Dawn's summer vacation in Stoneybrook is almost over, so she's trying to make use of her last few weeks in town. In fact, Dawn even lands a job with a new BSC client, Mrs. Cornell. Mrs. Cornell lives in Kristy's neighborhood, and a place called Livingston House. At the end of that same club meeting, something strange happpens: the club gets a call from another new client, a Mrs. Keats...wanting a sitter at Livingston House on the exact same day. Kristy ends up taking that job, and at first, the girls think that there might have been some mistake. The two women weren't calling about the same group of kids, though; Mrs. Keats has three kids while Mrs. Cornell has two.
On the day of the job, Kristy and Dawn head over to Livingston House together. It's huge; much bigger than Kristy's place. Dawn even compares it to the White House. The girls knock, and the door is answered by the butler, John Irving (yes, that's really what the calls himself). He's not your typical butler, though; in fact, he's so cute that he's got both Kristy and Dawn a little tongue-tied. He brings them into a huge, fancy sort of lounge, featuring all sorts of fancy furniture and art and stuff. Dawn notices one particular painting of Arthur Livingston (the former man of the house), but she doesn't notice it because it's nice; she notices it because it's ugly. John the butler agrees with her on that, and tells the girls that Arthur had a portrait painted of himself every year of his married life. Just then, Mrs, Keats and Mrs. Cornell arrive on the scene. They're sisters, and it's clear from the moment they enter the room that they don't get along. They're in town, along with their younger sister, Amy, to settle their father's estate (he's the guy from the ugly picture). Their feud is so deep-seated that they don't even want their children to play together, which is why they hired two sitters and why they ask Kristy and Dawn to keep their respective charges in their own personal wings of the house. Kristy takes care of the Keats kids: 9 year old Eliza, 7 year old Hallie, and 5 year old Jeremy. They're nice kids, and Kristy has fun, but they're full of all sorts of questions about their cousins. Meanwhile, Dawn is in the other side of the house with the Cornells: 9 year old Katharine, and 6 year old Tilly. Both sitters think it's a shame that the kids can't play together just because of their mothers' feud, and they want to do something about it,
After the sitting job, Dawn finds Richard outside, waiting to give her a ride home. He's a talking to a woman whom he introduces to Dawn as Lyn Iorio, a lawyer and the executor of Arthur Livingston's will. She also happens to have very loose lips, and Dawn finds out a lot more about what's going on inside Livingston House. The sisters never really got along, even in childhood, because their father was always pitting them against each other. He actually seemed to LIKE seeing them compete and argue. His will is causing even more problems for the family. He created a puzzle for his kids to solve, and the first one to do so will inherit everything. Each daughter was given a clue at the reading of the will, and Ms. Iorio has an envelope of her own, containing a code that will prove whether or not the puzzle has been solved. The obvious solution would be for the sisters to work together to figure things out, but of course, they won't do that. Ms. Iorio agrees that it would be a start to at least get the kids to play together, and agrees to try and use her influence on Mrs. Keats and Mrs. Cornell.
Whatever Ms. Iorio said to the sisters works, because they call during the next BSC meeting and request two sitters for all five kids. Dawn is asked to be one of them (the kids really liked her), and Claudia is the second. The kids are a bit shy at first, but the sitters come up with the idea of playing tour guide. The Keats kids will show off their wing of the house, and the Cornells will show off theirs. Not only is it the perfect activity for a rainy day, but it gives Claud and Dawn the chance to snoop around and see if they can come up with any of their own clues to the Livingston mystery. They don't find anything interesting on their own, but Claudia does get the first piece of the puzzle from Amy Livingston herself. Claud is snooping in a desk drawer, looking for drawing paper, when Amy surprised her. Amy doesn't even acknowledge the fact that Claudia was digging around where she shouldn't. Instead, she rambles on about her father's will and the clue he left her. It was "the first is always the most important." Claudia pretends she doesn't know anything about the will or mystery; after all, she's not supposed to know. Then, as the sitters are leaving, John compliments them on their tour guide skills. This creeps Dawn and Claudia out; how did he know that they were playing tour guide earlier? Something weird is definitely going on....
Mallory is the next one to sit at Livingston House with Dawn. It's raining again, so they decide to take the kids up to the attic and explore. They invite Amy to come with them, since she'd seemed interested in spending some time with the kids. It's a fun project, but Dawn notices something interesting. Even though no one has been up in the attic in ages, there's a fairly dust-free path to a wardrobe containing some of Mr. Livingston's old clothes. The clothes themselves look like they've been recently cleaned, too. Dawn asks Amy about it, who seems really uncomfortable. At the next Livingston House job, Abby accidentally discovers the second clue. Eliza Keats had been asked by her mother to look for signatures on everything; Mrs. Keats' clue is "the signature tells all." The sitters organize a treasure hunt for the kids so they can snoop around and not look suspicious, and it isn't long before Dawn and Abby start to feel like they're being watched. They hear creaking footsteps and coughs wherever they go in the house, but no one is ever around when they investigate. Near the end of the hunt, Eliza brings something rather interesting to Dawn and Abby. It's check, signed by A. Livingston....and it's dated only two months ago. Since Arthur Livingston had been dead for close to a year at that point, the girls are pretty surprised at the find. Dawn starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together, though, and comes up with the conclusion that Arthur Livingston must still be alive. That would explain why his clothes are freshly washed, and someone has apparently been following them around the house and watching them. Why, though, would he fake his own death?
Dawn doesn't have much time to ponder that question; little Jeremy wants a snack. Dawn heads for the kitchen, but when she gets there, she finds that it's already occupied by Amy Livingston and John the butler. They're having a very intense coversation, too: John says he doesn't want to wait anymore, but Amy says they need to. Definitely not typical butler-employer talk..... Dawn makes her presence known, pretends she didn't hear a thing, and goes about the business of making a snack. Amy and John pretend they were just talking about that night's dinner, and Amy quickly leaves the room. On her way back to the kids with the food, Dawn finds Ms. Iorio in the house. She claims she was there to deliver some papers, but she doesn't seem to have any with her. Now Dawn is suspisious of her, too....
When Dawn gets back to Abby and the kids, she finds them in the middle of a big fight. They're mad because their mothers aren't sharing their clues to the family inheritance, and they don't understand why they can't just work together. Dawn and Abby get them to agree to talk to their mothers as soon as they get home. There's some arguing among the sisters, but in the end, they agree with their kids that working together to solve the mystery would be best. Finally, all the clues are in place: "The signature tells all," "The first is always most important," and "I didn't do it, I was ----." They spend some time examining those clues from every possible angle, but none of them can come up with anything. Later, the answer comes to Dawn in a dream (yes, really). The missing word in that final clue is "framed," which means that all three clues put together indicate some sort of picture. When Dawn shares this with the Cornells, Keats, and Livingstons, they all agree that it must mean one of the portraits of Arthur Livingston. The trouble comes with trying to figure out which one is the first one. It ends up being the ugly one that Dawn noticed on her first day at the house, so they call Lyn Iorio over so she can confirm whether or not they've guessed right. Just as she's about to open her envelope, containing a code that's supposed to match one on the back of the painting, they hear a sneeze. Dawn is just about to say gesundheit to whoever it was....but it was none of them. The sneeze is followed by some creaking footsteps, and suddenly, a bookcase starts to move. Out comes John the butler from a secret passage....except he's not really John the butler. He's actually Patrick Livingston, long-lost little brother. He never got along with his father, left home at 17, and everyone was led to believe that he then died. Everyone, that is, except Amy. She'd been in touch with him all along, and was responsible for bringing him into the house as the butler. He was written out of his father's will, of course, but all thre sisters agree that they want the fortune split 4 ways. Feud over, and mystery solved. :)
Thoughts and Things
- This is the first major "last" in my blog project: the last book narrated by Dawn. It wasn't a bad way for her to go out, especially considering some of her other books (and some of the other mysteries). There was a lot of stuff about friendship and memories that got a little sappy and heavy-handed sometimes, but it was also a little touching, considering the fact that it was Dawn's "goodbye" to the series.
- I totally thought that Amy and John/Patrick were going to end up being secret lovers, not siblings.
- When did Dawn become good enough friends with non-BSC SMS kids that she needed an entire party to say goodbye to them all?
- I wish that Ellen Miles had gone into more detail about what the kids found up in the attic. I'm like Dawn; I love stuff like that!
- Kristy's pretty lucky; not only does she get to leave for Hawaii in this book, but she gets to leave again in the next one. :)