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Sweet, Savage Death
A Patience McKenna Mystery
By Jane Haddam
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Orania Papazoglou
All rights reserved.
I had a friend once who thought you could find out anything you wanted to know about a person from the way she dressed—the weight of the fabric, the colors of the cloth, the cut of the styling. If he had seen me for the first and only time at Myrra Agenworth's funeral, he would have thought me one of those tall women who is afraid of being tall, a self-conscious stooper, a drudge. He would have been right about only one thing. At Myrra's funeral, I was more self-conscious than I had been anytime since the sixth grade. I am six feet and weigh a hundred and twenty-five pounds. I am tall and look taller. I stood in the back of the People's Nondenominational Church on West Thirty-fourth Street and Tenth Avenue in a little black-nothing dress fresh from the SFAntastic Collection at Saks, looking like a stork.
I had my hair, which is very thick and blonde and falls to my waist, tied into a braid. I was gripping the pew in front of me and trying not to faint. I was also trying not to laugh. A three-day bout of fasting, brought on by my inability to fit into a size-seven bathing suit I had tried on in Bloomingdale's for no other reason than that I had never seen anything so aggressively grotesque, had left me giddy and out of control.
The pastor raised his eyes to heaven and said, in the tone of a chipmunk spying an untended cache of nuts, "Dear Lord, take to your bosom this woman of love."
I put my head in my hands and peered through my fingers at the first three rows of pews, determined to concentrate on the sociology of the spectacle. It wasn't difficult.
Myrra Agenworth had died alone at the hand of a mugger in Riverside Park at two-thirty on the morning of December second, while she was out walking her dog. What she was doing walking a cocker spaniel in Riverside Park at two-thirty in the morning was never satisfactorily determined. There was some feeling at the time that it didn't really matter. The woman was seventy-six years old, frail, eccentric at the best of times, rich beyond the point where her judgment could be readily questioned. If she wanted to walk out into the Manhattan night in diamond earrings, a ruby necklace that covered her breasts like a coat of mail, and a floor-length chinchilla cape, it was her business, and the doorman certainly wasn't going to stop her. What mattered was that she was alone. Her children were all dead. Her one granddaughter lived in England, had just graduated from Oxford, and spent as little time with her grandmother as possible. There was some friction there, but it was to be expected. The son of one of the other romance novelists I know tells his friends his mother takes in typing for a living—anything to avoid the embarrassment of being related to a woman who writes "those drippy love books."
Myrra had written her funeral service before her death, decided on the People's Nondenominational Church, and chosen the props. It was left to her publishers to find thirteen dozen roses, thirteen doves, a peacock, and a heart-shaped casket. They didn't manage the casket. They had to settle for an ordinary one, with a broken heart carved into the wood above the place where Myrra's head was supposed to be.
The service was carefully planned for December tenth, the Thursday before the Sunday that would open the Third Annual Conference of the American Writers of Romance. Every important romance novelist and editor in the country was due at the Cathay-Pierce Hotel on Friday. The editors at Farret Paperback Originals got them in on Thursday and packed the first three rows of pews with brand name authors from twenty-two states and three countries. Barbara Cartland came with a bit of black veiling pinned into her improbably bouffant hair. Rosemary Rogers managed to look grief-stricken. Even Bertrice Small held up her little square of pew, looking a trifle grim and a trifle sad and a trifle lost.
In the fourth row they placed the most important editors in category romance: Vivian Stephens of Harlequin, Karen Solem of Silhouette, Anne Gisonny of Candlelight at Dell, Ellen Edwards and Leslie Kazanjian of Berkley/Jove, Carolyn Nichols of Bantam. Janine Williams of Farret was there, in the center of the row, her little brown bun covered with a black snood perched exactly two and one half inches above the collar of her black suit jacket. Her back was straight, her shoulders were squared, and her suit was a Harvé Bernard she shouldn't have tried to afford. She looked expensively uncomfortable, but she also looked the quintessential editor. For the moment that was even more important than grief. CBS had a camera crew in the lobby.
"Chocolates," Phoebe whispered into my waist. "They're going to pass out chocolates."
She sounded cheerful and disgusted at once—cheerful about the prospect of one of those little heart-shaped, cream-filled chocolates from Godiva, disgusted because Amelia Samson was passing them out. Amelia Samson was what Phoebe called "one of the old school," as if romance writing was an army making the transition from horse cavalry to motorized tanks. Amelia was in her early sixties, somewhat over two hundred pounds, and the "author" of over two hundred category romances. She even had her own line, put out by Farret, called "Amelia Samson's Lovelines." What Phoebe objected to was the fact that Amelia Samson didn't actually do any writing, and hadn't for nearly twenty years. She barricaded herself in a forty-room house in Rhinebeck called "The Castle," surrounded herself with a dozen aging, fawning women, and fed each of them a detailed plot and character outline every month. They wrote the novels. They accepted board and minimum wage.
Phoebe was six months younger than I was, four feet eleven inches tall, one hundred thirty pounds, and determined. She was determined on general principles, and it suited her. Needless to say, she wrote her own books. She wrote very long books, almost never touched category romance, and still managed to produce two paperback originals a year. She had changed her last name from Weiss to Damereaux, wallpapered her ten-room apartment in varying shades of velvet, and appeared in the pages of People magazine wearing a floor-length scarlet velvet caftan, six strands of rope diamonds, pear-shaped diamond earrings so heavy they made her earlobes droop, and no fewer than two amethyst rings on each of her eight fingers. The ex-wife of her insurance agent, who subscribed to People, sent a copy of the article to her ex-husband's front office. Six weeks later, after an extensive investigation involving dozens of pained-looking young men in brown linen suits, they canceled her theft, homeowner's, and life insurance policies.
"Not chocolates," Phoebe said sadly, "orchids."
Amelia stopped at our row and passed the basket, a mock Tyrolean affair with red and white ribbons wound around the handles. When it reached me, I took a flower, considered putting it in my hair, and decided to hold it instead. I was in no hurry to look like a stork wearing a bonnet.
I took my hands off the pew to pass the basket on and teetered, unused to the very high heels and dizzy from lack of food. Phoebe hissed at me, "You've been starving yourself again. You're committing suicide."
"Just cleaning out the poisons."
"Do you know what happens when you don't eat enough? Your body eats itself. You chew on your own liver."
A small, dowdy woman in the pew in front of us turned, frowned, and wagged her orchid at Phoebe. Then she turned away and wiped a lavender-scented, blue-embroidered handkerchief across her dry eyes. A little lady from Westchester, I decided. A housewife or an ex-librarian, whiling away her time producing sixty-thousand-word tracts on the course of True Love.
The minister made the sign of the cross over the heads of a few frightened doves who were lurking under the altar and the congregation sat down.
"Lydia Wentward's on cocaine," Phoebe said, whispering into my ear this time. "Isn't that wonderful?"
I grunted, not sure if that was wonderful or not, and beginning to feel dizzy for reasons other than lack of food. It had begun to occur to me, in the middle of all that unrelieved nonsense, that Myrra Agenworth was dead. I would miss her. In many ways, she had been a silly woman, vain, pampered, sentimental. She had made a great deal of money and spent it on things I would not have wanted. At times, she had even been sharp-tongued, and petty, and cynical. She had also been considerate and gentle and kind. In the five years I had known her, I had asked for her help many times. She had always given it.
I dug my hands into the pockets of my dress and clamped my teeth shut, willing myself to stay upright, willing myself to stay calm until after the service was over.
"Patience. Patience, darling. I've been looking all over for you."
High, whining voice, amphetamine shriek. I stopped halfway down the steps of the People's Nondenominational Church and looked around for the woman who owned it. I saw nothing but blank, deserted buildings sweating soot in the cold December air and a long, thin line of mourners come to view the body. Of course, no one could view the body. The mugger had done a job on Myrra's face and the mortician hadn't been able to correct it. The mourners didn't know that. They were fans, women from Iowa and Kansas and the deep South, come to say good-bye to the best-loved, bestselling, and best-known category romance writer in history.
The line went down the block and around the corner, out of sight. Two Moonies were working their way toward the steps, passing out pamphlets. The women took them and smiled and probably said thank you in their politest voices. A few days later they would sit on the edges of their imitation Louis Quinze chairs in a hospitality suite at the Cathay-Pierce, and smile and say thank you when somebody noticed them long enough to offer them a glass of sherry.
"Patience, for God's sake," Mary Allard said. "I've been looking for you everywhere."
She popped up in front of me, her bright little face made oddly dull by a thick wash of foundation, like the mirror with the film on it in one of those soap commercials. I didn't like Mary Allard. She was the editor-in-chief for the Passion Romance line at Acme Books, and she was always moving—diet pills and pep pills, strong Turkish coffee and Celestial Seasonings Morning Thunder Tea, vodka and marijuana and God knew what else. Myrra once wrote a novel for Passion and then had her agent, Julie Simms, audit her royalty statements. Acme had a reputation for underpaying advances, cheating on royalties, and buying up the copyrights on books whose authors were too green to know any better. Myrra had gone after Acme like a religion-crazed knight in pursuit of a dragon. She had hired private detectives, threatened to bug Acme's offices, challenged Mary Allard to a fight in the Plaza bar, and had all of Acme's records for 1975 through 1978 subpoenaed in a civil suit. Acme gave in, but Myrra didn't. She wanted proof, and she sat with her armor on until she got it. Then she took the five thousand dollars the company owed her (but had tried to say they didn't) and never spoke to Mary Allard again.
"You and Phoebe," Mary Allard said now, "I know you're both going to say you're busy, but if you'd just have dinner with me—"
"I already have plans for dinner," I said, looking around a little frantically. Phoebe was nowhere in sight, but she would be. She had come to the service in full Phoebe Damereaux regalia (black velvet caftan this time) and she was on the lookout for reporters. Reporters meant publicity, and, unlike me, she was out for all the publicity she could get. I was hoping to hide. Category romance paid my rent. My ego was supported by articles in slick women's magazines like Sophistication and alternative newspapers like Left of Center. I wrote articles on the growing incidence of alcoholism among working women, the cover-up campaign on the dangers of chemical wastes, the cooptation of women in the executive suite, and the dangers inherent in the growth of the New Right. I would continue to write them as long as no one ever found out I was also writing category romance.
I saw Janine Williams drifting away from a conversation with a middle-aged woman who had come armed with a manuscript and eyes that glowed like penlights. I waved.
Mary held on to my sleeve. "They say Phoebe wrote a book for Fires of Love," she said sweetly.
"Right," I said. Fires of Love was the new "sensual" line at Farret. Six books a month had begun appearing on the stands last Christmas. Eight books a month were planned beginning in January. Every one of them promised "more love, more romance, more sensual detail," a code for more sex.
"If Phoebe's going to write category—" Mary said.
She never got a chance to finish. Janine pulled up beside us, turned on her sweetest smile, and linked her arm through mine. The gesture should have been friendly, but it wasn't. Janine felt for Mary Allard what doctors feel for people who practice medicine unlicensed. Mary was not a real editor and should not be allowed to call herself one. Mary was not a real editor and should not be invited to all-industry conferences. Mary was not a real editor and should not be acknowledged on the street by employees of legitimate houses. Now Janine had attached herself to my arm, convinced she had the right to use me as an excuse for another round of bitchery.
"Phoebe's looking for you," Janine said, staring straight at Mary Allard. "I left her with Julie Simms. And you know what that means."
"Oh, dear," I said.
I started to disengage myself from Janine, hoping to withdraw as far as possible from her fight with Mary and the inexorable march of CBS News. If I hurried, I could get Phoebe into a cab and on the way to Luchow's before anyone even knew I was there. But Janine held on tightly, as tightly as she held on to her smile.
"Our most successful line ever," she told Mary Allard. "We think we'll gross a hundred million in the first year."
"That's good," Mary Allard said. "It's about time Farret had a line that made money."
"Exhausted," Julie Simms said, plunging into the group and pulling Phoebe behind her. Phoebe looked pink and happy, as if she'd just managed to top the Times bestseller list and get paid for it in chocolate. Her small, round body bounced and rippled under the black velvet, and her eyes, always dark, looked almost black.
"Isn't it terrible," Julie Simms said. "Not one relative. Not even the granddaughter."
"Ah, yes," Janine said. "She inherited all that money. Twenty million dollars, somebody said."
"Twenty million dollars," Julie agreed. "Did you know her name was Leslie Ashe? The daughter's daughter's, I think."
"Sounds like a romance novelist," I said.
"Oh, no, no, no." Julie wrinkled her nose, making herself look even more like Doris Day than she usually did. She took her handkerchief out of her pocket and patted the grime off her forehead. "I've got to escape from Lydia," she said. "She's on something, of course, and she thinks she needs me, and I'm due for dinner with Hazel Ganz and she thinks her book isn't making enough money. They never think their books are making enough money."
"Books never make enough money," Phoebe said. "That's the truth."
Julie patted her arm. "Now, now. We'll get you up there one of these days. Movie contracts. Apartments in the Dakota. Vacations in Tahiti. You'll see."
She backed away and disappeared, swallowed by a tangle of newspaper photographers looking for a star. They caught Barbara Cartland and ignored us.
I didn't want to give them time to get bored or Mary Allard and Janine time to think of something else to say. I grabbed Phoebe's arm and began pulling her down the steps. There was a cab cruising east from the river, and I didn't want to lose it.CHAPTER 2
I got home late, well after midnight, and a little drunk. I stopped at my mailbox and pulled out four letters, two from Janine, one from Sophistication, and one from the law firm of Hoddard, Marks, Hewitt and Long, offices at Fifty-five Broadway. I nearly stopped right there and read that one, but the vestibule where the mailboxes were was cold, and the door to the street didn't lock, and there had been a mugging already that winter. I let myself in the inner door and started making my way up the three narrow flights of steps.
Excerpted from Sweet, Savage Death by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1984 Orania Papazoglou. 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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