Treasure in Tawas
The last thing Agnes Barton expected was to be slapped in cuffs alongside her best friend, and fellow-sleuthing buddy, Eleanor Mason. All they had wanted to do was to verify if a painting at the Butler Mansion had indeed been stolen, but when the Mildred Winnefree’s body was also discovered in the mansion by the cops, they rose to the top of the suspect list. It didn’t help that they had entered the mansion illegally—using a key Agnes had pilfered from her daughter Martha who was working as a real estate agent to sell the old place.
Word has it that a treasure map was hidden in the back of a painting at the Butler Mansion, and it was just too juicy a story not to investigate. So here Agnes and Eleanor sat in jail as prime suspects. It was obvious that with her nemesis death, she’d have her hands full trying to prove her innocence.
The tabloid, Tall Tales, printed a treasure map its most recent addition and soon East Tawas became the focus of treasure hunters who began tearing up the town looking for treasure. Agnes and Eleanor joined in the foray, but she wondered just who was behind this tall tale and just what did it have to do with Mildred’s murder.
Treasure in Tawas the 5th book in the Agnes Barton Senior Sleuths Mystery series in now available at the following places.
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Cop cars roared into the drive of the Butler Mansion and skidded to a halt. Then heavy feet pounded up the few steps that led to the door. My best friend, Eleanor (or El for short) Mason, and I froze in our tracks as the flashing bubble lights blasted through the sheer curtains. I’m Agnes Barton, and I’m a senior sleuth. Eleanor is my partner, and we’re here in the Butler Mansion, which was the site of a couple of murders a while ago. At that time, Herman Butler had fallen from a third story window. Now, there seems to be more trouble in the mansion. We were led to believe that a portrait of one of the Butlers’ descendants had been stolen. The problem is that we weren’t exactly let inside. We used the key that was located in a real estate lock box. My daughter, Martha, is working as a real estate agent, and I kind of “borrowed” the key to take a look around.
“I told you they had a silent alarm,” Eleanor said in an I-told-you-so voice.
I brought my hand to my head in exasperation. “How on earth are we gonna explain ourselves out of this one?”
Eleanor shrugged. “Beats me, but somehow, I see a trip to the pokey over this one. I mean, we are breaking and entering.”
“It’s not like I had a choice. Martha refused to let us in to check things out.”
“She sure takes her job seriously. You have to admire her for that.”
I pushed Eleanor along the hallway that led to the back door, where we exited the mansion. We pressed our bodies against the overgrown ivy walls until I felt it was safe to move toward the woods. We didn’t even make it two feet before we heard Sheriff Peterson shout, “Freeze!”
El and I raised our arms, and the sheriff moved toward us, his eyes narrowed. “What in tarnation?” he bellowed. “What are you two doing here?”
“Actually, I was thinking about buying the place,” I lied.
“I doubt your social security check will cover that one.”
I waved the key in his face. “I have a key. How was I to know there was a silent alarm?”
“Which means you obviously don’t have permission to be here. Did Martha give you the key?”
I was tempted to just lie and say yes, but I didn’t want to get my daughter into trouble at the real estate office. “Not exactly, but the reason we’re here is—”
Peterson yanked up the waistband of his brown trousers. “I don’t care what the reason is. You’re both under arrest.”
No sense in arguing with the man, so we followed him to the front yard, where Trooper Sales stood. When he saw us, he raised his brow. “Figures. Stay right here while we do a sweep of the house.”
The cops entered the mansion. It wasn’t long before one of them came back, and with a major newsflash. “There’s a body in here!” he exclaimed.
My eyes widened, as did El’s. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“I ought to know a body when I see one,” the trooper said. “It’s another old lady.”
“What do you mean, another? Like you think we’re old?” El asked.
“Yeah, you both are. Aren’t you two kinda old to off another old lady?”
I stepped forward. “Now, you listen here, young man. Even if you found a body here, it doesn’t mean that we’re responsible. We only came here to see if a painting of the Butler descendants was stolen, that’s all.”
Sheriff Peterson gnashed his teeth together. “Please say you don’t buy into that nonsense about a treasure map hidden in a painting here?”
That’s why we’re here, all right, but I wasn’t sure if it was wise to say more without a lawyer. “I think I should be quiet now.”
El’s face dropped as she said, “Agnes, we should just tell him the truth.”
“We do that and we’ll be in more trouble. I don’t think we should say anything further without a lawyer present.”
Trooper Sales appeared in the doorway and motioned me forward. El and I entered, and he led us into the kitchen, where we stopped in surprise at the sight of the body of my nemesis, Mildred Winfree, sprawled out on the floor, a bloodied silver candlestick next to her. My eyes met El’s as we both shook our heads in disbelief.
“Tell me again why you were really here tonight?” the trooper asked pointedly.
“First, I never told you anything, and second, I already told Sheriff Peterson that I’m not saying a word until I consult with a lawyer. I will say one thing for sure, though—neither El nor I killed Mildred Winfree.”
“She’s not exactly a friend of yours.”
“I’ll agree with you there, but I draw the line on murder. I don’t hate her at all. She hates me. It’s a totally separate thing.”
“Maybe she was here to find the map,” El said. “You know, the one everyone says is behind one of the paintings here.”
“That was just a story they featured in some fly-by-night magazine for entertainment purposes. It’s not based on facts. One of the Butlers’ former employees probably sold the story to that tabloid. You can’t believe anything that someone was paid to say,” Sales said.
Oh, forget the lawyer, I told myself, realizing that if I didn’t fess up, Sales would really think we had killed Mildred. “Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath and plunging ahead. “So, we came here to find out if one of the paintings of the Butler descendants was indeed missing.”
“Stolen,” El corrected me.
Sales rolled his eyes at our story.
“I swear, we never came into the kitchen,” I blurted out. “We had no idea that there was a dead body in here—least of all Mildred’s.”
“She’s right,” El said. “We came in the front door using the key from the lock box and had only made it into the drawing room before you cops showed up.”
“You triggered a silent alarm that alerted us,” Sales informed us. “The Butlers had to upgrade it since all this hoopla about a treasure map surfaced,” he added, peering at us sternly. “You should have known that you can’t just traipse in here like that. It’s breaking and entering.”
“But we have a key, remember?”
“I don’t care if you do. My guess is that you stole the key to that lock box from your daughter, Martha. There’s no way she’d just give it to you. She’s really trying to turn her life around.”
“Spoken like a true son in-law,” I commented.
Sales was married to my granddaughter, Sophia, Martha’s daughter, who was about to give birth to their first child. They had been married in a small ceremony after our last case.
Sales continued to stand there with his hands on his hips. “Have you recently had any disagreements with Mildred?”
I clammed up. Sure, we’d had an argument just last week at bingo, when she accused me of switching bingo cards with her while she was in the bathroom. “None that I recall,” I said. Truth was that I just didn’t want to give the trooper any ammo to use against me.
“We’ll see about that one, but you are here, and that puts you on the suspect list—the both of you.”
“Why me?” El said huffily. “Agnes is the one who can’t get along with Mildred, not me.”
“You also know that I never went into the kitchen,” I insisted, glaring at my friend. “Are you trying to get me pegged for murder, Eleanor?”
“Of course not. I was just saying—”
“Saying too much, that’s what.” I folded my arms across my chest. “I don’t have anything to say, and I don’t have any blood on me or on my clothing. If I had killed her, surely I’d have some trace evidence on me.”
“Good point, Agnes,” El said.
“I guess we’ll find that out later when we check both of your clothing at the jailhouse,” Sales said.
I felt naked suddenly. “What will we wear then?”
“An orange jail outfit.”
“That won’t do. Orange is so not my color,” El spat. “And it’s not Agnes’s color, either.”
Sales motioned a deputy forward, and we were frisked, causing a giggle to escape El’s lips. As the heavy cuff slapped closed over our wrists, I almost cried. This wasn’t like the other times we had been arrested. This time it was serious. How on earth would anyone believe that I’d kill Mildred? Sure, we had our differences, but murder? Not!
We were led outside and placed into the back of Peterson’s cruiser. We traveled the ten minutes to the jail and were shuffled inside and into the processing area. After our fingerprints, mug shots, and strip search, we were each given an orange jumpsuit with the name Iosco County Jail printed on the breast pocket. We bypassed the holding cell and were taken to another cell farther into the building. Once we were locked into the small space, I stared at the two bunks, which didn’t look a bit comfy, and took in the toilet along the far wall.
“What about our one phone call?” El asked.
“Maybe they aren’t done questioning us, yet?”
“I’m scared, Aggie. They really think we had something to do with Mildred’s death.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. Who would kill Mildred like that? Sure, she’s annoying, but not worth offing.”
“I agree, Agnes. It’s scary thinking someone would kill an old lady like that. I mean, how much of a fight could she have put up?” El frowned. “Do you think Mildred’s death was related to the recent theft of the painting?”
“We don’t even know for sure if a painting was stolen.”
“Foiled by the cops again. Story of our life,” El huffed.
We sat together on the bottom bunk contemplating the matter and finally fell silent. Leaning against each other, we both eventually nodded off to sleep.
We awoke the next morning to the sound of the metal door being swung open by a female guard. She led me from the cell, down a long corridor, and into a room that no doubt had a large two-way mirror. Centered in the room was a table with two chairs, a box of donuts, and a coffee pot. Seeing these ordinary items somehow made it all the more real to me. It felt like something you’d see on Criminal Minds. Even through my fear, I could hardly wait to see who was planning to question me. Would it be the good cop, Trooper Sales, or the bad cop, Sheriff Peterson? Not that Peterson was really a bad cop at all, though. We just only get along half the time, that’s all.
Sheriff Peterson entered first, with Trooper Sales following. “Hello, Agnes,” Peterson greeted me. He poured me a cup of coffee and added vanilla creamer. “Just how you like it, right?”
I nodded. “Are those donuts for me?”
“Sure, have one.”
I grabbed a glazed one and bit in. “This is great. I felt my blood sugar dropping.”
“It can do that when you’re under stress, Agnes,” Trooper Sales said. “Or guilty of something.”
“The only thing I’m guilty of is entering the Butler Mansion without permission. Since this is my first offense and I hadn’t stolen anything, you don’t have much on me. When my lawyer gets here, he’ll tell you so. By the way, I haven’t gotten my phone call yet.”
Sales slapped his hand on the counter. “Just tell me why you did it,” he insisted.
“I told you everything already. I had only just entered the Butler Mansion when you arrived. I never went into that kitchen until you took me there, and I certainly didn’t murder Mildred.”
“You weren’t friends.”
“Just because I don’t like someone and they were found dead doesn’t mean I did it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in town that Mildred hated. She’s not exactly the friendly type, you know.”
“You’re right there, but you were there when her body was discovered. What did you hope to gain by Mildred’s death?”
I had expected Sales to play “good cop.” I can’t believe he was the one grilling me. “It’s clear that you’re not listening, Sales. I’d like to call my lawyer now.”
Sales leaned back in his chair with a creak. “I see. Lawyering up can be seen as an admission of guilt.”
“If it were up to you, Sales, you’d have me in the electric chair.”
“Oh, come now. Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty, and you know it.”
“And to think you’re part of my family now.”
“Don’t use that on me, Aggie. I have a job to do, and I plan to do it right.”
“I know how you cops are. How you like to turn things around. Maybe you shouldn’t be so intent on pinning this on me and, instead, you should put your attention to finding the real killer. You can call Andrew Hart for me now.”
Peterson nodded and picked up the phone on the wall, calling Andrew and explaining that I needed his legal expertise at the jail.
I munched on donuts until he arrived.
From the frown on Andrew’s handsome face when he walked into the room, it was obvious that Trooper Sales had brought him up to speed. I was ushered into a more private room, and before I even had a chance to say a word, Andrew lit into me. “What were you thinking, Aggie? This is a bit much, even for you. You know damn well you shouldn’t have set foot in that mansion!”
“I didn’t see any harm in it. I had a key and figured nobody would be any the wiser.”
“Except that Mildred’s cold, dead body was there.”
“They can’t pin that on me. We simply have to prove she was dead long before El and I arrived.”
“What time did you get there?”
“I believe it was about seven p.m.”
“And you know that how?”
“Because I looked at my cell is how. I had just gotten off the phone with Sophia.”
“That hardly proves anything, but they can bounce that off a cell tower to determine where you were … but what about earlier in the afternoon, like about five?”
“El and I went to Fuzzy’s Ice Cream Shoppe, and we both had our hair done at Maxine’s Hair Hut in Tadium.” I smoothed my salt and pepper hair into place. El and I had both had a wash and set. “While we were under the drier, it was Maxine who told us about the treasure map hidden behind one of the paintings at the Butler Mansion. She even hinted that one of the paintings had been stolen, and that was all we needed. El and I felt compelled to check it out.” I looked at the lawyer, adding, “It’s awfully interesting, a treasure hidden right here in East Tawas, don’t you think?”
Andrew frowned hard enough that a vein in his temple throbbed. “Not enough to perpetrate a breaking and entering. Look where all your snooping has gotten you—implicated in a murder!”
I interlaced my fingers, not liking where this conversation was heading one bit. “I told you we weren’t—”
“Look, I have told you in the past that, eventually, your investigating activities will land you into trouble. You and El were nearly killed in a few of your cases. Jesus, Agnes, when will it be enough for you? When are you planning to retire?”
“Me retire? How about you?”
He ran a shaky hand through his grey hair. “This isn’t about me, and my clients don’t put me in harm’s way. You, on the other hand—”
“Hey, now, that’s not fair. I hadn’t meant for you to ever get hurt, but you know who I am and what I do. I thought you liked who I was as a person?”
“I do like you. God, I love you, Aggie, but you need to stop doing this.”
I massaged my hands as they began to ache. “El and I didn’t do this … That’s all I can tell you, but I hope you know that we need to investigate Mildred’s death now. How else are we gonna clear our names?”
“Let the police handle it.”
“If we do that, we’ll be in prison for sure. I don’t think my aching body could handle that.” I paused. “Are you going to help us or not?”
“Of course I am, but if you make bail you’ll have to be extra cautious. If Sheriff Peterson or Trooper Sales finds out you’re investigating, they just might revoke your bail and lock you back up.”
“What do you mean if we make bail? Why wouldn’t we get bail?”
“It’s all up to the judge, dear. I’ll check with the sheriff to see when a bail hearing will be held. Until then, zip your lip and tell that friend of yours to zip hers too. I can’t have you two undermining me when I’m trying to get you off.”
I followed Andrew from the conference room and was led back to the cell, but Eleanor wasn’t there. Ten minutes later, she was brought back in, and I gave her a hug, whispering in her ear, “Andrew is here, and he’ll be representing us. What did you tell them?”
“The truth, that we only went looking for a missing painting and that we had no idea Mildred was lying dead in the kitchen. That trooper is really playing bad cop.”
Our conversation was interrupted when Andrew came back to tell us our bail hearing would be in an hour.
I sat on the bunk and tried to relax, but it was hard when we were so obviously on the hot seat. “I just don’t know what to do,” I said to Eleanor. “Andrew thinks we should butt out, but we need to clear our names.”
“He needs to understand that we don’t have a choice,” Eleanor replied. “I can’t imagine what Elsie is going to say when she finds out her sister is dead and that we’re suspects.”
Thinking about the social icon had my head hurting. “I can’t imagine she’s gonna want us anywhere near her, but surely she’ll listen to reason.”
El’s eyes widened. “This is Elsie we’re talking about, right?”
“I know, but hopefully she realizes that I’m no murderer, even if I didn’t get along with Mildred. I didn’t have as much resentment for Mildred as she had for me.”
“I’m afraid that your history with Mildred is going to hurt you, but don’t worry. I’m planning to stick by you, no matter what.”
She said it as though she weren’t already along for the ride. “You do know they think you’re my accomplice?” I reminded her.
“Of course, but people have more sense than to believe I’d be an accomplice to murder. We need to find the real killer, and do it quietly, like Andrew suggested. It’s a good thing you’re dating an attorney, Agnes, but who knew we’d ever need one ourselves?”
“I never imagined that we’d be on the other side of the coin—suspects in a murder ourselves,” I agreed. “It’s just awful that someone killed Mildred.”
“And with a candlestick, of all things. They’ll find our clothing is clear of blood splatter, though, and that should be it.” Eleanor sounded matter-of-fact.
“I still can’t believe Trooper Sales really even thinks we’re involved in Mildred’s death.” I shook my head.
“He’s a good trooper, and he’s no dummy. He’ll come around to our way of thinking.”
I sighed. “I sure hope so. I can’t imagine what my granddaughter will think when she hears about Bill accusing me like that. I hope it doesn’t come between them.”
“I’m sure Sophia will back her husband, not you, Aggie.”
“But I’m her grandmother!” I spat.
“And she’s set to deliver her baby any time, now. It wouldn’t be fair to put her in the middle of this, Aggie.”
I nodded and kept my thoughts to myself, like: What would we do if we really weren’t allowed out on bail?
An hour later, we stood in front of the Honorable Mary Kroft, whose eyes widened in recognition. “This is a switch. I sure never expected you two to be charged with a crime.” She read off the charges of breaking and entering, then asked, “How do you plead?”
“Innocent. We did have a key. My daughter Martha—”
As if on cue, Martha strode into the courtroom, her navy blue suit swirling about her legs. She stopped to whisper into Andrew’s ear, and he asked for permission to approach the bench. I had no idea what was said but when I looked at Martha, she winked in our direction.
Andrew returned to our side, watching as the judge removed her glasses and smoothed a strand of hair behind her ear.
“It seems there has been a turn in events,” the judge said. “Your daughter has stated that she gave you the key to the lock box and had given you permission to enter the Butler Mansion. She has also admitted that she forgot to give you the code to disable the alarm, but I’m perfectly aware that there is an ongoing investigation into the death of Mildred Winfree. While I will drop the breaking and entering charges, I suggest that neither of you leave town.”
I raised a hand, and the judge motioned for me to speak. “But we both live in Tadium. Is it all right if we go home?”
“I’d prefer it if you stayed in East Tawas. Surely you have friends you could stay with here.”
“I’d be happy to put them up somewhere in town,” Andrew volunteered.
I sighed in relief. Although I knew that this didn’t mean we were off the suspect list for Mildred’s murder, at least it offered us some hope.
We were dismissed, and on our way out, we ran into a stone-faced Trooper Sales, who insisted we notify him of where we planned to stay in town once we were situated. Sheriff Peterson told Andrew we were allowed to go home and retrieve our belongings and said that he was counting on Andrew to make sure we returned to East Tawas.
We made way into the parking lot, and I hugged Martha. “Thanks. How are you holding up in the Winnebago?”
“Great, but I sure hope you two can find somewhere else to stay. It’s just not big enough for all of us.”
“A friend of mine has a vacation house on Lake Huron,” Andrew announced. “I’m sure he’ll allow you two to stay there since he lives in Detroit most of the time, and he’s been too busy to come to town this summer.”