Happy Friday! Enjoy another excerpt from Dreadful Penny. Interested? Then click here to get your copy of Dreadful Penny today!
(Read Part 1 here.)
The Browns lived in an oversized brick Colonial on Crescent Avenue, nestled in among the other mansions, some of which dated back to before the Civil War. Giant maple trees shaded the yard, even in the bright afternoon sun. A fountain burbled in front amid a small formal garden.
“Fancy,” Zed muttered as they walked up the brick pathway to the front door. “Old family. Hopefully they have old money.”
Penelope rolled her eyes at his remark. “Oldish. As Greenville high society goes, they haven’t been around that long, only three generations or so.”
“How did they make their fortune?”
Zed stopped. “You’re joking.”
Penelope glanced back as she continued up the steps to the front door. “Do I look like I’m joking? It’s still how they make their money.” She motioned for him to join her on the stoop. “Now come on, and remember your manners.”
She rang the doorbell. No more than a few second passed before a man with a mane of white hair and a full beard opened the door.
Upon meeting Penelope’s gaze, he broke into a warm smile. “Penelope, it’s good to see you again.” He offered his hand, but hesitated when he noticed Zed behind her. “And Mr. …”
“McKay,” Zed offered.
“My assistant,” Penelope added.
Zed held up the Polaroid camera on the strap around his neck.
Penelope took Ephraim Brown’s still outstretched hand. “It’s good to see you again, too, Mr. Brown.”
“Please, it’s Ephraim.” He stepped aside and motioned for them to enter.
The house looked exactly as Penelope remembered. Directly in front of them, a set of stairs led to the second floor while a hallway extended straight back. The dining room, to the left of the entryway, boasted an antique table surrounded by eight chairs, all dark carved wood. A china cabinet spanned one entire wall, displaying plates and cups edged with tiny, painted pink roses. A crystal chandelier caught the light shining through the large picture window and threw rainbows onto the damask wallpaper.
To the right was the formal living room, crammed like the dining room with antiques—overstuffed, high-backed chairs, a settee, and lacquered tables all arranged around a brick fireplace with a faux oriental screen. Books lined built-in shelves, though Penelope had never seen anyone read any of them. Growing up, she’d been in awe of those two rooms. The idea that a house could be so big there were rooms that were never used amazed her. Almost as far back as she could remember, she and her dad had shared the apartment above the detective agency, the apartment where she lived alone now.
“I’m really sorry to hear about your father,” Ephraim said. “He was a good man.”
Penelope nodded. “Thank you. Yes, he was.”
“I wanted to attend the funeral, but I had … other obligations.”
Penelope held up a hand. “No need to explain. Everything was so sudden. No one really had time to prepare. Besides, Dad would have hated that we had a funeral at all. My grandmother insisted.”
“Well, it must have been a difficult time for her, especially.” Ephraim shook his head. “I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like to have to bury your own child.”
“Actually, she hates funerals, too. A waste of perfectly good flowers, she says, but she’d die herself before breaking with propriety.”
Ephraim chuckled. “I do remember Mrs. Drake being a force to reckon with.”
Penelope grinned. “She still is.”
Zed cleared his throat. “I think Penelope takes after her.”
Ephraim eyed him. “I’ve heard that.” He turned back to Penelope. “At any rate, thank you for taking time to come over here.”
Penelope jabbed an elbow in Zed’s side. “Mr. … Ephraim, you said you had a break-in?”
He pointed down the hallway. “They came in through the back door. We just noticed it this morning. I can show you. I haven’t let anyone touch the door or even go near it.”
He led them toward the back of the house, past the kitchen and a family room much less formal than the two front rooms. Penelope had spent quite a few evenings there watching old movies on the giant leather sectional or playing on the foosball table, more luxuries she had always envied. The hallway ended at a door that stood ajar. Beyond, Penelope caught a glimpse of the patio, the kidney-shaped pool, and a green expanse of lawn.
She approached the door and knelt to examine the lock. “Looks like it was picked, pretty expertly, too.”
Zed raised his camera and snapped a picture of the lock.
Penelope scanned the area around the door. “It rained yesterday. The ground would have been wet, but there aren’t any footprints. I don’t see any fingerprints either, although whoever did this probably wore gloves. If I had to guess, this wasn’t his first rodeo.” She looked back at Ephraim. “You didn’t hear anything?”
“Nothing,” he said.
Penelope stood. She traded glances with Zed, who was clearly thinking the same thing she was. Something about this break-in didn’t add up.
“Have you been able to figure out what was taken?” she asked. “Your television and stereo are still here, I noticed. Is the silver accounted for? Mrs. Brown’s jewelry? Any cash you have stashed away?”
Ephraim held up his hands. “That’s just it. Nothing seems to have been taken at all.”
“Is that why you don’t want to go to the police?” Zed asked.
Ephraim drew his mouth into a thin line. “Not exactly.”
Penelope studied Ephraim. He rubbed the back of his neck and chewed on his lower lip. She didn’t need a degree in psychology to know he was debating what to say next. “Then what is it?” she prodded.
Ephraim sighed. “Penelope, as I’m sure you know, your father had a reputation for handling … unusual cases.”
And there it was. The missing piece. Penelope gritted her teeth, wondering if she’d ever be out from under her father’s shadow, but then she reminded herself that she was getting paid. “Are you saying something about this break-in is unusual?”
Ephraim beckoned to Zed. “Come here. You’ll want to take a picture of this.”
He opened the door wider. On the back, deep, rough gouges marred the wood where three symbols were carved. They looked like letters, but not from any alphabet Penelope had ever seen.
Zed snapped a Polaroid.
Penelope traced the curved lines with her finger, almost, but not quite, touching the surface of the door. “Do you know what they mean?”
Ephraim scratched his beard. “I was hoping you would.”
Penelope studied the symbols. They seemed to stare back at her, with malice. “I’ll have to do some research.”
“Please,” Ephraim said, “anything you can find out.”
Penelope and Zed spent some time sweeping the rest of the house and the back yard for traces of the burglar before they took their leave. Penelope promised to get back in touch with Ephraim once she found out anything.
As she and Zed walked back to Penelope’s car, a bright red Camaro pulled into the driveway. The engine rumbled as the car idled for a few seconds before it shut off. A man stepped out. He was a good head shorter than Zed, and to Penelope’s eye, about twenty pounds heavier than he had been in college. When the newcomer spotted them, his eyebrows shot up in surprise, followed fleetingly by a sour expression that mirrored Penelope’s own feelings pretty well.
“Bertram Brown,” she said, “it’s been a while.”
He nodded, the tart lemon grimace replaced with a bland smile. “That it has, Penelope.”
A second or two passed while they stared awkwardly at each other.
“So, what are you doing here?” Penelope eventually asked.
Bertram motioned toward the house. “Dad called me. He said there was some trouble last night.”
“No, I mean here. What are you doing in Greenville? Last I heard you were in Atlanta being a general pain in the ass.”
He shrugged. “I moved back a few months ago. Many more opportunities to be a pain in the ass right here. Now it’s your turn. What are you doing here?”
“Your dad called me, too. He wants me to look into the ‘trouble’ as you called it.”
Bertram’s smile melted. “Seriously?”
He drew his mouth into a sneer. “So you’re still playing at being a private eye?”
She crossed her arms. “I’m not playing, Bertram.”
“Maybe you leave this one alone, Penelope.”
“That’s up to your dad.”
Bertram took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll talk to him.” He gave a small salute and started to walk toward the house. “Good to see you again, Penelope.”
“What’s wrong, Bertram?” Penelope called after him. “Why don’t you want me working for your father?”
Bertram stopped. “Don’t get all bent out of shape. It’s nothing personal. I just think maybe this is a job for someone else.”
“Someone with a little more experience.”
She glared. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying that this isn’t a cheating husband. You don’t want to get in over your head.”
Penelope balled her hands into fists. “I’m really tired of having this conversation with people. I’ll be fine.”
His sneer returned. “You haven’t changed a bit, have you, Dreadful Penny?”
Penelope stiffened at the name. “Excuse me?”
Bertram took a step toward her. “You heard me.”
Zed moved to put himself between Penelope and Bertram, but she waved him off. “You know I wouldn’t even be here if our fathers weren’t fraternity brothers.”
“And that’s probably the only reason my dad called, but sometimes he puts too much stock in loyalty.”
“Did it occur to you we might actually be good at what we do?” Zed asked.
For the first time since he stepped out of his car, Bertram acknowledged Zed. “And who are you? The bodyguard?”
“Zed works with me,” Penelope said. “I don’t need a bodyguard.”
Bertram took another step forward. He was close enough for her to smell the beer on his breath. “Really now? Are you sure about that?”