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A 68-year-old widow comes out of retirement when murder hits a little too close to home. Clara's husband was a gifted sleuth, but now he's gone. So it's up to Clara to solve a 50-year-old puzzle of passion, prohibition, and painful family secrets. "A charming contemporary mystery in the classic mode."--The Washington Post.
"CLARA? CLARA GAMADGE?"
The voice on the phone was high, Eleanor Roosevelty, unmistakable. I said: "Aunt May."
"You angel--you knew my voice. It's been ages."
"How are you?" I said. "Where are you?" Please God, not at the Sarasota airport
"In New York. Still at 740 Park. I'm miserable, Clara. Something horrid has happened. Your husband would have known just what to do. How you must miss that dear man!"
I did indeed sorely miss that dear man and his penchant for involving himself in other people's horrid happenings. But now I could only look longingly at my paintbox, which I'd been in the act of packing, along with a sandwich and a paperback copy of Middle-march. May was going on about her own widowhood, which, as it antedated mine by about twenty years, was not, I felt, a pressing matter for condolence. She ended accusingly:
"And you never said good-bye when you moved to Florida."
"I didn't move. I just leased my brownstone for a year. It was pretty empty after Henry died."
The Gulf of Mexico, fifty yards from where I stood, was a preposterous shade of blue-green in the January sun. May said hastily:
"Oh, of course. But--a year? Isn't Florida sort of..." Her voice trailed.
I laughed. "Boring, banal, and bourgeois? The Three B's, Cousin Sadd calls them. What's the horrid thing that's happened, May?"
"Oh, it's too nasty. Let me get a cigarette."
Was this woman still smoking and alive? She'd been a daily two or three-packer in her youth, and May Dawson had to be in her late eighties now, a good twenty years older than I. Never intimate or even congenial, we'd always been friendly. I reached for a hairbrushand tackled my long white hair, which my daughter won't allow me to cut. May's phone clunked around on some surface, and she was back. She coughed rackingly for a moment, made an attempt to speak, coughed again, and finally said:
"I'm still in bed. What time is it? I'm simply too depressed to drag my clothes on. You remember Lloyd Cavanaugh, that cousin on the Saddlier side. Well, he died yesterday and refuses to be buried."
I took in this unlikely sequence as I tried to pin up my hair with one hand and watched another cousin, Charles Saddlier by name, but "Sadd" for as long as I could remember, walk up the path with the Times under his arm. I hoped this particular cousin would be spared a while longer to make the world safe for curmudgeonry.
"What I mean is"--May coughed again and I shuddered--"there's that hideous mausoleum sitting in Holy Martyrs Cemetery with all those empty crypts that none of us wants to be buried in and you can't blame us but Lloyd is penniless and should be grateful and instead he's left instructions that he be buried someplace in Ohio where he was born."
I wondered what was so horrid about that, as May paused for breath.
"And here's the horrid part: I thought I'd persuaded his wife--what's her name--Helen--to have Lloyd buried in Holy Martyrs, and last week when he was sinking I even made that awful trip out to Queens to ask about opening the vault, and what did they tell me in the office? Somebody has been snooping around asking questions about the stories. That wretched place. We'll never live it down."
The Dawson mausoleum. I'd seen pictures of it as a child and could perfectly envision the enormous marble structure dwarfing everything around it in old Holy Martyrs Cemetery in Queens, New York.
I said: "I remember there was supposed to be something scandalous about the place, but I was never told what it was. Sounds rather fascinating."
May's high voice went higher. "You're safely in Florida and your name is Gamadge now. You won't have to face some lurid piece in one of those loathsome tabloids."
I felt sudden pity. A long-ago, high-profile tragedy in May's family had rendered her pathologically sensitive to notoriety. This I understood and respected. But the Dawsons in general have been a snobbish, ingrown group to whom a breath of scandal is to be dreaded more than sin. My husband used to say that their motto was the same as the Scarlet Pimpernel's in his effete disguise: What's worse than a crime?--a blunder! I am the only Dawson who affectionately remembers an old family embarrassment involving a senile uncle whom I adored, for in the course of it I met Henry Gamadge, and my days as an inept, lonely little debutante were over. Happiness, a sage once said, is not something you experience, it is something you remember....
"May," I said, fighting memories and hoping I sounded ineffectual, "what can I do?"
"You can come."
"Come help us persuade Helen Cavanaugh to have Lloyd buried in the mausoleum. We'll all show up at Holy Martyrs, and the place will be opened--it hasn't been since that awful creature was buried there--and maybe those stories"--May seemed to put the word in italics each time she said it--"will evaporate. And aren't you staying with Sadd? Tell him to come too."
I said despairingly: "Will you hold on a minute, May? Sadd just came in."
"Of course." She coughed again. "I'll hold on."
Not for long you won't, I thought grimly. Sadd had seated himself on the porch (I can't bring myself to use the ersatz-elegant "Florida Room") and had folded the Times into quarters, a habit that dated back to his commuting days on the New York, New Haven and Hartford. He pushed his glasses up to a nesting place in his thick white hair and said:
"Lloyd Cavanaugh died in Hollis, New York." He pulled the glasses down again and squinted at the fine print of the obituary. "'Son of Kenneth and Rose.' Why can't they get these things right? Her name was Rosamond. Anyway, it's nice to be so far away that you don't have to even debate about going to the funeral. Who was on the phone?"
"Is on the phone. May Dawson. She wants us to come to New York for that funeral we don't even have to debate about."
He stared at me. "She's out of her mind."
"It seems"--I don't know if I was angry or just bored--"that there's some problem about getting Lloyd buried--or not buried--in that mausoleum, and somebody's dug up the rumors about the place and May believes that if we just show up en masse..." I went on to describe the salubrious effects of committing Lloyd's reluctant remains to Holy Martyrs Cemetery.
Sadd said: "She's right."
This family! "Then go, Sadd. But I have no intention of making a round trip to New York City in the middle of January, especially since I'm going home in April anyway--"
"You are not."
"--when the lease is up. So you tell May you'll be glad to come and you'll look forward to that nice, leisurely layover in Atlanta and the balmy weather in New York, and you'll be happy to browbeat Lloyd's widow, who has a perfect right to bury her husband wherever she--"
"Hello, May, this is Sadd." He had struggled to his short legs and reached the phone. "I agree it would be unfortunate to revive that sordid mausoleum story, but isn't there enough of the family up there for your purpose?" He was motioning to me to pick up on the kitchen extension. "You don't want to drag two tired, elderly people..."
When Sadd didn't want to do something he was "tired and elderly." At all other times he was "spry as a cricket, thank you," and he was. I walked reluctantly into the kitchen, where a fiery hibiscus was brushing the screen, closed my eyes, and took the receiver from the wall. May's voice was quavering on.
"--some person who was at a funeral near the mausoleum and saw the name DAWSON--you know the size of those letters over the door--and remembered the stories (italics again) and began to ask questions--"
"May," I had a sudden inspiration. "Why can't young Henry represent Sadd and me? He lives in Brooklyn Heights--I'll give you his phone number." I warmed as I thought of my son. He was the exact age, thirty-eight, that his father had been when I met him, and he was a clone of his dad, same gray eyes, mousy hair, good mind, and bad posture. "I'm sure he'll go, May, and he'll take his wife--you'll love Bettina--and anybody else he can muster. He's a dear thing--"
"He is indeed!" May's voice was suddenly gentle. "And he's standing right here. I'll put him on."
Sadd and I stared at each other across the kitchen aperture. What was this?
"Hello, Mother! Sadd, you there? Now, listen, you guys, be good eggs and haul ass up here."
Sadd said: "Henry, don't be vulgar." I was used to it.
"By the way, Mom, little Hen has been reading my old Oz books, and he needs you to reassure him about the Yoop."
I froze. Sadd was beginning to huff and puff, but I scarcely heard him. When Henry was a child we had a code: If you are away from home and something happens to upset or frighten you and you can't speak freely on the phone, refer to the Yoop, the man-eating giant in his favorite Oz book. Once when he was in boarding school, the Yoop had saved Henry from the torments of a bully; one summer when he was unhappy during a visit to friends in Maine, the Yoop had effected a summons home.
I said, as quietly as I could: "Henry, are you telling us there's trouble and you can't talk?"
"That's right, Mom. The good old Yoop."
My heart was thumping. Sadd said: "Can you call us later?"
"Well, no. So hop a plane tomorrow. There's an Eastern flight gets into LaGuardia at noon--I just checked. I can't meet you but I'll buy you a cab right here to May's. And bring warm stuff--it's snowing."
His receiver clicked. We stood still, ours in midair.
Sadd said, in an apocalyptic tone: "Snowing..."
He walked to the bookcase, which doubled as his wine chest, and took out a bottle of sherry. "Our elevenses today are going to be tenses. I assume that 'Yoop' business was a code?"
I nodded and sat down in a chair that had stood by the window of our living room on East Sixty-third Street. It was a straight-backed thing with carved arms, out of place in these airy surroundings, but I had brought it with me to cherish the memory of Henry Gamadge, so often stretched in it and puzzling over a horrid happening.