About the Author
After a successful career in advertising and public relations, Vincent Lardo now lives in the Hamptons. He is the author of The Hampton Affair and The Hampton Connection, as well as McNally's Dilemma and McNally's Folly.
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My potential client was a Ms. Claudia Lester. Sensing she'd prefer to meet in a grander setting, I scheduled the meeting for our conference room, as the size of my office precludes room for visitors' seating other than in my lap. Not a propitious arrangement for a first meeting, as the conference room is part of the firm's executive suite. What is also unfortunate is that the suite comprises the CEO's office, the executive loo and, last but far from least, the domain of our formidable executive secretary, Mrs. Trelawney, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. I love to sass her and hate it when she gets the better of me.
Raising her head of gray polyester, she scrutinized me from top to bottom and judged my attire-cord jacket over a pink button-down shirt, navy blue flares and penny loafers-as "Not bad."
"You utter a litotes, Mrs. Trelawney."
"Litotes, dear lady. Citing the vernacular, you use a negative to express a positive. You didn't say, 'You look good.' You said, 'You don't look bad.' An ambiguous compliment, to say the least."
"Perhaps, Archy, it appeared ambiguous because it wasn't meant to be a compliment-and you're late. You booked the conference room for eleven and it is now . . ."
"Just eleven, I believe."
She gazed askance at her lapel watch (yes, she really wears one) and answered, "Five past, according to Eastern Standard Time. Ms. Lester has been here since five to eleven."
"Did you offer her coffee?"
"Of course. But she refused."
"What does she look like?" I inquired.
Thinking a moment, Mrs. Trelawney answered, "Not bad for a woman her age."
"And what age might that be?"
"Somewhere between forty and death."
With that I opened the door and entered the conference room, thereby taking the first step in a case I would record in my journal as . . . No, I don't want to give away too much too soon. That's as bad as giving away too little too late. I will strike a happy medium and tell it like it happened.
Enter Archy. "Sorry I'm late, Ms. Lester. I would blame it on the traffic, but there wasn't any to speak of."
"Then let's blame it on me for being early. How do you do, Mr. McNally."
Claudia Lester was a blue-eyed blonde with a great tan, red lips and a smile as big as the rock she wore on the middle finger of her left hand. I was not yet ready to swear to the authenticity of either. Being of a kinder disposition than our CEO's girl Friday, I would place her age at anywhere between forty and fifty, with a face that had had a little work, as they say, and a figure that didn't need any. She wore a tailored suit in charcoal gray, a print blouse I would attribute to Hermès and black-and-white spectators that were a pleasing addendum to a great pair of gams.
I have long been of the opinion that women dress for the occasion in the same manner theatrical designers dress a star to complement the scene. A date with a potential lover: something girly, frilly and revealing. A date with a female acquaintance: pantsuit. Business meeting: Claudia Lester was textbook perfect.
"Can I offer you a cup of coffee, Ms. Lester?" I asked as I took the chair at the head of the polished mahogany table. Ms. Lester was seated at my immediate left.
"Your secretary already asked, thank you, but I've had my morning intake and shun elevenses."
As she obviously wanted to get down to business ASAP, I did not bother to correct her misapprehension regarding the relationship between Ms. Trelawney and me. Believing that I employed a secretary who wore a lapel watch could only enhance my reputation, at least in the working world. Eager to learn just what Ms. Lester's business might be, I opened the interview with my standard question: "May I know who recommended you to McNally and Son, Ms. Lester?"
This is usually met with a blush and a hush or a "I'd rather not say, as it was given in . . . er . . . confidence." Not Ms. Lester. "Deci Fortesque," she replied. She spoke the name in the manner of a teacher calling on an inattentive student. "Do you know him?"
I didn't know him, but I certainly knew of him. In a town rife with rich eccentrics, Decimus Fortesque was, if not the richest, surely the most eccentric of the lot. Decimus was a self-proclaimed "renowned collector," though to the best of my knowledge his most acclaimed collection was a series of ex-wives. Eight, give or take a few. For all I knew, Ms. Lester was a former Mrs. Fortesque. Decimus had boasted, at various times, of owning a fleet of Rolls Royces, a splinter from the original cross and a life preserver from Noah's Ark.
Fortesque is an old English name, but I do not believe Decimus's branch of the family arrived on the Mayflower. More likely they were sent over as part of the Industrial Revolution. Moneywise, this had it all over the seafarers who docked on Plymouth Rock. Where the Fortesque money came from is, like all old money in this country, unimportant; what mattered was that there was a lot of it. Where the name Decimus came from is another mystery. I doubt he was the tenth child, because the rich believe in zero population growth, giving each succeeding generation a larger slice of the pie.
I had never been employed by the man, but word of mouth in Palm Beach is the most accepted form of advertising. I can tell you without false modesty that the name Archy McNally has been known to be recommended over many a damask tablecloth, both in and out of confidence. Playing it safe, I said, "I have heard of Mr. Fortesque."
She smiled that big, red smile and nodded to say she understood my caution. I got the pleasant feeling that Ms. Lester understood many things, especially how to please a man. I don't mean to imply that she was a professional in the worst sense of that often misused word, but one trained as a hostess-in the best possible sense of that often misused word. I could see her making weary businessmen comfy on cross-country flights, cruise ships, pricey restaurants and the V.I.P. lounge of those places that feature V.I.P. lounges.
"I am a friend of the former Mrs. Fortesque. Number three, I believe, if that doesn't date me," she said.
I came back with the trite, "Who's counting?" and got a shrug for my trouble.
"Vera, the former Mrs. Fortesque, and I worked together in the days when Pan Am circled the globe. We always managed to pull those New York-to-Sydney thirty-hour shifts."
Score one for Archy.
"Now," she went on, "I find myself in a rather awkward position, if that's the correct word."
"It's as good as any, Ms. Lester, and it's the word most often used to describe the position of those who seek my help."
I got the smile and, "I like your honesty, Mr. McNally."
"And I appreciate honesty in those I represent. Anything less, and I will refuse your patronage."
"Fair enough." She opened her purse-black, shoulder strap, fine leather, I believe it was Tod's-and extracted a pack of Marlboro 100s with a filter tip. "Do you mind, Mr. McNally?"
"Not at all." I went to a sideboard that contained the standard conference-room supplies and returned with an ashtray.
"Would you care for one?" she offered as I again took my place at the table.
I had enjoyed an English Oval, the only brand I smoke, on my ride from home to office. I would indulge myself again after lunch, dinner and a final one before bed. At the end of the month I would eliminate one, my choice of which one, and eliminate one on each succeeding month until I was cured of the habit. This routine was the latest in a series of withdrawal attempts and one sworn to by ex-smokers-as were all the others.
"No, thank you. I'm withdrawing," I said.
She lit the cigarette with a match, not a Dunhill, which I considered a smart move, as too many labels gives the impression that one is hell-bent on impressing, and immediately turned the white filter red. The opening line of one of my favorite ballads, as rendered by Chris Conner, played itself in my head: "A cigarette that bears your lipstick traces . . ." And owing to Ms. Lester's former career, the next line followed quite naturally: "An airline ticket to romantic places . . ."
"Cold turkey?" she wondered aloud.
"No. Gradual," I answered.
"What stage are you at?"
"One after each meal and bedtime," I told her.
Inhaling deeply and directing the exhale toward the ceiling, she said, "Ah, yes, that was my favorite. And it did work. I was smoke-free for almost six months, and then along came Matthew."
"Is Matthew a heavy smoker?"
"No, Mr. McNally. Matthew is a bastard."
So we had finally reached the business end of our meeting, and his name was Matthew. The job description of a PI, especially a discreet one, is very similar to that of a psychiatrist. First we listen attentively to the client's complaint, then we go to work on finding a cure. We prescribe aspirin, a good, stiff drink, long sea voyages and, on occasion, relocating to Brazil. The human condition being what it is, their afflictions are monotonously similar, only the names are different.
"Matthew began life as Levi, a tax collector who followed Jesus," I said. "He wrote one of the gospels." It never hurts to let 'em know how clever you are.
"This Matthew is an extortionist who wants to write a book based on my diary," Claudia told me. Her story unfolded amid clouds of smoke.
Claudia Lester had kept a diary from the day she lost her virginity to the captain of her high school basketball team to the day she found contentment as a middle-aged inhabitant of New York's Sutton Place, and all the stops along the way. She subsisted on an income derived from the estate of her late husband, who had popped the question as they soared thirty thousand feet over the Pacific.
"A very detailed diary, Mr. McNally." Puff. Puff. "And why not?" she challenged before I had a chance to ask why.
It seems Claudia Lester enjoyed penning her memoirs as she lived them, and judging from her unabashed account of her prose I would guess that her escapades read like a modern-day Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure-known to the masses by the name of its heroine, Fanny Hill.
"I was attractive and ambitious. I was even offered a screen test by a producer whose name is legend in the industry, but turned him down on the grounds that acting was too much like work. The role in this costume epic went to a French gal who competed with the Sphinx for attention, and lost."
Having spent more time in the Museum of Modern Art's cinema in New York than in any lecture hall in New Haven, I immediately knew the name of the producer, the actress and the film. If Ms. Lester was as cryptic in concealing names in her diary as in this telling, woe be unto the men in her life.
She had been intimate with Hollywood producers, politicos and Fortune 500 Chairmen of the Board, one of whom she married. "He was a grandfather at the time," she admitted. "Our marriage was brief, but intense, if you know what I mean."
So intense she probably loved the old geezer to death, thereby securing a position for herself as a Sutton Place matron who lunched.
Lest I think her needle had got stuck in a groove, she said, "It wasn't all about sex, Mr. McNally. In my time I was also privy to business deals that were not quite kosher, dirty political campaigns, the sleeping arrangements aboard a Greek shipping magnate's yacht and the beard for a five-star general who was getting it on with his aide-de-camp."
Well! When it came to the prurient arts, Ms. Lester was a Black Belt. I had asked for honesty, and for that was not to be spared verse nor chapter of her life as a jet-setter. As any analyst licensed to probe would do, I questioned the lady's motive in keeping an account of such goings-on. Blackmail came to mind, and were that the case I would soon learn that the intent had had a boomerang effect. It was Ms. Lester who was being blackmailed.
I watched this curvaceous blonde stub out her cigarette and utter the name Matthew as if wishing it were he who could be so easily deprived of oxygen. "We met at one of those New York parties frequented by rich, middle-aged widows and attractive young men."
"They have their counterpart in Palm Beach," I informed Ms. Lester.
With a toss of her head that said either she knew this or couldn't care less, she continued, "We hit it off, Matthew and I. You might say we went together like Stoli and caviar. Believe me, I had no illusions about our relationship. There had been other Matthews in my life, but none more endearing or lasting as with Matthew Harrigan. If you're thinking H-A-double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan, go right ahead."
I must say the lady had a sense of humor. I don't usually get comic relief during an initial interview.
"I provided entrée to the better restaurants and the crowd that frequents them, good theater seats and the occasional hundred-dollar bill for cab fare home. Matthew was handsome, witty, young and energetic, thereby providing value for my money. Cutting to the nitty-gritty, I allowed Matthew to read my diary. It amused me and inspired him. It was his idea to turn it into a book with no holds barred. I went along with him because it was fun to plot our best-seller and, as you insist on honesty, because it kept him interested in me."
When Claudia realized that Matthew was serious, boldly refusing to abandon the project when she insisted he do so, she flatly refused to continue the ruse and sent Matthew packing. "I still see many of the old crowd and enjoy all the perks of that privileged world. I had to choose between courting their wrath or dumping Matthew, and poor Matthew came in a distant second.
"Forgetting I had given him a key to my apartment and the fact that the doorman knew him as a frequent caller, he paid me a final visit when I was out and took the diary."
"Breaking and entering is a felony," I said.
"He didn't exactly break the lock, but he did enter and help himself to my property. Two days later, I received a call from him. He was here, in Florida, and ready to return my property for fifty thousand dollars."
"Why did he come here?" I asked.
"I have no idea, but a guess would be that it added drama to the intrigue and made it very inconvenient for me. That's when I talked to Vera, and she suggested that I speak to Deci, as I'm a stranger in your paradise. Deci has remained on friendly terms with all his wives, you know."
Alimony being the chain that binds, I thought, then said, "Blackmail is also a felony."
"What these things are called, Mr. McNally, does not interest me. Getting back what is mine does."
"And just how do you intend to do that?" I asked.
"Pay him, of course. And that's where you come in. He's staying in a motel not far from here. The exchange is to take place there at nine this evening."
"And I'm to be the courier," I stated.
"That is why I'm here, Mr. McNally."
"He's had more than enough time to make a copy, you know. The fifty thousand could be only a down payment," I reminded her.
"I know that, but it's a chance I must take. However, I don't believe Matthew would have the nerve to double-cross me. He knows the people who owe me favors."
I was looking for a reason to bow out of this deal, and she had just provided it. "Then why don't you call in your mark and have them take care of Matthew?"
"I don't want them to know the diary is gone missing. In fact, I don't want them to know the diary exists," she explained. "I know making Matthew privy to the diary jeopardized my position, but prudence is not the trump card of a woman in love."
"And why don't you deliver the ransom and pick up your diary?"
"I don't want to see him," she said, seemingly annoyed at the questions. "More important, I want him to know he is no longer dealing with only me. He has a vivid imagination and will take the money and run."
Remembering I had no place to run, I said, "Get yourself another messenger boy, Ms. Lester. This one is not interested in the assignment."
She started as if my words were a blow to her jaw, not her ego. "Why, may I ask?"
"Because I refuse to take part in a blackmail scam and because I don't intend to be a target for the people who owe you favors," I answered.
"As the Bard said, Mr. McNally, what's in a name? This thing you insist on calling blackmail can also be construed as a business deal between consenting adults. I made Matthew believe I was going to allow him to write the book. I deceived him, you see, taking up his time and, if you'll excuse the analogy, his energy. I owe him something."
"Fifty thousand bucks is a lot of something," I noted.
"I can afford it. As for my friends, let's say I was exaggerating a wee bit. After tonight I'll forget we ever met."
"I'm ready to forget that right now, Ms. Lester."
My hand lay on the table, and she covered it with hers. The flesh was warm, the gesture seductively reassuring. She obviously hadn't lost the touch. "I'm at the Ambassador," she said. Before I could repeat my resolve not to take the assignment, she put a finger to my lips. "Don't say no. Think about it. Seven this evening, if you agree."
From McNally's Alibi by Lawrence Sanders with Vincent Lardo (c) July 2002, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Whatever you can say about the merits of Mr. Lardo's Archy McNally books, about one thing there is no room to quibble....at least in my opinion. I think the author who picks up the reins, so to speak, has a duty to not subtantially change what went before. I cannot get past the differences in virtually every character in the Archy McNally series. Mr. Lardo seems to have missed the boat on virtually every single character. It may seem like quibbling to many, but the very first Lardo-McNally I read had Simon Pettibone greet our hero as 'Archy' and in return be addressed as 'Simon.' Since Lawrence Sanders' Archy would virtually always address the 'bartender' as Mr. Pettibone, and in return be addressed as Mr. McNally, well, that was grating. Also, Mr. Lardo turned Archy's policeman friend Al into a hillbilly hick...far, far from the persona established by Mr. Sanders. He's turned Archy from an employee of his father's firm into a quasi private eye. He's kicked Connie out the door, elevated Ursi to centerstage and downgraded Jamie to supporting status, ignores Hobo 'the family dog' who had played an interesting role as a four-legged member of the family in the later McNally novels, etc, etc, etc. You may argue, if you wish, that novels need to grow and expand, but in my opinion if you are picking up a successful series, there is an obligation to keep the tone and flavoring of the series close to the original. The exchange mentioned between Archy and Mr. Pettibone may seem like a small thing to some, but it paints a picture of an author who either did not do his homework, or an author who feels no obligation to the originating author. I will not fault Mr. Lardo for being unable to duplicate the shoot-from-the-hip suave chatter which made the Sanders' books so delightful...few authors are capable to duplicating it. But, in my opinion, Mr. Lardo should respect the work of Mr. Sanders enough to at least not run roughshod over the established characterizations which made the original books so much fun.
Renowned collector Deci Fortesque hires Palm Beach private sleuth Archy McNally to find an alleged original complete text of Truman Capote's Answered Prayers. Archy quickly learns that Claudia Lester asserts that she possessed the manuscript, but her former lover Matthew Harrigan stole it from her. Matthew insists he took nothing and that Claudia is just a former lover causing him trouble. Antiques dealer Rodney Whitehead informs the sleuth that neither Claudia nor Matthew is credible not that Rodney is any better. The search turns nasty when the supposed owner of the Capote manuscript is found dead in the sleazy Crescent Hotel not long after Archy visited the place. Police Lieutenant Georgia O'Hara knows Archy is holding out on her, but he refuses to reveal anything that might interfere with completing his client¿s assignment as the fee is too good. When Lawrence Sanders died a few years ago and Vincent Lardo took over the McNally franchise, this reviewer howled about another series of lite books. Several novels later, this reviewer still howls that Mr. Sanders would have been proud to claim the Lardo books as his own. The latest MCNALLY¿S ALIBI is a strong novel containing an intriguing investigative story line and three women making Archy¿s life miserable in different ways. Fans of Mr. Sanders, McNally, or a strong private investigative novel will want to read Mr. Lardo¿s latest take and like this reviewer demand early release of another Arch book ASAP. Harriet Klausner