Invalided out of the police force after a shootout that almost killed her, antique dealer Rebecca Cloudwebb is delivering a pair of earrings to Flora Melkiot, elderly resident of the exclusive Olympus House condominiums. At Flora’s request she brings them to the so-called Jewel exercise class - the better for her to show them off to the other women - where the newest member of the class, a suburban transplant named Laura Tyler, is horribly murdered by a dose of drain cleaner in her health water.
Though the Olympus House simply bristles with strong and somewhat unpleasant prominent women, all of whom have secrets, no one had anything against Laura Tyler. Most didn’t even know her. Rebecca wants nothing to do with the case, but Flora, disgusted with the way the police are - according to her - mishandling things, calmly blackmails Rebecca into helping her solve the case. Sublimely assured that she can do anything she puts her mind to, Flora digs into the histories of the women in the Jewel class, upsetting a lot of them in the process. Rebecca and Flora finally find the key to solving the murder of the unknown, inoffensive Laura Tyler, but only after finding themselves in danger several times, not the least of which is the dislike of the police.
Tall, scrawny and sublimely ugly, Flora was dressed in an uncomfortable echo of 1940s chic to the point of eccentricity, even though she could not have been more than an infant during that decade. In spite of everything, though, she had presence, an almost regal sense of self that was accentuated, not diminished, by the girlish sparkle of mischief in her eyes.
“You are a horrible old woman.” Rebecca’s intended scorn sounded more like amusement.
Flora nodded complacently. “Have been for years, and a couple of wars back I was counted a horrible young woman. But I get what I want, and that’s all that matters. Come on. We need to get started.”
“Mrs. Melkiot ....”
The old woman swept past Rebecca and opened the door as if no word had been said. “I wasn’t looking forward to doing this by myself.”
For a moment Rebecca wavered, then tried to convince herself it was only because she couldn’t risk offending a lucrative client.
Flora read her face before she could speak. She had intended it to turn out this way, but as always triumph gave her a thrill of excitement. All to the good; she had few enough pleasant thrills or excitement these days.
Which was why she didn’t intend to miss out on an iota of this. She hustled her reluctant partner onto the elevator down to the fourth floor. If her luck held, all the dratted snoops who infested this building and had nothing better to do with their time than pry into other people’s business would be somewhere else!
There was nothing to distinguish Laura Tyler’s door. The yellow barrier tape printed with “Police - Do Not Enter” was gone. The new lock was still just-unwrapped shiny, but it turned sweetly to the master key copy Flora had bullied from one of the less stout-hearted maintenance men several years before.
Although she had had no doubts about the success of her adventure, Flora breathed more easily once the door was shut behind them. “Not much of a decorator, was she? Some people just have no taste.”
Perhaps they didn’t, Rebecca thought, but they still should have done better than this. The room was perfect in a bland and very expensive way, but it was almost totally impersonal. Rebecca had seen more human rooms in store displays. Only three small, ornately framed photographs of very plain looking people – her family? – showed that it wasn’t a commercial set-up. This was a room for looking at, not for living in.
And she hadn’t lived in it, Rebecca realized with a shock. Not really. Laura Tyler had only moved into the Olympus House a few days before.
“I wonder why she bought all new stuff?” Rebecca murmured, her curiosity activated in spite of herself. “Even when they redecorate people usually hang onto one or two special things. Everything here is brand new.”
“And so boring.” Flora’s lips curled contemptuously. “Come on. It’s in the bedroom.”
The apartment was very small. All of it would have fit in a corner of Rebecca’s sprawling place, but it was so full of big, puffy furniture that walking through it was even more difficult. Rebecca grimaced when she banged her leg yet again; who would have thought such conspicuously overstuffed furniture could have so many hard edges?
“What’s in the bedroom, Mrs. Melkiot?”
Already in the far corner, Flora shoved aside a surprisingly fragile looking table. Then, slowly, painfully, she knelt, her joints sounding like popcorn.
“Mrs. Melkiot ....”
“The hidey-hole,” she said, pointing to the seemingly innocent wainscot. “All the apartments have them somewhere.”
This was the tricky part. If the key didn’t fit she’d look like a fool, an unfamiliar situation for Flora Melkiot.
Set at the floor line, the keyhole was almost invisible unless one were looking for it. The key turned halfway, then jammed. To have come so far and this...! Flora muttered something under her breath that Rebecca was just as glad she didn’t catch, then jiggled the key and turned it again.
The lock gave and the square of wainscot opened out on hidden hinges to reveal a cubbyhole about two feet square. There were two shelves and both were packed.
“Bingo!” said Flora Melkiot.
They spread the contents over the bed. In spite of herself Rebecca was intrigued. Scrapbooks, a dozen or more; some were cheap store-bought ones, while the rest were obviously home-made. There were a few small, purse-sized notebooks and a handful of file folders, grubby from much handling.
There was also a photograph of Laura Tyler, a portrait in a heavy and very expensive silver frame. It took a second look for Rebecca to recognize the ordinary little woman she had seen alive so briefly. Laura’s silver hair had been teased and added to and tortured into a memorable construction of curls and braids. She wore an evening gown and so much make-up and fake jewelry she looked like an old tart who had made good. Where besides a costume party would anyone wear such a get-up?
Rebecca had no memory of ever seeing the image before, but there was still a hint of familiarity to it, which annoyed her. Who could forget such a picture?
“Look at this.”
Flora peered down her nose at the picture. “Cinderella went to the ball and left her taste at home.”
The front door knob turned.