Read an Excerpt
“Some women are born blonde,” Margery Flax said. “Some achieve it. Being blonde doesn’t have anything to do with your natural hair color. It’s an attitude. A true blonde knows she can get away with murder.”
“Can she really?” Helen Hawthorne said. “Did you ever know a successful blonde killer?”
“I knew one,” Margery said. “It was more than thirty years ago. It was a blonde-on-blonde crime. The blonde killer was never caught. Her blonde victim was never found.”
Helen, a brunette, was sitting out by the pool at the Coronado Tropic Apartments with her gray-haired landlady, Margery Flax. It was one of those soft south Florida twilights where women who’ve had a little wine tell each other secrets.
Helen would never have guessed that Margery knew an uncaught killer. But there was a lot she didn’t know about her landlady. There were a few things Margery didn’t know about her, either: Helen was on the run from the law in St. Louis. So far, the court hadn’t found her.
South Florida was a good place to hide. Helen wondered how many lawless types like herself were sitting out by their pools tonight, sipping wine.
She couldn’t answer that question, so Helen concentrated on what she did know about Margery. Her landlady was seventy-six, she loved purple, and she smoked Marlboros.
Now Margery seemed ready to reveal something from her past. She poured them both more white wine from the box on the patio table and set fire to another cigarette. Her lighter flared yellow, then her cigarette tip glowed orange in the deepening dark. It was oddly comforting, perhaps because it was unchanging. Margery’s smoking ritual would have had the same flare and glow in the last century.
“Keep in mind this happened some thirty-five years ago,” Margery said. “America was a different country. Nixon was president. We were still in Vietnam. There were riots and protest marches. But the summer of love was long gone. In 1970, the Beatles broke up, Janis Joplin OD’d, and four students were killed at Kent State. Everything the sixties stood for was coming apart. Something dark was loose in America. I could see it even at the office where I worked.”
“I thought you ran the Coronado,” Helen said.
“I had a husband,” Margery said. “He ran the Coronado. I had to get out of the house.”
Margery never talked about her husband. Helen didn’t know if he was dead or divorced. She’d never seen his picture displayed in her landlady’s home.
“Never mind where I worked in Fort Lauderdale,” Margery said. “We pushed paper, like most offices. Young women can’t understand what offices were like then. Women’s rights were still something people debated, and they weren’t sure we should have them. Strong-minded women were condemned as libbers and bra burners.
“It’s also hard to picture the daily office routine. There was no FedEx. Fax machines weren’t common, so important documents were sent across town by cab or messenger. Computers were the size of Toyotas. Office workers didn’t have PCs or e-mail,” Margery said.
“People used typewriters, big clunky metal things in battleship gray. Men used to brag that they couldn’t type. It was women’s work. It was definitely my work. I could type seventy words a minute. Most typists still used carbon paper. I carboned the back of a letter or two in my time.
“This was so long ago, I was still a brunette,” Margery said. “I always will be, no matter how gray I get. Brunette is an attitude, too.”
Helen did a quick calculation. Margery must have been forty in 1970, two years younger than Helen was now. She tried to imagine her landlady at that age and couldn’t. Then she remembered a photo she’d seen of Margery from that period. She was wearing a purple miniskirt and white Dallas cheerleader boots. What did they call them? Go-go boots. Margery’s hair had been a rich brown, and her face was nearly unlined. Helen thought she’d looked young and sassy.
“Let me tell you about the boss,” Margery said. “Vicki ran our department back in the days when women bosses were rare. She didn’t know much about business, but she understood office politics. Some said she got her promotion because she had a special friendship with Mr. Hammonds, the CEO. They always said that about successful women then, but in Vicki’s case, it might have been true.
“Vicki was one of those blondes you love to hate. She was a snippy size two. She wore spiked heels that turned her walk into a pattering little sway. She liked pink and ruffles.”
Margery blew out a cloud of smoke, and Helen could almost see Vicki in the swirling wisps.
“Men thought Vicki was cute. She knew how to flatter them. She didn’t waste soft words on the women at work. She certainly didn’t waste any on me. I was the department manager. But I could stand up for myself, and I knew where all the bodies were buried. Vicki was a little afraid of me, and I liked it that way. I trusted that woman as far as I could throw her.”
Helen thought her landlady was capable of lobbing Vicki across the pool. She was a strong woman, in all senses of the word.
“The one I felt sorry for was Minnie. The poor girl was a mouse. Even her name belonged to a mouse. Minnie was short for Minfreda, which she said was a family name, but she couldn’t get anyone to call her anything but Minnie. She was not a forceful person.
“Minnie’s hair was mousy brown. I guess that color takes an attitude too, but it wasn’t one I wanted. The rest of her was mouselike. She had a small, pointed chin and a sharp nose that looked like it was twitching for cheese.
“Vicki loved to pick on Minnie. I swear she used to spend her nights dreaming up ways to torment her. It wasn’t fair. Minnie worked harder than anyone else in that office. She was the best qualified, too. She had two degrees and ten years’ experience. She was more than book smart. Minnie understood the business better than any of us. She should have had Vicki’s job. Heck, she should have had Mr. Hammonds’s, except she’d need a sex change to get it.
“I was always giving her pep talks,” Margery said. “‘You have to stand up to her, Minnie,’ I’d tell her. ‘That Vicki is nothing but a bully. It’s the only way to get her off your back.’
“‘You’re right, Margery,’ Minnie would say in her wispy little voice.
“I’d see her standing at the entrance to Vicki’s office, trying to summon the courage to tell her off. I’d silently root for her, but she never stood her ground. Minnie would start to knock on Vicki’s door. Her mouth would open and shut like a goldfish’s. Then the bold words would dry up in Minnie’s throat and she’d scurry away.
“Poor Minnie would work harder, desperate to please Vicki,” Margery said. “We knew that was hopeless. Hard work didn’t impress this boss. Vicki favored some of the worst goof-offs in the office. I wanted to take Minnie and shake her. She was a doormat. Vicki wiped her feet on Minnie.”
Margery might pity Minnie, but she would have no patience with her, Helen thought. The fearless cannot understand what it’s like to be afraid. But Helen knew. She was afraid her ex would find her, afraid she’d have to go back to St. Louis, afraid she’d once more be standing in front of the bald, wizened judge who’d ruined her life.
“Minnie was as colorless as our office,” Margery said. “Now, when I tell you this story, you’re going to wonder how I know some of these things. I ran the department. Vicki couldn’t type for beans, so I did her typing. I filed the memos from on high. I had the payroll and personnel records on everyone in the department.”
“Sounds like you found some useful information buried in those boring files,” Helen said.
“Oh, I did,” Margery said. “I saw and heard even more. I answered the phones, so I knew when a man’s wife was angry at him. Even the nicest wives couldn’t always keep the sharpness out of their voices. I also figured out that when a married man wrapped his hand around the receiver and started whispering all lovey-dovey, he probably wasn’t cooing to his lawful wedded wife. I was friends with Mr. Hammonds’s personal secretary, Francine, so I picked up a few things that way. If I needed to hear or see something interesting, I wasn’t above changing a typewriter ribbon at a nearby desk, or getting down on the floor to look for dropped paper clips.”
Helen imagined Margery’s office, circa 1970, with its clunky gray metal desks, creaky leather chairs, army-green filing cabinets, piles of paper in gray metal in-an-out boxes, and heavy black five-button phones. Wooden coatracks were festooned with men’s suit jackets. The walls were painted institutional green and curdled cream. Sitting at most of the desks were white men in gray suits.
The twilight turned into darkest night as Margery talked and Helen listened. The only other sounds were the creak of the chaise lounges, the rustle of small things in the bougainvillea, and the glug of the wine box when Margery refilled their glasses from time to time.
Her landlady’s voice, with its smoker’s rasp, was hypnotic. Helen didn’t dare say a word. She was afraid Margery would suddenly stop her revelations.
Helen sat back and listened as Margery told her story of blonde betrayal, murder, and a secret burial in an ordinary office.
God, I loved the early seventies fashions. I know everyone laughs at them now, but they were wild. The men dressed like Regency rakes. They looked romantic in long hair, velvet frock coats, and ruffled shirts. Well, some men looked like that. Rock stars, mostly.
These were Margery’s words. Helen kept silent, afraid to interrupt the flow. Margery’s memories seemed dredged from some place deep.
Her landlady continued, almost to herself:
The men in my department never made the sixties, much less the seventies. They could have walked out of any office in 1959. They didn’t even have the lush seventies sideburns. One guy did show up at the Christmas party wearing a turtleneck and a peace symbol. Our CEO, Mr. Hammonds, gave that ornament such a cold stare he nearly froze it off the guy’s chest.
The next day Mr. Peace and Love was back in suits, shirts, and strangulation ties.
It’s too bad, really, you have to neuter yourself for a corporation. I understand the idea of dressing for success. It creates a more professional atmosphere, but it doesn’t have much flair. So I was lucky. When I worked in an office, women didn’t have to know about proper corporate dress. I suppose my clothes were in bad taste for a work environment, but how does that saying go—“Good taste is merely the fear of the beautiful”?
I had no fear.
I used to wear white go-go boots and purple miniskirts. The first time I bent down to get some papers out of the U-to-Z file drawer, half the men in our department nearly keeled over from heart attacks. I was careful how I moved after that. I wasn’t a tease.
I was still pretty cute in those days, before my chest fell to my knees and my face wrinkled up like a prune. I was a bright spot, sitting behind my big old battleship of a desk at the department entrance. The delivery boys weren’t sure whether to fear me or flirt with me. In the end, they did both. I shooed them away, just like I did the office Romeos.
Men hardly noticed Minnie, but why should they? Minnie sat hunched at a dun-colored desk, her face to the wall. Minnie’s resemblance to a mouse could not be denied, even by me, and I liked her.