Set Sail for Murder (Polly Pepper Mystery Series #4)by R.T. Jordan
The iconic Polly Pepper, musical comedy superstar of yesteryear, is experiencing a bit of a professional dry spell-she can barely keep her bank account afloat, let alone her career. So when the nefarious Laura Crawford, scene-stealing former cast mate and perpetual diva, proposes a Polly Pepper Playhouse reunion cruise, Polly is on board, full-steam ahead. But she… See more details below
The iconic Polly Pepper, musical comedy superstar of yesteryear, is experiencing a bit of a professional dry spell-she can barely keep her bank account afloat, let alone her career. So when the nefarious Laura Crawford, scene-stealing former cast mate and perpetual diva, proposes a Polly Pepper Playhouse reunion cruise, Polly is on board, full-steam ahead. But she soon realizes that Hollywood on the high-seas will be nothing short of a shipwreck, especially after Laura is found dead, slain by the Season Six DVD of The Polly Pepper Playhouse box set. Now, if Polly can't solve this maritime mystery, a clever killer could send Polly's whole career-and even her life-overboard.
"Polly proves once again that she's no slouch as a detective." -Publishers Weekly
"The plot is well-crafted. . .will keep the reader guessing until the end." -Romantic Times
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Set Sail for Murder
By R. T. JORDAN
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 R. T. Jordan
All right reserved.
Chapter One"If I see one more ESTATE FOR SALE sign planted on our street, I swear I'll develop hysterical blindness!" Polly Pepper complained from the back seat of her Rolls-Royce.
As her son, Tim, maneuvered the family car up serpentine Stone Canyon Road to Pepper Plantation, their fabled home in the ritzy hills of Bel Air, California, Polly continued her rant. "You know who's swooping in like carpetbaggers and buying up these foreclosures, don't you? That's right. Bling-laden rap music producers driving humongous bulletproof, carbon-emissions-choking Hummers with smoked-black windows. I saw 'em on The Real Housewives of Orange County. They pick up pricey suburban palaces like ours and treat a star's mansion as if it were little more than Barbie's Hampton's Holiday Playhouse. Music people are the only ones left in Hollywood who can afford the bazillion-dollar-sticker shocker prices that Realtors are pasting on everything from Nimoy's cruddy tear-down to that cardboard box over on Mulholland that the widow McMahon has been trying to unload since her meal ticket expired."
Tim ignored his mother as he pumped the brake to second-guess an indecisive squirrel that was playing Russian roulette with the traffic.
Seated beside Polly was her maid and best friend, Placenta, who rolled her eyes and made a low growling noise as she tried to ignore her boss's tirade. Looking out the window at the mansions they passed, she agreed, "Agents from Vultures21 have been circling our place for months. And I've never seen your business manager cry as hard as he did this afternoon."
"Never mind Eeyore," Polly said, waving away Placenta's recall of the solemn financial meeting from which they'd just come. "Doom and gloom. The sky is falling. It's the End Times. Whine, whine, whine. Honestly, the way he carried on, you'd think this was World War III, Armageddon, and the final episode of Two and a Half Men all rolled into one big black plague. I promise we'll survive, kids! I'm a star, for heaven's sake. An icon. A great job with tons o' mullah will come along soon. Just like Carol Burnett, I always land in clover."
For the first time since emerging as an international entertainment celebrity forty years ago, Polly Pepper was personally feeling the heat from the global financial meltdown. The value of her investments had dramatically plunged. Her 401(k) was more like a 01(k). Most of her Hollywood chums were downsizing and laying off their personal fitness trainers, ditching their doggie hypnotherapists, and negotiating lower compensation for their pricey mistresses and/or boy toys. Rodeo Drive was as deserted as a Helen Reddy comeback concert tour.
As the tall black wrought-iron PP monogrammed gates to Pepper Plantation came into view, Polly momentarily felt a sense of dread about her beloved home. Featured a dozen times in Architectural Digest, the house was almost as famous as Neverland Ranch and Graceland—but without the dead masters of the manse. Polly could never imagine leaving the estate, any more than the Hunchback could leave Notre Dame Cathedral. She'd sooner be hit by one of the ubiquitous tourist buses that hogged the narrow streets in the hills, than hand over the keys to the bank in a foreclosure and have to live in a common condo in Riverside.
She straightened. "I still have my champagne wishes and caviar dreams! They brought me to where I am today."
"Nearly out of bottles in the wine cellar," Placenta reminded Polly.
"My account at the Liquor Locker is still active."
As the gates to the estate parted, Tim guided the car along the cobblestone-paved driveway and stopped beside the granite front steps of the Norman-style mansion. Built during the silent screen era for long-dead and longer-forgotten star Carmel Myers, it was the house Polly had dreamed of owning ever since she was a little girl, selling maps to the movie stars' homes. Back then, while waving down cars with out-of-state license plates, and wearing the skimpiest halter top her mother would allow, she had promised herself that the home would one day be hers. And in the 1970s, for what was then a staggering fortune of two hundred thousand dollars, she made her dream come true. All these decades later, she was still proud of her twenty-seven-room mansion, its manicured gardens, and Olympic-size swimming pool.
Polly stepped out of the car, but instead of following Tim and Placenta directly into the house, she walked to the three-tiered water fountain gurgling in the center of the car park. She admired the large, ornate, carved stone bowls resting beneath a topper finial of a stone cherub—fat, naked, uncircumcised, and grinning mischievously as it urinated into the shallow water, which overflowed from the uppermost basin down to the lowest pool. She peered into the water and reached in to retrieve a penny. "My lucky day!"
Polly turned around and took in the full view of her magnificent home. Bombarded with memories of her nearly four decades living on this property, Polly could feel tears well in her eyes. She recalled the glamorous star-studded parties, many of which her son, Tim, had personally conceived and designed. She thought of the years of Tim's growing up: his pony, which roamed the estate and ate her roses, the relief she felt when he fell in love for the first time. "A mother's proudest moment," she said to herself, holding her hand to her heart. "Thank God he didn't turn out straight! Bo-ring!"
Polly caught Tim and Placenta watching her from the steps and decided there were too many happy memories to risk losing the house. It was time to do something about her potentially dire financial situation.
"Coming," she called out, and danced toward the front doors.
When Polly entered the house, she set her clutch purse on the Lalique foyer table, exhaled loudly, and said, "Listen up, it's powwow time. Meet me in Paradise"—the name she'd bestowed upon her bathroom/spa—"in fifteen minutes. Wear your Mr. Wizard caps, 'cause we're about to become captains of our own futures. We need to reinvent ourselves. To make Kool-Aid!"
"I hope you mean lemonade." Tim gulped. "If you're planning a Jim Jones suicide pact, I'm joining AA."
"I'm a survivor," Polly called back as she ascended the Scarlett O'Hara Memorial Staircase toward the second story of her famous home.
As her hand caressed the carved mahogany banister, Polly was conscious of the simple parts of the house that made up the sum total of her mansion. The plush carpet on the steps felt softer. The crystal chandelier, which hung from the two-story ceiling in the stairwell, seemed more elegant. When she arrived on the second-floor landing, her attention was drawn to the showbiz memorabilia that adorned the walls and illustrated her long and illustrious career. "It's been a great ride," she proclaimed as she passed framed photographs of herself with other legends, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Julie Andrews, Edie Adams, Eva Marie Saint, Fred Astaire, and even Princess Diana rolling her eyes at the queen of England. "Something will save us from Debtor's Prison," she whispered, and headed for her bedroom suite and the anticipated luxury of taking a bubble bath in her mammoth sunken Jacuzzi.
In her bedroom, Polly stepped out of her heels and kicked her shoes across the carpet toward the French doors of her walk-in closet. Polly entered her ginormous bathroom—complete with every modern and futuristic plumbing amenity and skin care product a cover girl could wish for. From the plush monogrammed bath towels, to the wine cooler stocked with champagne and chilled flutes, to the rain shower, bidet, steam room, and spray-on-tan chamber, this was the one place on Earth where she truly felt that spending eternity in heaven would be a comedown by comparison.
Polly turned on the water taps to her tub and dumped a half jar of green tea and peppermint bath beads into the torrent. As the bubbles churned and frothed, the scent of a candy store filled the room. Polly removed her clothes, draped them over the leather chaise longue, and then dipped a toe into the water. Slowly adjusting to the preset temperature-controlled whirlpool, she submerged her entire body, leaned back, and let out a long moan of satisfaction. "Thank you, Jesus, and the Jersey Boys!"
With the Jacuzzi whirring and its magic jets pulsating, Polly picked up the phone beside the tub and pushed the intercom button. "I'm ready," she said, then closed her eyes and rested her head against the soft built-in cushion behind her.
In a moment, Placenta made a halfhearted knock on the door before entering Polly's inner sanctum. "Timmy's here too, Miss Water Sprite, so you'd better drag those suds up to your throat," she said as she headed for the wine cooler and withdrew a bottle of champagne.
In tandem with Tim, who set three glasses on the marble sideboard, Placenta popped the cork and began to pour the bubbly. When each had their own glass, Polly raised hers and began to make up a song using the most positive lyrics she could think of. The melody was discordant, and the meter made no sense. Still, she rambled, "We're in the money ... Put on a happy face ... Look for the silver lining ... Dance all your troubles away...."
Tim bobbed his head and snapped his fingers to the beat of Polly's ad-libbed tune.
Placenta harrumphed. "Someone's been sniffing the Maybelline."
"Spring is busting out all over ..." Polly continued. "I am sixteen going on seventeen ... Before the parade passes by ... Put on your Sunday clothes ... Don't worry, be happy ... And don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade!"
Placenta tossed Polly's rubber ducky into the suds and said, "Okay, already. We get it. The world's chaos is only half bad. We're luckier than anybody else. I'll be Pollyanna and Tim can play Doris Day."
"Um, I'm more the Hugh Jackman type. He's always smiling," Tim said.
"And with damn good reason," Polly said as she backhanded a splash of bubbles at her son. "But seriously, folks, we're at a crossroads. We have a choice to make. We can accept the lousy cards we're dealt, or reshuffle the deck and cheat. Fate, that is. I refuse to go along with the pessimists." Polly knocked back her glass of champers and waited for a refill. "I believe in Polly Pepper! Always have, despite my mother telling me I'd end up a failure like her. Ha! I only wish she could still talk so I'd know what she was thinking whenever I park her wheelchair over my star on the Walk of Fame."
"Leaving Grandma there for hours at a time isn't such a nice thing to do," Tim said.
Polly pooh-poohed Tim's concern. "She'll never admit that she gets a thrill out of seeing tourists point to my star and talk about how much they love me. Not to mention the semifresh air she takes in."
Tim and Placenta both agreed that it didn't help to fear their financial future. "We can take in boarders for extra money," Tim suggested.
"I don't cook and clean for strangers," Placenta said.
"For strangers?" Polly mocked.
Placenta jabbed, "You could start Lush Hour a teensy bit later and end it a weensy bit earlier. Call it 'champagne saving time.'"
"Pfff!" Polly blew away a strand of hair off of her damp forehead. "You wouldn't deprive an asthmatic of his inhaler!"
Other than the muted whooshing noise of the Jacuzzi jets, the room settled into a torpid unease as unexpressed thoughts about their potentially dire situation hung in the air and mixed with the steam rising from Polly's bathwater. A financial crisis was new territory for the threesome, none of whom ever considered that a day might come when they'd have to add the word austerity to their vocabulary.
As Placenta reached for the champagne bottle and refilled all three flutes, the telephone rang. Polly splashed like a baby in a plastic pool as she listlessly said, "If it's J.J. I've definitely reconsidered the offer from Depends. And I'll take any voiceover work—including that commercial for the Tourette's Syndrome convention he tried to suck me into last week."
Tim looked at the caller ID. "Just your luck. It's Laura Crawford."
"What the heck could she want?" Polly said, making a bigger splash in the tub.
Polly Pepper was famous for being able to find something to like about almost everyone. Laura Crawford was the exception. Laura was Polly's least favorite cast member from The Polly Pepper Playhouse, her long-ago-canceled musical/comedy/variety television series. Polly and Laura could go years without seeing or speaking to one another, and when they did communicate, it was always Laura who instigated the overture. Without exception, every conversation came with an agenda. After transparent faux pleasantries Laura got to the root of the reason for her calling. It was always a variation on one theme: how they could all make money using Polly's name and international prestige to take advantage of autograph hounds or collectors of celebrity memorabilia.
"Don't fall for any of her schemes," Tim said as he answered the phone and ignored his mother adamantly waving away any interest in speaking with Laura. "Auntie Laura!" he exclaimed. "Oh, status quo. Mending another broken heart. Polly? Couldn't be better. She's taking a boob-ly. But I know she'd love to chat." He smiled evilly at Polly's icy stare and pushed the cordless phone into his mother's hand.
Polly moved her lips and closed her eyes as she silently counted to ten. She then morphed into her Polly Pepper persona. "Sweetums!" she cooed. "You're picking up my thought vibrations. I was just thinking about you. Um, a couple of weeks ago."
For the next full minute Polly lied about her busy schedule. She feigned boredom with having to schlep through airport security, and the increasing lack of amenities in the first-class cabins of the dozens of different airlines she claimed she had to take en route to untold numbers of personal appearances and special guest starring roles on sitcoms. "Mainly abroad, dear. I'll send a Tweet when Muhammad and Me airs on Al Jazeera's new comedy night," Polly said.
In Hollywood, like bringing a bottle of imported wine to a dinner party in Paris, it's boorish to ask an out-of-work actor to talk about their latest projects. No one ever tells the truth. "My agent wants to put me up for the new Spielberg film," was code for "I'm a humongous failure!" And when one said, "I'm trying to write my memoirs," everybody knew they were washed up in the biz.
Laura was smart enough to know that Polly was in the same boat as every other one-time major female star of her age range. When Polly became silent for a long while, and listened intently to Laura, Tim and Placenta knew something had caught Polly's interest. "A cruise? As a matter of fact, I do have some time off coming up."
Tim nudged Placenta and they both nodded their full support to Polly for a high-seas adventure.
"Alaska?" Polly winced. "Isn't that the place where that Gidget who ran for veep puts lipstick on her pit bull? I remember donating to Actors and Others for Animals to have her tongue removed ... or was it to have her daughter spayed?" She listened for another moment. "I hear she's a humanitarian at heart. Where did I read about her support group for unwed teenage girls of right-wing politicians with sexy but irresponsible sperm donors?"
Trying to get off the line, Polly finally said, "Yes. Aha. I'll tell J.J. to call you first thing in the A.M. No, stop being afraid of him. He's really a kitty cat, albeit a saber-toothed one. Yes, ciao to you, too, dear. Arrivederci. Bye-bye. Gotta go now."
Polly hung up the telephone, picked up her champagne flute, and took a long swallow. "Refill, please," she said, looking at Tim. "We have something to celebrate. And I won't say I told you so about landing in clover—or the Atlantic Ocean!"
Over the next few days, a volley of calls between Polly and her reptilian agent, J.J. Norton, ensued. They hammered out the details of the cruise that Laura Crawford had instigated, and finally signed contracts that provided for two extra guests to accompany Polly, albeit with less-than-stellar accommodations for her companions.
True to her nature and desperate for a job, Laura had somehow convinced the talent booking agent for Astral Cruise Lines—who ran the popular Kool Krooz XXX-itement ships—that she could get the legendary Polly Pepper to host a weeklong series of lectures with the original cast of her famous TV show. Although Polly was a piece of cake to convince to go along for the ride, the other two members of her comedy troupe, Arnie Levin and Tommy Milkwood, weren't as eager to join in the promised fun. Especially since it meant sharing a stage again with the scene-stealing Laura Crawford. For the two male costars, twelve seasons on television with Laura was as painful as watching the fluke of Charlie Sheen having his own hit prime-time show. Almost.
Excerpted from Set Sail for Murder by R. T. JORDAN Copyright © 2010 by R. T. Jordan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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