A Little Night Murder

 

The 10th Blackbird Sisters Mystery

By Nancy Martin

In stores August, 2014

As I waited in the frigid backseat of a limousine, watching the front gate of a women’s prison on an otherwise beautiful July afternoon, I wondered if I could tap politely on the door and ask the warden to please incarcerate my sister. Just for a few days of peace and quiet.

She was sitting beside me, skimming the newspaper and driving me crazy. Which I could do nothing about, because I had asked her to do me a favor and as usual she agreed faster than she could touch up her lipstick.

“Why on earth,” Libby demanded, “are some men so infatuated with their man parts that they take pictures?” She rattled the offending newspaper. “Really, Nora, here’s another story in your paper about a fellow who photographed himself and sent the picture to fourteen women in his workplace. His colleagues called him Thunder Dick. I think that probably just encouraged him, don’t you?”

Distracted, I said, “Uh-huh.”

“If Mr. Dick truly wanted to arouse the interest of a woman, he should have photographed himself washing dishes. Now, that’s sexy! These days, a picture of a man lathered up with Palmolive suds would make me faint with desire.”

“Uhm,” I said.

“But maybe he could be pictured without his shirt.” She began to stare off into the distance, her eyes going dreamy, her lips turning slack. “Bare chested. With a splash of lotion on his skin to catch the candlelight. Because—”

I finally began paying attention. “Are you having a stroke?”

“—let’s face it,” she said as if I had not spoken, “the right lighting can conceal a lull in a person’s gym routine or a temporary overindulgence in burritos. What is it about men and burritos? I find it puzzling, don’t you? I mean, why have a burrito when you could have chocolate? Does That Man of Yours use lotion?”

I blinked, pretty sure I’d missed something important. “What?”

Libby finally folded up the paper and sighed. “Nora, your hormones have addled your brain. By the time your baby is born, you won’t be able to keep two thoughts in your head at the same time.”

During the last several months, she had repeatedly volunteered to help guide me through my pregnancy. So far, her most practical advice was for me to scrub my nipples to toughen them up for nursing.

“I’m a little distracted at the moment, Libby.”

She pointed out the front-page article that had started her rant. “Why is your newspaper on such a penis kick this summer? I liked it better when journalists got obsessed with fun things like movie stars and shoes. Why don’t you write a nice article about summer sandals?”

I love my sister—both of them, that is—but sometimes I wish we were back in the days when I could lure Libby into a closet with a Butterfinger bar and lock her up for ten minutes of solitude. My solitude, that is.

In the front seat, the chauffeur had been studiously ignoring my sister’s rambling discussion of male anatomy. But suddenly he said, “There she is, Miss Blackbird.”

The door of the stark prison building opened from the inside, and my best friend stepped out into the sunlight. If her first instinct was to wince at the searing sunlight, she suppressed it. But then, Lexie Paine, as close to royalty as anyone in Philadelphia got, was all about self-control. She put on a pair of very dark glasses and squared her shoulders. Then, wearing the same black Armani suit she’d worn in court the day she’d confessed to manslaughter, she walked briskly toward the fence that separated the free world from the prison where she’d been incarcerated for nine and a half months. She carried a ragged manila envelope, which I presumed contained all that remained of her considerable fortune.

“She doesn’t look fat at all.” Libby leaned over me to peer out the window. “I hear they serve white bread at every meal in prison. I might as well glue white bread directly to my thighs. One jaywalking citation and I’d be a poster girl for Jenny Craig.”

I opened the car door and bailed out onto the hot, cracked asphalt of the parking lot. “Stay here,” I said to Libby. “And remember what I told you. No reporter can find out where Lexie is going, okay? Don’t tell a soul.”

“What do you take me for? I am perfectly capable of keeping a secret when it’s—”

I closed the door on my sister’s next volley of claptrap.

For the last several days since hearing of my friend’s upcoming release, surprising Lexie had seemed like a good idea. Now, though, I had every expectation she might slap my face and hitchhike out of there. For my role in her incarceration, I might have deserved that.

She walked straight through the gate, and from behind her sunglasses, she said coolly, “Nora, I knew you were pregnant, but isn’t this overdoing things just a bit?”

“Maybe a little.” Noting that she did not hug me, I said, “Lex, we need to get in a car right away.”

Lexie did not obey my request. She stood still, back stiff, head high. I could not see her eyes behind the glasses. Back when she was young, after a blue-blooded cousin broke her bones and assaulted her, Lexie had reinvented herself into the girl who’d never be a victim again. She became the smartest student in her Ivy League class. Then a powerful woman who crushed the competition on Wall Street. Now that she’d been to prison, I wondered how she planned to reinvent herself one more time.

She said, “Why should I get into your car?”

“Because you’re going to be the hottest news story of the summer,” I said, “and you’d hate that. We’re trying to protect you from the reporters. Lex, please get into the car.”

A long, awful moment stretched, and I wondered if the most important friendship of my life had ended.

“No,” she said. She turned up her face to the sun. “No, just for a minute, let me breathe.”

With her face tilted to the sunlight, she reached out and took my hand. Clutched it, really, and her chilly facade crumbled. “Thank you, sweetie. I was afraid my mother might show up today, and there are times when you just can’t face your mother. You’re such a welcome relief, I can’t tell you.”

I felt the bubble of tension break in my throat. She had stuck by me during the worst time of my life, and I intended to do the same for her.

For now, I said, “I brought Oreos.”

She laughed unsteadily and let me go. “You’re a lifesaver. But you shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not going to be easy being my friend now.”

“You think I’m a stranger to scandal?” I asked with a smile.

“Good point.” She removed her sunglasses and brushed something that might have been a tear from the corner of her eye. “Your tribulations have made you stronger, haven’t they? All right, let’s go—but why three limos?” She gave the three idling black cars and two hired taxis a composed inspection.

“Television trucks are waiting out on the street, and so are about a dozen print journalists. There’s even one man with a camera on a motorcycle. We’re going to do our best to lose all of them before they can figure out where we’re going. And Libby’s going to stage a scene to attract their attention.”

Libby chose that moment to rap her knuckles on the car window and wave brightly at Lexie.

Lexie waved back, trying to conceal her trepidation. “What kind of scene?”

“I thought it best to leave the details to her. But I’m sure whatever she dreams up will do the trick. This way.”

Lexie followed me to the second limousine. “Has your beau plotted all this?”

“It was a team effort. Ready now?” I opened the rear passenger door for her.

Our escape was touch-and-go. I thought the reporters spotted us. But in the rearview mirror we saw Libby bail out at a traffic light and feign a shrieking meltdown—scattering the contents of her handbag, which might have included several rubber snakes. Later she told us reporters called an ambulance because they thought the chauffeur was having a heart attack. I also learned that my sister scored a date with a traffic cop who stopped to help.

A few days after that, Lexie was still successfully concealed from the press, although lounging around the pool at her mother’s summer house felt more like a vacation at a luxury spa.

“Who knew you had such a cunning side?” Lexie said, seated in her bathing suit at a glass-topped patio table under a striped umbrella.

I was drifting in the cool bliss of the swimming pool on a large pink noodle. “It’s a recessive gene I inherited from my parents.”

“Ah, yes,” Lexie said. “Are they still in Argentina, avoiding tax extradition?”

“They’re on a cruise at the moment. I imagine them stowed away in a first-class cabin and dining with the captain every night.”

“They certainly know how to live the good life,” Lexie said. “So does my mother. Not that high living made her a bad parent. She did help me avoid the creepy math tutor who kept wine coolers in his briefcase. And her advice about majoring in business instead of fashion merchandising was very sound, too. But to her dying day, she’ll shout that going to jail was my own fault. And she’d be right. I think I need help, sweetie. You have to help me relearn all the lessons of civilized society. You always do the right thing.”

Maybe because I was floating so comfortably, my first thought popped out unbidden. “I try to do the right thing because I screwed up once. And Todd died.”

She set her tea down on a table, and she got serious fast. “Your husband got himself killed with drugs and stupidity, Nora. That wasn’t your fault.”

It felt like my fault, though. I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t dragged him to the right doctors, hadn’t locked him up or tied him to a bedpost—anything to keep him away from cocaine. In my worst moments, I feared I had enabled him.

I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Lexie—do nothing, that is. When I’d heard a judge intended to release her for reasons too complicated for anyone to understand yet, I had telephoned her formidable mother and asked to be the one to pick her up. I suggested Lexie be allowed to go into hiding at her mother’s palatial summer house on the Delaware, just a half hour’s drive from downtown Philadelphia and a few miles from my home. Here, I intended to keep watch on my friend.

Except for the occasional cutting remark that seemed to pop out of a hard, angry place inside, she seemed to be a little better every day. My biggest concern was that Lexie was being denied her best recovery strategy—her work. She’d heal faster if she could be allowed back into her office.

But that was impossible.

Lexie went on, “For a woman so concerned about appearances, my mother certainly has no qualms about her own reputation. She’s on her fourth husband—have I told you? The polo player went back to South America, so she married a yachtsman from Newport. She’s an enthusiastic wife, but mothering never suited her. Does that worry you, sweetie? The possibility of evolving into a terrible mother now that you’re hatching one of your own?”

“Most of the time I’m too hungry to worry,” I said. “Tell the truth. Do I look like a manatee?

She tilted down her sunglasses to make a better examination of me wallowing in the water in all my pregnant splendor. Diplomatically, she said, “That swimsuit is very flattering, sweetie.”

She looked elegant in a black bathing suit with a black lace cover-up designed by an artist who knew how to make a woman’s nearly naked body look chic, not tarty. I, on the other hand, was simply glad there were no harpoons handy, since it would be easy to mistake me for a great white whale.

I said, “I have eight weeks to go. We Blackbird women get big early.”

“Well, you look happy,” she said. “Having a family has always been important for you, hasn’t it? Just don’t let it overwhelm you, please. Women who have nothing to discuss but diapers bore me to tears.”

She wasn’t herself, I said inwardly. It wasn’t her nature to be hurtful. She had spent the last months holding back her thoughts and emotions. Letting other people make all the decisions for her must have been excruciating for a woman who had commanded a fast-paced investment firm. But her usual control had cracks now, and I was the recipient of her lapses in kindness. This phase would fade, however. After Todd died, I had been alternately a crazy bitch on wheels or a lump under the coverlet. Lexie moved in with me—against my wishes—and fed me, talked with me, stuck by me until I could function again.

She slipped off her cover-up and waded down the steps of the shallow end. With the seemingly unshakable composure of her Mayflower forebears, she put her palms flat on the surface of the water and canted her face up to the sun again. Her black ponytail hung down between shoulders just starting to tan. She inhaled a deep, cleansing breath of fresh air and let it out on a sigh.

She said, “The press continues to be baffled about my whereabouts?”

“So far, so good.” I didn’t want to bother her with the details, but there was a full-scale hunt going on—complete with baying hounds and irate letters to editors from former clients whose fortunes had been ruined by the millionaire investment whiz who got out of jail thanks to a team of mobbed-up lawyers.

“I’m grateful for your help, Nora,” she said. “Although I miss my own digs.”

“This is the right place for the moment,” I said.

“I’ll probably have to sell my house, you know. To help with the Cause.”

“I hope not, Lex.”

She shrugged. She had taken to making light of her effort to repay all the clients who’d been swindled by her former partner at the Paine Investment Group. I knew she was obsessed with getting the hundreds of stolen millions back into the hands of investors who had trusted her firm with their life savings. After all, she said, it was her name on the brass plate that still hung on the building in the center of Philadelphia, not her larcenous partner’s. But it was going to take time. And sacrifice.

Meanwhile, she admitted to feeling guilty about her luxurious hiding place. Her mother’s mansion—one of many pieds-à-terrearound the world—stood on a Bucks County bluff overlooking the river. This little-used summer house was only a convenient few miles down the road from Blackbird Farm, my family’s formerly grand but now crumbling estate. The differences between the two properties included air-conditioning—my house had become a sweltering oven in July—and the sumptuous swimming pool, which had been built before the Great Depression by one of Lexie’s robber baron relatives. It resembled a Roman bath. The mosaic on the bottom of the pool depicted a Bacchanalian banquet scene. The surrounding garden was guarded by two marble Praetorian guards, spears in hand, glaring stalwartly off into the woods behind the mansion.

Indoors, the great house’s many gracious amenities included a billiards room with cigar burns courtesy of J.P. Morgan, a salon where polo teams could be plied with cocktails and a servant’s wing with forty numbered bells in the hallway. That wing was currently empty, since Lexie couldn’t afford more than the services of her longtime houseman, Samir, who had taken a deep pay cut to continue to loyally shop, cook and keep house. Lexie confided to me that he had accepted the job offer because he was writing a book in his spare time—subject unknown so far—and he was glad to have his own sprawling suite in the essentially empty house for staring glumly at his computer screen. To our tremendous gratitude, Samir made our lunch every day and regularly appeared with frosty pitchers of herbal tea.

It was not Samir, however, who came through the diaphanous curtains of the French doors and stepped onto the bluestone terrace of the pool, carrying our refreshed iced tea pitcher in one hand and pinning a portfolio under his other arm. Rather, it was a tall, hulking man with an infamous reputation.

He said to Lexie, “I think I just scared the bejesus out of your butler.”

“Don’t worry, darling,” Lexie called to him, “he recovers quickly. Michael, is Nora expecting twins, do you think?”

The father of my baby put the fresh pitcher on the table. “Doctor says just one. Last month, she showed us the pictures to prove it, ’cause I had my doubts.” He ambled to the edge of the pool and smiled down at me. “How was yoga class?”

I paddled over to the stairs. “Great. Baby Girl loved it, too. She was very peaceful.” I put my wet hand up to him.

Michael Abruzzo, who had sworn he was getting out of organized crime, was still frequently mistaken for a wanted criminal. He had big shoulders and a broken face, and in public he often kept up a kind of benign menace that could scatter a crowd. But he helped me out of the pool as if I were precious glass. From a nearby lounge chair, he pulled a towel and clasped it around as much of me as it could cover.

I stretched up on tiptoe and gave him a kiss. “Did anyone follow you?”

He raised one eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right?”

“After that masterful display of evasive driving during last week’s escape,” I said, referring to Michael’s command of the lead car in our prison escape plan, “I don’t mean to cast any doubt on your criminal expertise, but—”

“I didn’t have any reporters on my tail today. Lexie’s undisclosed location is still a secret.” He kissed me again. “Did you tell her?”

I smiled up into his blue eyes. “I was waiting for you to get here.”

Lexie perked up. “Tell me what? Are you two keeping secrets?”

I clasped his hand, and he squeezed mine back. I took a deep breath and faced my friend. “We’re getting married. A week from Friday. We picked up the marriage license yesterday.”

“Darlings!”

Lexie leaped from the pool and hugged us both, leaving a wet splotch on Michael’s shirt and me feeling tearily happy.

With her eyes shining, too, she cried, “After all this time, all your ups and downs—how romantic. Friday? Where? What can I do? Lord, I can’t afford an extravagant gift, so it will have to be a service of some kind—anything.”

“The main service? Don’t tell my sisters. Either one of them. We’re trying to do this quietly, and you know Libby. Given enough time, she’ll rent a circus tent and hire the Harlem Globetrotters to officiate, so I’ll wait until the eleventh hour to invite her.”

“Of course. Not a word from me. But—could we invite friends here for a shindig after? It might have to be hot dogs and potato chips, but I bet there’s some of Mama’s champagne in the cellar. Let me throw you a reception.”

“I don’t think that’s smart. The press will certainly view our wedding as something out of The Godfather, and there would be photographers in helicopters who would spot you. So, no, we’re going to see a judge in her chambers. Judge Scotto—do you know her? And maybe you’d sneak out of here long enough to be a witness? We need two. It will be very quiet.”

Suddenly Lexie had real tears in her eyes—a flash of her former intuitive, empathetic self. More than anyone, she understood the complexities of my relationship with Michael—all the reasons why I had been afraid to marry him, share a life and family with him, as well as the sometimes irrational rationales that compelled me into his arms. Although Michael and I came from different worlds—different kinds of dysfunctional families—we shared the desire to create a stable family for ourselves. Lexie recognized that.

She gave me another, gentler hug. “You’re getting married before the baby comes. Very wise. I wish you both all the happiness you deserve. Of course I’ll be a witness. And I’ll keep your secret, I promise. Libby would certainly make a big production, indeed. I won’t breathe a syllable.”

“Not to anyone.” Michael hooked his thumb back at the house. “Not even to the person I brought along today.”

“Who did you bring?” I asked, surprised.

“Somebody to meet you. She’s in the house powdering her nose.”

I had already noted that he’d come wearing an old white dress shirt, sleeves folded back over his forearms, the tail untucked over his usual jeans. The look was a significant sartorial upgrade from his customary black T-shirt, which alerted me that he had brought someone important. “Maybe I should go put on something more suitable?”

“You look great. She’ll be here in a minute. Meanwhile,” he confessed, “I need to talk to Lexie.”

Although intrigued about who had come with him, I said, “What are you two working on? Is Lexie teaching you all there is to know about business?”

Lexie gathered up a towel for herself. “Your groom doesn’t need me to play teacher, sweetie. I’ve mentored MBAs with less insight into the financial world. In fact, it’s the other way around this time. And he’s keeping me sane. If I didn’t have something complicated to think about, I’d be going crazy.”

I decided not to take offense, patted myself dry and reached for my T-shirt. But her words gave me pause. Was this the reinvention I had been expecting? With some humor, I said, “Should I be worried?”

Michael didn’t respond as he settled into a lounge chair. He fished his reading glasses out of the pocket of his shirt and opened the portfolio of papers. Also in the portfolio was a small laptop, which he flipped open.

Lexie said, “Since I can’t get a job to save my life—not with my licenses revoked and all my former associates pretending I have the plague—your groom and I thought we’d put our heads together on a project.”

“A project,” I said lightly. “Is it legal?”

“In some countries.” Michael matched my tone. “Do you want to know more?”

“The less, the better. I don’t want to be served with a subpoena in the maternity ward.”

Lexie bit her lip, but Michael smiled at me. “That’s my girl.”

I sat in the chair next to his. For all our jesting, I trusted he wasn’t going to break any laws. His own precarious legal status—on parole for racketeering with the rest of the notorious Abruzzo family, and at risk of returning to prison if he so much as sneezed in the wrong direction—was worth minding. But I wasn’t sure where Lexie was headed.

I pulled on the T-shirt. Due to my dire financial straits, I had been forced to dig into my sister Libby’s collection of hand-me-down maternity clothes, which meant I was bending my fashion rules considerably. Libby’s taste ran to gaudy items with funny sayings printed on them.

Today’s bright yellow T-shirt said, let me out, it’s dark in here. I had counted on nobody seeing me except my close friend, but here I was, stuck looking ridiculous.

Michael sent me a sideways glance and smothered a smile.

“It was free,” I reminded him.

“It’s not bad,” he said. But any minute he was going to burst out laughing.

Saving me from further embarrassment, my cell phone rang in the depths of my beach bag, and I struggled up to reach for it.

Lexie saved me the trouble. She found my phone, saying, “You’re working hard these days, Nora, despite our lazy afternoons. Is the social season heating up?”

“It never cooled down,” I said, accepting the phone. “But my editor has been on vacation. Now that he’s back on American soil, he’s shouting for my head.”

“Why?”

“I misbehaved while he was away. It’s time to pay the piper.”

But the phone stopped ringing in my hand.

Of all the people who phoned me, only my editor was so impatient that he’d hang up after only two rings. I checked the caller ID. Yes, Gus Hardwicke was obviously back from Australia.

“Why is he shouting?”

“In his absence, I may have exceeded my station.”

“I like what you’ve been doing lately,” Lexie said. “The article about the ten best charities and the ten worst? That took real reporting. If that sort of thing is your new direction, I think it’s great.”

“Mr. Hardwicke may not think so. There have been irate letters to the editor about the ten worst charities. People complained that I discouraged donors.”

She was impatient. “Why give money to a charity that sends less than five percent of the funds they raise to their actual mission? They’re giving all their income to professional fund-raisers! That’s outrageous.”

“Even five percent is better than nothing, some might say.”

My phone chirped—a signal I had received a text. I checked. From Gus.

WHERE IS LEXIE PAINE???

I should have guessed he’d already be hot on the trail of Lexie’s story. I put the phone away before she could see the screen.

I knew I should call him back, but instead I decided to put off the inevitable for just a few more minutes. I dried my legs while Michael asked Lexie a convoluted question about currency exchange and offshore bank accounts. I sipped tea and tried not to think about large-scale international money laundering.

But their financial confab was interrupted by music from the house next door. From the distance of two football fields away, the trilling of opening chords on a piano rose over the treetops. I couldn’t see from our poolside vantage point, but I heard a pair of voices join in, singing warm-up scales.

Lexie rolled her eyes. “Cue the howling dogs. The music is starting early today.”

Michael glanced up from his computer screen to listen. “What’s going on?”

“It’s my neighbors.” With one hand, Lexie indicated the half-hidden mansion that stood behind a screen of tall trees. “Back in the day, my great-grandfather and his brother built these twin houses up here. The brother sold his to Toodles Tuttle.”

“Toodles?” Michael grinned.

“You know all about credit default swaps, but not Broadway theater?” Lexie demanded.

To Michael, I said, “Toodles Tuttle was a very famous composer. He wrote musicals.”

“Tap-dancing and chorus girls, right?”

“Exactly,” said Lexie. “He made a fortune at it, too, which was how he could afford the house. But Toodles died a few years ago. Now his wife lives next door, the old harridan, with a slew of minions who obey her every command. The gardener told me she recently discovered one of her husband’s unproduced musicals, and they’re trying to get it ready for the stage. She’s looking for investors, if you’re interested.”

Just then one of the singers hit a flat note, and Michael winced. “Sounds like a losing proposition to me.”

But Lexie looked thoughtful. “A totally new Toodles musical? It might be very lucrative.”

 

 

A Little Night Murder . . . available in stores and in e-book form August, 2014.