STACKED IN YOUR FAVOR, LLC,
KATE MCKENZIE, PRES.
BUSINESS PLANNER FOR JOB # 1
DATE Wed., April 7th
9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. — Meet with Miss Amelia Nethercutt at her mansion to organize her and her late husband’s exotic collections. Magnificent sprawling home and grounds. On phone seemed eager to learn organizational techniques. Says she scrapbooks and keeps a daily journal. Spend time telling how to develop her vision, to make a date with herself each day to keep living space organized and de-cluttered. Also, since she’s a collector, offer the “One-in/One-Out Rule” so old replaced item always goes out when new item is purchased.
* * *
“On the second day, I decided widowhood was infinitely better than divorce.”
“Miss Amelia!” Kate McKenzie caught herself, and her teacup, an instant before the Lapsang Souchong escaped over the gold rim and onto the Aubusson rug. While the cream and sienna tones of the carpet would have accepted the tea stain like a distant relative, such an accident threatened to be an uneasy alliance. Especially as Kate courted this new, and particular, client.
Amelia Nethercutt took the still-clattering china from Kate’s hands and settled the pieces on the gleaming rosewood coffee table, then said, “It isn’t as if I don’t know the pros and cons of both marital dissolution options, my dear. My marriage to Daniel was my fifth, no, sixth marriage. I keep forgetting Joey. And receiving an inheritance is much more liberating than monthly alimony.”
Kate stiffened on the white-on-white Victorian sofa and hoped her smile didn’t look like a grimace. She again swatted the irritating peacock feather and gilt-streaked twig arrangement that invaded the personal space around her left shoulder. Where had common sense fled when she agreed to work sight-unseen in this procurement madhouse?
Façades could be most deceiving—Amelia’s and the mansion’s. The woman’s exterior resembled that of her home—sweeping luxury and professional styling. Even Kate’s first look inside of the house, the foyer with its elegant mahogany collectibles cabinet standing guard against taupe-colored grass-cloth, fooled her.
Then she’d seen this parlor, the study, the bedrooms, the conservatory, the library, and… well…all the other “treasure rooms.”
This first workday revolved in a repetitive nightmare of list making, supply ordering, prioritizing, and attempts to stem the overwhelming need to hyperventilate. Even her never-fail categorizing system of REJECT, RECYCLE, RESELL, RETURN, and REVIEW periodically failed to keep Kate’s panic at bay. Finally, for the first time ever, she gave up and began dividing the upstairs by what rooms were wholly trash and which might be salvageable. Of course, this never meant she would actually be allowed to throw out anything, but she persevered. Until Amelia had called from downstairs and said it was time for a “tea moment.”
Kate’s last ally disappeared as Mrs. Baxter, the Nethercutts’ cotton-haired cook, had bustled in bringing the tea tray and placed it near Amelia. “Nice meeting you, dearie,” Mrs. Baxter said, before straightening her pink pillbox hat and telling her employer, “I’m going to the market and the drugstore. There’s a cab waiting. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”
Amelia nodded, pouring tea as she spoke, “That’s fine. I left some budgeting papers on the front table for the garden club vice-president. Please drop them off while doing your errands.” She had smiled at Kate then and added, “I’m president again this year, you know.” Kate assumed the comment was rhetorical, but she offered a smile for insurance.
“The material is out in the foyer,” Amelia called to Mrs. Baxter, and as she waved toward the front door her spicy, nose-tickling scent perfumed the air. “I’ve made some exciting suggestions and changes. They will require a few club members to reflect a bit before complete acceptance, especially our esteemed vice-president, Gabriella Cavannah-Wicker. Your taking the packet will expedite matters admirably, so everyone has adequate ruminative time.”
Mrs. Baxter rolled her eyes heavenward behind her thick lenses. She left via the front door, just as Kate performed her teacup juggle in response to Amelia’s disturbing pronouncement. A statement particularly unsettling in light of her late-husband Daniel Nethercutt’s recent demise.
Amelia picked up the sugar bowl and offered, “There’s nothing like a few minutes for tea.”
The smoky smelling brew looked dark. Kate added a liberal dose of milk and worried about the exquisite teacup, musing whether the liquid was capable of eating through the fragile porcelain.
Once more she should have listened to her instincts, but, as usual, decided to focus on the positive side and be nice and agreeable. Landing a rich client seemed a godsend for her new organizing business, STACKED IN YOUR FAVOR. Besides, it wasn’t difficult to believe her initial unease due to the fact only a week had passed since Mr. Daniel drifted off to whatever heavenly reward a compulsive collector deserved. At first, Kate worried Amelia was one of those bereaved spouses who too quickly decided to “clean house.” But Amelia insisted. Amelia insisted on everything, and Kate’s backbone turned to butter.
In this room alone, the front parlor, majolica plates competed with marble busts and conch shells. A stuffed and seriously flaking crocodile, missing its right glass eye, crouched in one corner. Beside the door, a stack of piano sheet music stood as high as Kate’s waist, but she’d yet to find any kind of keyboard instrument in the house. The outdoors was brought inside with a collection of faded garden gnomes simulating hopscotch near an overgrown spider plant.
Jeez! What had she gotten herself into? Could she even finish the job by the time her first-grade twins graduated from high school? Amelia didn’t need an organizational expert as much as a designer with the balls of General Patton. Or a bulldozer.
And how should she respond to a comment contrasting spousal death with divorce? She decided to ignore it and try wiggling out of the mess she’d let her size eight flats walk into. “Miss Amelia, I’m not sure I’m the best person for this job. My business is organizing spaces and archiving items. However, you have many precious treasures here needing—”
“Nonsense, Kate. I picked you because you are perfect for this chore.” Amelia rose to her full six-foot stature and glided to the bookcase by the door, the silvery silks of her caftan trailing like the wake behind the QEII. “I first met your mother-in-law at college,” she said, flipping pages of a ragged yearbook as she navigated back. “You couldn’t find a woman more in control of things than Jane, whatever the task. So, I knew I had to hire you.”
Kate’s mother-in-law, Jane McKenzie, did indeed know how to keep things in their place, but this did not mean her son’s wife possessed superhuman talents. With the elder McKenzies currently finishing a Caribbean cruise, Jane had been unavailable for consultation prior to her daughter-in-law accepting this assignment. Kate opened her mouth to try to explain family ties and genetic capabilities to Amelia, but she stopped as the scent of Chanel No. 5 preceded a voice in the hall.
“Yoo-hoo, Mummy, where are you?”
A shadow flitted across Amelia’s patrician face and disappeared so swiftly Kate couldn’t be sure she hadn’t imagined it.
“Ah, my stepdaughter Sophia.” Amelia smiled as she called, “Darling, in the parlor.”
Seconds later, a trim figure sashayed into the room and Kate suddenly felt fat and shabby in her working twills. Though no taller than Kate’s fit five-and-a-half feet, and brunette to the organizer’s blond, Sophia’s lean frame and personal trainer-esque, toned body gave the appearance of runway perfect, with no hint of any past pregnancies. Dressed in simple black slacks, a white blouse that whispered money—lots of it—and dark glasses resting atop long, dark tresses, Kate was reminded of a reincarnated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Until the woman smiled. To her knowledge, Jackie O never resembled a cobra when greeting people.
“Sophia Nethercutt-White.” The viper strode forward and extended an impeccably manicured hand. “And you are?”
Kate forced herself to move toward the woman, instead of yielding to an instinct to cower back. “I’m Ka—”
“This is Kate McKenzie, Sophia, dear.” Amelia wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders. “You remember my saying I wanted to get an expert to help me categorize and organize. It’s time I put this house into working order. I haven’t seen dozens of my own things for a decade and can’t possibly fathom everything your father collected before our marriage. There are probably untold riches in here.”
“No doubt.” Sophia raised an eyebrow and turned piercing black eyes on Kate. “I had no idea you were going to act so quickly, Mummy. I would prefer strangers not paw through Father’s things.”
Amelia waved the comment away like an irritating insect. “Daniel was an open book about his possessions and loved to share them. I know he would welcome Kate to this project.”
Sophia folded her arms. “We need to discuss this. There are a number of things I can’t locate of Father’s, and I don’t think having a stranger—”
“Nonsense. Missing items give more credence for needing Kate’s expertise. My decision has been made, Sophia.” Amelia’s light blue eyes turned icy. “Which reminds me. I have Charles Webster Walker coming later.”
“Your lawyer?” Sophia uncrossed her arms. “Why?”
“I’m making a few revisions to my will. With Daniel gone it’s the responsible thing to do. Your father and I agreed on most things, but how we distributed our estate was always a compromised affair. Now, of course, I can do things any way I like.” Amelia displayed a frightening smile that personified the Grimm Brothers’ “better to eat you with” line.
Bending to pick up the tray, Kate freed herself, both physically and figuratively, from the scene by saying, “I’ll take these tea things into the kitchen. Or would you like some, Sophia? The pot feels heavy enough for another cup.”
“No, thank you.”
“Well, it’s nice meeting you.” Kate nodded as she passed the angry young woman on the way out the door.
“And you,” Sophia returned, arms again locked across her chest, her gaze trained on Amelia.
The large kitchen was the only clutter-free area in the house, likely due to heroic efforts by Mrs. Baxter. Kate was convinced the mansion had been purchased solely because it was the only residence in town large enough to accommodate the extensive Nethercutt collection. The place brought to mind an eBay warehouse.
She dropped the tray a bit too heavily on the tiled island, near a sleek crystal vase holding fragrant lily of the valley blooms. Because the outside of the teapot still felt warm, she used a small towel to cover it in case Amelia wanted another fortifying cup after dealing with her evil stepchild. Two steps to the sink, and she was soaping her fingernails one more time. She knew all lingering dust and grime was probably gone, but…
Startled, she jumped back and upset the tall vase with an elbow. The clear glass rocked at the counter’s edge, and Kate, heart in her throat, grabbed the base, making the rescue just milliseconds before a shattering disaster.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. I’m Danny.”
The vase was safe, but Kate felt lingering adrenaline still pumping. She snatched a towel from the countertop, then swiped at her hands and took two deep breaths. Feeling calmer, she turned and smiled at the teen who filled the back doorway. “Oh, hello, I’m Kate McKenzie.”
Danny looked about sixteen, at the gangly stage where all the pizzas and junk food in the world couldn’t possibly fill out that final burst of height. He wore baggy jeans and a flapping flannel shirt over a T-shirt imprinted with the multi-washed logo of a local heavy metal band. He removed the lid from a Hansel-and-Gretel styled cookie jar and added, “Saw the Wicked Witch of the West go in the front door, so I slipped around back.”
“My Aunt Sophia.” Danny bit into a chocolate chip cookie. He poked the rest of the cookie in his mouth and lifted the jar, offering a muffled, “You want one?”
“No, thanks.” Kate waved a hand over the tray. “I had tea with your grandmother.”
He made a face. “Did she give you the awful stuff?”
“It was Lap—”
“Yeah, that’s the awful stuff.” He stuck out his tongue. “She always drinks it too strong.”
Kate couldn’t resist. “There’s a little more in the pot if you’d like some.” They both laughed.
“Well, nice to meet you, Kate McKenzie.” He snatched three more cookies from the jar and clunked down the lid, then nabbed a can of soda out of the refrigerator. “My dad and uncle should be here soon. Gramma gave me her old roadster, an MG, and Dad wants Uncle Thomas to check everything out before I drive it.” He flashed a dark look. “‘Course, that wouldn’t be necessary if Gramma would buy me a new one.” Then he flashed Kate a grin like he was kidding all along.
Or being a smart-aleck teen. Someone in the Nethercutt family was obviously trying to instill a little character in the lad. Despite the grin, she noticed the humor never reached his cloudy green eyes. Aloud, she asked, “Is Thomas your Aunt Sophia’s husband?” Danny snorted.
“Sophia would never live with a man who doesn’t mind grease under his fingernails.”
Danny shook his head, slipping the cola under an arm to free a hand for the doorknob. “Besides, Auntie is into old geezers who die quickly. Has her current husband locked away right now, drooling in his oatmeal and telling his private nurse about his childhood during the Great War.
Uncle Thomas is Gramma’s son. You should see us all together at family holidays.”
I think I’d rather not.
The door slammed shut, and Kate smiled, wondering about this teen and his talkative nature, and she couldn’t help but suspect he was up to something. He demonstrated none of the antisocial, sullen behavior other moms warned was in the not-too-distant future for Kate with her own twins. However, she didn’t completely trust this first impression persona was the dominant one for Amelia’s grandson either.
Her twins! If Danny was out of school, then her daughters Samantha and Suzanne had already been dismissed as well. What kind of organizational expert didn’t keep track of the time? She should have checked her master list. Kept up with the time. Too many things to remember, so much running through her head. She took a deep breath and snapped the rubber band on her left wrist. Number five for today. Sanity restored, she inhaled one more time.
The corner cuckoo clock set her in motion, and she pulled the daily master list from her pocket. No stops on the way home, just hurry to relieve her husband, Keith, from his after-school parental responsibilities, get dinner on the table, and send him off to his job on time. She scooped up her purse and dashed through the swinging kitchen door, offering the women in the parlor a hasty goodbye before streaking out the front, with Amelia calling, “Hug those sweet darlings of yours for me.”
Yet, even as she hustled to her blue van, Kate relished for a moment the heightened view boasted from the Tudor mansion’s lofty setting, the tiny town below gaining a doll-like quality. She saw the distant radio tower for local talk station WHZE, where Keith was evening sports anchor. The station was small, but the management’s commitment to New England sports was rock solid, and as a homegrown hockey hero, Keith was approached for the job soon after the new format became public.
The four McKenzies had moved to his hometown of Hazelton, Vermont six months earlier, and lived a few miles from his parents. The move had been a good one so far. With Kate’s parents deceased, she appreciated having a doting set of grandparents nearby to help out, and the girls loved being spoiled.
Keith had played B-string goalie ten seasons with various major league hockey teams, eight while the couple was married, before blowing out a knee and calling it quits. The timing had definitely been right. All the moving and politics kept a steady strain on their marriage. Before the move she only knew Hazelton from sporadic Currier and Ives-like Christmas visits, but loved its winding rural roads and the picturesque Main Street that unfolded in open friendliness as travelers emerged from a centuries-old covered bridge at the town’s eastern boundary. Kate also found being married to the returning prodigal citizen automatically made her a local. Or close enough, anyway.
Unfortunately, sports-talkers in small New England cities did not make what even moderately-successful hockey players did. With the twins in school all day, Kate finally persuaded Keith to take on more duties around the house and allow her time to start a business. He’d balked at first, but she’d found an advocate in her mother-in-law. Once Jane McKenzie stepped into the discussion, her son didn’t have a chance. When he’d looked to his father, George, for moral support, the elder McKenzie just shook his head and ducked out the back door with his pipe.
Kate smiled as she merged into traffic for the short drive home. It’s always said men marry their mothers. At first, she’d felt a little uneasy about the idea, but no longer.
A red Jeep parked at the head of their cul-de-sac barred her from entering. The vehicle was Keith’s, and he had the neighborhood kids whooping and hollering as they used the paved circle for an impromptu Rollerblading rink. Two teams, players distinguished by the mismatched shirts they wore of either blue or red, battled a hard rubber puck with street sticks toward opposite goals. Kate’s blond-curled daughters were the masked and dueling goalies. She parked and took her place alongside other parents watching their helmeted offspring, all clapping and whistling over the triumphs and groaning for the mis-skates.
Meg Berman, hair fiery bright in the spring sun and still wearing garden grubbies, waved Kate over and called, “You just missed Sam dive for the puck. She saved the red team.” Kate’s daughter Samantha turned at the words and waved at her mom. The puck flew Sam’s way again, courtesy of Jamey Hendricks, daughter Suzanne’s crush of the week, and this time the hard plastic flew unhindered into the net.
“Blue team wins!” Half the kids cheered, skating to form a middle line for the best sportsmanship handshake Keith always mandated.
Her husband took off his helmet, his wavy brown hair tumbling free, and joined one end. “Congratulations, blue team. Red team, nice effort on your part, too. Sam, we have to work on that attention span, though. Don’t forget.”
“But, Daddy, Mommy is here.”
Keith turned his hundred-watt smile Kate’s way. Even after almost nine years of marriage she felt the familiar flutter in her heart.
“Hi, honey. We’re about finished.” He reached out and grabbed a twin with each hand.
“That’s fine. I’ll go in and start dinner. It’s sloppy joes, so hurry.” Kate pointed to her watch. “You don’t have much time.”
The other kids and parents dispersed. Kate walked with Meg. “Looks like you’ve been gardening.” She motioned toward her friend’s gloves and the claw-like hand tool.
“The only way to stay optimistic that something flowery will eventually come up is to keep acting like Mother Nature is on-track.” Meg sighed, slipping her hand under one arm to remove a glove. “It’s been too chilly this year, but I have faith the pastels will pop out soon. More important, what’s the Nethercutt mansion like inside?”
Kate rolled her eyes. “You’re not going to believe it. Let me decompress for a bit, then I’ll try to find words to describe the place.”
“Maybe I could come help you on the job and see it for myself,” Meg coaxed, wiggling thin brows in a hopeful look that made her freckles dance.
“You can’t imagine what you’re volunteering for.”
Meg’s two boys, five-year-old Ben and eight-year-old Mark skated up, their wheels making a sizzling sound across the asphalt, then silence and synchronized thunks as they jumped in tandem to the sidewalk. Ben might have been smaller, but was already a match for his big bro. “Mom, can we go out for pizza?” Mark begged, screeching to a stop just inches from Kate’s toes.
“Please, Mom, since Dad’s not gonna be home tonight?” Ben backed him up, his head just grazing Mark’s shoulder. Meg’s husband, Gil, a columnist for the Bennington paper, covered state government and often had to stay in Montpelier.
Meg frowned, but Kate saw a tiny smile fighting to break free. “How can I say no when you tag team me like this?”
“You’re welcome to come share sloppy joes with us,” Kate said, knowing how much the boys loved to talk hockey with Keith.
“Can we?” they chorused.
When their mom nodded, Kate sent everyone toward her house. “Just let me get the van in the garage.”
Five minutes later it was controlled chaos in the kitchen. The kids alternately relived successes and defeats, filling Kate in on the action she’d missed while she browned hamburger and laid out the other ingredients. She handed Suzanne a stack of place mats, then frisbeed paper plates to the boys. “You guys set the table together, okay? Get extra napkins, Sam.”
Everything was simmering nicely, both food and conversation, when the business line rang.
“Stacked in Your Favor. Kate McKenzie speaking.”
“Mrs. McKenzie,” an acid voice responded. “This is Sophia Nethercutt-White. We met today. You were working for my stepmother.”
“Yes.” Kate noted how the woman’s greeting neatly put her into her place. “Can I help you?”
“Actually, no,” Sophia said. “And my stepmother no longer requires your services, either. The police are here. Amelia Nethercutt is dead.”