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Everyone's favorite playboy-turned-sleuth, Archy McNally, is back in Palm Beach. This time, he's investigating the deathstyles of the rich and famous--in particular, a strange increase in business at the posh funeral homes owned by the wealthy Whitcomb clan. There seem to be more caskets than corpses and more family secrets than family members.
IT HAS BEEN SAID that no good deed goes unpunished, and I can vouch for it. The donee of my act of charity was Binky Watrous, a close pal of mine and a complete doofus who once, deranged by strong drink, brushed his teeth with anchovy paste.
Actually, my tale begins on a coolish night in early October in the Town of Palm Beach. My name is Archy (for Archibald) McNally, and I am employed to conduct discreet inquiries for the law firm of McNally & Son. My father is the attorney, I am the son. My investigations are mainly concerned with solving the personal problems of our prestigious clients before they come to the attention of the police or those supermarket tabloids that might feature the client's tribulations between a truss ad and a story about twins borne by a ninety-eight-year-old Samoan transvestite.
I can't remember the date of the Battle of Actium, but I have almost total recall when it comes to splendid meals I have enjoyed, and dinner that evening was something special. Our live-in housekeeping staff, Ursi and Jamie Olson, had concocted a wondrous salad served in a wooden bowl large enough to hold the head of John the Baptist.
The main ingredients were chunks of smoked chubs enlivened with slices of fennel sausage, and lots of other swell stuff. My father, Prescott McNally, and I demolished a bottle of sauvignon blanc while consuming this feast, but my mother, Madelaine, insisted on her usual glass of sauterne. It was an eccentric habit that papa and I have attempted to convince her is ungodly, to no avail.
After that banquet (dessert was rum cake with a layer of maraschino) I felt so replete that, having nothing better to do, I thought I might make a run to the Pelican Club and perhaps down a postprandial cognac while reflecting that life indeed can be beautiful.
But it was not to be. The lord of the manor stopped me as I was about to ascend to my third-floor mini-suite to change into snazzier duds.
"Archy," he said in that tone he uses when he wishes to couch a command as a request, "were you planning anything special this evening?"
"No, sir," I said, stiff-upper-lipping it. "Nothing of any importance."
"Good. A client is arriving at nine o'clock, and I'd like you to sit in on the meeting."
"Oh?" I said. "Who is he?"
"She," he replied. "Sunny Fogarty. I believe the lady is unmarried, but that's of no consequence."
"It might be," I commented. "To her."
"Yes," he said with his wintry smile. "In any event, she is an employee of the Whitcomb Funeral Homes, the most recent commercial client to be added to our roster."
I tried to raise one eyebrow and failed miserably. That's my father's shtick, and he does it effortlessly. "Is she an undertaker?" I asked.
Again that frosty smile. "I believe the current euphemism is 'grief counselor.' But no, she is not a mortician. Her official title is comptroller of the three Whitcomb Funeral Homes, in Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin counties."
"I hear it's an upscale outfit," I remarked. "Gilt coffins and all that. Someone suggested their advertising slogan should be 'The Deathstyles of the Rich and the Famous.'"
The squire was not amused. He does not appreciate jokes about clients who put osso buco on the McNally table.
"Miss Fogarty phoned this afternoon," he continued. "She sounded somewhat agitated and asked to see me as soon as possible. I said I would be happy to come to her office or she could come to mine. But she preferred to meet at a place where there was no possibility of our being seen conferring together. So I suggested she come here this evening, and she agreed. It was a brief and puzzling conversation, which left me suspecting it might be a situation that requires discreet inquiries on your part."
And that explains why, at nine o'clock on that fateful evening, I was seated in my father's study, prepared to listen to Sunny Fogarty explain the reason for her secretive visit.
At the moment, "Sunny" seemed a misnomer, for the lady was obviously uptight: brows pinched into a frown, lips tightly pressed, fingers clenched. She sat forward in a leather club chair, spine stiff, shoulders back, and she kept crossing and recrossing her ankles.
But despite her angst I thought her attractive. I guessed her age at forty, give or take, and she had the weathered look of a woman who had worked hard all her life and expected the struggle would never cease. We had been introduced, of course, and I had been surprised by the strength of her handclasp. She wore a black gabardine pantsuit with an unexpectedly frilly blouse, closed with a wide ribbon and bow of crimson rep.
Her eyes were a darkish brown with a definite glint, and I imagined they might harden if the occasion required it. Not a woman to be trifled with, I decided, and found myself admiring her sleek russet hairdo. It looked like a helmet worn by one of Hannibal's spearmen.
My father was comfortably ensconced in the swivel chair behind his magisterial desk, and he leaned back, fingers linked across his waistcoat, and asked pleasantly, "Now then, Miss Fogarty, what's this all about?"
The boss had already explained the role I played at McNally & Son and assured her of my discretion since as a flunky of the firm—in addition to being his son—I was as bound by the dictates of attorney-client confidentiality as he. She seemed to accept that, made no objection to my presence, and spoke freely.
She told us she had been employed by Whitcomb for almost ten years, starting as a receptionist in their Fort Lauderdale funeral home and working her way up as secretary, then executive assistant to Mr. Horace Whitcomb, the owner and grandson of the founder. Meanwhile she had studied accounting and business administration, and when the company opened its third mortuary in Martin County she had been appointed comptroller of the whole shebang.
"It's a good position," she said, "and I like the work. My salary is okay; I have no resentment there whatsoever. Two years ago I computerized our entire operation, and it proved so successful I received a large bonus. I'm telling you all this to prove I have no reason for anger against Whitcomb, no reason to seek revenge or anything like that. I want Whitcomb to continue to be profitable, and I want to keep my job. I am the sole support of my mother, who is in a nursing home in West Palm Beach. She suffers from Alzheimer's. The expenses are enormous, so my income is very important to me."
She paused and made an effort to compose herself. Father and I were silent, watching her. I cannot say what his reaction was—his expression revealed nothing but polite interest —but I thought her an honest and disturbed woman, caught in a conflict between her personal welfare and a need to reveal something she felt was just not right.
"Our president, Horace Whitcomb," she went on, "is almost seventy and says he never wants to retire. He's a fine gentleman. He's been very kind and generous to me, but he's that way with all his employees. We love him. He comes to work about four or five hours a day but sometimes skips a day or two for golf or fishing."
"Good for him," my father said unexpectedly.
"Yes," she said with a smile that was faint but transformed her features. I could see then why "Sunny" was not a misnomer after all. "Horace's son, Oliver Whitcomb, is our chief executive officer. He handles the day-to-day operations of all our funeral homes."
"And is he also kind and generous?" I asked.
She ignored my question. "And then we have several other department heads," she said. "In charge of such things as purchasing, maintenance, personnel, and so forth. I can provide their names if you think it's necessary."
"Miss Fogarty," father said gently, "you haven't yet told us the nature of your problem."
She took a deep breath. "About six months ago I became aware—from the weekly reports I receive—that the revenue of Whitcomb was rising dramatically, far above our income of last year. Naturally I was pleased and so were all the other executives who noticed it, including Mr. Horace. During the past six months the number of funerals we handled continued to increase at a really surprising rate."
She looked at both of us, back and forth, as if expecting exclamations of astonishment. But father and I made no comment. Instead we exchanged a swift glance and I suspected we were sharing the same thought: Could Whitcomb's improved bottom line be the sole reason for Miss Fogarty's distress? I began to wonder if this lady had both oars in the water.
"The income of all three mortuaries keep increasing," she said. "I was puzzled because I am a logical woman—and curious, I might add—and I started to question why we were having such an impressive uptick in business."
Father stirred restlessly in his swivel chair. "Surely there must be a simple explanation," he said. "Perhaps it is the result of a new advertising campaign. Or you have enjoyed an unusual number of referrals."
"Or maybe more people are kicking the bucket," I suggested cheerfully.
She shook her head decisively. "We're doing no more advertising than we did last year. Our rate of referrals remains constant. And there has been no extraordinary rise in South Florida's death rate. In addition, I have checked my contacts in the industry, and no other local funeral homes have had the revenue increase we've had. In fact, most of them show flat month-to-month income or a decrease. There is just no obvious reason for our good fortune, and it baffles me."
She stopped, took a small hanky from a capacious shoulder bag, dabbed at her lips.
"Miss Fogarty," my father said kindly, "may we offer you some refreshment? Cola? Coffee? Or would you like a glass of port wine?"
"Yes," she said. "The wine, please."
"Archy," he said, "will you do the honors?"
I rose from my ladder-back chair, went over to his marble-topped sideboard, and poured three goblets of port from his crystal decanter. I'd drink it, but I wouldn't smack my lips. I didn't have the nerve to tell the guv that the last case he bought was definitely corky.
Our visitor took a small sip and sighed appreciatively. "Thank you," she said. "That tastes good."
"Miss Fogarty," mon père said, "what exactly is it you wish us to do? From what you've told us it does not appear that anything unethical or illegal has occurred at Whitcomb Funeral Homes. It is merely experiencing exceptional financial success. That is hardly reason for concern."
"Something strange is going on," she stated determinedly. "I just know it is. But I can't endanger my own position by poking and prying. People would think me a brainless idiot. I was hoping you might ask a few casual questions—as our attorney, you know—and see if you can discover the reason for our sudden prosperity."
Father looked at me. "Archy?" he said.
I knew what he wanted. I was to express sympathy, ask a question or two, assure our visitor of our willingness to cooperate, and get her out of there as soon as possible.
"We'll certainly look into it, Miss Fogarty," I said briskly. "The situation you describe is certainly odd and may possibly justify further inquiries. Tell me, do you keep records of the cemeteries to which the deceased are, ah, delivered?"
"Of course," she said. "Unless they are cremated. And records are kept of that. We have all our dead on computer."
"Excellent," I said. "Could you provide me with a printout of all the cemeteries Whitcomb Funeral Homes has dealt with in the past six months?"
She hesitated a moment. "Yes," she said, "I could do that. I shouldn't but I shall."
"I'd appreciate it," I said. "It might give me a start for our investigation." I took a business card from my wallet and used my gold Mont Blanc to scribble on the back. "I'm giving you my personal unlisted telephone number. Please feel free to use it if you cannot reach me at our office."
"Thank you," she said, taking my card and tucking it away. She finished her wine and arose: "I can't tell you how much better I feel for having talked to you gentlemen. This thing has been worrying me so much that I've had trouble sleeping. It's nice to know it'll be looked into. I'm ready to provide all the assistance I can."
Father and I accompanied her outside to our graveled turnaround. She was driving a spanking new white Chrysler New Yorker. A lot of car, I thought, for a woman supporting a terminally ill mother. We shook hands and she thanked us for our hospitality and consideration. We watched her drive away.
"Curious," father remarked.
"Yes, sir," I said, "it is that."
"Archy, go through the motions but don't spend too much time on it. I fear the lady is unnecessarily troubled. Mayhap slightly paranoid. It's a matter of no importance."
"I concur," I said.
Lordy, were we ever wrong!CHAPTER 2
FATHER RETURNED TO his study and closed the door firmly. I knew what that meant: he was settling in for the remainder of the evening. He would have another glass or two of port, smoke a pipe or two of his specially blended tobacco ("December Morn"), and read a chapter or two of Charles Dickens. For as long as I could remember, he had been slowly slogging his way through Chuck's entire oeuvre. Lotsa luck, daddy-o.
I glanced at my Mickey Mouse wristwatch, saw it was scarcely ten o'clock and I could still enjoy that brandy if I so desired. I did so desire and dashed upstairs to change to fawn slacks, a madras sport jacket, and Loafers From Hell: acid-green suede—with tassels yet. Then I bounced downstairs, pausing briefly at our second-floor sitting room to give the mater a good-night kiss. Her velvety cheek was wet. She was watching a TV rerun of Stella Dallas and tears were leaking.
I was still driving my vintage Miata, a flaming red job of the first model year and still holding its saucy flair. I hopped in and headed for the Pelican Club, my favorite oasis in South Florida. It's a private watering hole and has a membership of effervescent lads and lasses from Palm Beach and environs. It's a pleasantly laid-back joint, serves high-caloric grub, and no one would object if I clambered onto a table and recited "Sheridan's Ride." "Up from the south at break of day ..."
The place was clanging when I arrived. Roisterers were two-deep at the bar, and couples were to-ing and fro-ing from the dining area. I finally caught the attention of Mr. Simon Pettibone, an elderly gentleman of color who is our club manager and doubles as bartender.
"Rémy!" I shouted to be heard above the din and he nodded.
He was back a moment later with my wallop, handing it to me across the shoulders of club members bellying the mahogany.
"Rushed, Mr. Pettibone?" I inquired.
"Love it, Mr. McNally," he said. "Just love it. Pays the rent."
"So it does," I agreed happily. The Pelican Club, of which I had been a founding member, was a candidate for Chapter 7 until we had the great good fortune of putting our future in the hands of Mr. Pettibone and his family. His wife Jas (for Jasmine) was our housekeeper and den mother. Son Leroy was our chef, and daughter Priscilla our waitress. The energetic and hard-working Pettibones had turned our little enclave into a profitable enterprise, and we now had a waiting list of would-be Pelicanites, eager to wear the club blazer bearing our escutcheon: a pelican rampant on a field of dead mullet.
Glass in hand, I looked about for a place to park the McNally carcass. And there, in a far corner of the pub area, sitting by his lonesome at a table for two, I spotted my goofy buddy, Binky Watrous himself. His head was bowed over a tumbler of an amber liquid. I made my way to his side.
"Binky," I said, "may I join you?"
He looked up and his loopy expression became a beam. "Archy!" he cried. "Just the man I wanted to see. Sit down, sit down, sit down!"
"Once will do nicely," I said, taking the bentwood chair opposite him. "What is that you're drinking?"
"Scotch," he said.
"With what?" I asked.
"Binky," I said, "we have been pals for a long time, but I must warn you that I shall not carry you home tonight. I am willing to call an ambulance, but that's the extent of my responsibility. Why on earth are you getting hammered?"
"I've got troubles," he said darkly.
"And pray, who does not?" I said, looking at him more closely.
Binky usually wears a look of blithe unconcern, but now I could see his chops were definitely fallen. He's a fair-haired lad with a wispy growth of blond hair on his upper lip that can be seen in a strong light. He's a bit on the shortish, plumpish side, and if you can imagine a Kewpie doll with a mustache, that's Binky.
Excerpted from McNally's Trial by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1995 Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 1, 2014
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