Bella Whitaker was quite sure her night on the town would be a night to remember. Her black velvet gown was all the rage, her diamond earrings opulent without being ostentatious, and the mink a perfect foil for her auburn hair. But before Bella could stage an entrance, someone committed a serious fashion blunder, and dear wealthy Bella ended up wearing a noose for a necklace.
The long and short of it is, Bella failed to keep her date with the young and erudite idler, Snooky Randolph, and all because she had a previous engagement . . . with death. But Snooky refuses to take the snub lying down. Instead, he’s teamed up with his irascible brother-in-law Bernard to see what secrets the fashionable Whitaker family has hidden up its sleeve and to discover the identity of a truly tasteless killer.
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Bella Whitaker gazed upon her reflection in the mirror with profound self-satisfaction. “As good-looking as ever, you old broad,” she thought, twirling to show off her long dress with the flared skirt. She was dressed up for an evening on the town: long black dress, black stockings, and spiky black heels. On her neck and ears and wrists glittered her gorgeous diamond-and-sapphire set, the one that her husband Charles (“God rest his soul,” she thought) had bought her years ago. She considered the tiara, but decided that it was too much; enough was enough, even if she was going into Manhattan, a rare enough occurrence these days. She leaned closer to the mirror; up close, a network of lines could be seen cobwebbing her face under the makeup, but farther back and in the right light she could be mistaken for, say, forty of her sixty-eight years. Her hair was a rather determined shade of auburn—she could never bear the idea of going gray—and her eyes were as beautiful and vibrant as ever, unusual in their mixture of green and blue. “As good-looking as ever,” she whispered to herself, and swept downstairs to snatch up her black mink.
It is a sad but true fact that so many of our day-to-day thoughts tend to be ordinary, even banal. As it was, Bella Whitaker was proceeding in her rapid yet majestic way toward the front door of her Connecticut home, her black dress trailing behind her, and her mind was fully occupied with thoughts of the salmon steak she planned to order that evening—she was even toying with the idea of ordering that morel mushroom sauce with it, she loved mushrooms—when someone quite well known to her slipped up behind her and put a rope around her neck.
Philippe Bergère was worried. He was, in fact, extremely worried, on the point of becoming actually agitated. It was nine-fifteen on a Friday evening—one of his busiest evenings of the week—and Mrs. Whitaker had not yet arrived. It was, he thought frostily, an outrage—an insult—quelle horreur—insupportable … and various other things, which he expressed to himself indignantly in French but mostly in English, since his repertoire of French words was distinctly limited. Philippe Bergère, the maître d’ of the most fashionable and trendy new restaurant on Manhattan’s fashionable and trendy Upper East Side, was not actually French; not strictly French, as he liked to put it to himself, although his grandfather had been undoubtedly French and he himself had spent quite a lot of time in Montreal. Nevertheless, the upper-class patrons of Le Roi Soleil need not know that, and Philippe himself was so overcome with his role as conductor of what he regarded as a vast food symphony that he often quite genuinely forgot that English was his mother tongue. Now, in his extreme agitation, was one of those times.
He swept down upon the young man nursing his drink in a corner of the bar.
“M’sieu—m’sieu, you must pardon me, but we need the table, you understand! It is Friday night, one of my busiest nights, m’sieu! I am, how you say, désolé, but there is nothing I can do for you. I must, I simply must have the table!” In his excitement he spoke all in exclamation points.
The young man looked up and smiled. It was a genuinely affable smile, spreading across his lean intelligent face. He had straight golden-brown hair which fell across his forehead, a thin crooked nose and light brown eyes. Now he waved an indolent hand and said, “Please, please, Philippe, don’t bother yourself. It’s no problem at all. I’ll wait here, and when Mrs. Whitaker arrives, you give me a whistle, okay?”
“Yes, m’sieu,” the maître d’ said meekly. Inside he bristled. Who was this little nobody from nowhere who dared to refer to him, Philippe Bergère, by his first name, as if they had met before? Who was he, who dared to ask the maître d’ of the finest restaurant on the Upper East Side to, he thought painfully, “give him a whistle”? The part of him which had once, before this incarnation, been just plain Philip Berger, growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, knew perfectly well what “give a whistle” meant; but the part which was Philippe Bergère did not, how you say, comprehend it. He bristled inwardly and said stiffly again, “Yes, yes,” before bustling away toward his more important clientele.
The young man brushed his hair out of his eyes, glanced at his watch and ordered another drink. He was not drinking anything alcoholic because on an empty stomach that always made him sick. His order remained the same—Perrier with lime—throughout the evening, but as time wore on his stomach became more and more painfully empty. He went to the phone twice to make a call, but each time there was no answer and he returned to his seat, where he sat quietly, sipping his drink and listening to the conversations around him. Now and again a brilliant smile lit up his face as he overheard something that amused him.
At eleven-fifteen he looked at his watch, shrugged, and went to get his coat. On his way out the door he passed by the maître d’.
“So long, Philippe,” he said. “Great evening. Merci bien, et la prochaine fois vous devez me promettre de parler seulement en français, hein?”
The maitre d’ stared indignantly after him. Definitely, he thought … definitely, he should not encourage these plaisanteries … he should not let these little nobodies into his restaurant.
* * *
It was a two-hour drive back to his sister’s house in Ridgewood, Connecticut, and when he got there the young man went straight up to the third-floor guest room and, falling into bed, slept soundly for ten hours. It was nearly noon before there was a soft knock on his door.
“Aaauuuurrgghhh,” he said from under the blankets. “Go ’way. Leave me alone. I’m asleep.”
The door opened and a person who looked just like himself, but female and a bit older, came in. She sat down on the edge of his bed and regarded him impassively.
“The little birdies are all awake, Snookers. They woke up seven hours ago. What about you?”
“Go ’way. Leave me alone.”
“I remember when you were a little boy,” his sister said. “Much shorter and cuter than you are now. Every morning you’d sleep through the alarm, and I’d have to come in and drag you out of bed and get you ready for school. How I loved those days. William would stand at the foot of the stairs bellowing something about how you were a slothful toad, and I’d be screaming and dragging you out of bed by the collar of your pajamas. I’d feed you and make sure you were dressed properly, all in two minutes flat.” She sighed. “Those were fun days, weren’t they, Snooky? Special days. Silly of me to think they were all over when you went away to college.”
“Go ’way,” said her brother stubbornly from beneath the pillow. “Leave me alone.”
Maya regarded the inert mass beneath the blankets and her face lit up with an enchanting smile. She looked just like her brother: the same straight golden-brown hair, crooked elegant nose, pale face and rangy build. He was in his mid twenties and she was five years older, but otherwise they could have passed as twins.
“How was your date last night?”
Snooky Randolph opened one eye. “It wasn’t. It didn’t happen. She didn’t show. Okay? Feel free to laugh at me.”
“I won’t laugh. Poor Snooky. Did you wait all evening?”
“Yes. And why? Because I’m an idiot.” He slouched down farther under the covers. “I have no luck with women.”
Maya regarded him soberly. He had arrived on her doorstep fresh from a painful breakup with a woman he had been living with in California. “Don’t let it get to you, Snookers.”
“I can’t help it. It’s depressing, it really is. My male ego is on the line. I’m shaky … vulnerable.…” He sighed and moved restlessly underneath the covers. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Yes, Maya. Pathetic. That’s the right word. That’s what I am. A shattered wreck of a formerly joyful human being.”
“You were never joyful. Were you?”
“I think so,” said Snooky. He moved his head restlessly on the pillow. “Wasn’t I? I can’t remember anymore. I can’t remember anything that happened before a few weeks ago.”
He sat up. His face looked sleepy and vulnerable, making him look, Maya thought with a pang, terribly young. Not so different from the seven-year-old she had shaken out of bed all those years ago. He rubbed his eyes, looked foggily out the window and said, “Cold in here, isn’t it?”
They often talked this way, in verbal shorthand. Now Snooky nodded and yawned. “Okay.” He got up, draped the blankets around him, and wandered out in the direction of the bathroom. Maya shivered, pulling her sweater tightly around her. She glanced around the guest room, with its hardwood floor, antique bedstead, and sloping timbered ceiling. Her husband Bernard kept the third floor at subzero temperatures throughout the winter. He claimed that this was to save on heating bills, but the real reason was to discourage guests from staying very long. Snooky accepted this, as he had accepted everything about Bernard from the day five years ago when he had met him. “Bernard’s crazy about me,” he often confided to his sister, “absolutely crazy about me.”
“It’s true, Snooks. He does say you make him crazy.”
“You know what I mean.”