Women like Cybella are not destined to survive their fifties. Her looks long gone, the ex-supermodel takes a leap down a stairwell—an apparent suicide that lands her on the front page one last time. Maggie Hill and her employer, the eccentrically brilliant detective Claire Conrad, are about to leave New York when a streetwalker named Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Murphy barges into their hotel room, clutching a tape that she claims proves the model was murdered—a tawdry bit of pornography starring Jackie and Cybella’s daughter. Conrad is unimpressed, but Jackie gets her attention on her way out of the hotel, when an unseen killer stabs her to death in the street. Discovering the truth behind the two murders will take Maggie and Claire on a trip to the ugliest corners of New York City, and show them that there is no back alley as dangerous as a high-fashion catwalk.
About the Author
Melodie Johnson Howe is a mystery author and former actress. She began writing as a child, composing plays such as Nevada—a western that ended with the villain being sent to his room—and began acting in the mid-1960s. For a decade, she worked in movies alongside actors such as Clint Eastwood, Alan Alda, and James Caan. In the early 1980s, she left the Hollywood grind to pursue her dream of writing mysteries. Howe’s first novel, The Mother Shadow (1989), featured Claire Conrad and Maggie Hill, whom Howe describes as “the female answer to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.” It was nominated for an Edgar Award, and was followed by a sequel, Beauty Dies (1994). Howe is also acclaimed for her short fiction. Her most recent book, Shooting Hollywood: The Diana Poole Stories (2012), is a collection of short stories starring a forty-year-old actress trying to make a comeback.
Read an Excerpt
A Claire Conrad/Maggie Hill Mystery
By Melodie Johnson Howe
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1994 Melodie Johnson Howe
All rights reserved.
"Wanna buy a diamond ring, lady? Check it out."
The man's dark angry face glistened with sweat in the cold spring morning light. He thrust his hand at me. I stared at a chunk of rhinestone as big as a glass eye.
"Diamond ring, lady. Twenty bucks."
Diamonds are forever, I thought. Neil's ring had slipped on so easily and it had taken me forever to get it off.
"Check it out, twenty bucks."
As I turned away from the man, our shoulders collided.
"Fuck you," he said in low voice.
That's exactly what Neil had said to me when I left him. Only he had added my name, Maggie Hill. My maiden name.
It was Tuesday, my last day in New York City, and I could hardly wait to get back to the isolation and uneasy separation that was Los Angeles. I hadn't thought about my ex-husband for two whole weeks. That's because I was a new woman with a new job.
I moved quickly up Madison, tightening my grip on the package Claire Conrad had sent me to pick up. It contained two pairs of kid gloves made specially for her. One black pair, one white pair. She wore gloves not because she was a lady. She wore them because she was a private detective and didn't want to leave her fingerprints around to confuse the cops.
Claire and I had met only a few weeks before in Los Angeles, where my previous employer had blown his head off. My new position consisted of secretarial duties and running errands. In other words, I was her assistant. Also, because I hold the dubious distinction of having once written and published a novel, I was chronicling Claire Conrad's exploits—including how she had proven my employer's suicide was really murder, and how her extraordinary intelligence, her unnerving perceptions, and my help had solved the crime. I was writing slowly. I wanted this job to last. At thirty-five, I was getting a little too old for temp work. A little too old even to be a new woman.
I hoofed it past store windows displaying antique pillows, men's silk bathrobes, and the ubiquitous thin mannequins adorned in spring suits as white as a little girl's First Communion dress. The store windows reflected my own image back at me: the dark brown hair, questioning dark brown eyes, defiant chin, and sharp straight nose that dipped slightly down, as if it were trying to call attention to my mouth. In contrast to these rather pointed features, my lips were full and sensual. Men had a tendency to look at them instead of my eyes.
I stopped in front of my favorite shoe store. There they were. A pair of black and white spectator pumps. I longingly admired how the black shiny patent curved around the pristine white leather. I delighted at the little holes punched along the edge of the patent so the white leather peeked through. I appreciated the sexy curve of the heel.
In college I had read a play by Odets. A character described his feelings for a woman by comparing her to a pair of black and white wingtips, shoes that he could never afford, shoes far beyond his reach. It had never occurred to me to try to be that unobtainable woman. She belongs with the perfect man. I just wanted the shoes, spectator shoes. Think of the possibilities. If I slipped my feet into them, what would I observe? Witness? As usual I didn't go into the store, didn't ask the price, and didn't try them on. I just longed for them. It does the soul good to yearn for something.
I turned right on Sixty-third and sauntered toward the Parkfaire Hotel.
A young woman with wasted blue eyes stepped quickly in front of me. A greenish yellow bruise spread across her left cheek.
"Miss?" She wiped her runny nose on the sleeve of her cheap red jacket.
I veered right, but she stayed with me. I moved to my left. So did she.
"Miss?" Her hair was bleached brittle blond.
I kept walking toward the hotel. The doorman, who minus legs would have been perfectly square, was looking toward Park Avenue where little green buds heralded new life on the trees in the center island. The young woman reached out her hand toward me with new hope. Ah, spring.
"Look," I said, stopping and confronting her. "It's only nine o'clock in the morning and I haven't even had my coffee and I've already been told to fuck off. I left all my money in my hotel room. Go try somebody else."
"She didn't kill herself," she said, doggedly scuffing alongside me in red cowboy boots.
I was at the hotel.
"Cybella didn't kill herself."
The doorman turned toward us, his long beige coat flapping in the breeze. Cool eyes peered from his bright red face, sizing up the young woman.
"Good morning, Miss Hill," he said, stepping between the girl and me. "I hear you're leaving us today."
"That's right, Frank." We spoke to each other as if she didn't exist.
I pushed through the revolving door into the white marble lobby. It wasn't much bigger than your average-size Beverly Hills living room. I stood for a moment brushing my hair from my face, then turned and looked back.
Frank was waving his stubby arms at the young woman—she was maybe twenty-three—forcing her to cross the street. She flipped him off, then stood on the opposite sidewalk, arms folded against the wind, defiantly staring at the hotel. She wore a short, skintight, white leather skirt. Red fishnet stockings boldly defined her long thin legs. Her gaunt pale face was mean with determination.
"We had to throw her out of the lobby this morning." Desanto, the manager of the Parkfaire, came up to me all decked out in tails and pin-striped trousers. He looked like an officious groom waiting for a bride who was too smart to show up. "She wanted to see Claire Conrad," he said with a sniff.
"I didn't bother to find out."
I turned away from the revolving door and the image of the young woman. Leave it alone, Maggie, I told myself. Soon you'll be back in L.A. I headed toward the elevators.
Desanto half-closed his eyes, drew his head so far back that his chin looked ingrown, and marched along beside me. It was difficult to take a walk alone in this town.
"You will be checking out at noon?"
"That's what I told you, Mr. Desanto." I pushed the elevator button. Desanto was used to dealing directly with Claire, and now he had to deal with me. I guess he thought it was a step down.
"I just wanted to make sure. Mr. Orita is coming in this evening and I told him he could have the Conrad Suite. It's his favorite."
Desanto's eyes darted from me to a heavily carved table in the middle of the room. An Oriental vase the size of a small child held an enormous bouquet of dangerous-looking flowers. Bony stems and petals as sharp as long red fingernails twisted upward to the ceiling, jabbing at an old, gracious crystal chandelier. A woman in a black uniform was methodically replacing some of the dead flowers. Desanto watched her every move with a busy intensity. He suddenly pulled in his chin again and rushed to greet the Bovine Lady, as I called her, who was just settling down into her usual chair by the marble fireplace at the end of the lobby. She was a plump, middle-aged woman laden with jewelry. Her face was long and sad, her eyes big and blue. She looked as though her wealthy husband had put her out to pasture. I thought of the young girl with her thin arms folded against the morning cold. Not everybody was put out in the same pasture. Leave it alone, Maggie.
The elevator door opened. I stepped aside, letting out four men and one woman in business suits with briefcases. Four to one, not a good ratio. The elevator shot me up to fifteen.
At the end of the hall a brass plate on the door identified the Conrad Suite. I gave the special knock: two quick taps, three long ones. Boulton let me into the black-and-white marble foyer, looking every inch the English butler in his gray jacket, vest, and dark pin-striped trousers.
"Did madam enjoy her morning stroll?" he asked, bowing slightly. His jacket was opened and I could see the butt of the gun in his shoulder holster.
"I wouldn't exactly call it a stroll," I said.
Boulton's chestnut brown hair was swept back from his high, intelligent forehead. His lips, in repose, were somber, almost sad. I liked them.
"Madam's in the drawing room," he said in his formal English accent.
"To me it will always be the living room," I said.
A slight smile.
"What kind of mood is she in?" I asked.
"Depressed as always when she finishes a job. Especially insurance fraud cases. Tread lightly. By the way I took the liberty of packing for you."
"If you'll forgive me, I thought you were the type of American woman who wore those athletic-looking undergarments. The see-through, white lace bra was a pleasant surprise. Breakfast will be served momentarily." He turned crisply on his heels and headed down the short hallway to the dining room.
I loved observing Boulton. I loved how he moved. I loved the grace of his lean compact body. Where I had trouble with him was up close. Then his grace and intelligence had a coolness, a steeliness that disturbed me. My ex-husband is an LAPD detective. I know about macho men and their guns. Boulton may have been English and looked like he'd just stumbled out of Masterpiece Theater, but these men are all the same. I think a woman should try once in her life to desire a man who doesn't carry a gun. I was keeping my distance.
I opened the double doors to the living room and tried to dismiss the image of Boulton alone in my room, his hand cupping my bra. Claire Conrad was enthroned in her Queen Anne chair. Not the one she had in Conrad Cottage in L.A., but her New York chair. Covered in white linen, it had the same bowed legs, clawed feet, high straight back, and sides that winged out. I had the feeling there were Queen Annes in hotel suites all around the world waiting for the famous detective's backside to nestle onto their downy cushions.
It was Claire's day to dress in black. It fit her mood. She wore black slacks, a black silk shirt, and a black wrap jacket. Her ebony walking stick leaned against her chair like a faithful dog.
"Your gloves," I said, placing them on a small table next to her. In response she stared at the tips of her shoes.
I sat down at my desk. It was a gray lacquered affair and had better legs than I did. The room was done in various shades of white. Two sofas covered in grayish white silk faced one another in front of a gray marble fireplace. The coffee table was glass with an iron base. Windows, which looked down on Park Avenue, were graced with ecru damask.
"Breakfast will be served momentarily," I said.
Her penetrating dark blue eyes found me. Silvery white hair folded back like the wings of a bird from her refined, handsome face. Deep lines ran across her forehead and down the corners of her lips, enhancing her elegance instead of detracting from it. As her biographer I should have known her age, but I didn't. I guessed her to be in her fifties. One of these days I was going to have to ask her. For a moment I thought she was going to speak, but she just stared at me. The sound of car horns and sirens filtered through the large windows, gently disturbing the silence in the room. Between the street and the fifteenth floor the traffic noise had lost its anger. Amazing what money can do.
I looked down at my list and checked off the gloves. Next came the Bentley. I had to call the rental company so they would be sure to have someone at the airport to pick it up. Then I had to call Graham Sitwell, the CEO of New York Insurance, to tell him Claire considered the fraud case closed and to please send the money. Just as I reached for the phone, Boulton appeared.
"Breakfast, madam," he announced.
Claire stood and stretched her lean six-foot frame, then followed him out of the room. I took up the rear. We made a somber procession down the hallway to the dining room. It was small, with mirrored walls and pale gold carpet. Crystal sconces, with silk lampshades that never stayed straight, offered an expensive glow.
Claire sat at the head of the table. I sat on her right. Boulton placed The New York Times next to her and began to serve the coffee. Gerta, carrying two plates, pushed open the swinging door from the small galley kitchen.
"Good morning." She served us caviar and sour cream omelets.
"How are you, Gerta?" I asked. "It's nice to talk to somebody."
"We go home," she said in her thick Hungarian accent. She looked at Claire, sighed heavily so we could all hear it, then looked back at me. "I hope a job will be waiting for her when we get to L.A. Then all this gloom will disappear."
Gerta pushed the swinging door with her heavy hip and returned to the kitchen, followed by Boulton.
Claire picked up the newspaper and began to read. We ate our omelets and drank our coffee in silence. The only sounds came from the tinkling of crystal and china and the rustle of The New York Times. Very cosmopolitan.
Claire leaned back in her chair. Her shrewd eyes came to rest on me. "Beauty dies, Miss Hill." Her voice was edged with melancholy.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's interesting how many other qualities die with beauty. Style, grace, elegance, hope. Society puts a great deal of hope, of promise, in beauty. Hope dies, too."
I gave this some thought, then said, "It was just an insurance fraud case. And, if you don't mind me saying so, you earned a ton of money having that poor old accountant arrested. He's the one who should be depressed, not you."
"I? Depressed? What are you talking about?"
"What are you talking about?"
I put down my coffee cup. She tossed me the paper folded to the obituaries.
"Cybella." I repeated the name.
The page was filled with the accomplishments of old white dead men and very young dead men, the letters AIDS looming over their successes. In the bottom of the left-hand corner of the page was a photograph of a woman of great beauty. The caption read: BEAUTY DIES, CYBELLA DEAD AT 53. The photograph had been taken when she was around my age, mid-thirties. She had a long graceful neck, dark hair setting off high cheekbones, and a strong chin. Her mouth was lush but not soft. Dark haunting eyes stared into mine. She had the kind of beauty that seemed to come from the ages—not from two minutes on MTV.
The gist of the obituary was that Cybella, née Nancy Grange from Buffalo, New York, had been the top model in the sixties. Later she had tried acting, but her cool beauty had turned to ice on celluloid. Suffering from depression, she had jumped from the tenth floor down the stairwell of her Manhattan apartment building. She left one daughter, named Sarah Grange, a model.
I thought of the girl standing outside the hotel. I also thought of another young girl, me, standing in front of my bathroom mirror trying to suck in my cheeks and extend my neck so I could look like Cybella. I had forgotten her name, but not her face.
"I saw her only once, Miss Hill, many years ago, at a reception given in my honor in Paris," Claire said. "She was the guest of the minister of culture, a randy old thing. When Cybella walked in you could feel a change in the room. A frisson. Beauty had entered."
I looked at Claire. "She didn't kill herself."
"You deduced that from this innocuous obituary? Maybe I should write about you."
"No, no." I was on my feet. "Just a minute. I'll be right back."
I ran out of the dining room, down the hall. I pounded on the elevator button till the doors pulled open.
As I shoved the revolving door around, the cold wind hit my face. She was across the street smoking a cigarette, waiting for me. I squeezed between two limos parked at the curb, checked the traffic, and darted across.
"Okay," I began, "three questions. How did you know Claire Conrad was staying at this hotel?"
She reached into the pocket of her jacket and handed me a crumpled newspaper clipping. A picture of Claire, Boulton, and me coming out of the Parkfaire was captioned: THE ELUSIVE CLAIRE CONRAD IS IN TOWN. The name of the hotel could be seen in the background. Boulton and I were not mentioned.
"Even I can read the Daily News," she said.
"How do you know Cybella didn't kill herself?"
Excerpted from Beauty Dies by Melodie Johnson Howe. Copyright © 1994 Melodie Johnson Howe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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