In this brain-teasing follow-up to the smash-hit debut, The Crossword Murder, P.I. Rosco Polycrates returns to discover that--up, down, or across--S.O.S. spells danger...
When a famous Hollywood actress and her friend set sail off the coast of Nantucket Island--and never return, it sounds like foul play to P.I. Rosco Polycrates and his paramour/crossword editor Belle Graham. They are sharpening their pencils and their minds to solve this case. But the truth is not so easily spelled out, and it will take all their sleuthing skills to fill in the missing blanks.
Praise for Nero Blanc's The Crossword Murder:
"A puzzle lover's delight...a touch of suspense, a pinch of romance, and a whole lot of clever word clues...sure to appeal to crossword addicts and cozy lovers alike. What's a three-letter word for this book? F-U-N." --Earlene Fowler
"Evoe! At last puzzle fans have their revenge...super sleuthing and solving for puzzle lovers and mystery fans." --Charles Preston, Puzzle Editor, USA Today
"Adroit word play and high society intrigueEan enjoyable, complex solution and likable protagonists...Clever." --Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The question was posed by a self-confident male voice, and it raced upward to the second floor of the Pepper home by way of a curving staircase dominated by a spacious Palladian window. All the trappings of wealth and power appeared framed by this window: the manicured gardens grown dusky silver in autumn's evening light, the impeccable view of the Massachusetts coast, the sculpted trees and marble benches arranged artfully beside a reflecting pool. No lesser house, no distant light or neighborly noise disturbed this perfect scene.
The question was repeated. The male voice had become more insistent.
A woman responded from the second-floor master suite. "In the Caribbean where it's always been." There was an edginess to the tone that could have indicated either anxiety or anger, but it was quickly supplanted by a conciliatory: "Sorry, darling, I just couldn't resist. Jamaica must be still dressing ... You know how we women are ..."
"Indeed I do!" The first voice reverberated with smug robustness. "You wear half the clothes we males are forced to don for these eventsand you still take twice as long."
"I thought you said we had plenty of time ..." Although still attempting humor, the timbre had turned crisp.
"We did before you two started staring into your closets ..."
"But cocktails don't begin until seven-thirty"
"Do you want to arrive at the same moment as every other guest and wait in an interminable line atthe entry gate? You know what it's like getting into the club for this party ..."
"I'm not going to be rushed ... And you know Jamaica won't be ..."
The words continued to collide mid-landing and mid-step caroming across the antique Persian carpet, the elegant English landscape paintings, the crystal sconces with their rose silk shades, and the chandelier that hung in their midst like a gigantic, multifaceted diamond.
In a chintz-swagged guest room, the person who had inspired this domestic unease smiled as she walked toward her half-open door. "I'll be down in five, dear ones," she sang out in a rich contralto, "ten minutes at the very most ... Don't squabble now, darlings; you're my best friends in the entire universe, and we're going to have a perfectly glorious evening."
She smiled again, then caught her reflection in the mirror. For a split second the radiant expression froze, transforming itself into something neither pleasant nor happy. Then, as rapidly, the speaker resumed her buoyant facade and tone. "You don't know how much good it does me to be here with you both. I feel positively reborn. I'll never miss Los Angeles. Never. Never!"
"Say that after you experience one of our New England winters, Jamaica," the man's voice called back.
"Nothing you say can scare me. I'm here to stay. A new life. A new me!"
Jamaica Nevissonor Cassandra Lovett, as she was better known to a legion of adoring fans addicted to the daytime drama Crescent Heightshad spent thirteen years in the City of Angels creating, inhabiting, and eventually becoming the raven-haired, emerald-eyed, conniving femme fatale of the show. Jamaica had been wearing Cassandra's jet-black wig and emerald-tinted contact lenses so long she'd almost forgotten what she looked like without them.
"I really should thank my lucky stars for that odious photographer," she continued. "I needed a catalyst. I needed to reexamine my priorities!"
"No more disembodied chat, Jamaica." The man called up the stairs again. "I have some very good champagne sitting in ice down here. Two more minutes alone, and I'll be forced to pop the cork."
"Aye aye, sir," was Jamaica's amused response. No sound came from the master suite.
Jamaica finished dressing by pushing a strand of her own short, sandy-brown locks beneath "Cassandra's" black wig. She shook her head slightly, giving the false hair a totally natural appearance, then strolled to a Louis XV dressing table surmounted by a matching mirror. "Forty-five," she murmured. "Almost forty-six." It wasn't a joyful sound.
She smoothed the flesh-colored lines of a skintight, floor-length sheath that had been constructed to appear as if only the random pattern of sequins concealed her body's secrets. From five feet away, Jamaica Nevisson might have been wearing nothing more than a sparse and shiny bouquet. Then she applied a final coat of black mascara to her pale brown lashes, outlined her lips in the dense, carmine color for which "Cassandra Lovett" was famed. While working, she tossed around the words she'd heard moments before: "Where's Jamaica?", and her serene expression darkened into an angry glare.
How many times had some wandering-palmed director or overweight stage manager mangled the same phrase? How many predawn hours had she endured, dragging herself to that wretched studio in the godforsaken San Fernando Valley only to be greeted by a bevy of backbiting scriptwriters armed with clever quips about the stupidity of actors and the brilliance of their own art? And how many evenings had she finished taping at eight, or even nine o'clock at nightonly to find twenty pages of new dialogue shoved toward her weary chest with a dismissive: "Let's try to get it right tomorrow, huh, babe? For a changeCassie, babe?"
Jamaica glowered at the mirror, shook her raven hair again, and attempted a more winsome pose, but her wrathful expression seemed permanently stuck. Embittered, middle-aged female, it all but shrieked. Stalled career, no permanent relationship, no true and loving home.
Jamaica's shoulders sagged, and her back, always held so proud and straightand youthfuldrooped in despair. Forty-five, she thought again, with all the wrinkles, lines, and blotchy skin to show it. Forty-five in an industry where twenty was considered "seasoned."
When had her age begun to betray her? she wondered, although she already knew the answer. It had been when one particular paparazzo had decided to make her his moving target. Catching "Cassandra Lovett" with her proverbial pants down had become his obsession. Jamaica hadn't been able to shop at Neiman's or dine in a Santa Monica bistro without encountering this demon with a Leica. She hadn't been able to approach her home in Holmby Hills without finding him encamped by the gatesor lurking in the neighbor's bougainvilleawaiting for her to take her daily swim, then squeezing off a roll that had ended up as CASSANDRA BARES ALL according to The Hollywood Globe's salacious headline.
Reggie Flack was the cretin's name. On retainer with The Hollywood Globe, his main assignment was to photograph Jamaica Nevisson in poses as revealingand unkindas possible. He'd stalked her obsessively, taking perverse pleasure in affixing bitingly sarcastic theatrical quotations to each published photo.
The last straw had come several weeks earlier. Jamaica had sailed to Catalina Island on her Oceanis 352 with an "unidentified male friend"as The Hollywood Globe later trumpetedand had opted to take advantage of a supposedly secluded cove for a topless frolic. How Flack had discovered the outing, she didn't know, but he'd followed the pair to the island, scaled a cactus-infested hillside, and managed to snap a good many unflattering photos, all of which appeared in a full-color center spread under the caption: The Island of Jamaica"the Bounded Waters Should Lift Their Bosoms Higher Than the Shores."
On the day the photo spread had appeared, Jamaica had marched bravely into the studio. She'd been determined to ignore the wretched press, but Phil Carney, the foulmouthed actor who played the show's patriarch, had goaded her unmercifully. "Philly" took delight in torturing the female performers, extras and leads alike, with a daily torrent of off-color commentsbehavior the studio greeted with deaf ears.
His lewd remarks about Flack's photographs had pushed Jamaica over the edge. She'd slapped him across the face, stormed into the production office, told the head honcho to "take this job and shove it up your expletive deleted!", and slammed back to her dressing room. From there, she'd placed a call to her longtime friend Genevieve Pepper in Newcastle, Massachusetts.
"Come back east!" Genie had laughed in response to her friend's woeful phone call. "We have plenty of room, and you know Tom adores having you visit ... Besides, there's the Commodores' dinner dance at the Yacht Club on October first. You can shake up the musty old place, and find some fabulous guy with scads of money! ... After that, you and I can charter a boat ... sail to Nantucket ... You'll forget California ever existed ... And, yes, Jamaica, the guest rooms are equipped with Jacuzzis and steam showers ... We're not as primitive in Massachusetts as you might imagine ..."
Now, as she sat safely in one of those peaceful guest suites, there was no question in Jamaica's mind that leaving Crescent Heights was the smartest thing she'd ever done.
Jamaica gave herself another wink, unconsciously replicating Cassandra's come-hither look, then scooped up her ermine stole from the settee, sailed down the stairway, and stepped into the Peppers' baronial living room.
"Ahhh ... There she is. And, looking as luscious as ever ... You're going to knock their socks off, Jamaica!"
Compliments came easily to Edison Pepper, or "Tom," as he was known to both the elite and humble of the city of Newcastle. Late forties with an athletic six-foot-four frame, eyes the color of sun-spattered steel, and perfectly tousled graying hair, Pepper had risen from humble origins to become a phenomenally successful investment banker whose newest venture, Global Outreach and Lender Development Fund, was proving an extraordinary boon to Newcastle's not-for-profit institutions.
Investing their endowment capital with the G.O.L.D. Fund permitted the organizations an enormous return on their money. Everyone from the local historical society to the hospital's new multimillion-dollar children's wing was benefiting handily. With his easy charm and manicured good looksaccentuated this evening by a hand-tailored dinner jacket, watered-silk bow tie, and hefty diamond studsEdison "Tom" Pepper, was Newcastle's hero.
"It's hard to believe you could look more lovely in person than you did on the set of Crescent Heights, but it's true. You're making my knees knock." Tom gave Jamaica a light kiss on the cheek and again called upstairs to his wife, "Genie, Jamaica won the battle ... I'm off to the conservatory to fetch that bottle of champagne." He glanced at Jamaica. The smile he gave her was dazzling. "Why not? My driver is chauffeuring us tonight."
Genie entered the living room at the precise moment Tom was exiting. Although she was easily five years younger than Jamaica, it took only one glance at Tom to make her realize how potent were her friend's charms. "Two Peppers and one Nevisson, as per your request, sire," Genie said as she tossed her lithe body on a Sheraton sofa whose gold satin upholstery matched the color of her ball gown. Then she raised her voice and called toward the conservatory: "And I defy you to say I'm late."
"I didn't want us to miss the champagne," her husband's distant words replied.
"Thanks to your careful advance planning, we won't."
"Let's make this a festive affair, Genie," he called back. "Please."
The tone had a finality that made Genie grimacea reaction she tried to hide by adding a quick, dismissive laugh. "I was going to say that if you don't walk away with a husband tonight, the men in this city need to have their heads examined ... but now I'm not so certain a stuffy Yankee spouse is what you need."
"Who said I was in the market for a mate?"
"Ah, 'my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?'" Genie laughed more freely, all tension suddenly gone. "You were marvelous as Beatrice in Much Ado ... When was that? Three years ago? Four?"
Jamaica sidestepped the issue of years, instead answering with an airy: "'Done to death by slanderous tongues ...'"
"That's not true! You got fabulous reviews. Even in New York."
"And you, Genevieve, should never have left the stage."
"Thanks for the compliment, but that was a long, long time ago."
Jamaica forced a smile. "Don't remind me ... A youthful summer playing everything from Shakespeare to O'Neill"
"And who was always cast as a lead?"
"Supporting players are just as important as the show's star."
Genie grinned. "But they don't get offers from Hollywood studios ... Anyway, you look absolutely stunning. I wish I could get away with wearing risqué evening gowns, but Tom is always harping about 'appropriate dress' ... I'm afraid I'm in serious danger of becoming a dowdy old wife."
Jamaica managed another thin smile. "You, old? Never."
"Next year, I'll be pushing forty."
"My heart bleeds."
The explosive sound of the champagne cork interrupted them.
"The dowdy woman's husband doth call," Jamaica said.
"I'm so glad you decided to leave L.A.," Genie answered as they crossed the marble foyer to join Tom. Their high satin heels clicked over the polished stone. "... happy you called us ..."
"I didn't realize how much I needed to escape until Tom picked me up at the airport yesterday. I feel as if I've been granted a reprieve ... And I'm so looking forward to leaving for Nantucket tomorrow ... A week of total privacy ... Promise me you'll never mention Hollywood."
"Or Beverly Hills ... or Wilshire Boulevardor Catalina Island!"
"I swear!" Genie was beaming. "Scout's honor." Then she changed tack by focusing on the planned cruise. Her demeanor became all business. "Of course, I would have preferred to take my own boat, but it's been stripped to the bones for racing ... However, the yacht broker assured me the Orion is brand-new, besides being 'extremely manageable for two gals'his words." Genie began imitating the broker's condescending delivery. "'No backstay, Mrs. Pepper ... a walk-through transom ... nice taffrail seats. You two gals should have a blast out there ...' However, I'm still concerned we're"
"Are you two yammering about spinnakers and tidal charts again?" Tom handed each woman a flute of champagne. "Cheers! Here's to good friends." He raised his glass, then draped a long and over his wife's shoulders. "Stop worrying, Genie. It's the first of October. Don't most of the experienced sailors hereabouts continue to ply these waters until Thanksgiving?"
"Of course they do," was Jamaica's pleasant rejoinder. "Nantucket's a piece of cake. Thirty miles from Hyannis ... And an extra thirty or so from here"
"I still feel we should practice on a day sail before attempting a longer cruise," Genie continued. "Just to get a feel for the way the boat handles"
"Genie ... Genie ... listen to your old pal ... 'piece of cake' like the lady says." His tone had become perceptibly less patient.
Genie's body stiffened immediately. "Perhaps Jamaica's a better sailor than I, Tom."
"Maybe she's just got bigger"
"Hey, hey, you two! Break it up! I didn't come east to witness marital feuds. Besides, you'd better not get on this lady's bad side, Tom. Remember what the Bard said: a 'tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide.'"
Pepper drained his glass. "That's my little wife, all right. She's quite a determined packagealthough you might not know it to look at her." He bent down to kiss her, and for a moment they were so consumed with each other, their guest might not have existed. "Listen, darling," Tom finally murmured, "if you get bored with your cruise, you can always head home. Or, hey, ditch the damn boat in Nantucket, and you and your buddy can hole up in that spa they have ... I'll hire someone to sail the Orion back to Newcastle. This is your holiday, remember."
"Why don't you join our little trip, Mistah Peppah, honey?" Jamaica's voice had been transformed by an accent as soft and creamy as magnolia flowers. "Fo'get about the elk or moose or whatevah it is you gonna be shootin' up theah in the no'thlands of Maine."
Tom laughed heartily. "You know I wouldn't set foot on a boat if it was Noah's Ark and I was the last man on the planet! I'll spend my mini-vacation in a warm cabin on dry land rather that heaving my cookies on the high seas, thank you very much."
"Come with us, Tom darling," Genie added, continuing to nestle close to her husband.
She exuded such wedded bliss that Jamaica found herself sighing in envy. "You're a fortunate woman, Genie. And you're right. I have to find one of these for myself." Then she shook her black mane and raised her glass in homage. "To Tom and Genie Pepper, who saved my life ... Don't laugh; you two; I mean that! ... No more Crescent Heights ... no more Reggie Flack ... no more pea-brained ingenues ... Here's to good friends, and the glories of life in Newcastle."
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