made a career in advertising, writing copy for the Stop & Shop Supermarket Company before moving on to Boston firm N. H. Miller & Co., where she rose to the rank of vice president. In her spare time, MacLeod wrote short stories, and in 1964 published her first novel, a children’s book called Mystery of the White Knight.

In Rest You Merry (1978), MacLeod introduced Professor Peter Shandy, a horticulturist and amateur sleuth whose adventures she would chronicle for two decades. The Family Vault (1979) marked the first appearance of her other best-known characters: the husband and wife sleuthing team Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn, whom she followed until her last novel, The Balloon Man, in 1998.

Grab Bag

A Collection of Stories

Charlotte MacLeod

 

BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT

 

Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG

 

Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany

 

For the original edition:

Copyright © 2012 by The Mysterious Press, LLC, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY. U.S.A.

 

Copyright © 1987 by Charlotte MacLeod

 

Project management: Lori Herber

Cover adaptation: Christin Wilhelm, www.grafic4u.de

Cover design by Mauricio Díaz

 

E-book production: Jouve Germany GmbH & Co. KG

 

ISBN 978-3-95859-370-1

 

www.bastei-entertainment.com

 

All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this e-book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Author’s Note

WHAT INSPIRES AN AUTHOR to write short stories? All sorts of things, as the heterogeneous nature of this collection demonstrates. But what inspired this author to gather some of hers into a book was a Red Cross disaster nurse named Bertha. Bertha likes to read mysteries as an escape from the scenes of havoc among which she finds herself. She no sooner gets well into a novel, though, than she has to drop it and rush off to cope with yet another crisis. By the time she can snatch another moment to relax, her book has been swept away on a flood, blown off by a tornado, or else she’s forgotten what it was about and has to start over, which leaves her reading the first chapter again and again in mounting frustration. Short stories are Bertha’s answer, but she says it’s awfully hard to find enough of the kinds she likes. Presumably there are other mystery lovers in similar fixes. So here’s a grab bag full of this and that … different themes, different moods, different styles … some longer, some shorter, even a couple of real quickies for readers threatened by tidal waves or just looking to kill a little time while waiting for their bees to swarm.

Homecoming

IN ONE OF MYearly adult mysteries, The Family Vault, a young Boston woman named Sarah Kelling met a man named Max Bittersohn, who specialized in tracking down stolen jewels and art objects. Since then, Sarah and Max have had other adventures together, but Sarah’s cousin Mabel is more concerned about what Max does when Sarah isn’t around. For those readers stirred by a similar curiosity, this glance at a minor incident that took place between Logan Airport and Beacon Hill may provide a fragmentary insight.

Heads turned as the tall man in the impeccably tailored London gray suit with the almost imperceptible plaid overlay of a deeper slate color strode off the plane from Budapest, his only impedimenta a well-worn mackintosh nonchalantly slung over his left arm and the insouciant half-smile that curved his sensitively molded lips. Little did the turned heads know that those keen gray eyes with their haunting tinge of deep sea blue (or were they blue with a hint of gray?) felt like boiled eggs after nights of sleepless watching, or that the orifice behind those finely chiseled lips seemed to be lined with some sort of reddish fuzz from all that paprika.

No matter. He was home now, his mission completed, the priceless Inglefeather emerald safely restored to its rightful owner. Her Noble Highness had been most gracious. Having dealt with gracious nobilities before, Max Bittersohn—for this was none other than the renowned tracker-down of priceless objects—had courteously declined the Order of the Gauntleted Gnu and requested a certified cheque.

He did not follow the throng to the baggage carousel. His luggage would be sent on to him by trusted emissaries once the recovered Canaletto had been safely extricated from the secret compartment and the Cellini salt cellar from among his dirty shirts. Their rightful owners would not be gracious about their return, but the insurance company they were trying to collect from would.

Bittersohn headed toward the taxi station, still at a brisk pace despite the silver bullet lodged in his left hip. Silver bullets were always a hazard of doing business in Transylvania. Momentarily distracted by a twinge of agony, he did not at once perceive that the taxi he was about to enter already held an occupant. As he murmured his apology, a waft of Inchoate #19 assailed his nostrils and a low, thrilling laugh reached his ears.

“Au contraire, Monsieur Bittersohn. I beseech you to enter.”

He recognized the voice and the perfume, but not the elegant robe of costliest sables in which the sultry Lady Ychs had swathed her voluptuous form. A new sable coat. Her soi-disant Ladyship ought to have known better. Here in Boston, women of the social class with which she aspired to connect herself did not wear sables, unless the sables had been their grandmothers’. “Sorry, Lady Ychs,” he replied curtly. “I’m on my way home.”

“But no, you must listen! Monsieur Bittersohn, I am in deadly peril.”

He sighed and entered the vehicle, not trying to avoid the sumptuous swirl of fur that covered the shabby seat. It would be soft against his bullet. “So what else is new?”

“Ah, you can joke. But moi—” She leaned closer, letting the rich pelts fall away from her luscious throat and bosom. “Regardez.”

“Very pretty,” said Bittersohn. “Mind if I open a window?”

“Merde, you are cruel. Do you not observe that I am without the Du Barry diamonds?”

“Then hadn’t you better button up your sables? You might catch cold with your neck all bare like that.”

Now that he thought of it, which in fact he seldom did, Bittersohn found that he could call to mind every tiniest detail of the dazzling five-strand collière, each of its three hundred and sixty-eight un-flawed diamonds at least a carat in weight. He could not, however, recall having seen it off Lady Ychs, not that the necklace had excited any particular remark. Boston women did wear their family diamonds, to get the good out of them, although others would have found the Du Barry jewel a trifle flashy for everyday wear.

“Monsieur Bittersohn, you do not understand,” Lady Ychs was protesting. “I am without my diamonds because they have been stolen from me. And the theft was committed for the sole purpose of luring me into the snare of the infamous Dr. Yang.”

“And you don’t want to go? Think it over, Lady Ychs. Dr. Yang is the last of the wicked mandarins, a vanishing breed. This is your chance to get in at the end of an era.”

“Mon ami, I do not weesh to get in at the end of an era. I weesh to have back my beautiful necklace. Enfin, mon cher Monsieur Bittersohn, I weesh to hire you to recover the Du Barry diamonds for me.”

“But you still haven’t paid me for recovering the Montespan bracelet.”

“Bah! Are we petit bourgeois clerks to concern ourselves with such pettifogging details? I need you, mon amour.”

Suddenly her arms were about him, her lips were against his—and a pad reeking not of Inchoate #19 but of chloroform was pressed against his nostrils. As Bittersohn slid into oblivion, he cursed himself for a fool. He might have known Dr. Yang would have one of his villainous henchmen concealed among the sables.

When he regained consciousness, his tongue was still furred, but not with paprika. He had been thrown, as he had barely had time to anticipate before the noxious fumes overcame him, into a dank cellar. Even as the thought, “Now they’re going to flood it,” flashed through his mind, a valve could be heard opening in the far corner of the improvised dungeon, and a gush of foul-smelling water spewed forth.

Springing to his feet and leaping nimbly to the top of a nearby tea chest, Bittersohn shouted, “Hey, you nincompoops, that’s not the water main. It’s the sewer drain.”

From somewhere in the impenetrable blackness, a startled outcry could be heard. “Oh Jesus, Lum Fong, we opened the wrong valve.”

“Our heads will roll for this,” was the gloomy reply.

Sure enough, not a moment later, two severed pates dropped to the cellar floor with two sickening thuds. Again out of the stygian gloom came a voice known and loathed, speaking in flawless English with the sinister sibilance that had aye been the infallible mark of the wicked mandarin.

“Ah so, Dr. Bittersohn. We meet again. Please to accept my abject apologies for the despicable error committed by those two worthless bunglers. Faugh! The odor of this miserable dungeon must be inexpressibly repugnant to the nostrils of one so fastidious and highly cultured as your estimable self. Would you prefer to remain and endure the unspeakable stench, or would you honour me by ascending to my humble quarters? There is a spiral iron staircase immediately behind the tea chest on which you have been forced to take refuge from the vile filth which by now threatens to engulf your standing-place, not to mention your honourable person. If you would care to step across and save yourself? I should perhaps warn you that the edge of each step has been honed to razor sharpness. Any slight misstep in this Cimmerian fulginosity could mean instant and I fear most painful amputation.”

Bittersohn’s lips curled in silent contempt. Did Yang actually believe him stupid enough to fall for that ancient ruse whose object, of course, was to make the intended victim grab for the iron handrail? This latter, needless to say, was electrified and would fry the unwary grabber faster than a noodle in a wok.

From above, he could hear the impatient clicking of gold filigree fingernail guards as the archfiend rubbed his bloodthirsty hands together in eager anticipation of the fireworks to come. He would get them. With one deft movement, Bittersohn whipped out the Swiss army knife he always carried in deference to his former scoutmaster’s sage injunction, “Be prepared.” Among its multiple blades was one designed for removing stones from horses’ hooves, which he had never yet found occasion to use. At last it would serve a purpose. Horse-hoof hook at the ready, he struck a match from the booklet he had pocketed at the Budapest Arms. Its glimmer was feeble, but sufficient to show him the point of vulnerability. In a trice, he had dropped the hook on the live rail. As soon as the sparks from the short-circuit had quit fizzling and the smoke died down, he nimbly ascended the now perfectly harmless though not very well-maintained staircase, retrieving his helpful pocket knife on the way.

By the time he got to the top Dr. Yang had, as anticipated, discarded his gold filigree nail guards, exposing dreadsome talons with their sides filed to razor sharpness and their tips to deadly points.

“En garde, Dr. Bittersohn,” he hissed. With a burst of fiendish laughter, the mandarin slashed like a panther at the detective’s jugular.

Bittersohn was ready for him. Having hastily switched blades from the horse-hoof hook to the fingernail cutter, he began a nerveless game of parry and riposte, snipping with cool precision at the ruthless nails until these once-lethal weapons were reduced to mere blunted stubs. Now the declawed mandarin’s Oriental impassivity was totally shattered. Bittersohn knew why. By losing his nails, Yang had also lost face.

“Seize him!” Yang was screaming. “Seize him!”

“Who’s supposed to do the seizing?” A smallish, thinnish elderly rogue had emerged from an inner room, absentmindedly pocketing the beaded curtain as he passed. “You’re out of henchmen, Boss. I kept telling you, you can’t go around decapitating faithful servitors right and left at whim without creating yourself a manpower shortage. It’s not like in the old days. I’m sorry to say it, Boss, but you’re a has-been. Oh hi, Max. What brings you here?”

“I’m supposed to be looking for Lady Ychs’s diamond necklace,” Bittersohn replied casually, dusting off his trusty Swiss army knife on his impeccable linen handkerchief and stowing it back in his pocket. “How’s business, Lightfingers?”

“Slow. It’s these damned unisex clothes they’re wearing now. Shove your hand in a hip pocket and you never know whether you’re going to come up with a fat wallet or a rap for attempted rape.”

“Things are tough all over,” Bittersohn rejoined sympathetically. “I’ve had a silver bullet in my own hip since Tuesday.”

“Genuine silver?” The pickpocket’s interest was clearly whetted. “Wait a second. Was this in Transylvania by any chance?”

“Where else?”

“Took you for a vampire, eh?” Lightfingers nodded in understanding as he glided around behind the famous detective and shuffled away down the richly carpeted corridor. “See you around, Maxie.”

“Sure, Lightfingers.”

Bittersohn smiled inwardly. The bullet was gone and he hadn’t felt a thing. Too bad a talent like this had been reduced to working for scum like Yang. The mandarin was now sneaking furtively toward him, carrying a flute and a tall woven basket from which protruded a hideous hooded head.

“All right, Yang,” he said wearily. “Quit waving that idiotic snake around. Don’t you think I know a defanged cobra when I see one? Now do you hand over the Du Barry necklace or do I step over to Beach Street and begin spreading it around every chop suey joint in town that Dr. Yang has lost face to a roundeye?”

A long, indrawn hiss in which the disgruntled cobra joined was the mandarin’s only answer. Reaching into the sleeve of his heavy silken robe, somewhat awkwardly because of the unaccustomed shortness of his fingernails, he drew forth the fabulous diamonds and held them out to his conqueror.

Bittersohn nimbly avoided the trap door under the silken carpet, kept a tight hold on the necklace until he had made sure he was well clear of Lightfingers, then walked briskly—more briskly than before now that he was free of that annoying bullet—to a nearby pawnshop. There he greeted the pawnbroker.

“Hi, Sol.”

“Hi, Max. What are you after today?”

“Money.” Bittersohn tossed the magnificent handful of fabulous gems on the worn oaken counter. “What am I offered?”

“How hot is it?”

“Not very. Anyway, you won’t be keeping it long.”

“Maxie, is this one of your ingenious subterfuges?”

“Trust me, Sol. Here’s the exact sum I want.” Bittersohn named a figure. The pawnbroker, after a bit of a struggle for they were unusually luxuriant, managed to raise both eyebrows simultaneously.

“Precisely that?”

“Precisely that.”

“If you say so.”

The pawnbroker paid over the money and made out the ticket. Bittersohn, still striding briskly albeit beginning to experience a sense of fatigue, pocketed his gain, left the shop, and hailed a passing hackney, being careful to inspect the interior for exotic foreign ladies and any henchman who might still have escaped Dr. Yang’s impetuosity. He gave a fashionable address, then sat back and braced himself against the impact of Boston’s historic potholes. It did make a difference, having that bullet out.

Lady Ychs was at home. Her maid Ylyse said so. There was little Ylyse did not know about Lady Ychs. “You weesh to see her, M’sieu?”

“Not particularly,” said Bittersohn, stifling a yawn. “Just give her this with my regards.”

“A … ’ow you say? … a pawn teeckeet? Mais, M’sieu!”

The maid vanished, clearly nonplussed. A moment later, Lady Ychs herself appeared, trailing yards of black chiffon and marabou.

“Monsieur Bittersohn,” she cried imperiously, “for why you offer me zeese … zeese insult?”

“For why you want your diamond necklace back, that’s for why. All you have to do is apply at the address on the ticket and pay my friend Sol the stated amount.”

“But why so strange an amount? I do not comprehend.”

“It’s elementary, my dear Lady Ychs. You simply add my standard fee for recovering Du Barry necklaces to my outstanding invoice for retrieval of your Montespan bracelet, plus one per cent brokerage fee for the gentleman behind the counter, and viola! Next time you feel an urge to use your diamonds as bait to lure some unsuspecting victim into the nefarious toils of your confederate, Dr. Yang, perhaps you’ll pause and reflect. Oh, and the sable coat. I’d let it age for a decade or two before you start wearing it around Boston. Adieu, Lady Ychs. Please note that I didn’t say au revoir.”

It was with a sense of deep personal satisfaction that Bittersohn strode over the bricks and cobblestones of Beacon Hill, to the brownstone house where one surpassingly lovelier than any languorous adventuress in a new sable coat, who scorned all paltry artifice of fashion and did her own hair, would be awaiting his return. Outwitting the evil machinations of Dr. Yang had been merely one more spot of bother at the end of a long and grueling ordeal by paprikash. Getting Lady Ychs to pay a bill had been a genuine triumph, something that no other man had ever yet accomplished.

And there she was, flinging wide the portal, stretching out eager arms. His own true Sarah.

“Darling,” she cried, “whatever kept you? Your luggage arrived an hour ago. I was so overcome with joy, I tipped the messenger a dollar.”

“Wastrel!” He clasped her fondly to him, but his loving hands encountered only voluminous folds of crêpe de Chine smelling faintly of moth flakes. “Where the hell are you?”

“Oh sorry, darling. This is a dress Aunt Emma gave me and I haven’t got around to taking it in yet. It’s one she bought at Crawford Hollidge in 1947. Actually I’m a bit concerned, as the design appears to be coming back into fashion. You don’t think it looks too awfully à la mode?”

“You could fray the sleeves a little. How about some breakfast, darling?” It had been a long time since that last plate of gulyas.

“Of course, darling. Go make yourself comfortable while I warm up the coffee.”

Home at last! Bittersohn divested himself of the Savile Row suit that had served him so long and so faithfully, and draped it over a massive wooden hanger that had belonged to Sarah’s great-uncle Nathan. There was still a lot of good wear to that suit. He took off his handmade shoes and inserted shoe trees, noting as he did so that the soles were wearing a bit thin from all that brisk striding. To the cobbler they should go. There was still plenty of stride in those shoes.

He took a quick shower, being careful not to waste the soap, put on a pair of faded but exquisitely darned pajamas, and reached for his bathrobe. It was one his mother’s brother Hymie had bought off a pushcart on Blackstone Street back in 1926. Truth to tell, Uncle Hymie had never worn it much, but Max’s mother had artfully frayed the sleeves to impart the proper aura of aristocratic penury. Smiling a bit at the endearing foibles of womankind, his kind of womankind, Max Bittersohn sauntered out to get his breakfast.

Monique

ONE OF THE QUESTIONSwriters often get asked is, “How long does it take you to finish a story?” The answer seems to be that it takes as long as it takes. Some of them pretty much write themselves in a month or a week or even, sometimes, a day. Others take longer. This one was started in 1966, looked at occasionally and shoved back into the file drawer occasionally during the past 19 years, and at last finished up for this collection in a way that came as a surprise even to the author.

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!