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The promise of discretion and pampering-and a long-overdue reconciliation with her mother-draws Caroline Blessing, the young wife of a newly-elected Congressman, to the fancy Phoenix Spa. But after her first night in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, Caroline wakes to find the rich and famous guests in turmoil and under suspicion: the spa's flamboyant and ambitious owner has been murdered. As the secrets come out-and the body count rises, can Caroline keep herself from ...
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The promise of discretion and pampering-and a long-overdue reconciliation with her mother-draws Caroline Blessing, the young wife of a newly-elected Congressman, to the fancy Phoenix Spa. But after her first night in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, Caroline wakes to find the rich and famous guests in turmoil and under suspicion: the spa's flamboyant and ambitious owner has been murdered. As the secrets come out-and the body count rises, can Caroline keep herself from becoming the next victim?
"An all-star lineup of 13 women mystery authors has produced one madcap, murderous tale...readers will relish the resulting comic soap opera murder mystery, taking especial pleasure in watching these pros deftly recast a scene, a clue, or a character to keep the story rollicking along."—Publishers Weekly
SHE WENT THROUGH LIFE LIKE AN open razor. Caroline couldn't remember where she'd read that phrase, but there was little doubt in her mind that it had been inspired by a woman like her mother. Maybe Hilda herself had been the muse. She cast a long shadow, Caroline knew firsthand; she and her father had lived in it, Hilda always center stage between them and the light.
Two weeks before, Hamlin Finch, Caroline's father, had finally been set free. Throat cancer, brought on, Caroline was convinced, by decades of angry words unspoken, had killed him. Now she hoped he was standing in the light. Hoped, not believed.
She toyed with the idea that her father watched them. Because Sunday school had left its benign scar across her psyche, she pictured him in his battered La-Z-Boy, Frosty, his beloved Siamese cat, across his knees, the newspaper in an untidy heap on the puffy white cloud supporting his chair. The sky above was impossibly blue, the clouds TV-commercial white, the sun gold and sentient.
Would he be pleased that after thirty-seven years of berating him for ruining her life, his wife had toppled into a bleak depression once he died? Or would he, like his daughter, wonder if it was another of Hilda's cunningly executed manipulations to get what she wanted?
This time what Hilda had wanted was a ten-day stay at one of the most exclusive—andexpensive—spas east of the Rocky Mountains. And she'd gotten it. Douglas had paid for it.
Douglas. Thinking of her husband, Caroline smiled. Husband. The word was still magical. In the eleven months they'd been married, she'd often thanked the gods for bringing this man into her life. Douglas, a freshman congressman from the state of Tennessee, was handsome, respected, admired. And he was kind. It was the kindness Caroline loved most. He'd found the twelve thousand dollars to send them to Phoenix Spa because he believed Hilda was in pain and he was a good man. Caroline had agreed to accompany her, not because she was a good daughter, but because she was afraid that Hilda's increasingly bizarre behavior since Hamlin's death would reflect badly on Douglas's career.
Phoenix Spa was so exclusive that it was booked two years in advance. Once Hilda knew Douglas would foot the bill, she'd wrangled two spots in less than a day. Claudia de Vries, the spa's owner, had been Hilda's roommate her first—and only—year at Brown University. Hilda said Mrs. de Vries made room for them because of old friendship. Judging by the bitter undercurrent that soured her greeting when they'd arrived, Caroline couldn't help thinking it might have had more to do with a spot of petty blackmail.
Caroline looked across the table at her mother. She didn't bother with a covert glance. Hilda liked to be watched and courted attention. Hilda was in her element, or what she'd always believed her element should be. Phoenix was a favorite hideout for the rich and famous and those who wanted to be rich and famous. They paid for the promise of the motto carved in gothic letters across the massive stone arch at the entrance: Incipit Vita Nova—the new life begins.
To Hilda's left, elbows planted heavily on the crisp white tablecloth, was Howard Fondulac. Claudia swooshed by their table, dust and fawn silks fluttering, exquisitely applied makeup doing a fair job of camouflaging the sharpness of her eyes and an age she surely lied about, and introduced Fondulac in what was apparently the most important factor at the spa: not who you were but what you were. Caroline was "Congressman Blessing's wife." Fondulac was a "leading Hollywood producer." Claudia listed highlights from Fondulac's résumé: a Mel Gibson film, movies by two of the Baldwin boys, one with Sarah Jessica Parker. If Caroline remembered right, the most recent had been made six years ago.
Claudia de Vries was more of a politician than any congressman Caroline had met in her time as a political wife. Small of stature and big of ego, she had dragged herself up from poverty to become an arbiter of health and fashion for the privileged few. Hilda, smug in her own upper-middle-class heritage as a podiatrist's daughter, said Claudia went to Brown on scholarship. Not even having enough money for a nice dress for homecoming, she had to borrow one Hilda had worn in high school.
In a flurry of silks, Claudia moved on. Caroline looked back at the movie producer. "Nerves" was the explanation he gave for being at the spa. Alcohol was Caroline's guess. Watching him stare morosely into his water glass, forlornly clinking the ice cubes against the side, she could almost smell his whiskey wish. Despite the aging properties of the booze, at fifty he was still a handsome man in the craggy school of Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.
Hilda loved the movies. Lived life like she was writing her own script as she went along. At the moment she played her newest role to perfection. The attractive widow in flattering weeds: subdued, grieving, but not sloppy about it. Bitter tears stung Caroline's eyes.
"Are you okay?"
So deep was she in reverie, it took Caroline a moment to realize she was being addressed. Turning to the speaker, she smiled. The woman was younger than she, twenty-two at most, and achingly pretty. Caroline had seen her, dressed in expensive clothes that hung like empty sails from her angular frame, peeking out from magazine covers. Her name was Ondine, just Ondine, and she'd held pride of place in the fashion industry's pantheon of waif goddesses for nearly six years. Like a professional gymnast, she had the undeveloped body of a girl denied puberty. Her hair was as fine as corn silk and as pale. Tonight she wore it down, adding to her trademark look of a lost and ethereal child. A faint brown discoloration covered her right eyelid and ran in an irregular stain to the corner of her mouth. That was never seen in the photographs.
Caroline was no slouch in the looks department. Light brown hair, softly curled and kissed by the sun, skimmed her shoulders. Her trim, almost boyish body was sleek and strong and usually did what she asked of it. Partisan politics in the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra where she'd played cello for seven years had honed away the roundness of her face and carved lines at the corners of her hazel eyes. Age looked good on her; it brought out the fine bones of her face. Caroline knew she was pretty.
Ondine was not pretty. She was stunning. Because of the girl's beauty, Caroline was sufficiently shallow that she wanted to hate her but, instead, found herself feeling protective.
"I'm fine," she said and felt better because Ondine had asked. "It's all so ... so much."
To her relief the model laughed, and for a few seconds the two of them looked around like awestruck teenagers on their first trip to Bloomingdale's. Phoenix Spa didn't stint on luxury. The tablecloths and napkins were linen, not polyester spun to look like it. The tables were set with fine china, plates, cups, and bowls ringed in a lapis pattern set off in gold. The dining room's decor was white and wood and glass; clean, modern; a perfect backdrop for the huge urns of cut flowers that fed the eye's need for color and the soul's for anarchy.
The dining room captured that rare blend of spaciousness and intimacy—just large enough to comfortably seat the spa's thirty pampered guests but two stories tall. Peaked cathedral windows framed a view of the lake and the grounds.
"Too much?" Ondine asked, arching a manicured eyebrow.
"I could get used to it," Caroline admitted.
"I am used to it," Ondine confided. "I'm here to see if I can't hang on to it at least a few more years."
"How so?" It was a personal question and one Caroline usually would not have asked on such short acquaintance, but Ondine had an openness about her that made them friends with a single shared admission of lusting after the finer things.
"I've got to lose this." Ondine brought both fists down on her midsection.
Weight. It took a second for the meaning to register in Caroline's brain. Ondine was here to lose weight. Had it not been for the low clatter of forks and tongues, Caroline was convinced she would have heard the clack of Ondine's wrist bones hitting her pelvic bones when she struck herself. She was that thin. Suddenly Caroline was afraid for her.
She looked at the plate in front of the girl. The small square of salmon, lifted from mere food to an art form by the fan of baby asparagus spears and a drizzling of dill sauce that Jackson Pollock would have been proud of, was largely untouched. One tiny corner had been disturbed as if a mouse nibbled briefly before being frightened away. Caroline had sucked her own dinner down and had to refrain from devouring the nickel-sized orchids used as garnish.
Caroline was a musician. She knew nothing about medicine or diet. But she knew skinny when it poked out of a silk sheath in the chair next to her. Ondine was pathologically skinny, her perfect bone structure all too apparent beneath translucent skin. Not flesh, the woman had none of that, just skin.
Casting about for something to say, she settled on careful inquiry. "Have you planned out your diet with Mrs. de Vries?"
"Oh, yes." Ondine laughed; a breathless sound. "She and Raoul have promised to lock me in my room and keep me on tofu and water if that's what it takes. My manager would probably call out the Virginia state troopers if they ever did that!" Ondine's face took on the pouty cast of a spoiled child but remained lovely.
"Is your manager here?" Caroline asked, already liking this caner-out of the troops.
"Always. Everywhere. Endlessly. Ubiquitously." Ondine smiled shyly. "I just learned `ubiquitously,' and it fits Christopher Lund to the eyeteeth. That's him over there sitting between Raoul and that guy who looks like a roadie for Alice Cooper."
Ondine pointed ostentatiously, clearly hoping her manager would see her doing it. Playing along, Caroline stared, taking her time studying the occupants of the next table. Raoul was Claudia de Vries's husband. From the scraps of gossip Caroline had picked up since their arrival, that's how everyone thought of him, but he didn't look like a second fiddle. He wore his tux like a man born to it, and his face was shaped by a long line of aristocratic genes. Self-assurance hung on him like a shimmering cloak. Opposite Raoul was the man Ondine had characterized as a roadie. Caroline knew better. Her mother had pointed him out in excited whispers not two minutes after the valet had taken their car. King David, a rocker from the seventies, who still toured, still brought in the crowds, though his fans were now approaching the age of his grandkids, presuming the man had grandkids. Passing years had honed King's look: dangerous. Body lean from exercise or heroin, long hair streaked with iridescent greens and tattoos in the shape of lightning bolts at the corners of both eyes made him ageless and intimidating.
The man between King and Raoul, the one Ondine pointed out as her manager, was in profile, his attention fixed on his plate, making a workman's job of the delicate dinner. Noting the conservative suit, tie carefully knotted, short, neatly brushed brown hair, and bland unapologetic face, Caroline said, "He looks out of place."
"He won't have an ounce of fun. Count on it. He's here to protect his interests," Ondine said scornfully. "If I'm not careful he'll be force-feeding me chocolates when Raoul's not looking. Raoul's the doctor here. I thought Christopher was going to deck him when he found out Raoul had okayed three hours of aerobics every day to get the fat off me. You'd think Christopher of all people wouldn't want me blown up like a blimp. I'm his meal ticket."
Caroline barely heard the last. She was staring at Raoul de Vries. Tomorrow she had an appointment with him. "A complete physical by the spa's own physician." It was in the brochure. She made a mental note to take a look at his walls for medical degrees. What kind of doctor would prescribe hard exercise for a woman who was clearly teetering on the brink of anorexia?
"Newcomers' moonlight walk." The words pattered down like light rain, surprising an unladylike grunt from Caroline. Claudia de Vries had wafted to their table on soundless wings of peach chiffon. Everyone at Phoenix was encouraged to dress for dinner. Slightly ill at ease in a clingy burgundy spandex number gussied up with black bugle beads and a velvet shawl, Caroline had the bad grace to wonder if it had been thus decreed not to "celebrate your own personal glamour" as the brochure said but so Mrs. de Vries could float about in Hollywood confections à la Ginger Rogers.
Claudia drifted on, Caroline and her mother following in her wake. The woman was definitely eccentric, perhaps even a touch absurd, but the force of her personality could not be denied. Claudia was one of nature's true charismatics.
In Pied Piper fashion, she played her fluted voice and called Phoenix's newcomers to follow. From the table where Ondine's manager sat with Dr. de Vries and King David, the group gathered in a short, stout woman with cropped iron-gray hair and an evening dress of the same no-nonsense shade. The dress was brocade, the stiff kind Caroline had seen on her mother's old prom dress when she dragged it out of the attic to illustrate the story about how she could have married the boy who was now CFO of WorldCom.
With a start, Caroline realized that the wearer of brocade was Phyllis V. Talmadge. The recognition was spurred by Ms. Talmadge's latest bestseller, Flex Your Psychic Muscles, lying near her plate, her picture, unsmiling and intense, glaring up from the back cover.
As Claudia de Vries led them on, Caroline was relieved to see the book retrieved by King David. Had Phyllis V. been toting her own tome around, Caroline might have lost her composure.
The image of this uncompromising chunk of womanhood stumping through the spirit world in her all-purpose formal wear and Sears Roebuck foundation garments, the lavish unreality of the dining room coupled with the diaphanous presence of their hostess—a businesswoman in butterfly's clothing—were working on Caroline like cheap champagne at a wedding. Laughter, broken in pieces by an adolescent inappropriateness, threatened to explode in uncontrollable giggles.
A sudden and too familiar sense of falling hit Caroline. For her the room turned cold, the colorful people surreal, as if normalcy was a gift others shared without her. Hilarity turned abruptly to the icy pinch of an anxiety attack.
Four more spa clients were swept up by Claudia's passage, but Caroline was only peripherally aware of them. She breathed slowly, concentrating on pulling the air in and pushing it out as her therapist had taught her, a way of anchoring herself in the present when an attack threatened to carry her away.
Caroline's panic attacks had started three months ago, when her father was first diagnosed with cancer. Stress, her therapist had told her. Not me, she'd thought. The therapist listed the changes in Caroline's life: new marriage, husband's election, traveling to Washington, leaving her job with the symphony, her father's death. Not me, Caroline had insisted. Straight-A student, magna cum laude from Juilliard, youngest first chair in the philharmonic. Always in control.
Unfortunately, logic had little effect on the process. Feeling fear pour through her veins, shatter her thoughts, Caroline had to accept that she was only human. Stress was real.
Perhaps she was due for some world-class pampering. For the first time since they'd driven through the imposing front gate and up the winding drive, she was glad to be at Phoenix Spa.
Her terror receded slowly. At length Caroline could breathe again. Eyes opened fully to the beauty of the night and the place, she finally allowed herself to laugh; not the hysterical giggling that threatened earlier but a full-throated woman's laugh that she didn't feel obligated to explain to anybody.
Hurrying to catch up, she ran down the shallow steps flowing from the dining room to the brick walk circling the lake. The others had stopped at the shore to admire the view. As Caroline rejoined the group, Hilda smiled and held out her hand. Her mother was so small, her figure, still perfect, straight and proud in her new midnight velvet dress, her never-to-be-gray hair in a classic French twist. Maybe it was a trick of the moonlight, but Caroline thought she saw something new in her mother's face—a softness she remembered from when she was a very little girl. Caroline took her hand and squeezed it briefly before letting go.
"The lake is twenty-five acres," Claudia said in good tour-guide fashion. "Fed by natural springs."
Purposely, Caroline tuned out the statistics. Like a poem, the night should not be dissected into mere meter and rhyme but enjoyed in its wholeness.
Claudia prattled on. Caroline let the musical voice babble around her, taking in a word or two when interest stirred. The lake was nestled in a hollow formed by the rumpled skirts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Around it, scattered at odd angles to fit in with nature's artful chaos, were A-frame cottages, each different in design but all echoing the cathedral windows of the main hall and dining room. Ground-level lights, shuttered to shine only on the walkways, ringed the water and branched off to the cottages, creating a spiderweb of light.
The air was warm for late October, but an indefinable tang of autumn dispelled summer's somnolence. In the morning the palette of black and silver would be burned away by a conflagration of fall colors blazing in the ancient hardwoods that pressed close around the spa's grounds.
The spa's services were housed in four centers, one set on each side of the lake, Caroline learned as they walked. The square they formed, Claudia told them, created a proper feng shui pattern guaranteed to enhance mental and physical well-being.
The first was the bathhouse. "An old-fashioned name," Claudia said as she pulled a ring of keys fit for a jailer from a beaded evening bag. "Though we welcome the new, we've been careful not to throw the baby out with the bathhouse. The old methods of soothing the soul and stimulating the spirit carry with them a special alchemy."
Claudia must have given this talk a thousand times, yet her love of the place breathed life into the worn spiel. While Claudia talked she opened three locks on the bathhouse doors. Two were dead bolts; Caroline heard them slide free and wondered at such heavy-duty security measures. What in this idyll, tucked away from urban areas and the fly-by crime of the turnpikes, needed to be kept out? Or in?
The double doors swung open and the lights came on, either triggered by the movement of the doors or an electric eye. Caroline joined the others in an appreciative, "Ahhh."
The architect had managed a harmonious marriage of Swedish modern and the stained-glass-and-tile opulence of a vintage nineteen-thirties bathhouse. A fountain, sprung to sudden life with the lights, sparkled under a high ceiling cut through with skylights, each of the panels depicting a flowering herb in jewel-toned glass.
Claudia arranged herself prettily in front of the falling water. "I won't show you all the facilities tonight, but I wanted to give you a glimpse of the world you entered into when you chose Phoenix Spa." She went on to list the wonders that awaited behind the closed doors: mud baths in stone tubs from the turn of the century, steam rooms with aromatic and healthful plant extracts added to the boiling water, massage rooms, facials. Most of the treatments were standard, made unique to Phoenix by the addition of herbal therapy. Herbs, plants, and flowers, all, Claudia insisted, gathered from the surrounding woods by an expert in botany brought over from Bombay specifically for his arcane knowledge of how to use plants for spiritual enhancement.
Caroline couldn't help but wonder what a guy from Bombay could know about the plants of the Blue Ridge, but she didn't interrupt. She liked good theater as much as anyone and had to admit the concept intrigued her.
"Plant materials are used in many of our treatments," Claudia went on. "By using only those indigenous to the area, the harmony of persons, places, and things brings harmony between the spirit and the flesh of each of you precious people who have come to us for succor."
The rhetoric was getting a bit thick. Caroline's attention wandered as they returned to the lakeshore and Claudia triple-locked the bathhouse doors behind them. With a wave of a beringed hand that set her evening wrap, a shawl of a thousand scraps of feather-light fabric, to quivering like an aspen in a windstorm, Claudia led the troop onward.
Caroline found that she had fallen in step with the stalwart psychic. Phyllis Talmadge's head barely came to Caroline's shoulder. She couldn't have been more than five feet tall even in her sensible one-inch pumps.
"Hah!" the little woman puffed.
"I beg your pardon?" Caroline said politely.
"Hah!" she repeated for Caroline's edification. "Herbal, schmerbal. What bullshit. They'd better not go smearing any of that muck on me. Bombay. Hah."
Caroline snorted unbecomingly, a startled laugh that went up her nose when she tried to smother it. "What brought you here?" she asked, since it didn't seem to be the promise of youth-rejuvenating vegetative wraps or the energizing properties of aromatherapy.
"They told me to come," Phyllis Talmadge replied enigmatically. "The center is threatened. It may not hold." With that garbled quote from Yeats, she trundled on, a small female tank with a mission.
Caroline slowed, letting the others move ahead so she could better enjoy the play of the light on water, the stealthy promises whispered by the wind as it passed through dry leaves.
"You hear it, too?"
Excerpted from NAKED CAME THE PHOENIX by . Copyright © 2001 by Marcia Talley. Excerpted by permission.
Posted December 9, 2008
With the recent death of her father Hamlin Finch from throat cancer, Caroline Blessing decides to help her mother Hilda deal with her grief. Though she knows that reconciling their differences will be impossible because the only way to accomplish that is unconditional surrender. Still Caroline, a cellist and wife of less than one year to a first term Tennessee Congressman, takes her mother to the exclusive Phoenix Spa. <P> At the spa, Caroline¿s mother remains her usual obnoxious manipulative self though perhaps acting a bit more bizarre than usual. The owner of the spa Claudia de Vries, her mother¿s college roommate, behaves even weirder than Hilda does. However, Claudia¿s behavior becomes moot, as someone murders her. The police and Caroline conduct separate inquiries even while other patrons die. <P> NAKED CAME THE PHOENIX is an entertaining collaboration from thirteen of the leading female mystery writers on the market today. The story line is fun though the line up of superstars tend to void pronouncements from the previous chapters. Still, the plot seems fresh due to Caroline who is the one consistency throughout the who-done-it. For the most part the authors provided strong entries that help make NAKED CAME THE PHOENIX a likable story. What else would you expect from a who¿s who consisting of Nevada Barr, J.D. Robb, Nancy Pickard, Lisa Scottoline, Perri O¿Shaugnessy, J.A. Jance, Faye Kellerman, Mary Jane Clark, Marcia Talley, Anne Perry, Diana Gabaldon, Val McDermid, and Laurie King. <P>Harriet Klausner
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 9, 2010
Read another book one time that was similar to this in that a group of authors wrote the book, each one writing a chapter. It was disjointed at times, just like this one and was not as good as any one of the many authors could have written.
Unfortunately this is also true of this book. Don't think I will read another book that is written by a group of authors in this manner.
J. Robert Ewbank author "John Wesley, Natural Man, and the 'Isms'"
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 13, 2001
I enjoyed it and had a hard time putting it down. I did not know what to think about Caroline's mother and husband. The quirky characters at the spa were fun. I laughed out loud in spots. I like the idea that many of my favorite authors worked together on this and it is also for a good cause. I wish the introduction would have included more feedback from the authors on what it was like to write this.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.