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Palm Beach investigator Archy McNally takes on the deadliest puzzle of his career in this delicious mystery, complete with some of the most eccentric characters ever to inhabit Florida's Gold Coast. This sixth mystery in the bestselling series will leave no doubt that Archy is here to stay.
SHE SLAPPED MY FACE.
I have mentioned in previous accounts of my adventures that I am an absolute klutz when dealing with a weeping woman. I am even klutzier (if there is such a word) in coping with a person of the female extraction who commits an act of physical aggression upon the carcass of Archy McNally, bon vivant, dilettantish detective, and the only man in the Town of Palm Beach who owns a T-shirt bearing a portrait of Sophie Tucker. (She once hefted her voluminous breasts and said, "Hitler should have such tonsils.")
But forgive these digressions and allow me to return to the problem of being the victim of a lady's wrath: to wit, a sharp blow to my mandible. I mean, what was a gentleman to do?
1. Grit one's molars and stiffen one's upper lip in silence?
2. Return the slap while muttering a mild oath?
3. Bow politely and say, "I deserved that"?
Actually, the third choice would have been the most fitting but I was too startled by the sudden attack to make any reasonable response. Let me explain:
Her first name was Laura and her last name is of no consequence to this narrative. She and her wealthy husband of three years had recently finalized what was described as an "amicable divorce"—if there is such an animal, which I doubt.
Laura received a humongous cash settlement. Her ex-hubby retained possession of their Palm Beach mansion with all its rather atrocious furnishings and, of course, his personal property, including a famous collection of sports memorabilia. It had occasionally been exhibited in local museums which could not snare a traveling Monet show and had to be content with a display of ancient gutta-percha golf balls and a stained leather helmet once worn by Bronko Nagurski.
The star of the collection was a 1910 Sweet Caporal cigarette card bearing a likeness of Honus Wagner, famed shortstop of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was believed only thirty-six of these rare baseball cards still existed, and one recently sold at auction for $450,000.
You can imagine the husband's fury and despair when, shortly after his divorced wife decamped, he discovered his beloved Honus Wagner card had decamped as well. But he had no proof his ex had filched his most valuable curio. And so, rather than create a foofaraw with the local gendarmes, he brought the problem to his attorneys, McNally & Son.
My father, Prescott McNally, is the lawyer. I, Archibald McNally, am the son. I do not hold a legal degree due to a minor contretemps resulting in my being excommunicated from Yale Law. But I direct a small department (personnel: one) devoted to Discreet Inquiries. I do investigations for clients who would prefer to have potentially embarrassing matters handled with quiet circumspection instead of seeing them made public and possibly detailed in a supermarket tabloid next to an article entitled "I Am Pregnant with Elvis's Love Child!"
It took only a bit of nosing about to discover the lady was a member of the tennis club to which I belong—although my dues are frequently in arrears. Soon thereafter we were confronting each other across the net. I am not an accomplished tennist, although I do have a ferocious backhand, and it didn't take long to discover Laura was a calm and cool expert. To put it bluntly, she creamed me.
An after-set gin and tonic led to my inviting her to a luncheon and eventually a dinner. Working my wicked wiles, I capped a week of gastronomic seduction with a feast at the Chesterfield (rack of lamb and then a Grand Marnier soufflé). Replete and giggling, we returned to her quarters in a West Palm condo rental. By this time we were sufficiently simpatico that I do not believe either of us doubted how the evening would end.
And so it did. In my own defense I can only plead I was as much seductee as seducer. I mean this was an inexorable progression betwixt a frisky lass and an even friskier lad. What was one to do? Kismet.
But I did not neglect my motive for engineering this joyous occasion. And when the lady scampered into the bathroom after our frolic I scampered to the chest of drawers in her bedroom. And there, under a stack of perfumed undies, I found the stolid portrait of Honus Wagner, his baseball card sealed in plastic. I slipped it into my wallet, delighted with such a triumphant night.
But then, as I was dressing, she came trotting out, naked as a needle, and went directly to her store of flimsies. She discovered my theft almost immediately. She stalked over to me and I fancied even her satiny bosom was suffused with indignation—if not fury.
That was when she slapped my face.
After recovering from my initial shock, I launched into an earnest and detailed explanation. It was not actually larceny, I pointed out; I was merely recovering property illegally removed from the possession of the rightful owner. And as an employee of her ex-husband's attorney it was my duty to reclaim that which was undeniably his. Besides, I argued, my act of pilferage had been to her advantage since it would prevent her ex from filing a complaint of her alleged crime with the polizia.
I prided myself on speaking sincerely and eloquently. As readers of my previous discreet inquiries are aware, I am rarely at a loss for words. Glib, one might even say. Laura was obviously impressed, listening to my persuasive discourse in silence. When I concluded she drew a deep breath. Lovely sight.
"I guess you're right," she said. "But I want you to know I didn't intend to sell the stupid thing or profit from it in any way."
"Then why did you take it?"
"I just wanted to teach him a lesson," she said.
I shall never, never, never understand the gentle sex.
It was pushing midnight when I tooled my red Miata back to the ersatz Tudor manse on Ocean Boulevard housing the McNally family. It was the first week of November and it would be pure twaddle to describe the night as crisp. The weather in South Florida is rarely crisp, tending more toward the soggy, but I must report the sea breeze that Friday night was definitely breathable and the cloudless sky looked as if it had been decorated by Tiffany & Co.
Lights were out and no one was astir when I arrived home. I garaged my chariot and toed the stairs as quietly as I could to my mini-suite on the third and topmost floor. I disrobed and bought myself one minuscule marc and a final English Oval before retiring. It had been a somewhat stressful evening and I must confess I was plagued by a small tweak of shame. My successful gambit for recovering the Honus Wagner baseball card had not been strictly honorable, had it? Caddish, one might even say.
I occasionally suffer an attack of the guilts and have found the best cure is a good night's sleep, when a mambo with Morpheus dilutes crass behavior to impish mischief. And so it happened once again, for I awoke the following morning with a clear head, a pure conscience, and only a slight twinge in the lower jaw to remind me of Laura's energetic slap the previous evening. She had been entitled, I acknowledged, and decided I was fortunate that in addition to her tennis prowess she was not also a master of kung fu.
I roused in time to breakfast with my parents in the dining room. Our Scandinavian staff, Ursi and Jamie Olson, had whipped up a marvelous country feast of eggs scrambled with onions, ham steaks, fried grits, hush puppies, and coffee laced with enough chicory to afflict us all with a chorus of borborygmus.
"Goodness," my mother, Madelaine, said, "it is peppy, isn't it? Just the one cup for me."
My father was dressed for his customary Saturday golf game with the same cronies he had been playing with as long as I could recall. They were known as the Fearless Foursome at his club for they had once insisted on completing the back nine while a category three hurricane was raging.
Prescott McNally, Esq., wore his usual golfing uniform: white linen plus fours and argyle hose. This attire might have appeared ridiculous on a man of lesser dignity but pops, with his grizzled eyebrows and guardsman's mustache, carried it off with casual aplomb, as if he might be heading for a round at St. Andrews.
"Archy," he said as we left the dining room, both of us still rumbling dully from our gaseous breakfast, "a moment of your time, please."
We paused in the hallway outside the door of his first-floor study.
"The baseball card?" he inquired.
"Recovered," I said. "It'll be on your desk Monday morning."
"Excellent," he said. "Any unexpected difficulty or expense?"
"No, father. The lady was most cooperative."
He looked at me and raised one jungly eyebrow, a trick I've never been able to master. But he asked no questions. The pater prefers not to learn the details of my discreet inquiries. I do believe he fears such knowledge might result in his disbarment. He may be right.
"I'm happy the matter has been concluded satisfactorily," he said in his stodgy manner. "Then you have nothing on your plate at the moment?"
"No, sir. My platter is clean."
"Good. Do you know Hiram Gottschalk?"
"He's on our client list, is he not?"
"I've never met Mr. Gottschalk personally but I have a nodding acquaintance with his son, Peter. He's a member of the Pelican Club."
"Is he?" father said. "And what is your reaction to him?"
I chose my words carefully. "I find him somewhat undisciplined," I said.
"So Mr. Gottschalk has led me to believe. He is a widower, you know, and in addition to his son he has grown twin daughters, presently vacationing in Europe. Are you also acquainted with them?"
"Apparently they're due to return shortly, and perhaps you'll have the opportunity to meet them."
"Perhaps," I said. "Father, doesn't Mr. Gottschalk own that store in West Palm that sells birds?"
"Parrots," the sire said. "The shop is called Parrots Unlimited. That's the only species he handles."
"No auks?" I asked. "No emus or kiwis?"
He was startled. "Archy, you seem remarkably well informed about exotic birds."
"Not really," I said. "The names I mentioned are frequently used in crossword puzzles."
"Oh," he said. "Well, in any event, Mr. Gottschalk came in to consult me. We have been discussing for some time his plan to set up a private foundation. He is a wealthy man. Not from his parrot store, I assure you. But he has inherited a considerable sum, the greater part from his deceased wife, and we have been exploring options that might legally diminish his estate tax. But yesterday Mr. Gottschalk didn't wish to talk about taxes. He asked if I could recommend a private investigator to look into a matter that's troubling him. I told him of your employment as our house specialist in discreet inquiries. He seemed happy to hear of it and requested your assistance."
"Ready, willing, and able, sir," I said, resisting a momentary urge to genuflect. "What's his problem?"
Father paused a beat or two. Then: "He fears someone is trying to kill him."
"Surely not a maniacal macaw," I said.
Mon père glared at me. He does not appreciate my feeble attempts at humor at the expense of clients of McNally & Son. He feels they deserve respect since they put barbecued duck on the McNally table. I do respect them, I really do. But modicum is the word for it since many of our moneyed customers whose problems I deal with turn out to have a touch of sleaze.
"I suggest you visit Mr. Gottschalk on Monday," the boss continued. "I should warn you he is, ah, slightly eccentric."
"Oh?" I said. "In what way?" I remembered the old saw: "The poor are crazy; the rich are eccentric."
"In various ways," he said vaguely. "I'll leave it to you to make your own judgment. It's possible his fears are completely groundless, but I feel it's a matter deserving investigation. There's no point in his going to the police, of course. He has received no written or phone threats. No attempts have been made on his life. It's just a feeling he has. The police could do nothing with that, and rightly so. But please look into it, Archy."
"Of course," I said. "Monday morning."
He nodded and departed for his golf game. I went upstairs to change my duds for what I hoped would be an active and rewarding weekend during which I planned to play the role of a Palm Beach layabout: a bibulous lunch with Binky Watrous, an ocean swim, dinner with Consuela Garcia at the Pelican Club on Saturday night, golf on Sunday, perhaps a visit to Wellington polo in the afternoon. Good food. Good drinks. Jokes and laughter.
I record this trivia to convince you I do not spend all my time outwitting villains and righting wrongs. There is a gloomy Hungarian saying, something to the effect that before you have a chance to look around, the picnic is over. I have no intention of ignoring the picnic, ants and all. Not that I am given to excess. "Moderation in all things," Terence advised. (He wrote, of course, before the invention of the vodka gimlet.)
After a raucous session of poker with three pals on Sunday night (I won the princely sum of $3.49), I returned home early in the ayem and had a curious and rather unsettling experience.
I was in a beamish mood, a bit tiddly, and as I pulled in to the area fronting our three-car garage I saw in the headlight glare an enormous black bird stalking slowly across the gravel. Lordy but he was huge, and for one wild moment I thought I had spotted the last pterodactyl on earth.
It was a crow of course and not at all spooked by finding himself in the limelight. He turned his jetty head and gave me what I can only describe as a don't-mess-with-me look. Then he resumed his deliberate walk.
There was something disconcerting, almost ominous in the insolent parade of that funereal fowl. I watched him until he vanished into shadows as dark as he and my élan disappeared with him. I cannot say I felt menaced but I was slightly unnerved by the brief glimpse of that feathered phantom. He seemed so sure of himself, y'see, and totally indifferent to everything but his own desires.
If I wished to anthropomorphize I'd have said the bird personified evil. That's a mite much, you say? I'd be inclined to agree but Mr. Thomas Campbell was soon to be proved correct when he penned:
"Coming events cast their shadows before."CHAPTER 2
I OVERSLEPT ON MONDAY, REVERTING to my usual sluggardly habit. I finally hoisted myself from the pillows, showered and shaved. I dressed with something less than my usual éclat since I intended to meet with Mr. Hiram Gottschalk and wished to convey the impression of a sobersided investigator, a trustworthy representative of McNally & Son. Hey, I even wore socks.
I breakfasted alone in the kitchen and limited myself to only one croissant sandwich of salami and smoked Muenster. Then I set out for the McNally Building on Royal Palm Way. I distinctly recall having selected from my large collection of headgear a Monticristi panama I had recently bought. The purchase of that marvelous hat had put a severe dent in my checking account and I had the original black ribbon band replaced with one of snakeskin. Raffish, doncha think?
I left the baseball card with Mrs. Trelawney, my father's private secretary, and then went down to my own office. It is as commodious as a vertical coffin, and I do believe I have been sentenced to such a windowless cell by mein papa so he might never be accused of nepotism. I, of course, thought it prima facie evidence of parental abuse.
I looked up the number of Parrots Unlimited in the West Palm directory and phoned. A woman answered, I identified myself and asked to speak to Mr. Hiram Gottschalk. He came on the line a moment later. His voice was dry and twangy.
"You Prescott McNally's son?" he demanded. "Archibald McNally?"
"That's correct, sir."
"Call you Archy?"
"Of course," I said.
"Call me Hi," he said. "Hate the name Hiram. Makes me sound like a Nebraska farmer."
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "Hiram Walker and I are old friends."
He picked up on it immediately. "Say, you sound like a sharp kid. Want to see me, do you?"
"Yes, sir. At your convenience."
"Right now suits me fine," he said. "Come on over."
"On my way," I told him, and hung up, warning myself to be careful in greeting Mr. Gottschalk. "Hi, Hi" just wouldn't do, would it?
I found Parrots Unlimited with little trouble. It was on Hibiscus Street out west toward Cooley Stadium. I discovered a legal parking space about two blocks away and strolled back, grateful for my panama because the November sun thought it was still July.
Excerpted from McNally's Puzzle by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1996 Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 2, 2008
This is a later McNally book actually written by Sanders and it is one of his better efforts. There is plenty of action, especially for this series, and even after it becomes obvious who the villian is the outcome is uncertain until the end. The McNally series is great for beach reading and is lighter fare than most Florida mysteries. It is interesting to contrast McNally with his predecessor several exits south on I-95, Travis McGee. McGee lives on a houseboat, McNally lives with his parents. McGee is self-employed while McNally works for his father. McGee favors cutoffs and a t-shirt while McNally is likely to be wearing lavender shoes and a puce beret. McGee's favorite food is Meyer's chili while McNally dines on oft-described epicurean fare. McGee travels the globe while McNally's adventures are largely confined to the wealthy enclave of Palm Beach. The McNally series offers an experience closer to a British mystery than a typical Florida crime novel. I recommend all of them if you enjoy lighter mystery fare. The characters become endearing if somewhat one dimensional and the setting is wittily and accurately drawn.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 17, 2006
Usually I know why a book keeps me reading. I know exactly what the capture cons are. In the case of McNALLY¿s PUZZLE, I kept reading with my own puzzle to saw with a jig. It had something to do with a jazzy writing rhythm and with the tightly focused, First-person-Narrative pushing Archy¿s socially elite slang. I found myself wondering where I¿d left my dictionary. I didn¿t want to lose the frequent opportunities to learn new words. McNALLY¿S PUZZLE is my first taste of this series. I was initially brought to it by readers¿ complaints about Archy¿s obsession with food, and Lawrence¿s including every tasty bite in the plot. In fiction I seek stimulation of the senses, though most often my moods prefer to go beyond and before the abundantly available ploys of the shock syndrome, and gregariously graphic sex. What else is there but solitary, tongue-in-teeth tangos with the manna of the gods? For me, the statement, ¿... bites off a big piece of bread,¿ might work up a hint of saliva. That¿s what I usually get in a work of food fiction, when I¿m lucky. But, the descriptive luxury of, ¿His teeth sink into the delicate texture of a soft, yeasty, French baguette, edged by the crunch of a crusty cover,¿ could get a stomach growl out of a full balloon. It¿s the rhythm of the syntax, though. It is. And the tight focus on Archy. That¿s what kept me reading long enough to get beyond my minimal irritation at the pondering push of the word dance. Once the rhythm had me going, and going, and picking up the book each time I had the time to read, I began being led by the nose, as well as the tongue, into the mystery developing with the precise timing of a master at a modern dance studio. Then the pace picked up slightly, plateau-ed, picked up a little more, and so on, to a perfect conclusion. That¿s all I¿ll say about that, not wanting to sing the secrets, or sling them around. Sanders exposed true writer¿s confidence in the pacing pauses of Archy¿s daily routines in this novel and especially in the succinct, crisp style of the picked up dance of denouement. I laughed out loud in cheering glee a few times during the final ten pages. Archy¿s father¿s heated question to a brouhaha which brought him out of his night sanctuary was classic, heart-healing humor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 30, 2013
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