Calamity (Callie) Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, though she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville—a house she didn’t know he had. However, there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: she must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.
Callie’s not keen on dredging up a thirty-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who hopes to expose the Barnstable family secrets herself. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfill her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?
“A smartly constructed mystery in the good old-fashioned and highly readable sense.” —Jack Batten, The Toronto Star
“Mystery readers will find Callie a compelling protagonist, the plot a fine, winding investigative piece that redefines the concept of ‘dirty laundry.’ A vivid production that translates to thoroughly engrossing reading right up to a completely unexpected, thought-provoking surprise conclusion.” —D. Donovan, Senior Book Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“A complex plot, an extremely likeable protagonist, and a bombshell ending you never saw coming.” —Diane Vallere, national bestselling mystery author
“A thought-provoking, haunting tale of decades-old deception. In this first-of-a-new series, Judy Penz Sheluk reveals herself to be a masterful storyteller, weaving a page-turner that hooked me from the start and kept me intrigued until the stunning finale.” —Annette Dashofy, USA Today bestselling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series
I’d been sitting in the reception area of Hampton & Associates for the better part of an hour when Leith Hampton finally charged in through the main door, his face flushed, a faint scent of sandalwood cologne wafting into the room. He held an overstuffed black briefcase in each hand and muttered an apology about a tough morning in court before barking out a flurry of instructions to a harried-looking associate. A tail-wagging goldendoodle appeared out of nowhere, and I realized the dog had been sleeping under the receptionist’s desk.
Leith nodded towards his office, a signal for me to go in and take a seat, then followed me, plopping both briefcases on his desk. He leaned down to pat the dog and pulled a biscuit out of his pants pocket. “Atticus,” he said, not looking up. “My personal therapy dog. Some days, he’s the only thing that keeps me sane.”
I nodded, slipping into a chair closest to the window. It wasn’t a particularly large office, and you definitely got some street noise—horns honking, sirens, the occasional revving of a motorcycle engine—but it did offer a decent view of Bay Street. I watched as countless individuals of every possible size, shape, and color scurried along the street, as cyclists—completely insane in my opinion—weaved their way in and out of the endless stream of gridlocked traffic. In the heart of Toronto’s financial district, everyone was always in a hurry, even if getting somewhere in a hurry wasn’t possible.
Atticus took up residence in a chair by the corner. Going by the blanket that covered the fabric, this was his regular seating arrangement. It amused me to think that Leith Hampton, a criminal defense attorney known for his blistering cross-examinations and ruthless antics, both in and out of court, owned a goldendoodle, let alone one that was allowed on the furniture.
After a good fifteen minutes, a half dozen consultations with more harried-looking associates, and three telephone calls, all brief, Leith was apparently satisfied he’d sorted out what needed to be done and who was going to do it. He looked up at me, and I realized what made people gravitate towards him. It wasn’t his five-foot, six-inch frame, mostly slender with the exception of a slight paunch, but his eyes; eyes so blue, so intense in their gaze, that they seemed electric.
He opened a drawer and removed a manila file folder along with a thin document bound in pale blue cardboard, the words “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF JAMES DAVID BARNSTABLE” etched in black on the cover. “Let’s go into the boardroom. We won’t be disturbed there.”
Apparently Atticus wasn’t allowed in the boardroom, because he jumped off the chair and trundled back to his spot under the reception desk, sighing loudly as he flumped his curly-haired body down onto the floor. I followed Leith into a long, windowless room with a mahogany table surrounded by several black leather swivel chairs. I selected a seat across from him and waited.
Leith placed the will in front of him, smoothing an invisible crease with a well-manicured hand, the nails showing evidence of a vigorous buffing. I wondered what kind of man went in for a mani-pedi—I was surmising on the pedi—and decided it was the kind of man who billed his services out for five hundred dollars an hour.
Unlike his office, which had a desk stacked high with paperwork, a saltwater aquarium, and walls covered with richly embroidered tapestries, the boardroom was devoid of clutter or ornamentation. The sole exception was a framed photograph of an attractive blue-eyed blonde, mid-to-late twenties. She had her arms wrapped possessively around two fair-haired children, ages about three and five.
Mrs. Leith Hampton the fourth, I assumed, or possibly the fifth. I’d lost count, not that it mattered. My business here had nothing to do with Hampton’s latest trophy wife or their gap-toothed offspring. I was here for the reading of my father’s Last Will and Testament, an event I would have been far happier not attending for a good many years to come. Unfortunately, a faulty safety harness hadn’t stopped his fall from the thirtieth floor of a condo under construction. The fact that a criminal defense attorney of Leith’s reputation had drawn up the will was an indication of just how long the two men had been friends.
Leith cleared his throat and stared at me with those intense blue eyes. “Are you sure you’re ready, Calamity? I know how close you were to your father.”
I flinched at the Calamity. Folks called me Callie or they didn’t call me at all. Only my dad had been allowed to call me Calamity, and even then only when he was seriously annoyed with me, and never in public. It was a deal we’d made back in elementary school. Kids can be cruel enough without the added incentive of a name like Calamity.
As for being ready, I’d been ready for the past ninety-plus minutes. I’d been ready since I first got the call telling me my father had been involved in an unfortunate occupational accident. That’s how the detached voice on the other end of the phone had put it. An unfortunate occupational accident.
I knew at some point I’d have to face the fact that my dad wasn’t coming back, that we’d never again argue over politics or share a laugh while watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Knew that one day I’d sit down and have a good long cry, but right now wasn’t the time, and this certainly wasn’t the place. I’d long ago learned to store my feelings into carefully constructed compartments. I leveled Leith with a dry-eyed stare and nodded.
Leith opened the file and began to read. “I, James David Barnstable, hereby declare that this is my last will and testament and that I hereby revoke, cancel, and annul all wills and codicils previously made by me either jointly or severally. I declare that I am of legal age to make this will and of sound mind and that this last will and testament expresses my wishes without undue influence or duress. I bequeath the whole of my estate, property, and effects, to my daughter, Calamity Doris Barnstable.”
I nodded and tried to tune out the monotony of the will’s legalese. I had expected no more and no less. I was the only child of two only children, and my mother had long ago left my dad and me to fend for ourselves. Not that the whole of his estate would amount to much; some well-worn furniture, a few mismatched dishes, and a small stack of dog-eared books, mostly Clive Cussler and Michael Connelly, with the occasional John Sandford tossed in for good measure.
The inheritance would mean clearing out my father’s two-bedroom townhouse, a dreary example of 1970s architecture mired in the bowels of outer suburbia. I thought about my crammed studio apartment in downtown Toronto and knew that most of his belongings would wind up at the local Salvation Army or ReStore. The thought made me sad.
“There is one provision,” Leith said, dragging me out of my reverie. “Your father wants you to move into the house in Marketville.”
I sat up straighter and looked Leith in the eye. Clearly I’d missed something important when I’d zoned out. “What house in Marketville?”
Leith let out a theatrical courtroom sigh, well-practiced but over the top for his audience of one. “You haven’t really been listening, have you, Calamity?”
I was forced to admit I had not, although he now had my undivided attention. Marketville was a commuter community about an hour north of Toronto, the sort of town where families with two kids, a collie, and a cat moved to looking for a bigger house, a better school, and soccer fields. It didn’t sound much like me, or my father.
“You’re saying my father owned a house in Marketville? I don’t understand. Why didn’t he live there?”
Leith shrugged. “It seems he couldn’t bear to part with it, and he couldn’t stand living in it. He’s been renting it out since 1986.”
The year my mother had left. I’d been six. I tried to remember a house in Marketville. Nothing came to mind. Even my memories of my mother were vague.
“The house has gone through some hard times, what with tenants coming and going over the years,” Leith continued. “I’ve done my best to manage the property for a modest monthly maintenance fee, but not living nearby…” He colored slightly and I wondered just how modest that fee had been. I glanced back at the photo of his vibrant young family and suspected such treasures did not come cheap. There was probably alimony for the other trophy wives as well. I decided to let it go. My father had trusted him. That had to be enough.
“So you’re saying I’ve inherited a fixer-upper.”
“I suppose you could put it that way, although your father had recently hired a company to make some basic improvements when the last tenant moved out.” He flipped through his notes in the folder. “Royce Contracting and Property Management. I gather the owner of the company, Royce Ashford, lives next door. But I’m not sure much, if anything, has been done to the house yet. Naturally all work would have stopped following your father’s death.”
“You said he wanted me to move into the house? When was he going to tell me?”
“I think the initial plan was that your father was going to move back in there. But of course now—”
“Now that he’s dead, you think he wanted me to move there?”
“Actually, it’s more than wanted, Calamity. It’s a provision of the will that you move into Sixteen Snapdragon Circle for a period of one year. After that time, you are free to do what you wish with it. Go back to renting it, continue to live there, or sell it.”
“And if I decide to sell it?”
“Homes in that area of Marketville typically sell quickly and for a decent price, certainly several times your parents’ original investment back in 1979. You’d have to put in some elbow grease, not to mention some basic renovations, but your father left you some money for that as well.”
“He had money set aside? Enough for renovations?” I thought about the shabby townhouse, the threadbare carpets, the flannel sheet covering holes in the fabric of the ancient olive green brocade sofa. I always thought my dad was frugal because he had to be. It never occurred to me he was squirreling away money to fix up a house I didn’t even know existed.
“About a hundred thousand dollars, although only half of that is allocated to renovation. The balance of fifty thousand would be paid to you in weekly installments while you lived there rent-free. Certainly enough for you to take a year off work and fulfill the other requirement.”
Fifty thousand dollars. Almost twice what I made in a single year at my call center job at the bank. Leaving there would definitely not be a hardship. And my month-to-month lease would be easy enough to break with thirty days notice. “What’s the other requirement?”
Leith leaned back in his chair and let out another one of his theatrical sighs. I got the impression he didn’t really approve of the condition.
“Your father wants you to find out who murdered your mother. And he believes the clues may be hidden in the Marketville house.”