After four bridge players are poisoned, newspaper reporter Wendy Winchester sets out to catch a killer who's not playing with a full deck . . .
When the four wealthy widows who make up the venerable Rosalie Bridge Club never get up from their card table, this quiet Mississippi town has its first quadruple homicide. Who put cyanide in their sugar bowl? An aspiring member and kibitzer with the exclusive club, Wendy takes a personal interest in finding justice for the ladies.
She also has a professional motivation. A frustrated society columnist for the Rosalie Citizen, she's ready to deal herself a better hand as an investigative reporter. This could be her big break. Plus, she has a card or two up her sleeve: her sometimes boyfriend is a detective and her dad is the local chief of police.
Partnering up with the men in her life, Wendy starts shuffling through suspects and turning over secrets long held close to the chest by the ladies. But when a wild card tries to take her out of the game, Wendy decides it's time to up the ante before she's the next one to go down . . .
About the Author
R. J. Lee follows in the mystery-writing footsteps of his father, R. Keene Lee, who wrote fighter pilot and detective stories for Fiction House, publishers of WINGS Magazine and other 'pulp fiction' periodicals in the late '40's and '50's. Lee was born and grew up in the Mississippi River port of Natchez but also spent thirty years living in the Crescent City of New Orleans. A graduate of the University of the South (Sewanee) where he studied creative writing under Sewanee Review editor, Andrew Lytle, Lee now resides in Oxford, Mississippi.
Read an Excerpt
Liddie Langston Rose caught her reflection in the French gold leaf mirror hanging in her long central hallway that also displayed all of her ancestral portraits. Had she applied her makeup just so, or did she need to return to her vanity for adjustments? After turning this way and that several times over, she decided that it would do. Then she put her hands on either side of her waist, letting them linger for a few moments to assess its size. She was pleased with the result. That also would do.
She began practicing various faces. With the fragrance of Ma Griffe she had recently sprayed on her neck radiating from her, she dramatically lifted her right eyebrow and cocked her head to one side smartly. No, that gave her a downright arrogant look. Too extreme. Next, she widened her eyes suddenly as if someone had just surprised her with a bit of juicy gossip at one of the myriad cocktail parties she customarily attended or hosted. That didn't work, either. She looked too much like a zombie from one of those old-school horror movies, or even Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein, minus the crimped, electrified hair.
What to practice next? An engaging smile? But she always had that at her fingertips. She remained one of her hometown's great beauties, even though she had officially entered her "still handsome" phase past menopause more than a few years back. Perhaps, then, just a subtle lifting of her aristocratic chin and nothing more. There, that was just the noble façade she wanted affixed to her fine-boned face on this warm late morning in May. For not the first time, she reviewed in her head what she had done with her gray hair a little more than three months ago — abandoning the dramatic, swept-back-off-the-forehead style for bangs that hid her hairline and more. There was a bit of chiding at first, but she knew what she was doing.
"Trying to hide the frown lines?" Hanna Lewis had asked during one of their bridge games back then.
"Not at all, dear. There comes a time in a woman's life when a new look is absolutely necessary. There's no time to lose. If not now, then when?" she had answered, letting the remark fall rhetorically to the table. She let her three bridge buddies all sit with that for a while as they held their cards, and there were no further remarks during the auction — which incidentally Liddie had won.
Besides, they were hardly the ones to talk about changing their habitual coiffures or the cosmetics they applied to their faces. None of them had had the courage to update themselves all that much since their matriculation at Ole Miss over forty-five years ago. It was quite obvious that they viewed that period as the best years of their lives — volatile as it was.
Two of them, Bethany Morrissey and Sicily Groves, had even been kicked out of school for violating sorority curfew and other antics under the influence of gin. Ha! What else was new? It had been their partying poison of choice since their wild high school days in the quirky, wide-open, Mississippi River port town of Rosalie, tucked away in the southwestern part of the Magnolia State, and the high-spirited, socially prominent Gin Girls had made their mark early and often.
What had seemed like eons ago, the usually staid Rosalie Citizen had even done a puff piece on them in their prime, and the iconic photo that had resulted was one for everybody's scrapbook. They had lined up according to height by the side of the Rosalie Country Club swimming pool in their pastel one-piece suits with a provocative display of leg thrust toward the camera. Why, Atlantic City's bathing beauties had nothing on them, even though Bert Parks had never placed a crown on any of their heads.
Petite blond Bethany stood at the extreme left with the most contrived smile she could muster; next to her stood Sicily with her flaming red hair, that perpetual pout on her lips, and a couple of extra inches to boot; then came the lanky Hanna Lewis with her cascading brunette curls and tightlipped grin; and finally at the right of the picture was the ringleader of the Gin Girls — Liddie, herself. When she wore heels, she topped out at just under six feet. Many a Rosalie man and woman had been intimidated by her good looks and presence over the years, and her super-exclusive Rosalie Bridge Club was the envy of many a social-climbing matron. Had she made enemies as a result of her myriad haughty rejections for cruel, specious reasons? Too numerous to count, but she never let it bother her.
Liddie finished with her latest mirror session and checked her watch. Then she fidgeted with one of her family heirloom earrings and sighed in disgust. As usual, the others were late. No matter how often she told the three of them to show up on time, it did no good whatsoever.
"Why don't you all come in one car instead of straggling in the way you do?" she had suggested now and then to no avail. "Sicily, you have that great big old thing that you refuse to trade in that practically gets no mileage. You could all pile into that easily just the way we used to in my car in high school."
But she might as well have been a teacher talking to students who insisted the dog had eaten their homework and would not back away from their story. "I always have errands to run after our bridge game," Sicily would explain. "And I don't want to have to drag the girls around with me for something like that. They'd never forgive me, would you, girls?"
So Sicily, Bethany, and Hanna would all end up coming at different times in their own cars, and Liddie found it supremely annoying. It was one of the few instances in her life in which she did not get her way. Well, enough of this waiting on pins and needles while searching for just the right expression for the bridge game she had been anticipating as never before. Time to enlist the aid of her cook and maid of nearly twenty years, Merleece Maxique.
"Merleece!" she called out with a certain urgency in her voice, turning away from the front door of her two-story, brick town house, flush with the sidewalk — Don Jose's Retreat; named for one of the venerable first inhabitants of the old Spanish Provincial section of Rosalie. There was no more historic area of the city in which to reside and call home, and Liddie never tired of reminding people of the fact that the sun could not rise or set on Rosalie without her blessing.
"Yes, ma'am?" came the reply from the kitchen.
A second later, Merleece emerged from the swinging door in her starched gray uniform and tidy white apron with an expectant yet submissive demeanor and headed down the polished, hardwood floor toward her employer. It was true that she was nearly ten years younger than the sixty- seven-year-old Liddie and her friends, but that did not quite account for the snap to her step that Liddie especially lacked these days. This, despite the "heavy lifting" of domestic work she had done around the clock for decades. Even more to her credit, however, Merleece always maintained a winning smile that complemented her rich brown skin, close-cropped hair, and strikingly high cheekbones.
"Please drop what you're doing in there," Liddie continued, poking a long, bejeweled finger in her general direction. "I'm sure they'll all be here any minute. Time for you to take a seat in the foyer and greet them as they come in."
Merleece nodded with a perfunctory smile. Her Miz Liddie had her inflexible, iconic routines that people around her disobeyed at their own peril. "Yes, ma'am. The chicken salad and the aspic — they both in the icebox ready to go. Now, you want me to go ahead and fix they Bloody Marys?"
Here, Liddie was harshly insistent and even rolled her eyes as she fidgeted with her diamond bracelet. "Yes, but they've all been complaining lately you don't make them as strong as you used to. What's gotten into you? We don't call ourselves the Gin Girls for nothing, you know. One little jigger is never enough. You put in at least two today, please."
"None of'em ever say anything like that to me," Merleece told her, sounding almost hurt by the accusation. "I been fixin' they drinks for years without a single complaint I ever hear."
"That may be, but don't spare the shots," Liddie said, dismissing her with a wave of her hand. "The Gin Girls have their reputation to uphold. Now don't argue with me. We all need our courage for the duplicate competition in Jackson next week. When we've finished our drinks and our chatting, I'll ring the bell for the food. Then you be sure and have the coffee ready for later on. Use the Old Paris demitasse set today. We haven't used it in a while and I don't want it to think it's been forsaken. It goes all the way back to my great-grandmother, Agnes Varina Monteigne, who received it as a wedding gift."
"Now, Miz Liddie, you know I know Miz Agnes' story from beginnin' to end, and I got that face down pat, since I dust her portrait three times a week. Why you carryin' on like I don't know how to fix up yo' bridge luncheons? They all go off without a hitch as I recall," Merleece said, the annoyance clearly registering in her voice.
"Never mind the third degree. Just do as I say, and everything will proceed the way it's supposed to," Liddie told her, refusing to look her in the eye before she walked away in a huff.
* * *
Liddie brought her embroidered linen napkin up from her lap after everyone had finished up their light fare of chicken salad and tomato aspic with a dollop of mayo and a dusting of paprika at the dining room table. She took a deep breath and exhaled air still laden with molecules of gin. For just a second there, she had almost nodded off. But that came with the territory after having that second strong Bloody Mary that the others were enjoying as well. No Gin Girl worth her buzz ever stopped at one adult beverage anyway.
Upon further consideration, therefore, Liddie decided that the gossip and small talk had been in far too abundant supply for any nodding and drooping to be noticed by her constant companions. They were, as usual, full of themselves to the brim and often oblivious. So what if she had dipped her head once or twice? Though in shape, none of the others were exactly participating in triathlons these days, either.
"How are we doing, ladies?" Liddie said, surveying the table and making an effort to stay alert.
"Just fine," Bethany said. "The food's delicious as usual."
"I meant the drinks. Are they strong enough for y'all? I told Merleece to be generous with the jigger."
Sicily touched her right temple with her fingers and widened her eyes. "Another one of these and I'll be cross-eyed."
"I'm feeling no pain," Hanna added. "So I'd say we're right where we need to be."
Liddie nodded approvingly. "Excellent. I'm sure we've never played bridge sober in our lives."
"You said it," Hanna said. "And that goes all the way back to when we were sweet young things."
Indeed, if the Citizen had chosen to do an update on the four Gin Girls these many decades later, the reporter would have to acknowledge that they had all aged well enough. But there were some questionable decisions made.
Yes, it was true that Sicily Groves had made the mistake of trying to duplicate the fiery-red hair of her youth with that outlandish shade of henna she was using on herself at home. But Sicily had been known to go on the cheap from time to time. With her thick dark eyebrows, it was a jarring mismatch not unlike that of the late Joan Crawford in the few Technicolor movies she had made. Sicily had largely kept her figure and her most riveting facial affectation — that girlish pout. It was one for the ages that had snared for her the wealthiest man in Rosalie — Theodore "Dory" Groves of the Groves Lumber Company fortune. When he had died unexpectedly of a heart attack ten years ago, she had inherited everything, although she had never wanted for anything while he was alive. Her consumption had been conspicuous — she never tired of letting people know it — and cut from the same cloth was her only daughter, the somewhat childlike but frequently extravagant Sherry Groves Herrold.
Bethany Morrissey was a somewhat different story. Still petite, even what could be described as "terminally cute by genetic design," she no longer tried to hide the fact that her blond hair had grayed. She had settled for those streaks some women have their stylists distribute around the scalp haphazardly, but the process was not altogether flattering to her. It made her look more like her hair was always growing out from a bad dye job, but obviously she didn't see it that way when she looked in the mirror. Her trim frame was evidently enough for her. Bethany, too, had married well, although she had suffered through the misfortune of being unable to carry children to term.
At one time, Byron Morrissey had been the slickest attorney in Rosalie, practically never losing a case. He had, however, lost his battle with prostate cancer seven years ago, and as the saying goes, Bethany had more money than she knew what to do with. Her favorite use of it was to travel abroad, usually to the less frequented countries of Eastern Europe (to "spread the money around," she told people) and generally with Sicily Groves as her companion.
Then there was Hanna Lewis, who had maintained her tall, lanky frame with weekly games of tennis doubles at the Rosalie Country Club. She also paid a muscular young "exercise guru" with the ludicrously crafted moniker of Hermes Caliban to come to her house weekly for workouts. And, as the other Gin Girls often speculated, for possibly a lot more than that — even though Hanna wasn't kissing and telling no matter how often she was hounded. Alone among the four of them, she had found the secret to a seamless shade of hair color that most nearly matched that of the period of her youthful indiscretions with the others in high school and college. She remained a brunette without veering into brassy. Perhaps her only annoying trait was talking exercise all the time and trying to get the others to participate with her, knowing full well that Bethany, for instance, was a chain smoker with no intention of ever giving up the habit.
Liddie, herself, saw no virtue in sweat. She believed it was entirely unworthy of a Southern lady of genteel upbringing. "Give it up, Hanna," she had told her more than once and most emphatically. "We're all just fine the way we are. Keep your god Hermes to yourself. Once and for all, leave us alone."
Hanna's marriage to Rosalie's preeminent gynecologist, Dr. Kelly Lewis, had resulted in the birth of two tall, strapping, if somewhat irresponsible, money-guzzling sons — Beau and Charley; but her Kelly's tragic death in a head-on collision with a drunk semi driver going the wrong way out on the interstate had made her the earliest of the wealthy widows comprising The Rosalie Bridge Club.
As for Liddie, she had found both love and an even healthier bank account when right after graduating from Ole Miss she had fallen in love with Murray Rose — he of inherited wealth dating all the way back to slavery times. The Rose Family had long ago lost Belle Rose, the sprawling crown jewel of a cotton plantation south of Rosalie, but a particularly thrifty ancestor had squirreled away enough of the original cotton fortune to keep several generations that followed quite comfortable. Liddie had inherited it all when Murray had succumbed to complications from diabetes, and she had never quite gotten over the fact that his death was perfectly avoidable. Murray had refused to take his blood pressure and diabetes prescriptions regularly, believing all doctors to be charlatans out to pad their coffers and even "kill people outright"; and he had indulged every destructive dietary habit in the annals of modern medicine. Never one to pull away from the table, his weight had ballooned to morbidly obese proportions, and it was a stroke that had actually taken him out. Liddie had remained furious with him for leaving that way and had been practically inconsolable during the visitation and funeral and even long after that.
"Damn him and his gluttonous ways!" she had cried out over and over through her tears and constant nose-blowing. Liddie's slavishly devoted daughter, Stella Markham, had tried to help but had been unable to cope with her tantrums that had continued for several months. Closure did not seem to be in Liddie's vocabulary. She also held grudges and remembered slights, real and imaginary. Crossing her had always resulted in unpleasant consequences for the offender. By some she was loved, even idolized; by others she was either envied or despised.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Grand Slam Murders"
Copyright © 2019 Rob Kuehnle.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.