Little Black Book of Murder


The 9th Blackbird Sisters Mystery

By Nancy Martin


           “The only time a woman is truly helpless,” said my sister Libby as she sailed into the musty lobby of an old theater, “is when her nail polish is wet.  Even then, she should be able to pull a trigger. I read that somewhere.”

           I had asked her for help regarding my new boss.

           “I can’t shoot my editor,” I said as we skulked past the closed refreshment stand and into the back of the dark and empty auditorium. “As satisfying as that might feel, the long range consequences would interfere with my social schedule. Which is still my job, and I need to keep it.”

           Libby arranged herself in a back row seat like a contented hen settling on a nest of warm eggs, an impression heightened when she pulled off a scarf to reveal a t-shirt under her velour track suit. In sequins, the shirt said Haute Chic. She tossed her scarf over the adjacent empty seat. “Why are you asking me, Nora? I’d suffocate in a humdrum environment! My inner goddess needs freedom to flourish. I get hives just thinking about punching a time clock. Darnit, I wish I’d thought to bring some popcorn.”

            Our sister Emma plunked herself down next to me and immediately propped her muddy riding boots on the seat in front of her. “The sign in the lobby said stage mothers are supposed to stay out of the theater.”

            “I am not a stage mother,” Libby snapped. “I am a powerful life force guiding my children to a brighter destiny. I pull them into the turbulent current of life with my own indomitable momentum.”

            Emma said, “Just a guess, but have you added to your collection of nutball self-help books lately?”

            Libby blithely ignored that shot. She had dragged her thirteen-year old twins Harcourt and Hilton to audition for something I still wasn’t clear about. Then, instead of lunch, she had insisted the three of us sneak into the back row to watch. On stage, a couple of shady characters muttered beside the velvet curtains, which had been pulled open to reveal an empty space with a battered piano on one side.  The piano player appeared to noodle one-handed on the keyboard while dozing off from boredom with his chin propped in his other hand. From some distant place, we could also hear the high-pitched buzz of a pre-teen mob that had been corralled like wildebeests eager to break into a stampede.

           Libby dug into her handbag in search of a restorative snack. “Those stage mother rules don’t apply to me.  I made it clear my sons should be first to audition this afternoon, so we’ll be in and out as soon as the director gets started. Meanwhile, we can solve Nora’s workplace issue.”

           If Libby could solve a workplace issue it certainly wouldn’t be because she had ever held down a formal job in her entire life. Like me, she had grown up on the Old Money accumulated by our entrepreneurial Blackbird relatives who came to America early and amassed an enviable fortune by investing in railroads and safety pins. There were no parcel-tying shopkeepers in our ancestry, Mama often said. Since those early days, Blackbirds had always allowed their money to do all the work, and she made darn sure her daughters had none of the skills that might threaten that dubious family record. We had enjoyed all the luxuries money could buy until our parents went broke and ran off with the meager remains of our trust funds. They now applied themselves to perfecting their samba skills in South American dance halls while my sisters and I learned to navigate the real world.

           My younger sister Emma had actually worked for a living since she was old enough to put a boot into a stirrup.  So I turned to her and said, “How do I handle an obnoxious boss?”

           “I suppose you’ve ruled out sexual favors,” Emma said.

           “That’s not funny. I need a solution from this century, please.”

           “I was only kidding.” Emma slumped down in her seat as if sliding further into the funk she’d been fighting for months. “Why the hell are we here? I could use some food.”

           I had arranged a reconciliation lunch for my squabbling sisters, and it had taken all of my powers of peace-making persuasion to get Emma to show up at all.  At Libby’s request we had changed plans and met in front of a venerable Bucks County theater mostly used for amateur productions of Neil Simon plays and the occasional high school talent show.

           Emma had appeared wearing an expression of sisterly resentment.  Tall and lean and more perfectly proportioned than Miss Alabama, she might have been mistaken for a beauty queen except for her dirty boots, breeches and the mud-spattered shirt that said she’d been exercising someone’s expensive horses somewhere nearby. Her short hair was mashed on the sides as if by a helmet and still managed to look chic. But the scowl on her otherwise flawless forehead told me that she and Libby hadn’t forgiven each other for harsh words snapped a few months ago when Emma gave birth and handed over her illegitimate baby to the child’s very married father.

            Both my sisters were still pretending the other was invisible.

            Therefore, sitting between them, I was the recipient of their undivided attention.

            To me, Emma said, “What’s so wrong about your boss?”

            “Maybe the problem isn’t your boss at all,” Libby said as if Emma had not spoken.  She focused intently on thumbing a stick of gum out of its packet.  “Maybe it’s you.”

            “I know it’s me,” I said, unable to hide my exasperation.  “Look, I was hired to be a society columnist—to attend parties and report about charitable giving.  That’s where my skills are—parties! And I’m good at it.”

            “So what’s the big deal?” Emma picked a hunk of mud off the side of one boot.

            “Newspapers are failing all over the country, and half the staff of The Intelligencer has been laid off. We’re putting out every edition on a shoestring.  Because my salary is so low, I’ll be the last to get a pink slip. Meanwhile, the new editor seems to think I’m a real reporter who should be capable of writing real news.”

            “That’s a good sign.” Libby handed me one of her two sticks of gum and kept the other for herself. “He must like your work.”

            “He likes that I’m cheap,” I clarified, passing my share of the gum to Emma, who took it.

           Emma said, “Is this Crocodile Dundee, the Australian guy?”

           Libby sat up eagerly. “That man with the cute accent?  Oh, I saw him on television, talking about the future of journalism. He’s very handsome, Nora. The ex-surfer whose father is that bossy media mogul in Australia?”

           “That’s him.  Thing is, I’m not suited to surfing with the crocodiles. He’s asking me to be something I’m not.”

           “You’re a reporter,” Emma said. “So, report. Except instead of noticing flower arrangements, you gotta decide which gangbanger robbed the liquor store. Not much different.”

“I’m not covering any gangs, thank heavens, but I’m floundering. I don’t have the right skills.”

            My cell phone gave a jingle to tell me I was getting another text message.  The phone had already gone off half a dozen times since I left my house.  I glanced at the screen and held it up as Exhibit A.  “See?  He’s texting me right now. Probably to ask when I’ll be sending my column.  Trouble is, I haven’t had time to write the damn thing because he’s also got me working on celebrity profiles!”

            “That’s what he considers real reporting?” Emma said. “Celebrity profiles? What, he hasn’t heard of any flying saucer stories he could send you on?”

            “Oh!” Libby cried.  “Nora, I meant to tell you how much I loved your series on the Real Housewives of the Main Line. That one who owns 500 pairs of shoes and keeps them organized by color? What an inspiration she is. How do I meet her?”

            “Within five minutes of meeting, Libby, you’d want to stab yourself in the eye with a stiletto.”

            “But it was a great article! All the girls down at the Pink Windowbox were talking about it.” Libby set down her handbag on the sticky floor, thought better of it, then put it onto the seat beside her. “Here’s my suggestion, Nora. Make a list of all your best accomplishments. Write them on slips of colored paper, and keep them in an old jewelry box—you know, the kind with the pop-up ballerina and the mirror inside? And every time you start feeling blue or inadequate, open your box and read one. You’ll feel better, trust me.”

            “I’m not sure I want to be reminded that my best accomplishment is a story about a woman with 500 pairs of shoes.”

            “It was better than you think,” Libby insisted. “It made me want to buy shoes while also feeling morally superior. That’s an accomplishment.”

            “People smarter than you are out of work right now,” Emma pointed out, dropping her gum wrapper on the floor.

            I picked up her wrapper and crumpled it in my hand.  “Yes, I should be happy I have a job in the first place.  It’s just—I don’t know how much longer I can keep making it up as I go along.”

            Libby said, “What other celebrities are you profiling?”

           “The big one is Swain Starr, the fashion designer who retired. I started pestering him a few weeks ago, and he finally agreed to give me some interviews.”

           Libby lit up. “I love his clothes! And he makes plus sizes, thank heavens, and in colors other than black. Do all designers think fat girls are in mourning for their thin selves?”

            “Who she’s writing about is not the point,” Emma snapped. “The point is Nora’s overwhelmed.”

            “I’m not dense,” Libby said without turning her head to acknowledge Emma’s presence. “I’m completely sympathetic to your problem, Nora. You’re in crisis.  We should all learn to give and accept support in a crisis.”

            “I’m plenty supportive.” Emma popped the gum into her mouth and started to chomp with enough force to break a molar. “But it doesn’t do any good for her to wallow in self-pity.”

            “I need to be pro-active,” I agreed. “So tell me what to do, Em.”

            “Well, you can’t resign. If you give up your salary, you’ll lose your house for sure. After that last ice storm in January, Blackbird Farm looks even more dilapidated than ever.”

            “Some of the gutters were damaged. I have to save up for the repairs.”

            “Go into business for yourself,” Libby said. “Like me.”

            We turned to her, surprised to hear her news.  I said, “You’re in business?”

            Emma snorted.  “Are you selling sex toys again?

            “For your information,” Libby said to me, “I am representing my children now. Specifically, the twins.”

            In recent years, Libby’s thirteen year-old twin sons had developed unspeakable hobbies—I had the enormous jars of dead snakes and rodents in my cellar to prove it--and last I heard they were lobbying to take a summer science course that required the purchase of a human cadaver. They had spent the winter eagerly shoveling sidewalks to earn enough money to buy one.  They still spoke in their secret language of twins, and their conversations often sounded like a couple of bloodthirsty assassins planning mayhem in code.

            So I assumed the worst and said, “You mean you’re representing them in court? Shouldn’t you hire a real lawyer, Libby?”

            “They’re not in trouble, silly. They’ve expressed an interest in the entertainment industry. And you know I leap at indulging their creative process.”

            “What kind of entertainment?” Emma asked.  “Jumping motorcycles across canyons? Shooting apples off each other’s heads? I presume whatever it is, there are deadly weapons involved?”

            “I’ll have you know,” Libby said severely, “that all my children have excellent karma of the soul.  Their creativity responds to positive stimulation, that’s all, not mean-spirited influences.”

            I intervened before Emma could throw a wad of chewing gum. “What kind of entertaining do the twins want to do?”

            “I think they should start with modeling.  Then acting, of course.  But I want to keep them open to musical ventures, too.  That Justin Beiber is so adorable. I could just eat him with a spoon.”

            Muttering a rude word, Emma sank down in her seat.

            “The twins might especially thrive in the rock and roll scene,” Libby said.  “Most famous music stars can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you know.  There are machines that tweak your voice now. And instruments practically play themselves. Anybody can be a star.  It just takes relentless representation to get ahead in the business. That’s where I come in.  What better, more determined business partner can a child have than a loving parent? And nobody can outshine me when it comes to determination.”

            Emma and I exchanged a look while Libby continued to rhapsodize.

            “I was back doing some restoration work for the museums, but painting isn’t very satisfying for me anymore.  I’m too spontaneous to spend hours in a hermetically sealed laboratory.  I need energy pulsing around me! If my own life has reached the period when things have slowed down a bit—well, it’s a mother’s job to turn her attention to making her children’s lives as fulfilling as possible, right? Why work myself into a tizzy of disappointment and frustration when I can usefully turn my energies to something positive?”

            I said, “Things fell through on your date last week?”

            She heaved a wavering sigh.  “We had a nice dinner, and I invited him back to my house for cappuccino, but when we got there, I had a zillion carpenter ants swarming all over my living room.  Nothing like a huge black swarm of hideous bugs to suck the magic out of a romantic evening. It was horrible.  A nightmare. But,” she said, perking up, “I remembered that I have better things on my horizon. A few weeks ago I went to a free seminar at the Holiday Inn. I didn’t figure out I was in the wrong room until I was thoroughly entranced by the workshop. It was a tutorial for mothers of talented offspring. Immediately, I was inspired! Why should somebody’s else’s pimply kid get all the attention when mine are perfectly capable?”

            “Capable of what?” Emma asked under her breath. “Homicide?”

            “The twins have oodles of potential,” Libby said to me. “We just have to tease out the most marketable skills.  Porter says every TV producer in the world is on the lookout for twins these days.  Twins are very hot in sitcoms.”

            “Porter?” I asked cautiously.

            “Sitcoms,” Emma repeated. “Don’t you think they’re better suited to the horror genre?”

            Steadily ignoring Emma, Libby said, “I’ve turned an important corner, Nora.  By facilitating my children’s reaching for the stars, I’ll attain my own fulfillment, see? If the twins make it to Hollywood, I will have done my best as a mother, and that’s reward enough in life.”

            “Who’s Porter?”

            “The young man who runs the seminars. He’s accepted the twins into his exclusive program.”

           “He’s some kind of a talent scout?”

           “Well, first he scouts, then he nurtures. He represented that little girl who played a baby vampire on a cable show, and then she was hired for that movie with Meryl Streep.  He’s very successful.  Of course he’s far too young for me,” she added in a rush.

            “Libby,” I said, putting my arm around her plump shoulders, “there are plenty of nice men in the world, and some day you’re going to meet the right one.  A man who’s put off by a few insects isn’t worth your--”

            “It wasn’t just a few bugs,” she said, her voice catching on a sniffle.  Her eyes pooled with tremulous tears. “It was about two million.  That’s what Perry the bug man said this morning when he made an emergency trip to my house.  Fortunately, he d-didn’t charge me the weekend rate, which is d-double the astronomical fee I actually paid.  He says I’m such a good repeat customer that I d-deserve a d-discount.”

            I handed her my handkerchief in the knick of time.  Libby burst into tears and sobbed her heart out.  Nobody wept like Libby---gushing tears, heaving bosom and howling sobs that turned heads up on stage.

            The man with the clipboard came to the apron and raised one hand to his forehead to squint out into the dark theater.  “Ladies? You’re not supposed to be here.”

            Emma called back, “We came to see our nephews.”

            “This is a closed audition. And anyway, we don’t start for an hour. You have to leave.”

            Libby emerged from my handkerchief looking as radiant as a saint fresh out of Lourdes.  “An hour?”  She checked her watch. “That gives me enough time for a manicure. I think I saw a nail salon on the corner.”

           When we were out in the lobby again, Libby handed over my sodden handkerchief. “A manicure or maybe an herbal body wrap. I want to look my best for the high school graduation in a few weeks. There’s a chance Rawlins will be honored with an award or two, and since I may be asked to pose for posterity with him, I want to look wonderful.  I’ve been dieting, too, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”

           I asked, “Libby, what happened to your theory that dieting is a weapon of oppression against women?”

           “Theories come and go, but photographs are forever,” she replied.

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