McNally's Secretby Lawrence Sanders
New York Times bestselling author Lawrence Sanders introduces his most disarming detective in this powerhouse novel of passion, murder, and unabashed greed Inveterate playboy Archy McNally gets paid to make discreet inquiries for Palm Beach’s power elite. But keeping their dirty little secrets buried will take some fancy footwork in/b>/i>… See more details below
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New York Times bestselling author Lawrence Sanders introduces his most disarming detective in this powerhouse novel of passion, murder, and unabashed greed Inveterate playboy Archy McNally gets paid to make discreet inquiries for Palm Beach’s power elite. But keeping their dirty little secrets buried will take some fancy footwork in McNally’s latest case. A block of priceless 1918 US airmail stamps has gone missing from a high-society matron’s wall safe. Lady Cynthia Horowitz, now on her sixth husband, is a nasty piece of work who lives in a mansion that looks like Gone With the Wind’s Tara transplanted to southern Florida. McNally’s search takes him into a thickening maze of sex, lies, scandal, and blackmail. When passion erupts into murder and McNally must dig even deeper to uncover the truth, he unearths a shocking secret that could expose his own family’s skeletons.
Read an Excerpt
An Archy McNally Novel
By Lawrence Sanders
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 The Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I POURED A FEW drops of an '87 Mondavi Chardonnay into her navel and leaned down to slurp it out.
Jennifer's eyes closed and she purred. "Do you like that?" she breathed.
"Of course," I said. "Eighty-seven was an excellent year."
Her eyes popped open. "Stinker," she said. "Can't you ever be serious?"
"No," I said, "I cannot."
That, at least, was the truth. In my going-on thirty-seven years I had lived through dire warnings of nuclear catastrophe, global warming, ozone depletion, universal extinction via cholesterol, and the invasion of killer bees.
After a while my juices stopped their panicky surge and I realized I was bored with all these screeched predictions of Armageddon due next Tuesday. It hadn't happened yet, had it? The old world tottered along, and I was content to totter along with it. I am an amiable, sunnily tempered chap (and something of an ass, my father would undoubtedly add), and I see no need to concern myself with disasters that may never happen. The world is filled with kvetchers, and I have no desire to join the club.
I could have explained all this to Jennifer, but didn't. She might think I was serious about it, and I wasn't. I mean I wasn't even serious about not being serious, if you follow me.
So I took up where I had left off, and the next hour was a larky interlude of laughs and high-intensity moans. This was the first time we had bedded and, though I cannot speak for the lady, I know I was delighted; it was one of those rare sexual romps when realization exceeds expectation.
Part of my joy was due to pleased surprise. Jennifer Towley was almost as tall as I, and had impressed me as being a rather reserved, elegant, somewhat austere lady who dressed smartly but usually in black—and this is South Florida, where everyone favors pastels.
That was the clothed Jennifer. Stripped to the tawny buff and devoid of her gray contact lenses, she metamorphosed into an entirely different woman. What a jolly lady she turned out to be! Enthusiastic. Cooperative. Acrobatic. I felt a momentary pang over how I was deceiving her. But it was momentary.
Later, a bit after midnight, I regretfully dragged myself from her warm embrace and dressed. She rose and donned an enormous white terry robe that bore the crest of a Monte Carlo hotel.
"Thank you for a super evening," I said politely.
"The dinner was splendid," she said. "And the dessert even better. But wait; I have a gift for you."
I felt a perfect cad. Here I was deluding the poor girl, and she was about to give me a present. Perhaps a gold lighter or cashmere pullover—something expensive she could ill afford. I was shattered by shame.
But she brought me a packet of letters tied with a bit of ribbon. She had replaced her contacts, and gave me the full force of a direct, chilling stare. I glanced at the letters and knew immediately what they were: the reason for my duplicity.
"I believe these may be what you want," she said sternly.
I looked at her. "How long have you known?" I asked.
"I suspected you from the start," she said. "I don't ordinarily attract the attention of handsome, charming men my own age. Most of them are looking for teen-aged centerfolds. And then you claimed to be a tennis pro. Your game is good, but not that good. So tonight, while you were in the john, I went through your wallet."
"I did," she said firmly. "And discovered you are Archibald McNally, attorney-at- law."
"Not so," I said, shaking my head. "If you examine my business card closely, you'll see it says McNally and Son, Attorney-at-Law, not Attorneys-at-Law. Singular, not plural. My father, Prescott McNally, is the lawyer. I am not."
"Then what are you?"
"I am the Son, in charge of a department called Discreet Inquiries. It consists of me."
"But why aren't you an attorney?" she persisted.
"Because I was expelled from Yale Law for not being serious enough. During a concert by the New York Philharmonic I streaked across the stage, naked except for a Richard M. Nixon mask."
Then she laughed, and I knew everything was going to be all right.
"If you had asked for the letters at the beginning," she said, "I would have been happy to hand them over. The man is obviously demented. But I had no idea what your game was, and I was curious."
I sighed. "Our client, Clarence T. Frobisher, is a nice old gentleman, but not buttoned-up too tightly, as you've noticed. How did you meet him?"
"At a charity benefit. He seemed harmless enough. A bit vague perhaps, but nothing to scare a girl out of her wits. When I found out he was loaded, I thought of him as a potential customer for my antiques. We had a few dinners together—nothing more—and then I began to get these incredible letters from him. He loved me passionately, wanted to marry me, would give me as much money as I wanted if only I would let him nibble my beautiful pink toes. My toes may or may not be beautiful—that's in the eye of the beholder—but they are certainly not pink, as you well know."
I nodded. "Mr. Frobisher has a thing for toes. I must tell you, Jennifer, this is not the first time he has written to women much younger than he, offering to buy, or rent, their toes. In three other cases we have bought back his letters to prevent his being sued or exposed to publicity that would make him the giggle of Palm Beach. It is a pleasant shock to have one of his toe targets return his letters voluntarily. I thank you."
She looked at me thoughtfully. "If I hadn't given you the letters, or sold them back to you, would you have stolen them?"
"Probably," I said. "Now there is one final matter to discuss."
"Oh? And what might that be?"
"When may I see you again?" I asked.
Once more that cool, level gaze was aimed at me.
"I'll think about it," she said.
I drove home in my red Mazda Miata, one of the first in South Florida. As I headed eastward, I whistled the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth. Or perhaps it was "Tiptoe Thru the Tulips." I wasn't sure and didn't much care. I was puffed with satisfaction: a job accomplished, a fine dinner and, most important, I had been intimate with a splendid woman.
I will not say I was smitten; that would be a bit much. My devotion to triviality as a way of life had taught me to automatically suspect and shun strong feelings. But still, I was intrigued by Ms. Jennifer Towley, no doubt about it. I wanted to see her again. Dine with her again. And then, I confess, the thought occurred to me that Clarence T. Frobisher may have had a perfectly reasonable and understandable fantasy. Forgive me.
We lived on A1A, right across the road from the Atlantic Ocean. Our manse was quite different from neighboring homes. They were mostly two-floor faux Spanish haciendas with red tile roofs; ours was a three-story faux Tudor with mullioned windows and a leaky copper mansard roof.
It was no Mar-a-Lago, but we had five bedrooms, which were sufficient to accommodate the annual visit of my married sister from Tucson with her family. In addition, our five acres included a two-story, three-car garage. Our houseman and cook-housekeeper, a married couple of Scandinavian origin, occupied an apartment on the upper floor.
There was a small greenhouse where my mother cultivated six million varieties of begonias—or so it seemed. There was also a formal garden, a potting shed, a Victorian-styled gazebo, and a doghouse that had once sheltered our golden retriever. He had gone to the Great Kennel in the Sky, but his home remained.
There was no swimming pool.
Actually, I thought the McNally estate was rather pukka. The main building was boxy with awkward lines, but ivy covers a multitude of sins. The entire place projected moneyed ease—costly comfort without flash. The weathered buildings and ample grounds bespoke old family and old wealth. It was all a stage set, of course, but only I knew that.
I parked the Miata between my father's black Lexus LS-400 and my mother's old wood-bodied Ford station wagon. There were no lights burning in the servants' quarters and none on the upper floors of the main house. But the portico lamp was on, and I caught slivers of light coming from between the drawn drapes of my father's first-floor study.
I went directly there. The heavy oaken door was ajar, and when I peeked in, I saw him comfortably ensconced in his favorite leather club chair, a port decanter and glass at his elbow. He was reading from a leather-bound volume, and I'd have bet it was Dickens. For years he had been digging through the entire oeuvre, and at the rate he was going, he'd be a Dear Departed before he got to Bleak House.
He looked up when I entered. "Good evening, Archy."
"Evening, father," I said, and tossed the tied packet onto his desk. "The Frobisher letters," I explained.
"Excellent," he said. "How much did they cost?"
"A dinner at Cafe L'Europe. The lady handed them over voluntarily. No charge."
"She is a lady," he said. "Will she accept a small gift in gratitude?"
"I suspect she will," I said. "She's a tennis nut, but her racquet looks like an old banjo. I think a new Spalding graphite would be appreciated."
He nodded. "Take care of it. You look bushed. A port?"
"Thank you, sir," I said gratefully, and poured myself a generous tot in a glass that matched his.
"Better sit down," he advised. "I have a new assignment for you, and it'll take some telling."
"It can't wait until tomorrow?"
"No," he said shortly, "it can't. It's not something I care to discuss in the office."
So I lounged limply in an armchair and crossed my legs. He cast a baleful look at my lavender socks but made no comment. He'd never persuade me to emulate him by wearing knee-high hose of black wool, wingtip brogues, and a vested suit of gray tropical worsted.
He sat a few moments in silence, and I knew he was considering what to say and how to say it. My father always thought long and carefully before speaking. It was a habit I was used to, but I can tell you it sometimes caused awkward moments with clients and acquaintances who feared the old man was woolgathering or had gone daft.
"Lady Cynthia Horowitz came to the office this evening," he said. "After you left."
"Good Lord!" I said. "Don't tell me the old bird is changing her will again?"
"Not today," he said with a faint smile. "She had something more urgent to discuss. She wouldn't come upstairs—because of the air conditioning, you know—so I had to go downstairs and sit in that antique Rolls of hers. Roomy enough, but stifling. She made her chauffeur take a stroll while we conferred in private. She was quite upset."
"And what's bothering her now?"
My father sighed and took a small sip of his port. "She alleges that an important part of her estate has vanished."
"Oh? Lost, strayed, or stolen?"
"She believes it was stolen. It was kept in a wall safe in her bedroom. It is no longer there."
"What exactly is it?"
"A block of four U.S. postage stamps."
I was amused. "And this was an important part of her estate?"
My father looked at me thoughtfully. "A similar block of four was recently auctioned at Christie's in New York for one million dollars."
I hastily took a gulp of wine. "Then I gather they're not the type of stamps one sticks on a letter to the IRS."
"Hardly. They are part of a sheet of one hundred 24-cent airmail stamps issued in 1918. The stamps are red with a blue biplane framed in the center. Due to a printing error, the plane was reproduced upside down on this particular sheet. Since the biplane pictured was popularly known as the Jenny, the misprinted stamp is famous in philatelic circles as the Inverted Jenny. Why are you laughing?"
"The lady I dined with tonight," I said, "the one who surrendered the Frobisher letters—apparently you don't recall, father, but her name is Jennifer Towley. I suppose some people might address her as Jenny."
He raised one eyebrow—a trick I've never been able to master. "And was she inverted?" he asked. Then, apparently fearing he had posed an imprudent question, he hurriedly continued: "In any event, Lady Horowitz doesn't wish to take the problem to the police."
I stared at him. "She thinks someone in her household might have snaffled the stamps?"
"I didn't ask her. That's your job."
"Why on earth didn't she keep them in her bank's vault? That's where she stores her furs in the summer."
"She kept them at home," my father explained patiently, "for the same reason she keeps her jewelry there. She enjoys wearing her diamonds, and she enjoyed showing the misprinted stamps to guests."
I groaned. "So everyone in Palm Beach knew she owned a block of Inverted Jennies?"
"Perhaps not everyone, but a great number of people certainly."
"Were they insured?"
"For a half-million. She has not yet filed a claim, hoping the stamps may be recovered. Since she desires no publicity whatsoever, this is obviously a task for the Discreet Inquiries Department. Archy, please get started on it tomorrow morning. Or rather, this morning."
"I suggest," he went on, "you begin by interviewing Lady Horowitz. She'll be able to provide more details of the purported theft."
"I'm not looking forward to that meeting," I said, and finished my port. "You know what people call her, don't you? Lady Horrorwitz."
My father gave me a wintry smile. "Few of us are what we seem," he said. "If we were, what a dull world this would be."
He went back to his Dickens, and I climbed the stairs to my third-floor suite: bedroom, sitting room, dressing room, bathroom. Smallish but snug. I showered, pulled on a pongee robe, and lighted a cigarette, only my third of the past twenty-four hours, for which I felt suitably virtuous.
I'm a rather scatterbrained bloke, and shortly after I joined my father's law firm and was given the responsibility for Discreet Inquiries, I thought it wise to start a private journal in which I might keep notes. That way, you see, I wouldn't forget items that, seemingly unimportant, might later prove significant. I tried to make daily entries, but on that particular night I merely sat staring at my diary and thinking of my father's comment: "Few of us are what we seem." That was certainly true of Prescott McNally.
My father's father, Frederick McNally, was not, as many believed, a wealthy member of the British landed gentry. Instead, mirabile dictu, my grandfather had been a gapping-trousered, bulb-nosed burlesque comic, billed on the Minsky circuit as Ready Freddy McNally. He never achieved stardom, but his skill with dialects and his raunchy trademark laugh, "Ah-oo-gah!," had earned him the reputation of being the funniest second banana in burley-cue.
In addition to his dexterity with pratfalls and seltzer bottles, plus his ability to leap like a startled gazelle when goosed onstage, Ready Freddy turned out to be a remarkably astute investor in real estate. During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, my grandfather purchased beachfront property (wonderfully inexpensive in those days) and lots bordering the canal that later became the Intracoastal Waterway.
By the time he retired from the world of greasepaint, he was moderately well-to-do, rich enough certainly to purchase a home in Miami and send his son, my father, off to Yale University to become a gentleman and eventually an attorney-at-law.
Shortly after Ready Freddy made his final exit, my paternal grandmother, a former showgirl, also passed from the stage. Whereupon my father sold the Miami home (at a handsome profit) and moved his family to Palm Beach. He had been admitted to the Florida bar and knew exactly how he wanted to live. Had known, as a matter of fact, since his first days as a Yale undergraduate.
The world my father envisioned—and this was years before Ralph Lauren created a fashion empire from the same dream—was one of manor homes, croquet, polo, neatly trimmed gardens, a wine cellar, lots of chintz, worn leather and brass everywhere, silver-framed photographs of family members, and cucumber sandwiches at tea.
That was the life he deliberately and painstakingly created for himself and his family in Palm Beach. He was Lord of the Manor, and if this necessitated buying an antique marble fireplace and mantel from a London dealer and having it crated and shipped to Florida at horrendous expense, so be it. He believed in his dream, and he realized it beautifully and completely. Gentility? It was coming out our ears.
Excerpted from McNally's Secret by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1992 The Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation, 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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