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Staged to Death

Staged to Death

EXCERPT

Chapter One

"That's highway robbery!" Isaac Hobbs protested.

            Isaac was a tall husky man in his early sixties.  He was staring down at Caprice De Luca as if she'd pulled one of those antique knives from the locked case by the door and threatened him with it.

            His antique store, Older And Better, was one of her favorite places to shop for her home staging business.  But she and Isaac always bargained like two thieves.

            "Give him the seventy-five," her sister Bella advised her from across the stuffed-with-furnishings-and-memorabilia shop.  "The tapestry is pretty, and you know Roz will like it.  It really goes along with your Camelot theme.  Who wouldn't want to be a lady with a knight in shining armor at her feet?"

            Caprice wouldn't want to be that "lady."  Give her an ordinary guy who could be a partner in life and he could forego the armor as well as the white horse.  In her thirty-two years she hadn't found anyone to fit that bill though she'd thought she'd come close once.  Her two sisters and brother had a lot to say on the subject of her criteria.  Actually they had a lot to say about everything.

            Except for today.

            Bella had been way quiet on the drive here.  She hadn't commented on the Saturday traffic, or their sister Nikki's latest catering job or their older brother Vince's dating habits or even her husband and kids.

            "You talkin' about Roz Winslow?" Isaac asked.  "That mansion has to be as drafty as a castle.  I guess a Camelot theme suits."

            When the economy headed south, Caprice had transformed her interior design expertise into a home staging enterprise.  Her specialty was themed stagings for high-end clients.  But she'd take any job big or small simply because she loved mixing colors, textures and styles.  Her latest client, a long time friend, had decided on a Camelot theme.  Caprice hadn't told Isaac whose house she was staging, simply asked him to keep his eye out for specific old world pieces.  But word carried in Kismet, Pennsylvania, just like in any other town.  It was no secret that the Winslows wanted to sell their faux castle-mansion and down-size.  At least that's what Roz had told Caprice.  The house had been on the market six months before they'd hired her.

            "They went to school together," Bella told the shop owner.

            "Went to school with Roz, huh?"

            To her chagrin, Caprice guessed Isaac was comparing her to Rosalind Winslow in his mind's eye.  They'd been friends in high school and different as night and day.  Roz was tall, willowy and had blond hair.  On the other hand, Caprice was barely five foot four, ten pounds overweight, with long, sleek dark brown hair in a style straight out of the seventies era she loved.  Well, she loved anything retro from her vintage clothes to the lava lamp in her living room.  But Roz...since she had married Ted Winslow, she was sophisticated elegance all the way.

            "Yep, went to school with Roz," Caprice verified to Isaac.  "Her open house is Sunday.  So...are you going to give me that tapestry for seventy?  It smells a little musty and—"

            "Seventy-two," Isaac countered, cutting her off.

            "Done!" Caprice agreed quickly, knowing her budget as well as the Winslows' budget.

            Wealthy folks might spend more, but they still counted their silver dollars.  Ted Winslow had been adamant about sticking to the contracted amount.  Even though she didn't much care for Ted, even though Roz's marriage to him had interfered with their friendship, Caprice respected the financial terms of their agreement.

            "Caprice, come look at this.  I think it's Nana's pattern.  Mom would love it.  Her birthday's coming up and we could go together."

            "I'll roll the tapestry.  You look around and see what else you'd like," Isaac offered with a wink.

            Caprice smiled.  Isaac knew she couldn't resist a good bargain.  She stowed extra pieces she suspected would be useful some day in a rented storage compartment.

            After threading her way around a Boston rocker, a pine dry sink that held a green-glazed ceramic pitcher and an oak pedestal stand topped by a friar cookie jar, Caprice crossed to a primitive apothecary cabinet where a crystal bowl sat.  She picked it up.

            "Careful," Bella warned her.  "My credit card is maxed out from buying Megan and Timmy spring clothes.  I don't need a broken Fostoria fruit bowl charged to it."

            After examining it, Caprice called to Isaac.  "Navarre, right?"

            "Sure is.  One of the most delicate patterns from the forties."

            "I'm sure Nana didn't have this in her collection."

            Caprice's paternal grandmother Celia had moved in with her parents a few years ago.  She'd sold or given away many of her belongings.  However, she'd handed down her crystal and sterling silver to their mom who'd appreciated the beauty of it for years.  There was no doubt Nana Celia had excellent taste.  Often she gave decorating pointers to Caprice that she actually remembered and used.

            "Do you have any more pieces?" Caprice asked Isaac.

            "Not now.  But I'm headed to an auction in York and one in Harrisburg later this week.  Do you want me to keep you in mind?"

            "Are you thinking of pulling in Nikki and Vince?"  Bella took the bowl from Caprice to examine it more carefully.

            "A few pieces would make a wonderful present.  We might even want to think about a surprise party."  To Isaac she said, "You have my number.  Give me a call if you find anything.  I'll make a list of what our mom has so we don't duplicate it."

            Barely twenty minutes later, Caprice climbed from her restored yellow Camaro and headed up the flagstone path to her Cape Cod styled house.  The end-of-April day was gorgeously sunny.  With Bella following close behind, Caprice appreciated her home that had been built in the early fifties and nestled between a crimson maple and white birch in one of Kismet's older neighborhoods.  Mostly brick with stone around the unusual arched door and copper roofing above the porch, it gave off a warm, homey air that had appealed to Caprice from the moment she'd seen it.  With pink azaleas just starting to bloom under the dining room's bay window, her home looked dressed up for spring.  A tall privacy fence stretched on both sides and surrounded the backyard with poplars practically hiding it.

            As soon as Caprice's foot touched the porch, a wild yipping began inside.

            "Another stray?"  Bella's question seemed to carry a tad of censure.

            Caprice knew why.  Her sister had been a beauty from the moment she'd been born.  Not that Caprice remembered the event.  She'd been two.  But Bella's curly black hair, perfectly oval face and huge almost-black eyes had earned her smiles and pats on the head from an early age.  Vince was the brainy one.  Nikki was the practical one.  And Caprice was the curious one who asked more questions than anyone had patience enough to answer.  But, Bella, short for Isabella, liked her hair perfectly curled, her house straightened up and her life in order.  That was tough with a husband and two kids, but she did a good job of it.  That kind of life, however, had little room for strays.

            "A neighbor found him.  She was going to take him to the—Well, you know.  I couldn't take that chance.  He's really adorable.  You'll see."

            "That's the whole point," Bella protested.  "I don't want to see.  Every time Megan or Timmy visit you, they come home whining that they want a dog or cat.  Honestly, Caprice.  Why do you put yourself through getting attached and the—"

            Ah hah!  That was the real reason Bella didn't want a pet.  Attachment.

            Caprice unlocked the door and pushed it open.

            Dylan was black and white and fluffy-furred all over.  His name had been easy.  She'd been listening to Bob Dylan when her neighbor had brought the dog to her.  He weighed about ten pounds and had a tail that could practically dust her mosaic-topped coffee table in one sweep.

            Ecstatic to see her, he barked and jumped up and down while Bella just shook her head and ordered, "Down, boy."

            "His name is Dylan and he and Sophia get along great."

            Sophia was a long-haired, strikingly-colored calico cat who Caprice had found not long after she'd moved in.  When she'd designed her living room in sixties-chic bright colors and geometric shapes, she'd worked a floor-to-ceiling cat tree into the plan having it specially carpeted in turquoise.  Sophia loved it.  She sharpened her claws on it and left the rest of the furniture alone.  A second scratching post upstairs rubbed with catnip once a week also helped.

            In greeting, Sophia yawned, stood, meowed twice and jumped down from her perch, her white ruff fluffing more with the motion.  Dylan kept up his almost bouncing exuberance.

            After tossing her purse onto a high-backed hall bench, Caprice caught the little dog and hugged him.  "Did you have a good afternoon?"

            "You really think he's going to answer you?"

            Dylan barked twice and Caprice laughed.  "He just did."  Taking him through the dining room to the kitchen, she opened the back door to let him run onto the covered porch then down the steps.
            "It's a good thing you have a fenced-in yard."

            After checking Dylan's progress, Caprice went to the coffee maker and pulled out a lime-green and yellow-flowered canister.  She and Bella both enjoyed flavored coffees.  "Chocolate hazelnut?  I made a batch of lemon biscotti yesterday."  She and her sisters liked to cook.  They'd learned by watching both their grandmother and their mom.  Caprice's buttercup-colored 1950's vintage-styled stove that matched her retro refrigerator reminded her of the appliances in her grandmother's kitchen long ago.  Only these had high-tech features.

            "Just one cup of coffee," Bella said.  "I really can't stay much longer."

            When Bella had arrived earlier, she'd told Caprice that Joe had taken Megan and Timmy to the movies.  Joe was every bit as traditional as Bella.  Until Megan went to kindergarten in the fall, he'd wanted Bella at home, insisting he liked her there when his work day as an accountant was done.  Both Caprice and Nikki felt he expected too much of Bella because he rarely helped with the kids.  But if Bella was happy, that was all that mattered.

            "Pull out a chair.  I'll make half a pot."

            The antique maple kitchen table and chairs with yellow braided seat cushions had been a spectacular find.  She and her sisters had already had many long conversations around it.

            Caprice had just opened the screened door to let Dylan back in when her cell phone played "She Loves You," her latest Beatles ringtone.  Pulling it from the pocket of her violet vintage skirt, she checked the screen.  "It's Roz," she told Bella.  "I should take this."

            Bella just waved her hand in agreement and grabbed two mugs from a birch cupboard.

            "Hi, Roz."

            Dylan ran around Caprice's ankles, his tail brushing her calves.  After she slipped off one of her espadrilles and petted him with her toes, he flopped down beside her foot.

            "I know you're probably busy, but I need to see you," Roz said, sounding stressed.

            Caprice glanced at Bella.  "Right now?"

            Roz lowered her voice.  "Ted and I have been arguing all day about his sword room.  He won't do what you suggested and clear most of it.  On top of that, he just told me he's going out of town again later today.  Can you come over and talk to him?"

            Besides a theme, besides bringing in furniture and enhancing the very best features of a house, Caprice warned her clients to declutter.  Apparently this was a problem for Ted Winslow.  Clutter aside, there were also too many valuables in his "sword" room for open-house guests to wander about with.

            Sensing Caprice's indecision, Bella checked her watch.  "I really have to go.  Take care of Roz.  I'll phone you next week."

           "Caprice?" Roz called, making sure she was there.  "I really need help with Ted.  He won't listen to me...about anything."

            Now just what did that mean?

#

            As Caprice drove into Reservoir Heights, an exclusive community west of Kismet, she was amazed again at the size of the mansions.  That was really the only word for them.  The neighborhood had been designed around Kismet's reservoir, a sumptuous, blue-green lake that was a backdrop for many of the homes.  When the community had been developed around ten years ago, the planners hadn't planted seedlings and young trees but had actually moved in full-grown ones.  Some of the lots had been wooded to start with, but others soon became exactly what their designers envisioned them to be.  The neighborhood was definitely a showcase of homes.  Word had it that someone famous had toured one of the recently-listed estates.

            Someone famous in Kismet, Pennsylvania.  Now that could be exciting news that would make the Kismet Crier.

            Caprice wound along the newly retopped road.  The home association in this neighborhood made sure everything was up to par.  She couldn't help but admire a log home with its six foot overhang and gables that were supposed to convey country living at its finest.  The luxury broker, a successful one in Caprice's ever-growing network of contacts who was handling Roz and Ted's listing, had filled Caprice in on many of the properties in the area, including that one.  She'd described the massive stone fireplace inside.  Several of these houses had portrayed a country manor look with coffered ceilings and Palladium windows.  From four thousand square feet to even ten thousand square feet, the neighborhood was a sampling of architectural delights.

            Another quarter of a mile and Caprice spotted the towers on Roz and Ted's mansion.  Mansion usually brought pictures to mind of a Southern estate with stately pillars and pristine white trim.  No, that wasn't Roz and Ted's house.  Theirs looked more like a castle.

            Roz had called it her storybook dream house when Ted had it designed for her.  It was unique, stunning and chock full of lavish conveniences.  Roz and Ted had scoured pictures and, on their honeymoon, even visited castles in France, Scotland and Spain for inspiration.  The structure had an old world flavor and had been built with two circular towers capped by cone-shaped roofs.  Each window was long, practically floor-to-ceiling and symmetrically placed.  Double doors and huge columns invited visitors into an impressive entranceway.  The walls weren't created with mortar and rocks but rather with faux stone panels.  Inside, a labor intensive painting process had been used on some of the walls, brick facing on others, to make them appear castle-like.  The house was an intriguing mixture of old and new.  Because of that, however, the price as well as the style made it difficult to sell even in a healthy market.

            So Caprice's philosophy, and her Nana Celia's, had been to play to the house's strengths and intrigue anyone who walked inside...intrigue and make them feel comfortable to boot.  Curb appeal wasn't a problem.  The mansion sat on a hill with the lake as a backdrop.  Creeping phlox in dark pink, purple and white carpeted the incline.  Blue spruce and shrubs surrounding it gave it a calm, sturdy, peaceful air.

            Caprice drove into the driveway which angled from the west side of the edifice and proceeded around an oval circle with a garden in its center before the front entrance.  Parking, she pocketed her keys and climbed the steps.  Under the portico, she rang the bell which bonged deep inside the house.

            When Roz opened one side of the immense, polished walnut doors, Caprice saw strain on her friend's pretty face.  On a bad day, Roz could enter a beauty pageant.  Today she was dressed smartly in a spring green, two-piece suit, beige pumps and gold cuff bracelets.  Her shoulder-length blond hair didn't have a wave that misbehaved.  As usual, her make-up enhanced her green eyes and covered any flaws.  But there were blue smudges under her eyes no concealer could hide.  And was that a tear stain on her cheek?

            "I'm glad you're here," Roz said with a forced smile.

            Caprice stepped into the foyer, practically the size of her first floor.  The gray, stone-paneled curved walls surrounded her.  "Are you okay?"

            "Better now because you can help convince Ted he's being ridiculous.  He insists he wants to show off the room and his swords, not hide what's in it."

            When decorating the interior of their "castle," Roz and Ted had opted for an old world look with heavy velvet draperies, giant gold tassels and thick decorative rods with upholstered valances.  Iron-framed chandeliers, some immense, were supposed to add rusticity.  On top of that, they'd filled too much space with monstrous sofas, gigantic black armoires and curio units as if they would run out of seating or surfaces on which to set sculptures and collectibles.  It might have been a look they enjoyed, but the decor was one of the reasons the house hadn't sold in the past six months.

            After decluttering, Caprice had brought in lavishly-grained furniture and draperies fashioned of pastel damasks, silks and gentle wools.  The overall feel of the interior now was warm, rich, bright and welcoming.  But decluttering had been a battle-royale between her and Ted.  His philosophy—he'd paid an exorbitant amount of cash for the furnishings, sculptures and paintings, and he wanted to show them off.  But finally Roz along with Caprice had convinced him to put much of it in storage.

            "I've hired the same security firm I always use out of York," Caprice assured Roz.  "They'll mingle with the guests and not stand out.  If I have to put a security guard just on Ted's sword room, I can.  You are putting your jewelry in your safe deposit box, right?"

            When it came to her clients, Caprice would always rather be safe than sorry.  She had a reputation to protect.  One mistake, one robbery, one vandalism could ruin the good name she'd developed over the past few years.

            "I already took most of it to the bank.  But Ted still has gold coins and silver ingots in the bedroom safe.  He says no one will ever find it or be able to break into the triple locking mechanism.  He's just so mule-headed sometimes..."

            To Caprice's surprise and dismay, Roz teared up.  She clasped her friend's arm.  "What's going on?"

            Shaking her head, Roz murmured, "Nothing, really.  I'm just—"  She shook her head again.  "I think Ted's having problems at work and he's grumpy all the time.  On top of that, he's been out of town so much this month.  I feel like my thoughts echo off the walls here.  Do you know what I mean?"

            As a big-wig in Pennsylvania Pharmaceuticals Incorporated located just outside the Kismet town limits, Ted had a high-pressure position—Senior Vice President.  Roz had told her that many times.  But Roz hadn't told her exactly why they were selling their dream home.  Was it because Ted traveled so much and Roz felt lonely here?  Or had Ted decided to sell it for some other reason?

            Thinking about Roz's question, Caprice realized she never felt as if her thoughts were bouncing off the walls.  She had people she loved and pets around her most of the time.  There was always someone to talk to, either human or four-footed.

            But she could empathize with her friend.  "Staying here alone must be difficult."

            "A security system doesn't make me feel secure," Roz admitted.  "Maybe if we have kids, I won't feel...abandoned," she confessed, but then looked as if she was sorry she had.

            "Is that Caprice?" Ted called from the cavernous interior.
            "Yes," Roz called back.

            As she and Roz started for the great room, Ted emerged from the hall that led to his home office.  "We need walkie-talkies," he muttered.  "That blasted intercom doesn't function half of the time.  Of course, if we had walkie-talkies, you'd probably forget to turn yours on," he complained.

            Ted was a least six-feet-tall, sharp-featured, with heavy dark brows laced with some gray.  He was ten years older than Roz, and Caprice had never seen him wearing anything but a custom-tailored suit, dress shirt and designer tie.  Today, however, he looked a little rumpled.  Maybe it was just his fierce expression.  He looked ready to growl or spit or take a good bite out of someone.

            Often Caprice found herself in volatile situations.  But she had two sisters and a brother and a family where Italian tempers sometimes flared.  She could handle a disgruntled client.

            "Roz relayed your concerns about your sword room," she began diplomatically.  "And I know about the gold and silver you want to leave in your safe.  I'll make sure a guard keeps a significant eye on the master suite.  But do you really want your antique weapons available to be handled by strangers?  Maybe no one will steal anything.  But someone could damage a valuable collectible."

            They'd gone over this before, but sometimes she had to repeat common sense like a broken record to clients so it sunk in.

            "You sound like Roz, talking as if these are toys that might break."  He waved his arm toward the east wing of the house.  "Come with me."

            Keeping her temper in check—Caprice didn't take dictatorial orders very well—she followed with Roz behind her.  But they'd no sooner reached the sword room when Ted's cell phone buzzed.

            He grabbed it from the holster on his belt under his pinstriped suit jacket.  "Winslow," he barked.

            Caprice stepped into the room.  These walls had been treated to the specialty paint effect.  The painter had used a gray base coat and added highlights and shadows with differing degrees of gray.  The mortar lines must have been tedious to draw.

            Caprice's gaze had just settled on a foot-long dagger with a decorated scabbard when she heard Ted's raised voice.

            "If he does that, Thompson, I'll kill him."

© Karen Rose Smith 2013

 
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