Read an Excerpt
An Archy McNally Novel
By Lawrence Sanders
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 The Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE CAT'S NAME WAS Peaches, and it was a fat Persian with a vile disposition. I knew that because the miserable animal once upchucked on my shoes. I was certain Peaches wasn't suffering from indigestion; it was an act of hostility. For some ridiculous reason the ill-tempered feline objected to my footwear, which happened to be a natty pair of lavender suede loafers. Ruined, of course.
So when my father told me that Peaches had been catnapped and was being held for ransom, I was delighted and began to believe in divine retribution. But unfortunately the cat's owner was a client of McNally & Son, Attorney-at-Law (father was the Attorney, I was the Son), and I was expected to recover the nasty brute unharmed. My premature joy evaporated.
"Why don't they report it to the police?" I asked.
"Because," the sire explained patiently, "the ransom note states plainly that if the police are brought in, the animal will be destroyed. See what you can do, Archy."
I am not an attorney, having been expelled from Yale Law, but I am the sole member of a department at McNally & Son assigned to discreet inquiries. You must understand that we represented some very wealthy residents of the Town of Palm Beach, and frequently the problems of our clients required private investigations rather than assistance from the police. Most denizens of Palm Beach shun publicity, especially when it might reveal them to be as silly and sinful as lesser folk who don't even have a single trust fund.
Peaches' owners were Mr. and Mrs. Harry Willigan, who had an estate on Ocean Boulevard about a half-mile south of the McNally manse. Willigan had made a fortune buying and developing land in Palm Beach and Martin counties, and specialized in building homes in the $50,000–$100,000 range. It was said he never took down the scaffolding until the wallpaper was up—but that may have been a canard spread by envious competitors.
With wealth had come the lush life: mansion, four cars, 52-ft. Hatteras, and a staff of three servants. It had also brought him a second wife, forty years younger than he.
The McNallys had dined at his home occasionally—after all, he was a client—but I thought him a coarse man, enamored of conspicuous consumption. He seemed to believe that serving beluga caviar on toast points proved his superiority to old-money neighbors, many of whom served Del Monte tomato herring on saltines. Laverne, his young wife, was not quite as crass. But she did flaunt chartreuse polish on her fingernails.
Willigan had children by his first wife, but he and Laverne were childless and likely to remain so if her frequent public pronouncements on the subject were to be believed. Instead of a tot, they had Peaches, and Harry lavished on that cranky quadruped all the devotion and indulgence usually bestowed on an only child. Laverne, to her credit, tolerated the cat but never to my knowledge called it Sweetums, as Harry frequently did.
And that's how the entire affair began, with the snatching of a misanthropic cat. It almost ended with the untimely demise of yrs. truly, Archibald McNally: bon vivant, dilettantish detective, and the only man in Palm Beach to wear white tie and tails to dinner at a Pizza Hut.
I left father's office in the McNally Building and drove my fire-engine-red Miata eastward toward the ocean. I had a brief attack of the rankles because my unique talents were being used to rescue a treacherous beast whose loathing of me was exceeded only by mine of her. But I am a sunny bloke, inclined to accentuate the positive, and my distemper did not last. It happened to be June 21st, and when Aristotle remarked that one swallow does not make a summer, he obviously wasn't thinking of frozen daiquiris. That was my plasma of choice from the June solstice to the September equinox, and I was looking forward to the first of the season.
Also, my regenerated romance with Consuela Garcia was going splendidly. Connie had made no alarming references to wedlock—the cause of our previous estrangement—and we had vowed to allow each other complete freedom to consort with whomever we chose. But we were so content with each other's company that this declaration of an open relationship had never been tested. As of that morning.
Finally, my spirits were ballooned by an absolutely smashing day: hot sun, scrubbed sky, low humidity and a fresh sea breeze as welcome as a kiss. I thought God had done a terrific job and I thanked Him. As my mother is fond of saying, it never hurts to be polite.
The Willigans' mansion was a faux Spanish hacienda with red tile roof, exposed oak beams, and a numbing profusion of terra-cotta pots. The place was called Casa Blanco and when you tugged the brass knob on the front door, you expected a butler to appear wearing sombrero and serape.
Actually, the butler who opened the door was wearing a black alpaca jacket over white duck trousers. He was an Australian named Leon Medallion, and when he came to work for the Willigans he had to be restrained from addressing all guests as "Mate."
"Good morning, Leon," I said. "How are you this loverly day?"
"Great, Mr. McNally," he said enthusiastically. "Couldn't be better."
That was a shock. Leon usually took a dour view of existence in general and life on the Gold Coast in particular. More than once I had heard him mutter, "Florida sucks."
"And how are the allergies?" I asked.
He looked about cautiously, then stepped close to me. "Would you believe it," he said in a hoarse whisper, "but since that rotten cat's been gone, I haven't sneezed once."
"Glad to hear it," I said, "but I'm sorry to tell you that's why I'm here. I've been ordered to try to find Peaches."
He groaned. "Please, Mr. McNally," he said, "don't try too hard. I suppose you want to see the lady of the house."
"If she's in."
"She is, but I gotta go through all that etiquette shit and see if she's receiving."
He left me standing in the tiled foyer and shambled away. He returned in a few moments.
"She's at the pool and wants you to come out there," he reported. "She also says to ask if you'd like a drink."
I glanced at my watch: almost eleven-thirty. Close enough.
"Yes, thank you, Leon," I said. "Can you mix me a frozen daiquiri?"
"Sure," he said. "My favorite. Mother's milk."
I walked down the long entrance hall, the walls unaccountably decorated with swords, maces, and a few old muskets. The hallway led to a screened patio, and the rear door of that opened to a lawned area and the swimming pool.
Laverne Willigan was lounging at an umbrella table on the grass, her face shaded by a wide-brimmed planter's hat. It may not have been the world's smallest bikini she was wearing, but it wouldn't have provided a decent meal for a famished moth. Her tanned legs were crossed, and one bare foot was bobbing up and down in time to music coming from a portable radio on the table. A rock station, of course.
She had the decency to turn down the volume as I approached, for which I was grateful. I am not an aficionado of rock. I much prefer classical music, such as "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate."
"Hiya, Archy," Laverne said breezily. "Pull up a chair. You order a drink?"
"I did indeed, thank you," I said, doffing my pink linen golf cap. I moved a canvas sling to face her. "You're looking positively splendid. Glorious tan."
"Thanks," she said. "I work at it. What else have I got to do?"
I hoped she wasn't expecting an answer, but I was saved from replying by the arrival of Leon bearing my daiquiri on a silver salver. It was in a brandy snifter large enough to accommodate a hyacinth bulb.
"Good heavens," I said, "that must be a triple."
"Nah," Leon said, "it's mostly ice."
"Well, if I start singing, send me home. Aren't you drinking, Laverne?"
"Sure I am," she said and picked up a glass as large as mine from the grass alongside her chair. "Bloody Mary made with fresh horseradish. I like hot stuff."
She frequently said things like that. Not suggestive things, exactly, and not double entendres, exactly, but comments that made you wonder what she intended. I had the impression that she was continually challenging men, and if an eager stud wanted to think she was coming on to him and responded, she wouldn't be offended. But I doubted if it ever went beyond high-intensity flirting. She had it made as mistress of Casa Blanco, and I hoped she was shrewd enough to know it.
We raised glasses to each other and sipped.
She said, "Through the lips and past the gums; look out, stomach, here it comes."
She actually said that; I am not making it up. I am merely the scribe.
Suddenly I became aware of activity in the Olympic-size swimming pool behind me and turned to look. A young woman in a sleek black maillot was doing laps, brown arms flashing overhead, long legs moving from the hips in a perfect flutter kick.
I watched, fascinated, as she swam the length of the pool, made a racing turn, and started back. There was very little splash and her speed was impressive.
"Who on earth is that?" I asked.
"My sister," Laverne said. "Margaret Trumble. You can call her Meg if you like, but don't call her Maggie or she's liable to break your arm. She's very strong."
"I can see that," I said. "What a porpoise!"
"And she jogs, lifts weights, skis, climbs mountains, and does t'ai chi. She's staying with us until she decides what to do."
I looked at her and blinked. "About what?"
"Right now she teaches aerobics in King of Prussia. That's in Pennsylvania."
"I know," I said. "I once met the queen of Prussia."
Laverne looked at me suspiciously, but continued. "Anyway, Meg is thinking of moving to Florida. She thinks there are enough richniks here so she could do well as a personal trainer. You know: go to people's homes, teach them how to exercise, put them on diets, plan individual workout programs for them. Meg says all the big movie and TV stars have private trainers, and so do business bigshots. She thinks she could get plenty of clients just in Palm Beach."
"She probably could," I said, watching Ms. Trumble zip back and forth through the greenish water. "She seems like a very disciplined, determined young lady."
"Not so young," Laverne said. "She's three years older than I am."
"It's still young to me," I said. "But I was born old. Anyway, it must be fun having your sister here for company."
"Yeah," she said and took a gulp of her drink.
Suddenly she whisked away her straw hat and tossed it onto the grass. She shook her head a few times so her long blond hair swung free. It was not chemically brazen but softly tinted with reddish accents. I thought it quite attractive.
Her body, barely restrained by that minuscule bikini, was something else. It would be ungentlemanly to call it vulgar, but there was something fulsome about her flesh. There was just so much of it. It was undeniably sunned to an apricot tan, and certainly well-proportioned, but the very lavishness was daunting: whipped cream on chocolate mousse.
"Listen, Archy," she said, closing her eyes against the sun's glare. "Do you think you'll get Peaches back?"
"I'm certainly going to try. Could you show me the ransom note you received?"
"Harry's got it. He keeps it in the office safe. In the stockroom."
That was probably accurate since I happened to know she had worked for a year as receptionist in Harry Willigan's office. Then, discovering the boss's son was happily married, had children, and lived in Denver, she had done the next best thing: she had married the boss.
"All right," I said, "I'll see him later. How much are the catnappers asking?"
She opened her eyes and stared at me. "Fifty thousand," she said softly.
"Gol-lee! That's a lot of money for a cat."
"Harry will pay it if he has to," she said. "Sometimes I think he loves that stupid animal more than he does me."
"I doubt that," I said, but I wasn't certain. "When did Peaches disappear?"
"Last Wednesday. Harry was at work, I was at the beauty parlor, and Ruby Jackson—she's our housekeeper and cook—had the day off. So only Leon and Julie Blessington were here. She's the maid."
"Where was your sister?"
"Gone to town to look for a place to live. She wants her own apartment. Anyway, it was around one o'clock in the afternoon when Leon and Julie realized Peaches was gone. They searched all over but couldn't find her."
"Maybe she just wandered off or went hunting mice and lizards."
Laverne shook her head. "Peaches is a house cat. We never let her out, because she's been declawed and can't defend herself. Sometimes she went into the screened patio to get some fresh air or sleep on the tiles, but she never went outside. The back patio door is always kept closed."
"No. But at night the door from the hallway to the patio is locked, bolted, and chained. So if anyone got into the patio at night, what could they steal—aluminum furniture?"
"But during the day, if Peaches was on the patio and no one was around, any wiseguy could nip in, stuff her in a burlap sack, and lug her away?"
"That's about it. Harry is fit to be tied. He screamed like a maniac at Leon and Julie, but it really wasn't their fault. They couldn't watch the damned cat every minute. Whoever thought she'd be kidnapped?"
"Catnapped," I said. "Leon and Julie are sure the outside door to the patio was closed?"
"They swear it was."
"No holes in the screening where Peaches might have slipped through?"
"Nope. Go look for yourself."
"I'll take your word for it. When did the ransom note arrive?"
"Thursday morning. Leon found it under the front door."
"I'll see it at Harry's office, but can you tell me what it said?"
She picked up her straw hat from the grass, clapped it on her head, tilted it far down in front to shade her eyes. She squirmed to find a more comfortable position in her canvas sling. I wished she hadn't done that. She took a deep breath and stretched, arching her back. I wished she hadn't done that.
"The note said they had taken Peaches and would return her in good health for fifty thousand dollars. If we went to the cops, they'd know about it and we'd never see Peaches alive again."
"Did they say how the payment was to be made?"
"No, they said we'd be hearing from them again."
"You keep using the plural. Did the note say we have the cat and you'd be hearing from them?"
"That's what it said."
"Uh-huh. Was the note in an envelope?"
"Yes. A plain white envelope."
"Was it typed or handwritten?"
"I thought it was typed, but Harry said it had been done on a word processor."
"That's interesting. Is Peaches on a special diet?"
"She eats people-type food, like sautéed chicken livers and poached salmon. Things like that."
"Lucky Peaches," I said. "Well, I can't think of any more questions to ask."
"What will you do now, Archy?"
"Probably go to Harry's office and get a look at the ransom note. It may have—"
I stopped speaking and rose to my feet as I became aware that Margaret Trumble was approaching from the pool, drying her hair with a towel. There wasn't much to dry. Her hair was fairer than her sister's, almost silver, and cut quite short. In fact, she had a "Florida flattop," clipped almost to the scalp at the sides and back, with the top looking like a truncated whisk-broom.
I must admit she wore this bizarre hairdo with panache, as if other people's opinions were not worth a fig. But I found her coiffure charming, perhaps because her face was strong enough to carry it. Good cheekbones there, and a chin that was assertive without being aggressive.
Laverne introduced us, lauding me as "one of my dearest friends"—which was news to me. Meg Trumble's handclasp was firm but brief. She coolly nodded her acknowledgment of my presence—obviously an exquisite joy to her—and began toweling her bare arms and legs.
"How do you like South Florida, Miss Trumble?" I inquired politely.
She paused to look about at the azure sky, green lawn, palms, and a sumptuous royal poinciana.
"Right now it's beautiful," she said. Her voice was deep and resonant, totally unlike Laverne's girlish piping.
"Oh yes," I said. "'What is so rare as a day in June?'"
She looked directly at me for the first time. "Keats?" she asked.
"Lowell," I said, reflecting that though she might not know poetry, her pectorals were magnificent. "You're an excellent swimmer," I told her. "Do you compete?"
"No," she said shortly. "There's no money in it. Do you swim?"
"Wallow is more like it," I confessed.
She nodded again, as if wallowing was to be expected from a chap who wore a teal polo shirt and madras slacks.
"Laverne," she said, "I'd like to use the Porsche this afternoon. Can Leon drive me in?"
Excerpted from McNally's Luck by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1992 The Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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