The Sweet Golden Parachute, Handler's fifth novel in this charming and edgy series displays his deftness in creating memorable, distinctive characters and for crafting uniquely entertaining mysteries.
A storm is brewing in Dorset.
Poochie Vickers, the local aristocrat, is becoming even more eccentric in her old age. She's taken up shoplifting and reckless driving but refuses to see a doctor. Her worrisome daughter, Claudia, is angling to take over the family fortune, which makes some of the would-be beneficiaries uneasy. Two of Dorset's biggest troublemakers are being released from prison. And the bad blood between these two families, rich on the one hand, swamp Yankee on the other, could come to a boiling point: Two young people from the families are dating, to no one's delight but their own.
Someone is bound to snap, and someone does, resulting in the brutal murder of a harmless and homeless man who went about town collecting recyclables.
While Des is trying to track down the murderer, she's also trying to wrap her head around the idea of marrying Mitch. When so many things are going wrong, loving someone seems like a big risk.
"Handler once again delivers a top-notch tale of crime and intrigue." - Publishers Weekly
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The Sweet Golden Parachute
By David Handler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 David Handler
All rights reserved.
"MITCH, ARE YOU sure you want to discard that trey of diamonds?"
"Quite sure, Rut." Mitch helped himself to another slice of sausage and mushroom pizza. He was seated across from Rut at the round oak dining table that pretty much filled the old geezer's cozy parlor. "Why are you asking?"
"You discarded the trey of clubs not one minute ago," Rut replied. "It so happens I snatched it up. A card player who wants to hold on to some of his hard-earned money might surmise that I'm collecting treys, and by discarding another one he'd be giving me a little thing we call ... Gin." Rut fanned his cards out on the table, cackling with delight. "Let's see what you've got, pigeon."
Mitch had bupkes — for the fifth hand in a row.
"That's two dollars and sixty-three cents you owe me," Rut declared, computing the total on the pad at his elbow. "It's a good thing you excel at your profession, my pudgy young friend. Because you are one rotten card player."
"Shut up and deal," grumbled Mitch Berger, lead film critic for the most prestigious, and therefore lowest paying, of the three New York City daily newspapers. Mitch's job called for him to spend part of his time in the city. But lately he'd been spending more and more of it in Dorset, the historic Connecticut Gold Coast village that was situated at the mouth of the Connecticut River almost exactly halfway between New York and Boston. His life was here now.
"Sorry, Mitch, you said what?" Rut turned up his hearing aids. He was pretty much deaf without them.
"I said, 'Shut up and deal,'" Mitch replied, quoting that most famous of lines from The Apartment, his favorite Billy Wilder movie.
"It'll be a pleasure," Rut said, shuffling the cards with hands that were surprisingly deft and quick. Rutherford Peck invariably whipped Mitch at Gin Rummy. He was a more serious card player. Either that or he cheated. Mitch wouldn't put it past the sly old coot. "Care for another stout to wash down that there slice?"
"I wouldn't say no."
Rut got slowly to his feet and waddled into the kitchen to fetch two more bottles of his delicious homebrewed stout. Rut was a stocky, potato-nosed widower in his late seventies with tufty white hair, rosy red cheeks and eyes that were blue and impish behind his thick black-framed glasses. He smelled strongly of BenGay, Vicks VapoRub and mothballs, a locally popular blend of scents that Mitch had come to think of as Eau de Dorset. Rut had served as Dorset's postmaster for some thirty-seven years. Had lived in this upended shoebox of a farmhouse his whole life. It was an old tenant farmer's cottage on Maple Lane, a narrow deadend that cut in between two of the grandest colonial mansions to be found in the Dorset Street Historic District. His place was falling into weedy disrepair, like a lot of houses owned by old people. But the parlor was homey.
Mitch had gotten to know him through Sheila Enman, one of the housebound Dorset elders who he'd started marketing for over the winter. Sheila had wondered if Mitch might pick up a few things for Rut, too. "My pleasure," Mitch had assured her, especially when the retired postmaster insisted on rewarding him with bottles of his homebrewed stout. Soon, Mitch took to hanging around to drink that stout with him and catch up on village gossip. Absolutely nothing went on that Rut Peck didn't know about. When Rut's Monday night regular died a few weeks back, Mitch was promoted to a fullfledged Friend of Rut.
The Friends of Rut were a rich and varied cross section of local notables. Among the old man's roster of designated nightly visitors were Dorset's starchy first selectman, Bob Paffin, and Eric Vickers, an organic farmer who was the son of Poochie Vickers, Dorset's most renowned WASP aristocrat. There was Milo Kershaw, a grizzled swamp Yankee who'd spent several years behind bars. And there was Mitch, a thirtytwoyearold Jewish product of the streets of New York City. Every Monday he let Rut beat his ass at Gin Rummy.
Not that he had the power to stop him. The old geezer could play cards.
Rut returned from the kitchen with two bottles of stout. He set them down on the table, wheezing slightly, and fed his wood stove with more logs. It was a cold, damp March night. Soon it would be St. Patrick's Day, which was Mitch's least favorite holiday of the year. Not because he hated parades or corned beef and cabbage, but because of something very personal and sorrowful.
Mitch poured the creamy stout slowly into his tilted mug and took a sip, savoring its rich, nutty flavor, before he dove for another slice of the pizza he'd picked up at a small family run pizzeria in Niantic. It was not Lombardi's coalfired pizzeria on Spring Street, but it was very good.
Rut sat back down and reached for the cards, shuffling them as the logs crackled in the wood stove. "Mitch, I have a small favor to ask of you. And if this isn't your kind of thing just say so and there'll be no hard feelings. Do you happen to know Justine Kershaw? She's Milo's youngest."
"No, we've never met."
"Well sir, Justine's life is about to get a whole lot more complicated," Rut told him, setting the cards aside. "Her big brothers, Stevie and Donnie, are getting out of prison tomorrow. And it sure doesn't help that the young man who she's been seeing, Bement Widdifield, is the very fellow who called the law on them."
"So I've heard. Everyone's talking about it." The Kershaw brothers were Dorset's reigning nasty boys. They'd been behind bars ever since Mitch had moved to Dorset. Something to do with property that they'd stolen from the Vickers family. "Rut, are those two as bad as everyone says?"
Rut sat back in his chair, considering his answer carefully. "Stevie and Donnie have been boosting booze from people's houses since they were twelve years old. Fighting. Drug dealing. Getting nice girls high, stealing their parents' cars — you name it, Stevie and Donnie have done it. I think they've pissed off more people in this town than any two boys I've ever known. But I should also say that nobody's ever given them half a chance, what with feeling the way they do about Milo. He's an ornery little cuss. Has a lot of bluster in him. Plus he's been at odds with the Vickers family for years, and if you tangle with them there is no way in hell you will ever come out ahead." Rut paused to sip his stout. "But Milo's okay in my book. When he's over here, he's always rewiring a lamp, fixing a leaky faucet. Never asks for anything in return. Milo's been a real friend. And a comfort, both of us being widowers and all."
"You were going to ask me something about Justine...."
"I feel bad for that girl," Rut confessed. "Let's face it, Stevie and Donnie will be furious about her being mixed up with Bement. Not just because of what happened but because of who he is." Bement Widdifield was the great Poochie Vickers's grandson by way of her daughter, Claudia, and Claudia's husband, Mark Widdifield. Claudia was Eric's older sister. "Milo's mad enough about it to spit. The Vickers are the reason he spent three years in jail himself. Claudia's none too happy either. She thinks the Kershaws are trash, every last one of them. Not that it's anyone's damned business. Bement's over twentyone. So is Justine. Who she dates is her own affair." Rut shifted around in his chair, sighing. "Mitch, she's like a granddaughter to me. Prettiest little thing you ever saw. Has a mouth on her like you wouldn't believe. Got that from Milo, I guess. I'm real concerned there'll be a kerfuffle now that the brothers are getting out. Not that I'm asking you to get in the middle. That's more a job for your exgirlfriend."
"She's not my exgirlfriend, Rut."
Rut frowned at him. "Are you sitting here telling me that you and the resident trooper weren't a hot and heavy item?"
"I'm telling you she's still hot and I'm still heavy. We didn't break up."
Rut peered across the table at Mitch doubtfully. "Word is, you popped the question, she turned you down, and you two are history."
Mitch didn't know how this splitsville rumor about Des Mitry and he had gotten started, but it had taken on the weight of absolute truth — no matter what he or his exceedingly bootylicious lady love said to the contrary. "Rut, what are you asking me to get in the middle of?"
The old postmaster hesitated, thumbing his chin. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea, what with there being so much bad blood."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that? Tell me about the Vickers and the Kershaws. Why is there so much bad blood?"
"Well, I suppose I'm uniquely qualified to answer that, seeing as how I'm the only soul in town who's kin to both families. I'm related to the Kershaws through my late wife, Helen. She and Bessie Kershaw, Milo's mother, were cousins. And I'm first cousin to Poochie on my mother's side, the Dunlop side. Poochie's mom, Katherine, and my mom, Eunice, were sisters. Dunlop is an old, old name around these parts. It was Bish Dunlop, my granddad, who built Four Chimneys."
Four Chimneys was the colossal brick mansion a couple of miles outside of the village where Poochie resided on two hundred acres of choice riverfront land. Eric's farm was there, as was Claudia and Mark's home.
"Granddad Bish put a big dent in the family fortune building that place," Rut continued. "The stock market crash took care of the rest. The family was practically bust by the time my mom and Aunt Katherine reached marrying age. Mom was no help. Married herself a science teacher. Aunt Katherine was a different story entirely. Went and married herself John J. Meier of the Pittsburgh steel Meiers. They ensconced themselves like royalty in Four Chimneys and raised Poochie just like a princess. Sent her to the finest schools in the world. She was smart as a whip, beautiful and spirited. Not to mention a worldclass swimmer."
"Rut, is it true that she was kicked off the '56 Olympics team for drinking champagne with a reporter?"
"It is. And I still say that if a male athlete had kicked up his heels that way no one would have said boo. Poochie's always been ahead of her time. Never gave a goddamn what other people thought. And yet, when the time came, she married herself that big money stuffedshirt Coleman Vickers. Or the Ambassador, as he preferred to be called," Rut added dryly. "He did serve as ambassador to France for several years. That's when Poochie took up her chef thing."
Mitch was quite familiar with Poochie Vickers's chef thing. Everyone was. She'd helped revolutionize American cooking in the 1970s by introducing home cooks to the pleasures of French farmhouse cooking, which emphasized locally grown seasonal ingredients flavored with fresh herbs, not the ones that came dried in a jar. "If they're dead then they taste dead!" Poochie used to exclaim on The Country Chef, the PBS cooking show that had made her a household name. And a bestselling cookbook author. The woman was so full of daffy charm that she'd made her mentor and good friend, Julia Child, seem almost demure.
Mitch was also quite familiar with the name Coleman Vickers. A distinguished advisor to three different U.S. presidents, Coleman Vickers had been president of Columbia University when Mitch studied there.
"A prized horse's patootie if ever I met one," Rut sniffed. "The guy's supposed to be a professional diplomat and he couldn't buy a quart of milk in this town without putting somebody's nose out of joint. Always accusing the merchants of overcharging him. Which they'd never do on account of Poochie. That lady is beloved. And Eric is a terrific fellow. So is Bement."
Mitch noticed that Rut did not say one word about Claudia.
"But the Ambassador was real big on leaving people nasty little notes. What the hell kind of a diplomat is that? No wonder this country's in such a mess. He's the reason for the bad blood between the Vickers and the Kershaws. Milo and his missus, April, used to do for Poochie and Coleman at Four Chimneys. Milo was caretaker and April kept house, same as Milo's folks before him. Until the Ambassador asked Milo to do some renovation work on the barn. Assured him he'd pay him extra for it. Or so Milo claims. Milo went ahead and did the work, and then Coleman refused to pay him. Denied saying he ever would. So Milo helped himself to a brand new lawn mower as payment. Coleman called the trooper and charged him with stealing it. In response, Milo burned the Ambassador's newly renovated barn right down to the ground."
"Are you kidding me?"
"That's the way a fellow like Milo settles things," Rut assured him, nodding his head. "The Ambassador got so apoplectic at the sight of those flames that he had a heart attack and dropped dead on the spot. Never did live to see Milo serve out his sentence. Mitch, this all happened more than ten years ago. But not a day goes by Milo doesn't curse the Vickers up, down and sideways. And not a day goes by that Claudia doesn't blame him for her father's death. So you can imagine how those two feel about Justine and Bement being in love."
"I sure can," said Mitch, his hungry gaze falling on the last slice of pizza.
"Not that Justine gives a good goddamn what her father thinks," Rut pointed out. "She and Milo have never gotten along. She doesn't much care for her brothers, either. Justine goes her own way."
"How does Poochie feel about her grandson dating a Kershaw?"
"She thinks it's nobody's business but Bement's. He's a bright boy. Still not sure what he wants to do with himself. Dropped out of Stanford one year shy of graduation, which also didn't sit too well with Claudia. Lately, he's been refinishing furniture up at Great White Whale Antiques."
Mitch knew the place well. One of his neighbors out on Big Sister ran it.
"I swear Claudia would change her mind if she just got to know Justine," Rut insisted. "That little girl can light up a whole room. She gives me a poem every year on my birthday. Writes each and every one herself. She's so gifted with words. Was always a straight A student in high school — unless she got riled or bored. Stopped taking her college classes up at Central Connecticut because she decided her professors were stupid. Told them so right to their faces."
"Rut, what's this favor?"
Rut Peck reached for the deck of cards again and harrumphed, clearing his throat. "It seems that Justine's written herself a novel, Mitch. She hasn't shown it to a soul. Not even Bement. I told her I'd be happy to read it. She told me I'd find it too shocking, whatever that's supposed to mean. I think she ought to show it to someone. Get some feedback, advice. What good does it do to stick it in a drawer somewhere? Anyhow, I happened to mention that I was acquainted with a real live New York critic who's also one heck of a nice —"
"No problem, I'll be happy to read it." Mitch was no stranger to encouraging young talent. It was Mitch who'd been the first person on earth to look at Des's portraits of crime scene victims. Mitch who'd told the wary and vulnerable homicide investigator that she was supremely gifted. "Just tell her to give me a call."
"No, Justine won't do that."
"She have something against phones?"
"No, against asking anyone for help. It's the Kershaw in her. You'll have to be the one to reach out. And you've got to approach her real careful or she'll rake you with both claws coming and going."
"This keeps sounding better and better, Rut."
The old man's face dropped. "If you'd rather steer clear, I'll understand."
"Did I say that? It's just going to cost you, that's all."
Rut eyed him shrewdly. "Name your price."
"Are you going to eat that last slice of pizza?"
"You go ahead. You're still a growing boy."
"It's true, I am," Mitch acknowledged as he dove in.
Rut shuffled the cards and dealt them out, murmuring the count under his breath. Mitch picked up his cards and looked at them. Bupkes, yet again.
"So Des didn't turn you down, hunh?" Rut sorted through his own hand.
"She's simply in the process of thinking it over, which is a very healthy thing."
Rut nodded to himself wisely. "Well, I guess I get it now."
"You get what?"
"How the word is she's dumped you. It gives me no pleasure to say this, Mitch, but when a girl tells you she's 'thinking it over' that means 'Goodbye, Charlie.' She's just letting you down easy is all."
"Des is a woman, not a girl," Mitch pointed out, chomping on his slice. "We're both mature adults — or at least one of us is. We love each other very much. And she's going to say yes. I'm not the least bit worried."
Excerpted from The Sweet Golden Parachute by David Handler. Copyright © 2006 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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