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What could be nicer than holding the hand of a beautiful young lady with the lights turned low? Why, holding the hand of a beautiful young lady with the lights turned off, that's what. And when the young lady is none other than Elizabeth Fitzwilliams—"Fitz" to her intimates, whose number, according to Palm Beach gossip, is legion—the experience can be quite uplifting, if you get my drift.
I was restrained, literally and figuratively, from joining the ranks of Fitz's intimates by that pillar of Palm Beach society, the formidable Penelope Tremaine—"Penny" to her intimates, whose pedigrees make up for their numerical paucity—who was holding my other hand.
Penny's hand that wasn't holding mine was attached to that of her husband, Vance Tremaine. Vance had a serious predilection for pretty young ladies, so it's always wise to know exactly where his hands are with the likes of Fitz in the immediate vicinity.
Vance, in turn, held the hand of the charming Mrs. John Fairhurst. If Penny was a pillar of Palm Beach society, Emily Fairhurst was the concrete in which the pillar was embedded.
Moving right along, Emily held the hand of her secretary, Arnold Turnbolt, and to complete the circle, Arnold and Fitz played bookends to Palm Beach's current diversion, Serge Ouspenskaya.
Me? I'm Archibald McNally—Archy to my intimates, whose number can be counted without going into the higher mathematics of double digits—of McNally & Son, Attorney-at-Law. Father is the attorney and I, having been expelledfrom Yale Law, am the son and director of a small department (employees: one) at McNally & Son assigned to Discreet Inquiries. We represent some of the wealthiest residents of the Town of Palm Beach, whose problems often require private investigation rather than the assistance of the local police. The very rich like to keep a low profile, especially when a spotlight might reveal them to be as foolish and sinful as lesser folks who don't have a portfolio to call their own.
By now, those of you who are ardent readers of Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Dick Tracy know that on this (may the PB Chamber of Commerce forgive me) chilly January night we had not come together to play ring-around-the-rosy, form a daisy chain to protest the pollution of our planet or pray. We were, in fact, in the midst of Palm Beach's latest craze—a séance. And lest you think that I have taken leave of my senses (and there are those, whose number is myriad, who would say that one cannot take leave of what one never possessed) I am here not as believer, agnostic or neophyte, but in pursuit of my duties as a discreet inquirer.
As we sit, emptying our minds—with this crowd a feat easier done than said—I will recapitulate, for those who do not have ready access to a crystal ball, the events that got me from home to here (in my fire-engine red Miata and not upon a flying carpet).
My office, in the McNally Building on Royal Palm Way, is slightly larger than a duplex coffin. I can only assume that my father relegated me to this minuscule closet to show those he employs that he, Prescott McNally, is not an adherent of nepotism. Though deprived of a window, he did permit me an air-conditioning vent; he has not, as yet, installed a razor-sharp pendulum in the ceiling, swinging in an ever widening and descending arc. Father is a devotee of Dickens, not Poe, and I am thankful for small blessings.
When my phone rang I picked it up after the third ring giving the impression, I hoped, that the caller was intruding upon a business conclave of paramount importance. It was Mrs. Trelawney, my father's secretary, who knew better. "Mrs. Trelawney," I cooed, "I was just about to call you."
"Meaning you have completed cooking the books, as they say."
"I don't know who they are, Mrs. Trelawney, but if you are referring to my expense account the answer is, yes, I have just completed reconstructing last week's expenditures."
"I hope you're not billing us for yet another lunch at the Pelican Club, Archy."
"As a matter of fact I did not," I assured her, then added, "However, now that you mention it, I do recall lunching there on Tuesday last in the line of duty." I quickly added fifty bucks to my paltry list as recompense for a meal I had shared with my lady friend, Consuela Garcia. It had not been a business lunch, in the strictest sense, but Connie has so often aided and abetted me in my duties that I saw nothing wrong with advancing her a lunch in expectation of future assistance. And besides, my father could well afford it.
"You're a con artist, Archy."
"I've been called worse, Mrs. Trelawney."
"And all deserved, I'm sure."
"Mrs. Trelawney," I sang, "you make a sunny day cloudy."
"Well, before it starts raining, put away your wish list and get yourself down here. Your father is with a client and for reasons known only to my boss and God, your presence is required."
If I was required, the client with pater was not in need of legal counsel but of the services of Discreet Inquiries. "Anyone I know, Mrs. Trelawney?"
"A Mr. Richard Holmes. He's new to me and I've been here since before the flood."
Assuming she meant the biblical flood and not an ambitious leak in her basement, that would put Mrs. Trelawney's age somewhere between classic and antique. The name Richard Holmes rang a distant bell—more of a faint tinkle, actually—but I could not connect it with a face, occupation or previous encounter. This was as frustrating as encountering a familiar face and being unable to assign it a name. I chalked this memory lapse up to my hectic schedule and not an early onset senior moment.
I took the elevator down and entered my father's outer sanctum, where Mrs. Trelawney eyed me from head to toe before exclaiming, "Tennis anyone?"
I was wearing a pair of white summer flannels with a navy blazer emblazoned with the Pelican Club's crest: a pelican rampant on a field of dead mullet. I gave her weary cliché as much time as it was worth before answering, "Would you please announce me, Mrs. Trelawney."
"As who? Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras?"
"Touché, Mrs. Trelawney. Touché." I love sparring with my father's secretary, who is one of my favorite people in spite of, or perhaps because of, our mutual delight in pelting each other with verbal abuse. She is a charming beldame with an ill-fitting gray wig and a penchant for risqué jokes. As she buzzed the inner sanctum, I slipped my expense account on her desk and ventured into the lion's den. Here begins the latest adventure of Archibald McNally, aged preppie, who is not licensed to kill.
The McNally Building is a modern edifice of glass and stainless steel. The office of the man who commissioned it is oak-paneled and furnished in a style that is more Victoriana than art deco. One of its treasures is an antique rolltop desk boasting thirty-six cubbyholes and four secret compartments—that I know of.
A major drawback of such a museum piece is that the owner cannot converse vis-à-vis with visitors while seated at his prize possession. For this reason, a more conventional desk is also present in the guv'nor's suite but I suspect, when alone, my father sits at his rolltop and examines the contents of its secret niches. Ladies with hourglass figures in black silk hose and corsets? I believe that in a former life my father, Prescott McNally, was the man who left Miss Havisham waiting at the church.
"This is my son, Archy," the sire introduced me as I entered the office. "Archy, this is Mr. Richard Holmes."
"How do you do, sir," I said, taking the hand Holmes extended toward me as I again rummaged in vain through my mental Rolodex in search of a card that bore his name and profile. Richard Holmes was a portly man but the excess adipose tissue, except for his rather prominent jowls, was solid rather than flabby. Here was a man who refused to deny himself that second helping of mousse au chocolat, but made up for this indulgence by regular visits to the gym and sauna. I drew a picture of a good-time-Charlie with the soul of a penitent.
I put his age at sixty, give or take a few years, which was about forty years older than the Lilly Pulitzer jacket he wore atop a pink polo shirt. Ms. Pulitzer's men's line was all the rage in Palm Beach a quarter of a century ago, when her famous flower-print fabrics had her faithful looking like walking hothouses. Mr. Holmes's heirloom was a bouquet of daisies, carnations and pink rosebuds. I drew a picture of a man who clung to the past and would wager that he donned his plus-fours to play golf.
"Mr. Holmes and his wife are here for the season, Archy," my father was saying as I took the other visitor's chair, "and have taken a place on Via Del Lago. He was recommended to us by Bob Simmons."
Modest but not a bad address, about a block from the ocean. Simmons was a longtime client of McNally & Son and a man of great wealth. Mein papa, no doubt, was hoping Richard Holmes was in the same tax bracket as the guy who sent him our way.
"They may decide to purchase a home in the Town of Palm Beach, and if they do we will advise and act on their behalf via our real estate division," father continued. "However, Mr. Holmes is here on more urgent business that I think is more in line with your expertise than mine." With a smile, father passed me the proverbial buck.
No surprise to this Jr. McNally. If Holmes was merely looking for a house, Simmons would have introduced him to his realtor. As we had rescued Simmons's son from an embarrassing situation involving a lady of the evening and a controlled substance, Simmons had directed the man to Discreet Inquiries for a more pressing matter.
"How can I be of help, Mr. Holmes?" I began my usual spiel.
"We speak in confidence?" he answered, in my clients' usual spiel.
"Discreet, sir, is our name."
With a nod that put his jowls in high gear, Holmes said, "Are you familiar with a man who calls himself Serge Ouspenskaya?"
"No, sir, I am not." But I was familiar with the European character actress, Maria Ouspenskaya, who made a name for herself on this side of the Atlantic in a role that was more kitsch than camp as the mother of a werewolf. I hoped Serge was not one of her offspring.
"He claims to be a psychic," Holmes informed me in a tone that implied Ouspenskaya was anything but.
"A resident psychic is de rigueur for Palm Beach, Mr. Holmes. They come and go like the rise and fall of the fairer sex's hemline, some achieving more fame than others, but few survive more than one season. We had the Ouija board craze, the crystal craze, ESE EST and reincarnation, when every gentlewoman along Ocean Boulevard claimed to have been Cleopatra, Josephine or Mona Lisa." Only my father's presence deterred me from adding, "and we had the Lilly Pulitzer craze." Instead, I ended the lecture with, "It's a rich community, sir, and diversion is the name of the game."
"I know what you mean, Mr. McNally, and my wife is no stranger to diversions, the occult included, but this guy has caught her fancy and I believe he's milking her for every buck she's worth, which happen to be my bucks."
Not a new scenario. I was involved with a psychic a few years back who spoke in the voices of those who have passed over, as psychics refer to the dearly departed. Her name was Hertha Gloriana and I never learned if she actually had the power or if she was a phony. What I did learn was that Hertha preferred Sapphic love to the more conventional kind and proved it by running off with the lady I was romancing at the time. My ego has not yet fully recovered. I decided not to relate this tale of unrequited amour to Mr. Richard Holmes.
"Please, sir, call me Archy. My father is Mr. McNally. How did your wife come in contact with Serge Ouspenskaya?"
Holmes shrugged, sending his jowls into a tizzy, and explained, "At some social gathering or other. You know how women talk. Ouspenskaya claims to have a knack for locating lost objects. He's supposed to have told a woman where she could find a diamond clip she misplaced and gave up for lost. They say she talked her insurance company into paying Ouspenskaya a finder's fee."
My policeman friend, Sergeant Al Rogoff, once told me that the police and insurance companies use psychics and mediums more often than they care to admit, especially in cases of missing persons and objects. "Did your wife seek out Ouspenskaya especially for this reason, Mr. Holmes?" I asked.
"Yes, Archy, she did."
"And may I ask what she wanted him to locate?"
His jaw was set so tight those jowls remained as firm as his response. "No, Archy, you may not."
The pater raised one bushy eyebrow, a trick that never ceases to fascinate me, and spoke like a judge counseling a reluctant witness. "Archy has already assured you that nothing you say here will be repeated to anyone without your explicit permission and need I remind you, sir, that client/lawyer confidentiality is sacrosanct."
"I assume you want me to investigate this Ouspenskaya," I came in right behind father, "but if I don't know what your wife wants from him, how can I ascertain the validity of his dealings with her? I would rather decline the job, Mr. Holmes, then proceed without knowing all the facts. Unlike Serge Ouspenskaya, I'm not on speaking terms with a higher power who's willing to share with me."
Holmes gave this a lot of thought as father and I waited patiently for him to reply. With a sigh of what I took to be resignation rather than acquiescence he began, "My wife was an actress ..."
"Desdemona Darling!" I exploded before I could stop myself, causing father's eyebrow practically to meet his hairline. Regaining some semblance of self-control I immediately apologized for my outburst.
Holmes gave me a reassuring smile and with unabashed pride said, "I understand, Archy. People still respond with awe when they suddenly connect me with DeeDee, or Desdemona as you know her."
Desdemona Darling was one of the most celebrated film actresses at a time some like to call Hollywood's Golden Age—the years just prior to and shortly after the Second World War. A photograph of Desdemona in a shocking pink maillot was a favorite pinup of our GIs and is as representative of that war as the photograph of the marines raising the American flag on the Isle of Iwo Jima.
Desdemona, it was well known, had had six husbands, three of them Hollywood idols of the moment: Her current spouse, Richard Holmes, was a self-made millionaire via the futures market, thanks for an unerring skill for buying pork bellies low and selling them high. It was no wonder that his name had struck a chord which needed only the word actress to inspire me to identify the key.
The Hollywood of that time had given us a Sweater Girl, a Sarong Girl, an Oomph Girl, a platinum blonde, a strawberry blonde, and a peek-a-boo bangs blonde. The ash blonde Desdemona Darling was the Golden Girl of that golden era.
So famous was Desdemona Darling that the mere mention of her name had the sire stroking his handlebar mustache, a sure sign that he was enjoying whatever immodest memories her name had evoked. When angry, he tugs at that hirsute indulgence.
"DeeDee made a risqué one-reeler early on in her career," Holmes told us like a man who suddenly decides to leap before he looks and to hell with the consequences.
Surprising, but not shocking. Several celebrated actresses of that bygone era had been rumored to have gotten their start in what were called "blue" films, or "smokers." (But Archy, who knows all, ain't naming names; not only because a gentleman never kisses and tells, but because some of them may still be alive and a libel suit I don't need. Look what happened to O. Wilde.)
"Not as bawdy as today's porn videos, but bad enough," Holmes went on. Had he seen the film or was he quoting his wife's rationalization of her early cinematic offering? "It was never widely distributed because in them days you could go to jail just for looking at a smoker."
Not to mention that in them days you could go to jail twice as long for starring in one. And, if his grammatical faux pas was any indication of his roots, Richard Holmes traded up when he went into pork bellies.
"The studio thought they had bought up the few that existed," Holmes told us, "but they missed one."
"Your wife is being blackmailed, sir," I stated.
The jowls shook in agreement. "But not in the way you're thinking, Archy. The guy has never asked her for a dime. But every year, on the anniversary of the day the film was made, he sends her a reminder, telling her he owns a print and might, or might not, go public with it. I guess you could call it emotional blackmail. And it's been going on for over half a century."
"And after all this time your wife is still perturbed by the possibility that he may go public?"
"If perturbed is a nice way of saying she's bonkers over the possibility, then she's pretty effing perturbed, if you'll excuse the English. Actresses are very vain people, Archy, and DeeDee is a classic example of the breed. Hanging on to the Golden Girl image is more important to her than life itself."
"Do the letters contain a return address?"
"No way. They come from all over the country through some kind of mail-drop service."
"And Mrs. Holmes wants Ouspenskaya to find this miscreant?"
"That's right. And if he's dead, she wants to know what he did with that little tin can in his possession. Ouspenskaya is not the first psychic DeeDee has been to with this but he's the first to get her so bamboozled. You see, she didn't have to tell him what she was looking for. He knew."
A good guess, I thought, or the guy did a bit of research. With a lady boasting a public record as long as Desdemona Darling's, he probably picked up enough info to make her believe he had spent the last fifty years in her boudoir.
"He charges five hundred bucks a session, Archy, and my wife has him on our weekly payroll."
"Did it ever occur to you, or Mrs. Holmes, that the threat is a paper tiger? I mean, how do you know he actually owns a print of the infamous one-reeler?"
"Because of how the letters are signed," Holmes said.
"And how are they signed, sir?"
"And does Mrs. Holmes know who Kirk is, sir?"
"Sure. He's the cameraman who photographed the one-reeler."
Reprinted from McNally's Folly by Lawrence Sanders and Vincent Lardo by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Lawrence Sanders and Vincent Lardo. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.