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Palm Beach's premier man-about-crime returns, in a delightfully raucous romp among South Florida's fabulous and felonious.
She was perched on a faux leather stool at Bar Anticipation looking exactly as she did in her author photo on the jacket of her latest bestseller, Desperate Desire. Her ebony hair was drawn back so severely from her scalp as to render her startled at what e'er she looked upon and, I suspect, served as a do-it-yourself face-lift. Her eyes were like two shiny black olives; her complexion was one that had never felt the sun's warmth; and her lips, painted the color of a fine Bordeaux, were pursed in an elongated moue reminiscent of the late actress Joan Crawford. She wore a smart white linen suit and black-and-white sling-back pumps that drew just enough attention to her well-turned ankles and calves. Before her was a frothy concoction in a stemmed glass known, I believe, as a Pink Lady.
Sabrina Wright's novels are bodice-rippers par excellence. Her first, Darling Desire (Darling being the heroine's given name), enjoyed fifty-two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, usurped, finally, by her second blockbuster, Dangerous Desire. She subsequently penned such memorable classics as Deceptive Desire, Dark Desire, Demanding Desire, Devious Desire, and Delicious Desire, as well as this year's sensation, Desperate Desire.
Collectively known as the Books of Desire, they had been released as a Moroccan-leather boxed set, illustrated in full color, and translated into thirty languages, including Swahili. For the visually challenged they were available in large print as well as Braille. Sabrina Wright's oeuvre had spawned films, miniseries, and a long-running evening soap.
Needless to say, I approached with caution.
"Ms. Wright, I presume."
She turned, startled. "Mr. McNally. How good of you to come." The voice was deep-if she sang she would be an alto-and pure New York. The delivery announced her point of origin with neither pride nor shame, but as a matter of fact.
I moved in closer but avoided mounting the empty stool next to her. "Are you aware, Ms. Wright, that you are sitting in the most infamous bar in South Florida?"
Her dark eyes scanned me, from head to size-eleven white bucks, as her claret lips curved into a condescending smile. "My readers wouldn't have it any other way, Mr. McNally. In Chapter One, my heroine is hustling drinks in a dive like this. In Chapter Five, she owns the joint, and by the final page she's waltzing down the aisle with a title, be it corporate or of the blood."
So the lady had not only borrowed Joan Crawford's lips, she had also borrowed Joan's film plots. As B. Brecht had so aptly put it, "From new transmitters come the old stupidities." Pointing to the empty stool, she invited me to sit. Gray sharkskin merged with Naugahyde as I accepted the offer, saying, "Have you ever considered altering the plots?"
"If it's not broke, Mr. McNally, why fix it?"
Why indeed? "May I ask how you got my name, Ms. Wright?"
"From the Yellow Pages."
"I'm not in the Yellow Pages."
"Precisely. If you were, I would not have called. One cannot be discreet and in the Yellow Pages. That would be an oxymoron."
She referred, no doubt, to my position as sole employee of a section of the law firm McNally & Son, Attorney-at-Law, yclept Discreet Inquiries. My father is the Attorney, I am the Son, who left New Haven after being expelled from Yale Law. Upon my return in disgrace to Palm Beach, my father provided me with gainful employment as a Discreet Inquirer. If our rich clients should find themselves in a compromising position, they may come to me rather than seek help from law enforcement agencies because they do not wish to see their problems headlined in tabloids for their housekeepers to peruse while waiting in the checkout line at Publix.
I tell people I was tossed out of Yale Law for streaking across the stage, naked except for a Richard Nixon mask, during a performance by the New York Philharmonic of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major. If you choose to believe that, fine. If not, I will give you a hint that is closer to the truth. It wasn't a Richard Nixon mask and it wasn't Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9.
I WAS IN my office, located in the McNally Building on Royal Palm Way, when Sabrina Wright's call came through. My office is a windowless affair originally intended, I believe, to be a storage closet, albeit a very small storage closet. My father, the venerable Prescott McNally, took pity on me one sweltering August several years back and ordered our maintenance crew to install an air-conditioning duct. This act of kindness made the room's ambiance more amiable not only for me, but for penguins, should they care to stop by. If you think mon pre is chagrined over my misunderstanding with the authorities at Yale, you are correct.
"This is Sabrina Wright," she announced in the manner of a grande dame on the intercom with her kitchen help. I confess, when I ran the name Sabrina Wright through my mental Rolodex I came up with zilch. However, I found it impossible to say no to a sultry female voice imploring me to meet her in a low-life hangout at high noon. Had I refused, I would have had to turn in my Mickey Spillane decoding ring as well as my gumshoes.
One of the resources of a good law firm is its library. At McNally & Son we are doubly blessed with our librarian, Sofia Richmond. Sofia is a superbly qualified librarian, a computer whiz, and a researcher nonpareil. In addition, she not only keeps abreast of all the Palm Beach gossip but, with a little coaxing, will impart what she knows. Reluctantly, I sought Sofia's help in identifying Sabrina Wright. I say "reluctantly" because I am celebrating one year of almost being a nonsmoker. Sofia puffs away happily and will die, I am sure, at the age of one hundred and one with the healthiest pair of lungs in captivity. Leaving my English Ovals behind, I headed for the library.
I found Sofia at her computer, surrounded by intimidating tomes, legal briefs, and an ashtray the size of a flying saucer. Looking at me through her horn-rimmed glasses she tossed out, along with a cloud of smoke, "You look cute."
In my dove-gray sharkskin suit, blue cambric shirt sans cravat, and white bucks left over from my preppy days, I must say I had to admire her keen perception and wished I could return the compliment. But, alas, with her thick spectacles, tight French braid, sturdy oxfords, and two-piece denim dress, I couldn't bring myself to respond in kind. I have often imagined Sofia leaving work, arriving at her apartment, removing her glasses, letting down her hair, and donning a strapless sheath in shimmering ice-blue satin, after which she heads for a supper club in Boca where she is the headlined chanteuse. Her signature song? "Let's See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have."
Lest you think I am off my rocker, I give you the sage words of M. de Sade: "Imagination is the only reality."
"If you fed the name Sabrina Wright into that machine, what would it spew back?" I asked.
"You're kidding," she responded.
"No. Why should I be?"
"You don't know who Sabrina Wright is, Archy?"
"If I did, I wouldn't be here, ingesting secondhand smoke when I could be contracting pneumonia in my minuscule igloo. Who is she, Sofia?"
"Don't you read novels?" she prodded.
"One a week, so help me Marcel Proust."
"And what was the last novel you read?" With those glasses and that hair, I could swear I was being questioned by Miss Lowenstein, my tenth-grade English teacher.
"All Quiet on the Western Front." It's what I would have reported to Miss Lowenstein, bringing tears to her eyes. All I got from Sofia Richmond was a shrug and a cheeky retort.
"Well, Archy, times have changed since the Big War. Sabrina Wright's been leading the charge on behalf of the sexual revolution."
"An occidental Kama Sutra?" I ventured.
Sofia trashed her cigarette in the flying saucer. "Archy, this lady makes the Kama Sutra read like the Girl Scouts' handbook." It was at this point that I was given a prŽcis of the works of Sabrina Wright, from desire to desire.
"How old is she?" I asked Sofia when she had finished lecturing.
Shaking her head from side to side as if counting the years, Sofia guessed, "Near fifty, I would say, but you couldn't tell by looking at her." She reached into her bottom desk drawer and brought out a copy of Desperate Desire. "See for yourself," she said, handing me the book with Sabrina Wright's photograph on the book's back jacket. After viewing Sabrina, I took a quick glance at the cover art which depicted a blond Amazon being ravished by a young man in football garb, sporting a film of manly perspiration and a torn jersey that bared his torso. Looking deep into the blonde's blue eyes, the jock appeared to be saying, "My chest is bigger than yours."
"You read this stuff?" I chided Sofia.
"It's my job, Archy," she said, retrieving the novel. "I have to keep my finger on the pulse of the nation." With that, she lit another cigarette.
And if the nation were attempting to keep pace with the Amazon and the jock, we would be on the verge of a cardiac-arrest epidemic any moment.
"The lady is in town," Sofia was saying.
Had Sofia, too, been invited to Bar Anticipation this afternoon? "How do you know that?"
"There was a note in Lolly Spindrift's column yesterday, and I quote: 'That anticipated July heat wave hit town yesterday in the form of novelist extraordinaire Sabrina Wright. Here on a fact-finding mission for your next novel, Sabrina, or looking for the man that got away dot, dot, dot?' unquote."
Lolly Spindrift is the gossip columnist for our local gazette, who favors the dot, dot, dot school of journalism in memory of the school's founding father, Walter Winchell. "What do you suppose that means?" I asked Sofia.
"Beats me, Archy. Ask Lolly."
"I'll do better than that, Sofia. I'll ask Sabrina Wright."
I didn't wait for the smoke to clear, so I have no idea of Sofia's reaction to my parting shot.
—From McNally's Chance by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright (c) 2001, Putnam Pub Group, All Rights Reserved.