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P.I. Archy McNally mixes business with pleasure when he's hired by a well-heeled society matron to investigate the fiancee of her wealthy son. Archy suspects that he is flirting with danger when he finds the stunning bride-to-be involved in murder. A saga of scandal, seduction, and death from a bestselling author with more than 50 million books in print.
OCCASIONALLY MY BEHAVIOR REMINDED me of that famous apothegm of the theatre: "Good acting demands absolute sincerity—and if you can fake that you've got it made."
What brought on that introspective twitch was that at the moment I was perched on the edge of a lumpy armchair, leaning forward attentively, alert as a bird dog, exhibiting every evidence of sympathetic interest, including clucking—and bored out of my gourd.
I was listening to a lecture by Mrs. Gertrude Smythe-Hersforth, a large, imperious lady who may have been the best bridge player in the Town of Palm Beach, but whose conversation had once been described to me as "a diarrhea of words and a constipation of ideas."
Mrs. Smythe-Hersforth was expounding on the importance of family tradition and bloodlines, and how in the current mongrelized (her word) Palm Beach society it was more important than ever that people of breeding circle the wagons to defend their world against the determined assault of lesser beings, many of whom didn't have a single hyphen to their name.
"After all, Archy," quoth she, "one must have pride in one's family."
Don't you just love it? This overstuffed matron was implying that if your name was Smith, DiCicco, or Rabinowitz, you were incapable of pride and probably bought your Jockey shorts at K-Mart. In Britain, family determines class. But in America, it's money. I could have explained that to her, but what was the use?
The reason I was listening to Mrs. Smythe-Hersforth's rubbish with dissembled fascination was that she was an old and valued client of McNally & Son, Attorney-at-Law. (My father is the Attorney; I am the Son.) We had inherited Gertrude after her husband, Reginald, dropped dead from cardiac arrest after missing a ten-inch putt on the fourth green at his club. It is now reverently referred to as Reggie's Hole, in his honor.
I am not an attorney myself, having been expelled from Yale Law for a minor contretemps. During a performance by the New York Philharmonic, I had streaked across the stage, naked except for a Richard M. Nixon mask. To this day it is of some satisfaction that I garnered more applause than Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major.
After I returned in disgrace from New Haven to Palm Beach, my father provided me with gainful employment by creating a section in his law firm yclept the Department of Discreet Inquiries. I was the sole member, and it was my task to conduct investigations requested by our moneyed clients who didn't wish to consult law enforcement agencies and possibly see their personal problems emblazoned on the covers of those tabloids stacked next to sliced salami in supermarkets.
This particular inquiry had been initiated with iron determination by the aforementioned Mrs. Gertrude Smythe-Hersforth. Her son, unmarried, had apparently become enamored of a local lady fifteen years his junior, and he wished to plight his troth. In other words, Chauncey Wilson Smythe-Hersforth yearned to get hitched, and to a woman whose surname of Johnson seemed to his mother distressingly plebeian and therefore suspect.
In view of mommy's prejudices, you would think, wouldn't you, that the Smythe-Hersforths rated at least a page in Burke's Peerage? Au contraire.
I happened to know that Lemuel Smythe had founded the family fortune by selling moldy bread to Union forces during the Civil War and had subsequently tripled his net worth by marrying Abigail Hersforth, the only child of Isaac Hersforth, who had made his pile in the slave trade. So much for our client's family tradition. It couldn't hold a candle stub to my own pride in my paternal grandfather, who was known as Ready Freddy McNally and was one of the most popular burlesque comics on the old Minsky Circuit.
I promised Mrs. Smythe-Hersforth I would conduct a discreet but thorough investigation into the antecedents and character of Miss Theodosia Johnson, the young woman who had snared her son's heart.
"I wouldn't be surprised if she was just a common fortune hunter," Mrs. S-H said darkly.
That was the tip-off, of course. The old biddy was less interested in protecting the family's name than in protecting the family's bucks, which, according to gossip I had heard, amounted to Gettysburg Address millions: four score and seven. A tidy sum, to be sure, but petty cash compared to the wealth of some of her neighbors on Ocean Boulevard.
I was happy to depart the Smythe-Hersforth manse. The interior looked as if it had been decorated in the Avocado Green-Harvest Gold era of the 1950s and hadn't been dusted since. I emerged into bright August sunshine, the sea glittering and a sweet sky dotted with popcorn clouds. I vaulted into my fire-engine-red Miata and headed for the Pelican Club, desperately in need of a liquid buck-up. An hour spent with Mrs. Gertrude Smythe-Hersforth was an affront to the Eighth Amendment, the one dealing with cruel and unusual punishment.
As I tooled westward I reflected that this was not the first time I had been handed the job of establishing the bona fides of a prospective bride or groom. I recalled that on my initial assignment of this type I had expressed some misgivings. I am essentially a romantic cove—and something of a featherbrain, my father might add—and it seemed rather infra dig to investigate the personal history, bank balance, and private kinks of a potential mate with whom one is madly in love.
"Archy," the squire explained in his stodgy way, "you must understand that marriage is a legal contract, presumably for life. Would you sign a contract with a party of the second part without first making an inquiry into his or her trustworthiness? Would you sign a mortgage without inspecting the property and perhaps having it evaluated by an independent appraiser? Would you make a loan without first establishing the financial resources of the borrower? If you would do any of those things, then you are a mindless ass."
I had to acknowledge the logic of his argument, and so I surrendered and accepted the task. I must confess I am not a bloke of strong convictions, other than hot English mustard is splendid on broiled calves' liver.
The Pelican Club is a private dining and drinking establishment housed in a rather decrepit freestanding building out near the airport. It is my favorite watering hole and a popular home-away-from-home for many golden lads and lasses in the Palm Beach area. I was one of the founding members and am proud to say I helped create its most famous annual event, the Running of the Lambs—more fun than Pamplona with considerably less possibility of being gored.
It was not quite noon and the luncheon crowd had not yet come galloping in. The sole occupant of the bar area was Mr. Simon Pettibone, an elderly and dignified gentleman of color who served as club manager and bartender. At the moment, he was watching the screen of a TV set showing a running tape of stock quotations.
I swung aboard a barstool. "Is the market up or down, Mr. Pettibone?" I inquired.
"Sideways, Mr. McNally," he said. "Frozen daiquiri?"
"Excellent suggestion," I said, and watched him prepare it with the deft movements of a practiced mixologist.
"Mr. Pettibone," I said, "are you by any chance acquainted with the Smythe-Hersforth family?"
"Somewhat," he said warily. "When the mister was alive I worked a few of their soirées."
"And what was your impression?"
He chuffed a short laugh. "You could see up their nostrils," he said.
I smiled at his description of nose-in-the-air snoots. "I know the son," I mentioned. "Chauncey Wilson Smythe-Hersforth. He belongs to my golf club. I played a round with him once. Just once. He's an awful duffer. He likes to be called CW—for Chauncey Wilson, you know. So we oblige. He hasn't yet caught on that most of us mean the Chinless Wonder."
"He is that," Mr. Pettibone agreed. "I would call him a young codger."
"Well put," I said. "He must be—what would you say—about forty-five?"
"And never married?"
"Not to my knowledge. What woman would want a mama's boy?"
"Not even a rich mama's boy?" I asked.
Mr. Pettibone paused to consider that. "Um," he said finally.
I sipped my plasma and considered what might be the wisest next move in my investigation of CWs intended. I had never met the lady, never heard of her prior to that morning, knew absolutely nothing about her. I mention this because it was so unusual. Palm Beach is a small town, especially in the off-season, and everybody knows everybody. But Ms. Theodosia Johnson was, as far as I was concerned, Ms. Terra Incognita.
Ordinarily, I would have immediately consulted Consuela Garcia. She is social secretary to Lady Cynthia Horowitz, one of Palm Beach's wealthiest chatelaines. Connie is plugged in to all our town's gossip, rumors, and scandals. She would surely have some poop to contribute on the subject of Theodosia Johnson.
But Connie is also my light-o'-love, and has been for several years. She is a Marielito and an absolutely smashing senorita to whom I have been, I must regretfully confess, unfaithful on more than one occasion.
If Connie has one failing, it's that the green-eyed monster seems permanently perched on her soft, tanned shoulder. We have vowed, many times, to maintain an open relationship, both of us free to consort with whomever she (Connie) or he (me) chooses. I have faithfully hewed to this agreement, but occasionally Connie has been overwhelmed by her fiery Latin blood.
For instance, not too long ago I escorted a charming miss to Testa's for Sunday brunch. We entered the dining room and I immediately espied Connie alone at a distant table. Unfortunately she spotted me and my companion at the same time. She gave me a look I don't wish to describe. She rose immediately and, carrying her brunch plate, marched up to us. I attempted an awkward introduction but to no avail. Connie pulled open the waistband of my lime green linen slacks and slipped in two eggs Benedict. Then she stalked out. It is not a memory I cherish.
So, in view of that recent confrontation, I thought it best not to request Connie's assistance in investigating a nubile young woman. Instead, I went to the rear of the Pelican Club's bar area and used the public phone to call Lolly Spindrift, the social reporter for one of our local gazettes. His popular column is called "Hither and Yon," which I presume refers to the Island of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach across Lake Worth.
"Lol?" I said. "Archy McNally here."
"You swine!" he shrieked. "You don't write, you don't call. How could I possibly have offended? I've never written a word about your vulgar dalliances, although the evidence occupies a full file drawer. And did I not mention your name—spelled correctly, incidentally—in my scoop on the Gillsworth homicides? A word of thanks from you? Hah! Stony silence has been my reward. Watch your step, bucko, or I may add you to my annual list of the Island's most noxious bachelors."
"Slow down a mo, Lol," I begged, "and have lunch with me."
"Where?" he demanded.
"The Pelican Club?" I suggested hopefully.
"Surely you jest," he said. "I wouldn't dine there if I was suffering from a terminal case of malnutrition. Try again."
"The Cafe L'Europe?"
"You're on, darling," he said promptly. "But only if I can have Krug with my beluga. You obviously want something from me, and it's going to cost you, sweetie. Meet you at the bar in a half-hour."
But it was two hours later that I was finally able to muffle his volubility long enough to broach the reason for this extravagant feast. By that time we were on our second bottle of bubbly. Not smashed, you understand, but not whimpering with pain either. Lolly was a sparrow of a man, all dash and chatter. Despite his small size, his capacity for food and drink is legendary. Once, at a party, I saw him consume an entire roast chicken, belch delicately, and head for the broiled lobster.
"Theodosia Johnson," I said to him. "About thirty years old, I think. The chosen of Chauncey Wilson Smythe-Hersforth. What do you know about her?"
Spindrift looked at me sorrowfully. "Oh dear," he said, "I fear I have been dining under false pretenses. There is very little I can tell you about the lady. I like to think of her as Madam X."
"Surely you must know something about her," I urged. "She lives in Palm Beach? On the acceptable side of the water?"
"She does indeed. In a rented condo. With her father."
"Single? Divorced? Widowed?"
"Part of the mystery," Lol said, filling our glasses again. "She's been in residence about a year. Seems to be well-heeled. Becoming more active in local charities. That's how she met the Chinless Wonder. At a black-tie bash to save the whales or dolphins or manatees—whatever. You've never met her?"
"Never heard of her until this morning."
He gave me a pitying glance. "Be prepared to have your timbers shivered, m'lad."
"Oh?" I said. "Why is that?"
"Beautiful!" he said enthusiastically. "A corker, believe me. If I was of a different religion, I would definitely be attracted. She's half-Garbo, half-Dietrich. Careful, darling. One look and you'll lose that prune you call your heart."
"An intriguing prospect," I said, pouring the remainder of the second bottle into our glasses. "How do you suggest I might meet this lalapalooza?"
"Easiest thing in the world," he told me. "Tonight the Pristine Gallery is having an exhibit of Silas Hawkin's portraits. You know him?"
"I've met him," I said. "I think he's an idiot."
"More oaf than idiot," Lolly said. "And a rich oaf. You know what they say about him, don't you? As a portrait painter he's the best plastic surgeon in Palm Beach. He charges thirty grand and up—mostly up—for a genuine oil portrait of our wealthier beldames. And every matron he's painted has her bosom lifted, wattles excised, and her gin-dulled stare replaced with a youthful sparkle. The man is really a genius at pleasing his clients. Anyway, at the to-do tonight, the gallery is going to show his latest masterpiece: a portrait of Theodosia Johnson. How does that grab you? Madam X herself is sure to be there. Why don't you pop by?"
"Thank you, Lol," I said gratefully. "I think I'll do exactly that."
Eventually we tottered outside and stood in the afternoon heat grinning foolishly at each other.
"Another luncheon like that," I said, "and I'll have a liver as big as the Ritz."
"Nonsense, darling," Spindrift said, gently swaying back and forth. "It was a yummy spread, and I'm pickled tink you asked me."
He gave me a careless wave and wandered away, leaving me to wonder if his "pickled tink" was deliberate or a lurch of a champagne- loosened tongue. I stood rooted, knowing I should return to my miniature office in the McNally Building and begin an inquiry into the creditworthiness of Madam X, including bank balances, net worth, source of income, and all that. But I feared my Krugged brain might not be capable of the task.
During my brief sojourn at Yale Law I had learned an effective method of determining whether one was or was not plotched. You recited aloud the following:
"Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, with stoutest wrists and loudest boasts, he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts."
If you can say that without slobbering all over your chin, you are definitely not hors de combat. So I declaimed it aloud on Worth Avenue, attracting wary glances from passing tourists. I was delighted to discover my lower mandible remained bone-dry; the McNally medulla oblongata had not lost its keen edge.
But it was then threeish or fourish, much too late to return to the salt mines. So I drove home, slowly and cautiously, and took a nap.
I roused an hour later, full of p&v, and went for my daily swim. The Atlantic is just across Ocean Boulevard from the McNally digs, and I try to do two miles each day, chugging along parallel to the shore and hoping no Portuguese man-of-war is lurking nearby, licking its chops. I returned home in time to dress and attend the cocktail hour, a family ceremony. That evening, as usual, my father did the honors, stirring up a pitcher of traditional dry martinis.
My mother, Madelaine, is one of the ditsiest of all mommies, but a lovely gentlewoman who talks to her begonias. She also drinks sauterne with meat and fish courses and is very concerned about the ozone layer, without quite knowing what ozone is.
Excerpted from McNally's Risk by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1993 The Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 26, 2013
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