by E.J. Cochrane
Dog walker-turned murder investigator Matilda Smithwick is stressed out. Thankfully, her best friend Dottie has the perfect solution—a weekend getaway to a private island off the coast of Maine.
When one of the guests is found dead in the wine cellar, Dottie “volunteers” Maddie to hunt for the killer among them. No easy feat on a remote island with no internet or cell phone reception. Add in Dottie’s questionable assistance, an impending storm, a captive and unruly pool of suspects, a growing body count and Dottie’s insistence that the party must go on, and Maddie certainly has her hands full.
Can Maddie stay out of trouble long enough to catch a killer?
Hounded is the third book in the Matilda Smithwick Mystery Series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"The main inspiration for Hounded was the frenetic comedy and sheer mayhem of the movie Clue. I wanted to capture the same energy of the film on the page, and it ended up being the most fun I've ever had committing fictional murder."
The Lesbian Review
Oh my goodness where to start. The language has a strong cozy mystery vibe, with unerringly witty dialogue, a fast paced, twisty plot, and a great setting. Every classic trope of a cozy is on display in this book, but with small tweaks that give the book a fresh feel.
Helen Andreas descended the wine cellar stairs to enjoy a much-needed moment of peace. As usual, she tripped on the uneven stair at the bottom and made a mental note to remind her resident handyman to fix it once this horrid weekend was over. Rather than fumbling to find the switch for the wall sconces (another fix for the handyman), she lit a candle and enjoyed the gothic appeal of the space. It was almost like being in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” if Montressor’s wine cellar had been appointed with perfect climate control, a cozy seating area and one of the finest private wine collections on the East Coast.
This was the one area of her mansion that she had declared off-limits to the guests (not her guests as she’d been reminded throughout the day) currently occupying her property, and she intended to enjoy the solitude, at least until her scarcely welcome appointment intruded upon her serenity. She didn’t know why she’d agreed to this meeting—a moment of weakness perhaps—but she intended to get it over with quickly. She’d been around these people less than a day, and she was already tired of them asking for things she didn’t want to give. Every time she turned around, she faced another demand for money, leniency, privacy, or distance. At this point, regardless of what anyone requested of her, she was determined to say no. The allure, she supposed, was in the art of the refusal—how would she do it this time? Would she lift this leech’s spirits first? Would she be merciful and deny their requests before they got their hopes up? Maybe she would toy with the beggar, give the impression that she might be swayed before issuing her rejection. There had to be some way to spice up the monotony of these endless appeals.
It had been a particularly trying day, starting with her brother’s regularly scheduled plea for money (and the dull throb of a headache that he had induced) and ending with watching her beloved Jason fall under Gwendolyn Hunter’s mystifying spell. Personally, she didn’t understand the sway that woman had over men, but she had to applaud its efficacy. To her knowledge, Gwendolyn hadn’t worked a day in the last decade, yet she had amassed a fortune that Castor would kill for, though Helen doubted that her shiftless brother would put forth even that minimal effort when he could simply whine or wheedle his way into some cash. Truth be told, it was exceptionally gratifying to watch Gwendolyn rebuff Castor’s sad attempts at gold digging the queen of gold diggers.
“If she wasn’t competition for Jason’s affections, I’d happily toast her success.” Helen laughed bitterly.
Perusing her impressive selection of wine, she admired her own considerable gift for amassing wealth. True, she’d had the advantage of exceptionally rich parents, but she’d taken the empire they’d built and expanded it beyond their limited expectations. Her parents had been so pleased with themselves for personifying the cliché of the immigrant who made it big that they had settled for success in their one small corner of the market. They hadn’t even considered branching out until she took over. Now, she sat at the top of Andreas Corporation, overseeing the many avenues the company had expanded into, and for the most part, dominated.
Feeling particularly indulgent, she grabbed the bottle of Château Cheval Blanc 1947 that she’d dropped over a quarter of a million on. Settling at the small table in the center of the room, she poured a glass and allowed herself to relax for the first time since she’d arrived that afternoon, though flashes of her many ordeals that day disrupted the peace she strove for. That fight with that idiot horse lover Eric hadn’t helped her mood any. What business of his was it how she wanted to spend her money? If she wanted to set fire to a million dollars cash, it wasn’t his concern.
“Pompous ass,” she muttered. “It’ll be a miracle if we both survive this weekend.”
She’d wanted to smack his weak-chinned face, but Jason had chosen that moment to acknowledge her existence, so she had to be on her best, most alluring behavior. That Eric had looked equally ready to resort to violence had also given her pause (not that she’d let him know as much).
It stung, too, that Florence had been visibly disappointed to see her. She knew she was a demanding boss, but she also rewarded ingenuity and loyalty, something Florence would do well to remember. Perhaps she should issue a reminder, maybe in the form of a pointed question about her ailing mother, whose status in this country was questionable at best. She wouldn’t actually do anything to hurt the woman—she was in her eighties for the love of god—but it didn’t hurt for Florence to believe that her mother’s well-being was in peril.
She took a moment to savor her wine, appreciating not just its porty richness but also the fact that, unlike so many, she could easily afford such an indulgence. After one sip, she could pour the rest down the drain or pass the bottle off to the world’s luckiest vagabond if she chose (not that she was likely to find a pauper on her private island). She wouldn’t miss it or the money she’d spent, but what fun it would be to do so while her idiot brother watched the wealth he longed for thrown so casually away. The racks that lined the stone walls of her wine cellar were crowded with equally impressive (and equally disposable) vintages. And she didn’t even particularly care for wine, not like Castor did.
Suddenly, she was blasted in artificial light, and she turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs behind her. “You’re early. I wasn’t expecting you for—what are you doing here?” She didn’t have the time or patience for this distraction.
“I want to talk to you.”
“Let me guess, you think I’m being cruel and unfair and that I should reconsider.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Her surprise guest stepped closer—too close—anger flashing in the eyes that met hers.
“That makes one of us.” Already bored by this unexpected intrusion on her privacy, she turned her attention back to the deep red liquid in her glass.
“You’re going to listen to me whether you like it or not.”
A hand on her shoulder spun her roughly around, sending her glass crashing to the cobblestone floor.
“Do you honestly believe you’ll get what you want by attacking me?”
“No. I don’t believe you’ll ever willingly give me what I want. The only way is for me to take it.” A chill ran through her at the sound of the cold, emotionless voice just as her visitor’s hands closed around her throat.
Six hours earlier
Matilda Smithwick cursed the full-length mirror that showed her just how ludicrous she looked. The dress she’d donned under protest—the one Dottie swore would transform her outlook on fashion—looked like a crocheted hot air balloon. Apparently, the hip, up-and-coming designer (whose name Maddie had willfully forgotten) was unaware that women’s bodies were not pyramid-shaped. Or perhaps she was paid by the hectare. There was just so much fabric. God forbid she got caught in a strong wind. Feeling the stirrings of an apparel-based headache, she rubbed her temples, cringing at the thunderous rustling of her puffy sleeves. She frowned at her reflection, wondering how she had gotten into this sartorial nightmare, and more importantly, how she would get out of it.
“It’s exquisite,” Dottie gasped, and Maddie turned to find her much-less-ostentatiously clad friend holding a cocktail in each hand and eyeing her critically. She genuinely feared the next stage of her transformation at Dottie’s hands. “Turn for me. I want to see it in all its glory.”
Maddie grabbed the liquid fortification that would get her through this evening and obediently made a circle, lamenting the moment of weakness that had led her to agree to this absurd outing.
The previous evening, at the end of a spectacularly grueling day, she’d wanted nothing more than to hide under the covers with her dogs and a good book. That hope vanished the second Dottie swooped into her living room, poured them both drinks and declared that they would be going away for the weekend.
“Nice of you to ask, but—”
“We’re going, apple platz. No arguments. I intend to whisk you away from the stressors in your life before those wrinkles become permanent.” Unconsciously, Maddie touched her forehead. “And it just so happens that your impending breakdown and my birthday celebration coincide.”
“I took you out to dinner for your birthday when it happened, in January.”
“And don’t think I didn’t appreciate that adorable little bistro. This celebration is in honor of my quarter birthday.”
“It was a four-star restaurant,” she said, ignoring the more perplexing issue of the quarter birthday and why it invoked travel.
“Carlisle and I have everything planned and ready to go. You just need to grab your toothbrush and your sense of adventure.” Dottie paused to scrutinize her. “Maybe throw some hair care products in the mix.”
“I wish I could help you celebrate this momentous occasion, but I can’t leave town right now. I’m in the middle of moving my business, which is busier than ever.”
“What’s to move? The milk-bone buffet and a year’s supply of poop bags? Besides, your father assured me that the new space won’t be ready for a few more weeks.”
“You talked to my father?”
“He sends his regards. As for the business, Patrick has everything under control.”
“Of course he does,” she grumbled, bemoaning her assistant’s efficiency and eagerness to help. “But I can’t just leave Bart and Goliath here by themselves.”
“Obviously not, fruit cup. Thankfully, your incomparable grandmother has agreed to tend to your beasts while we’re away.”
“You just assume I’m free?”
“Oh, petunia.” Dottie offered her most pitying expression. “We both know you don’t have any dates to cancel or a girlfriend you need to ask for permission.” Maddie scowled at the reminder that she was habitually alone. “One rocky relationship’s demise is not cause for eternal sorrow, and your mourning period has now outlasted the relationship that inspired it. You need to get out and have fun, and lucky you, your best friend is here to save the day.”
“With a party in her honor.”
“Not a party, sheepskin. An extravaganza. I’ve rented a mansion and the private island it occupies.”
“The Taj Mahal wasn’t available? Why would you rent an island?”
“I would have bought it, but the owner is unreasonable.”
“How dare they not uproot their entire lives to accommodate your party needs,” Maddie scoffed.
“Be serious, Matilda. Helen rarely visits the property. She merely holds onto it as a status symbol, one she was all too happy to profit from. Alas, no sum of money could prevent her from inviting herself to join us.” A monumental frown punctuated Dottie’s statement.
“That hardly sounds like the relaxing weekend you think I need.”
“Not to worry, little one. With any luck, Helen’s plane will crash and the world will be a better place.”
Maddie shook her head in disbelief, but in spite of herself, she was warming to this idea. It wasn’t like she had anything better to do that weekend. Or any weekend ever.
“We leave frightfully early tomorrow. Be ready to go by eleven.” Dottie emptied her glass with a flourish and turned toward the door.
“To go where?” Maddie refrained from pointing out how much the opposite of “frightfully early” eleven was.
“It’s a surprise, dumpling.”
“How will I know what to pack?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to pack appropriate attire if I gave you a checklist and the precise coordinates of our destination. Just throw your sad, tired jeans and T-shirts in whatever you have that passes for luggage, and I’ll make sure you have something to wear to my parties.”
And with that she’d sauntered out of the house, leaving Maddie in a wake of confusion and apprehension—a surprise trip to a mystery destination with Dottie in control of her wardrobe. She hadn’t even bothered to tempt fate by asking what could possibly go wrong. Evidently the fates needed no such provocation because now here she stood, wearing the world’s largest doily and wishing it came with a bag to put over her head.
“Is this really necessary? Your friends aren’t here for me. Can’t I just hide in the corner?”
“Sorry, ducks. I can’t allow my best friend to lurk on the sidelines for this auspicious event.”
“I’m less likely to hide if I don’t have to wear this.” She gestured to her voluminous skirt. “I look like a pup tent.”
Dottie lifted one elegantly sculpted eyebrow. “I know you’d rather stomp around in your rustic finest, Grizzly Adams, but this is an important night for me. Flannel and combat boots won’t cut it.”
“I just want to wear pants to dinner. It’s not like I’m trying to resurrect grunge.”
“It’s not much better.”
“But if I wear this…masterpiece, then all eyes will be on me. You don’t want me stealing the spotlight, do you?”
“Sweetie, it’s a dress, not a magic trick.”
“So, if I’m destined to be overshadowed by you, do my clothes really matter?” Dottie gasped in horror. “I’m merely suggesting that, instead of making me even more self-conscious than necessary with this dress, I could wear something a little more me.”
“I suppose you may have a point.”
Dottie moved to the closet, which Maddie had completely missed in her initial perusal of the room. As she’d expected from a Dottie-sponsored outing, her accommodations were both comfortable and commodious, if somewhat questionably decorated. On the walk from the foyer to her third-floor bedroom, Maddie had spied myriad portraits (each in a gilded frame more garish than the last), scores of ornamental vases (the pronunciation of which had to be “vahz,” she could tell just by looking at them) and an abundance of statuary in every form from cherubic to representatives from the animal kingdom. One such monstrosity sat in the corner of Maddie’s room—an owl the size of a third-grade child, staring judgmentally at the bed. She couldn’t help but wonder if the interior designer had consulted Liberace via séance for tips.
Maddie’s bedroom was one of thirteen in the sprawling mansion that held the distinction of being the only home on this island off the picturesque coast of Maine. And while the queen-size bed, with its ultra-soft leopard-print comforter and multitude of pillows, had her longing for bedtime, even that splendor was eclipsed by the view from her balcony. She hadn’t hesitated to throw open the French doors and drink in the spectacular scenery. From that vantage, she could see not only the outlying guesthouse, boathouse, stables and teahouse (whatever that was) but also the surrounding woods. She’d been so distracted by the beautifully dense foliage between them and the ocean that she’d completely missed the black garment bags that hung (somewhat ominously) in the walk-in closet from which Dottie now emerged, Maddie’s designer destiny in her hands.
“Tonight, you can wear this dress.” She unzipped the garment bag to reveal a black cocktail dress that, by all appearances, was in no way outrageous or daring. Maddie might even have considered buying it herself (if her clothing allowance sat nearer to Kim Kardashian’s than Kimmy Schmidt’s). Halfway through Maddie’s sigh of relief, Dottie unveiled a pair of black heels that were closer to the stilt family than to shoes. “But you’ll also have to wear these.”
Maddie backed away as if the shoes were venomous. “You know that heels and I don’t mix.”
“You just need more experience.”
“And you think this is the proper venue?”
“It’s these or the other dress.”
Maddie carefully weighed her options, preferring neither of them. “Remind me who I’ll have to face tonight.”
“I really should congratulate myself on the guest list. Paragons of society, every single one.” Maddie savored the eye roll that followed her best friend’s entire lack of humility. “For starters, Cate Bennet will be in attendance.” Dottie spoke Cate’s name in reverent tones, the inspiration for which eluded Maddie. “She’s only the gatekeeper of the Midwest’s most spectacular fall fashion gala, an event to which I’m sure to secure an invitation as a repayment for the undeniably tasteful elegance of this weekend.”
“If that doesn’t do the trick, I’m sure your modesty will.”
“Cate’s also a cosmetics demigod, so we’ll have to do something with your face,” she added with an ominous grin. “We’ll also be joined by Florence Saldana. I’ve known her since my second marriage when she was merely a pill-pushing pharmaceutical sales rep, but now she’s the COO of the number two drug company in the nation. She desperately needs time away from her ogre of a boss, so I have graciously come to her rescue.”
“How magnanimous of you,” Maddie deadpanned.
“Plus she’s one of your people, so you’ll get along famously.”
“Yes, because all lesbians are besties.” Deciding that perilous footwear was marginally more palatable than a parachute for a dress, Maddie reluctantly slipped into option number two.
“Well, you’ll have something in common with my friend Eric Dillingham. He’s an animal lover through and through. True, his passion lies in the equestrian, not the canine, realm, but he funds several animal charities.”
That sounded promising, or at least as promising as any of Dottie’s wealthy connections could be, but the guest list was feeling fairly tycoon heavy. “Am I going to know anyone other than you?”
“Castor Andreas is coming—you’ve walked his Yorkipoo, Ares. He’s a terrible flirt and a complete gold digger, but he’s entertaining, and he could be worthwhile insurance.”
“For?” She struggled with her zipper a moment before Dottie came to the rescue.
“For Jason.” She laid a well-manicured hand on her surgically enhanced bosom. “An entertainment mogul—you know how I’ve been thinking of branching out into that arena.” Maddie knew no such thing but opted not to admit that. “He’s the apotheosis of masculinity, and as wealthy as he is gorgeous. I’m still in the wooing phase, so it’s vital that you make a good impression on him, especially if I can parlay Castor’s flirting into a proposal from Jason.”
“He’s the next Mr. Dottie?”
“If all goes well.” She had a calculated look in her eye. “And I have planned meticulously for all to go extremely well. Do not embarrass me in front of Jason.”
“That would be easier if I didn’t have to attempt walking in heels.”
“If you cared about me at all, you would refine your heel-walking skills.”
“I’ll put it on my to-do list,” she deadpanned and immediately lost her balance. “Will I be the only representative from the middle class?”
“Jason is bringing his younger sister. I believe she’s closer to your tax bracket. And she’s also of your persuasion.” Dottie’s accompanying wink held zero subtlety.
“How nice for both of us.”
“I’ve completed the inventory of the property, including photographs,” Carlisle announced upon entering the room.
“Wonderful, Carlisle. The last thing I need is Helen accusing me of damaging one of her démodé couches or ghastly portraits.” She lounged on Maddie’s bed, the preponderance of decorative pillows encroaching upon her space. “And has everyone made it to the island safely?”
“The last of the guests have arrived and are in their rooms freshening up for dinner.” Carlisle frowned and looked at her feet before adding, “Except for Ms. Andreas.”
Dottie’s eyebrows flew to astronomical heights. “I didn’t invite Ms. Andreas.”
“She insisted that she’s welcome.”
“A gross exaggeration of the facts. Did you try to get rid of her?”
“She threatened to sic the dogs on us.”
“Has she met the dogs?” Maddie asked, reflecting on her introduction to Mammon and Archer, the bullmastiffs tasked with protecting the island, and their resident handler, Timothy.
Maddie, Dottie, and Carlisle had been on the property less than five minutes before roughly two hundred pounds of dog bounded toward them, their jowls flapping as they ran. They certainly looked the part of security dogs as their well-muscled, oversize bodies charged toward the interlopers, but the similarity ended there. Mammon, the slightly smaller fawn-colored female, dropped to the ground at Maddie’s feet and rolled onto her back, exposing her belly for rubs while her brindle brother focused his attention on an apparently threatening stick. For good reason, Maddie questioned the magnitude of Helen’s threat, but she seemed to be in the minority.
“This is an unmitigated disaster.” Dottie downed both her drink and Maddie’s before turning toward the door. “I have to welcome my newest guest, poppy seed. I expect to see you downstairs in twenty minutes. Do not be late.”
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