McNally's Caperby Lawrence Sanders
Called in by patriarch Griswold Forsythe, II, to discover which relative is stealing family valuables piece by piece, Palm Beach detective McNally plunges to the perilous depths of high society in the craziest Archy McNally novel yet. Mixing suspense, sensuality, and hijinks, Sanders' latest bestselling work is thoroughly delectable entertainment.
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An Archy McNally Novel
By Lawrence Sanders
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
AFTER A GREAT DEAL of heavy reflection I have come to the conclusion that everyone is nuts. And I mean everyone, not just a sprinkling of ding-a-lings.
You think me a misanthrope? Listen to this ...
I am the chief (and sole member) of the Discreet Inquiries Department of McNally & Son, Attorney-at-Law. (My father is the Attorney, I am the Son.) We represent some very prestigious clients—and a scurvy few—in the Town of Palm Beach. Occasionally they request the services of a private and prudent investigator rather than take their problems to the police and risk seeing their tribulations luridly described in a supermarket tabloid, alongside a story headlined "Elvis Lands in UFO!"
One of our commercial clients is a sinfully luxe jewelry store on Worth Avenue. They had recently been plagued by a shoplifter who was boosting a choice selection of merchandise. Not their most costly baubles, of course; those were locked away in vaults and shown only in private. But they were losing a number of less expensive items—brooches, rings, bracelets, necklaces—that were on public display.
Their concealed video camera soon revealed the miscreant. They were shocked, shocked to recognize one of their best customers, a wealthy widow who dropped at least a hundred grand annually in legitimate purchases. I shall not reveal her name because you would immediately recognize it. Not wishing to prosecute such a valued patron, the jewelry store brought its distressing predicament to McNally & Son, and I was given the task of ending the lady's pilfering without enraging her to the extent that she would purchase her diamond tiaras elsewhere, perhaps at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.
It was a nice piece of work and I started by learning all I could about the kleptomaniacal matron. I consulted Consuela Garcia first. Connie is employed as social secretary to Lady Cynthia Horowitz, possibly the wealthiest of our chatelaines. Connie is my inamorata and au courant with all the latest Palm Beach rumors, scandals, and skeletons that have not yet emerged from the closet.
I also phoned Lolly Spindrift, the gossip columnist on one of our local rags. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the peccadilloes, kinks, and outré personal habits of even our most august residents.
From these two fonts of impropriety, if not of wisdom, I learned that the shoplifter in her younger years (several decades ago) had been an actress. Not a first-magnitude star, but a second-echelon player who had never quite made it to the top. I mean that in films she always lost the hero to the leading lady and in TV sitcoms she invariably played the wisecracking but sympathetic roommate. She did very well financially, I'm sure, but I doubt if sophomores ever Scotch-taped her photo to dormitory walls.
Then, her career in decline, she had the great good sense to marry a moneyed business executive whose corporation reaped satisfying profits by producing plastic place mats imprinted with classic scenes such as the Parthenon and Las Vegas at night. Upon his retirement the childless but apparently happy couple moved to Palm Beach. He died five years later on the tennis court while playing a third set in 104° heat, and his widow inherited a bundle.
Having learned all I needed to know about the lady in question, I had a videocassette made of all the snippets of tape taken by the jewelry store's hidden TV cameras. The subject was easily recognizable and clearly shown slipping glittering items into her capacious handbag. She did it so deftly, so nonchalantly, I could only conclude she had long practiced the craft.
I decided my best strategy was a "cold call," descending upon her suddenly without making an appointment and giving her the opportunity to prepare a defense. And so on a warmish evening in mid-September I tootled my flag-red Miata down the coast to the Via Palma. The lady's home turned out to be a faux Spanish hacienda with the most spectacular landscaping I had ever seen.
The door was opened by a uniformed maid who accepted my business card and advised me to wait—outside. In a few moments the door was reopened and the matron herself stood before me, clad in hostess pajamas of ginger-colored silk.
"Yes, Mr. McNally," she said, pleasantly enough, "what's this all about?"
I mentioned the name of the client represented by my law firm and told her I wished to discuss a personal matter of some importance. She hesitated briefly, then asked me in. She led the way to a small sitting room where a television set was playing. And there, on the screen, was the lady herself, thirty years younger. I wondered if that was how she spent her evenings: watching reruns of ancient sitcoms in which she had performed.
She was a striking woman with a proud posture and complete self-possession. Her features had the tight, glacial look that bespoke a face-lift, and her figure was so trim and youthful that I imagined breast implants, a tummy tuck, and a rump elevation had been included in a package deal.
She switched off the TV and, without asking me to be seated, looked at me inquiringly. There was no way I could pussyfoot, but as gently as I could I explained that her favorite jewelry store was well aware of her shoplifting. If she doubted that, I said, I had brought along a videocassette that showed her in action.
I didn't know what to expect: furious denial, tears, hysteria, perhaps even a physical assault on yrs. truly. What I received was a welcome surprise: a really brilliant smile.
"Hidden TV cameras, I suppose," she said.
"That's not fair," she said with a charming pout. "Would you care for a drink, Mr. McNally?"
"I would indeed, thank you, ma'am."
Five minutes later we were seated on a mauve velvet couch, sipping excellent kir royales, and discussing her criminal career like civilized people. I was immensely relieved.
"I suppose you think me a kleptomaniac," she said easily.
"The thought had occurred to me," I acknowledged.
She shook her head and artfully coiffed white curls bobbed about. "Not so," she said. "I did not have a deprived childhood. I never lacked for a loving mate in my life. I have no feeling of insecurity nor do I desire to seek revenge against a cruel, unfeeling world."
"Then why ?" I asked, truly perplexed.
"Boredom," she said promptly. "Shoplifting gives me a thrill. It's such a naughty thing to do, you see. And at my age I must battle ennui as vigorously as I do arthritis. Can you understand that?"
I laughed. I loved this splendid woman. "Of course I understand," I said. "But I'm afraid your motive, no matter how reasonable it may seem to you and me, would not constitute a convincing legal defense."
"What is it the jewelry store wants?"
"Payment for or return of the items you have stolen. I presume you still have them?"
"What they don't want," I went on, "what they emphatically do not wish is to lose you as a customer. They value your patronage."
"As well they should," she said. "I spend a mint there. But they are very agreeable people, very eager to please. I should hate to go elsewhere for my trinkets."
We looked at each other.
"You strike me as a very clever young man, Mr. McNally," she said. "Can you suggest a solution?"
"Yes, I can," I said without hesitation. "Continue shopping there. At the same time resume the depredations that relieve your boredom. But grant permission to the store to bill you monthly for the merchandise you steal."
She laughed delightedly. "A wonderful solution!" she cried.
"It won't spoil it for you to know that your thefts are being observed and you will be charged for them?"
She lifted her chin. "I am an actress," she said with great dignity. "I know how to pretend."
"Excellent," I said, finishing my drink and rising. "I am sure our client will be delighted with the arrangement."
She escorted me to the door and we clasped hands.
"Do come see me again," she said.
"Thank you," I said. "I certainly shall. It's been a delightful visit."
"Hasn't it?" she said and leaned forward to kiss my cheek.
I drove home in a sportive mood. I was more convinced than ever that goofiness was engulfing the world, but I also admitted that if everyone acted in a sensible, logical fashion there would be little gainful employment for your humble correspondent.
I arrived at the McNally manse at about ten o'clock. I pulled into our three-car garage between my father's black Lexus and mother's antique wood-bodied Ford station wagon. The lights in mon père's study were still ablaze, and when I entered the house through the back door I saw the oak portal to his sanctum was ajar. It was his signal that he deigned to receive visitors. That evening, I knew, he was awaiting a report on my confrontation with the piratical widow.
He was seated behind his magisterial desk and, as usual, there was a glass of port at his elbow. And, as usual, he was smoking one of his silver-banded James Upshall pipes. And, as usual, he was reading one of his leather-bound volumes of Dickens. I admired his perseverance. He was determined to plow his way through that author's entire oeuvre, and I could only hope he survived long enough to succeed.
He looked up when I entered and put his book aside. He invited me to pour myself a glass of port. I respectfully declined, not daring to tell him that I thought the last case he had bought was on the musty side. But I did relax in one of his club chairs and delivered an abbreviated account of my meeting with the bored shoplifter.
He did not laugh aloud but one of his hirsute eyebrows rose a good half-inch and he stroked his guardsman's mustache with a knuckle, a sure sign that he was mightily amused.
"A win-win outcome, Archy," he commented. "Well done."
"Thank you, sir."
Then he was silent and I knew he had slipped into his pondering mode. I have mentioned several times in previous tales that my father is a world-class muller, always meditating before making any meaningful pronouncement or taking any significant action. After all, he is an attorney and knows the dangers of hasty words and decisions. But is it absolutely necessary to ruminate for three minutes before resolving to add a drop of Tabasco to one's deviled egg?
"Archy," he said finally, "are you acquainted with Griswold Forsythe the Second?"
"Yes, sir, I am," I replied. "The all-time champion bore of Palm Beach."
"And his son, Griswold Forsythe the Third?"
"I know him also. A chip off the old blockhead."
Father grimaced. He did not like me to jest about the clients of McNally & Son. He felt that since their fees paid for our steak au poivre we should accord them at least a modicum of respect.
"The senior Forsythe came to the office this afternoon," mein papa continued. "His problem is somewhat akin to the case you have just concluded."
I groaned. "He's so antiquated he remembers the two-pants suit. Don't tell me the old gaffer has become a shoplifter."
"No, he is not a thief but he suspects someone in his home may be. He claims several items of value have disappeared."
"A first edition Edgar Allan Poe. A large, unset cushion-cut emerald belonging to his wife. A Georgian silver soup ladle. A small Benin bronze. An original Picasso lithograph. And other things."
"The thief has expensive tastes," I observed.
"Yes," father agreed, "and Forsythe is convinced he or she is a family member or one of the household staff, all live-in servants who have been with him for years."
"But the thefts are a recent development?"
My liege nodded. "Naturally Forsythe doesn't wish to take the matter to the authorities. He would much prefer a discreet investigation."
This time I moaned. "That means I will have to spend a great deal of time prowling about the Forsythe castle, that ugly heap of granite north of Lady Horowitz's estate. How does Mr. Forsythe propose to account for my presence? Does he intend to tell family and staff what I'm up to?"
"Oh no, definitely not. He will be the only one who knows your true purpose. As you may be aware, he has a rather extensive private library. He suggests that he tell the others you have been employed to prepare a catalog of his books."
I considered that a moment. "It might work," I admitted. "But is he absolutely certain the thief is not an outsider? A deliveryman perhaps. The guy who trims his shrubbery."
"I asked him that, but he believes it would be impossible. When workers are allowed inside they are always accompanied by the housekeeper. And some of the missing items were hidden. The Benin bronze, for instance, was not on display but placed far back on a closet shelf in Forsythe's study. And the unset emerald was in a suede pouch tucked into the bottom drawer of his wife's dresser. Family members and staff may have been aware of their existence and site, but strangers could not know and had no opportunity to search. Mr. Forsythe is expecting you tomorrow morning at nine o'clock."
"Nine?" I said indignantly. "Father, I'm not fully awake by then."
"Try," His Majesty said and picked up his Dickens.
I climbed the creaking stairs to my mini-suite on the third floor. It was hardly lavish—small sitting room, bedroom, bathroom—but I had no complaints; it was my cave and I prized it. The rent was particularly attractive. Zip.
I poured myself a wee marc from my liquor supply stored within a battered sea chest at the foot of my bed. Then I lighted an English Oval (only my third of the day) and plopped down behind the ramshackle desk in my sitting room. I donned reading glasses, for although I will not be thirty-seven years old until March of next year, my peepers are about sixty-five and require specs for close-up work.
I keep a journal of my discreet inquiries, jotting down things I have learned, heard, assumed, or imagined. The scribblings, added to almost daily when I am working on a case, serve as a reminder of matters important and matters trivial.
That night I wrote finis to the story of the shoplifting widow and started a fresh page with my latest assignment: discovering who in the ménage of Griswold Forsythe II was swiping all that swell stuff. I thought the inquiry would be as much of a drag as the victim and his tiresome son. I reckoned the chances were good that the allegedly purloined items had simply been misplaced. For instance, I still haven't found my Mickey Mouse beach towel although I am fairly certain it hasn't been stolen.
I went to bed that night still musing on the looniness of the human condition. My investigation of the Forsythe thieveries was to prove how right I was. But the craziness I uncovered turned out to be no ha-ha matter. It was scary and before it was finished I began to believe the entire world was one enormous acorn academy—with no doctors in attendance.CHAPTER 2
"I WAS A DIRTY old man at the age of nine," Griswold Forsythe II pronounced in his churchy voice and waited for my laugh.
I obliged, fighting valiantly against an urge to nod off.
"I see these young girls in their short skirts," he droned on. "Tanned legs that start under their chin and go on forever. And I feel a great sadness. Not because I shall never have them but because I know their beauty will wither. Age insists on taking its inevitable toll."
"Mr. Forsythe," I said, "about your missing treasures ..."
"But then," he continued to preach, "age does have its compensations. I'll tell you something about death, Archy: one grows into it. I don't mean you begin to die the day you're born; everyone knows that. But as the years dwindle down you gradually come to terms with your own mortality. And, in my case, begin to look forward to dissolution with curiosity and, I must admit, a certain degree of relish."
"How long, O Lord, how long?" I prayed silently. And you know, the odd thing about this garrulous fogy was that he was not all that ancient. Not much older than my father, I reckoned; I knew his son was about my age. Yet the two Forsythes, II and III, had brought codgerism to new heights—or depths. I shall not attempt to reproduce their speech exactly on these pages; the plummy turgidities would give you a sudden attack of the Z's.
And not only in their speech, but both father and son affected a grave and stately demeanor. No sudden bursts of laughter from those two melancholies, no public manifestations of delight, surprise, or almost any other human emotion. I often wondered what might happen if their rusty clockwork slipped a gear.
"Mr. Forsythe," I tried again, desperately this time, "about the stolen items ..."
"Ah, yes," he said. "Distressing. And we can't let it continue, can we?"
Excerpted from McNally's Caper by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1994 Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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CAPER is like a full-bodied, dry red wine with smoky breaths of woody violets and a nearly imperceptible wisp of grape (Concords). Archie¿s relationships with other characters in CAPER are even richer than normal, especially the connection with detective Al Rogoff. This novel dealt with true eccentrics, and worked through a subtly sour attitude in Archy. His crankiness toward the chaotic castle actually made me look forward to an enthrallment effect of the Gothic castle setting. Archy¿s continued reference to the whole world being crazy made me feel that Sanders was attempting a major revelation in CAPER, yet felt he might not be able to quite get it across. I was warmed by Archy¿s continued exchanges with the child, Lucy. Those scenes drew me more deeply into the plot, and were ironically enhanced by the seeming increase in CAPER of the elder McNally¿s chilly demeanor. ¿What is it NOW, Archy,¿ was repeated each time Archy approached his pater with vital info he had been asked to obtain, yet Archy seemed to take this impatience in stride. It wasn¿t until the ending scenes that the sire asked, ¿What is it Archy¿ sans ¿now.¿ Maybe Sanders was setting up a contrast to give the ending scenes more impact. If so, it worked. Archy seemed to be pushing his need to taste a variety of women, and to explore the more seamy, heartless, bloodless sexual expressions. His scenes with Sylvia were clearly a toe in the water of an ¿evil¿ he described as whimsical, almost whispering-ly angelic, careless and thoughtless. And his conclusions were fascinating, at the time, and later, of the type of perversion which some of the characters embodied so compulsively. In this novel the characters periodically descend into various dark moods, but the kicker angle of angst was that restless type of empty depression which chains a soul to a dissatisfied body, agonizing over a primal moan, ¿Is this all there is.¿ It appeared as if Sanders were studying that edgy mood of ennui which was so adeptly dramatized in THE GREAT GATSBY, the ¿mood disorder¿ which can drive some people into the visceral dungeons of heinous acts. Archy is such an unlikely character to immerse himself into this type of mood, even with the noble purpose of understanding its every nook. In concluding scenes, several ¿keeper¿ conclusions are zinged out by le pater, Archie, and Al.