A Crazy Little Thing Called Death

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A Crazy Little Thing Called Death
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A Crazy Little Thing Called Death

A Blackbird Sisters Mystery

Nancy Martin

New American Library
Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Nancy Martin, 2007
All rights reserved

NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
Martin, Nancy, 1953–.
A crazy little thing called death: a Blackbird Sisters mystery / Nancy Martin.
p. cm.
ISBN: 978-1-1012-1093-2
1. Blackbird Sisters (Fictitious characters)—Fiction. 2. Philadelphia (Pa.)—Fiction. 3. Socialites—
Fiction. 4. Missing persons—Fiction. I.Title.
PS3563.A7267C73 2007
813'.6—dc22      2006028084

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
     The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

For Mary Kate

AUTHOR THANKS:

To John Minden for scientific input over the hedge.

To
Post-Gazette
restaurant critic Elizabeth Downer for a peek into her world.

To Kathy Sweeney for taking care of a character when he’s not on my pages.

To Mary Alice Gorman for many things, including T-shirt slogans.

To Rania Harris for insight into the catering game.

To Deb Foster, our hostess with the very mostest at the Hat Luncheon.

To the Book Tarts, who invite you to visit us at www.TheLipstickChronicles.typepad.com.

To the whole team at NAL—from Kara to Catherine, Molly, Claire and, of course, the editor who’s helped shape the Blackbirds, the wonderful Ellen Edwards.

To all the chicks at the Jane Rotrosen Agency—Annalise, Andrea, X-tina, Kelly and Her Supreme Excellency, Meg.

Bless you all!

Chapter One

E
veryone ought to be forgiven at least one mistake.

I gave my nephews Harcourt and Hilton a sum of birthday money I figured couldn’t possibly buy anything that might endanger a pair of fourteen-year-old mad scientists. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on them squirreling away cash for months, because as soon as they ripped open their cards and found the modest gift, they jumped on the Internet and purchased a fetal pig.

When their gruesome investment arrived—in a large carton packed with dry ice and bubble wrap, and clearly marked
BIOHAZARD
—they rushed over to my house to set up their laboratory in my basement, where they began the pig’s long and loving dissection.

“They’re weird, Aunt Nora,” said their sister, Lucy, already an astute judge of character at the age of six. She had wide blue eyes that saw the world clearly.

In complete agreement, I hugged Lucy and said, “Let’s go to a party.”

Like all Blackbird women, Lucy had a few eccentricities of her own. She asked, “Can I take my sword?”

I hadn’t been able to wrestle it away from her yet, and I didn’t feel up to a battle. “Why not?” I said.

Lucy waved the foil. “If we meet any bad guys, I’ll give ’em lead poisoning.”

When Lucy and I were suitably dressed and accessorized for an outdoorsy Saturday in April, we left the twins and their infant brother in the capable, if slightly distracted, custody of seventeen-year-old Rawlins, who was trying to teach himself Texas Hold ’Em from a book. Lucy and I tiptoed outside to the waiting car and hit the road. In the car, she shared her Hello Kitty lip gloss with me.

Life had thumped me with a few body blows in the last couple of months. A day with my niece felt like good medicine. Even if we were headed to a party celebrating death.

Eventually, we arrived at Eagle Glen, an estate owned by some elderly, eccentric cousins of ours and located in an expensively bucolic enclave outside Philadelphia where green pastures rolled from one exquisitely landscaped mansion to another. On the tallest hill, Eagle Glen commanded a river view. The neglected estate included a topiary garden with bushes as big as Macy’s parade balloons and a green swimming pool full of three-legged frogs. The grass on the tennis court where Billie Jean King once beat the stuffing out of Richard Nixon looked like a wheat field.

Behind the tennis court lay the polo field, recently mowed for the parties. The lower lawn, however, was an ocean of April mud, the result of poorly maintained drainage. Surrounded by a profusion of forsythia and waves of naturalized daffodils, it was mud nevertheless. Hundreds of luxury cars were swamped in it. A couple hundred well-dressed Philadelphians had unpacked elaborate picnics suitable for the first annual Penny Devine Memorial Polo Match. It was a pageant to behold.

Each party had a different theme. As Lucy and I picked our way across the swampy grass in our Wellies, we saw a Chippendale table laid with fine linens and silver under one pretty striped tent. Next to it, another hostess had thrown long boards over sawhorses for a barbecue. Champagne cooled in crystal buckets that sparkled in the sunshine, while barrels of cold beer appealed to other guests. One well-known socialite was treating her guests to a circus, complete with cotton candy, a clown on stilts and an organ-grinder with a monkey that fascinated my niece. The scents of chateaubriand and expensive perfumes mingled in the air with the fragrance of freshly churned-up muck. The mud, in fact, seemed to be the only reason guests were sticking close to their vehicles. If the ground had made better footing, all the parties would have mingled into one spectacular bash.

Lucy pointed at a hired chef in a white coat and toque as he grilled shrimp over an applewood fire. “Look, Aunt Nora. Is that Emerald?”

“I don’t think so, Luce.”

At the next party, a violinist in tails entertained a party of blue bloods sitting in camp chairs beside a mud-spattered Bentley. Someone had wisely spread out a large blue plastic tarp on the wet ground, then laid a beautiful Persian rug on top of it. They raised their glasses to me and called my name.

Waving back, I thought that half of the city’s so-called high society had decked themselves out in designer finery to come watch one another instead of polo.

The competition for Best Dressed was fierce. I spotted two women in Gaultier designs worth more than fifty thousand apiece. Lucy counted six gentlemen in ascots. And there was enough extravagant millinery to give the queen a migraine.

My own choice received a rave review.

“I like your hat best, Aunt Nora. The long feathers look like a fairy’s tail.”

I simply hoped the damn thing wasn’t going to blow off and end up in a puddle. I had carefully unpacked the hat my grandmother wore in the Royal Enclosure the day Princess Diana stepped on her toe—presumably because Grandmama had outshone her.

“Hey, Sis!”

Lucy and I turned to see my sister Emma emerge from a crowd of young men all dressed in matching bow ties—the members of the nearby university’s glee club. Emma, of course, wore no party dress or picture hat. Her white riding breeches clung to her like rain on pavement. In one hand, she carried a polo mallet, the shaft resting on her shoulder. In the other, she dangled a helmet by its strap, and her short, punk-style hair stood out in windblown tufts. Her loose polo shirt bore a large paper number on the back, but managed to hint at a figure that would have put Lara Croft’s to shame. The entire glee club ogled her butt as she walked away from them.

Tartly, I said, “Are those boys old enough to vote yet?”

“Maybe for homecoming queen. Think I have a shot?” As usual, my little sister had a gleam in her eye. “That’s some chapeau you got going there, Sis. How many peacocks died to make it happen?”

“None. They were cockatoos, and all volunteers.”

“I see you got my phone message about the mud.” She glanced at our boots, hardly a fashion statement, but definitely practical on a day like today.

“Yes, I owe you big.”

“Good. Then you can tell me all about your vacation. And”—she lowered her voice so Lucy couldn’t hear—“don’t skip any details, especially the sexy stuff.”

“The vacation was very nice,” I said without rising to the bait. Indicating the mallet, I said, “I see you’ve been playing your own game?”

Emma twirled the mallet and grinned. “One team is short a player. Apparently Homeland Security worried he might terrorize the social set, so they detained him at the airport. Which means I’m an honorary Brazilian today. Raphael Braga asked me to play.”

“Raphael—?” I endeavored to keep my composure as my stomach took a high dive.

Emma misinterpreted my expression. “Don’t worry about me, Sis. I’ve got Raphael’s number.”

“So do half the women in Europe, not to mention South America.”

“Think I can’t handle him?”

Emma could probably handle an African lion with one hand tied behind her back, so the male animal of her own species was no problem. With her combination of long legs, perfect figure and eyes that glowed with the promise of a dirty mind, I wasn’t surprised that a Brazilian lady-killer like Raphael had come calling on Emma.

I said, “Raphael and his friends play world-class polo, Em. The rough stuff. You could get hurt.”

“I can ride rings around most of them, even in all this mud. What idiot chose April for a polo match, anyway? The field manager still isn’t sure we can play today. It’s too wet.”

“I suppose Penny Devine’s family chose the date.”

Emma shook her head. “Penny would never pick April. That crazy old bitch knew there would be too much rain this time of year.”

Lucy, who had been slashing at invisible enemies with her weapon, piped up. “Mummy says a crazy bitch is the neighbor’s beagle that won’t stop barking. Or the lady who’s the mother of the president.”

Emma ruffled Lucy’s blond hair. “Nice duds, Luceifer. What’s with the sword?”

“It’s a foil,” Lucy corrected, flourishing the weapon I used on my college fencing team. She also wore her favorite Fair Isle sweater—unraveling at the elbows—and a somewhat tattered tutu. Her outfit had drawn a few smiling glances from the fashion-conscious crowd, but Lucy didn’t seem to mind. “I’m learning to fence instead of going to stinky ballet class today. But Aunt Nora won’t let me take the button off.”

“She’s no fun.” Emma prudently tipped the foil away from her own ear. “Where’s your mom?”

“Mummy had a date last night,” Lucy volunteered. “So we all had a sleepover at Aunt Nora’s house. The twins got to stay in the basement.”

“Chained up like Quasimodo, I hope.” Emma sent me a raised eyebrow. “And where is Mummy today?”

“We don’t know,” Lucy said cheerfully. “Maybe she had a sleepover, too.”

I asked, “Have you seen Libby, Em?”

“Nope. What’s up? Has she taken a fancy to someone new?”

“Actually, she’s been in bed for a week. Alone,” I added, “except for her depression. The kids have been staying with me.”

Emma frowned. “Anything serious?”

Lucy piped up. “Mummy just likes to take naps sometimes, and read magazines and watch that food channel on television a lot.”

I answered Emma’s inquiring glance. “Libby’s been feeling a little low. The fireman she was dating disappeared in his own puff of smoke.”

“But she went out last night? That’s a good sign, right?”

“It was a meeting with her accountant. But, um, Lucy says she wore her lucky sweater.”

“Oh, boy.”

“Exactly.”

The Libby Alert System just went to Code Red. In recent weeks, our older sister, Libby, had been a dormant volcano. It was only a matter of time before Vesuvius blew.

Lucy poked the foil at the muddy tire of a Rolls-Royce. “I don’t think he’s a counting man. Mummy called him hot stuff and maybe her next paramour. What’s a paramour?”

“A man who brings expensive presents for little girls,” I said.

“I want a sword of my own,” Lucy said promptly. “A big one that’s sharp, like Captain Hook’s.”

She executed a lunge and decapitated an imaginary pirate.

Although I dearly loved my niece and her four brothers, I often thanked heaven they were not mine to manage more often than the occasional few days when my sister took her hormones for a stroll.

I caught Emma scrutinizing me. She said, “So you’ve got the monsters to look after. That must be a dose of reality after your cruise. How was it? Did the Love Machine keep you belowdecks the whole time?”

“We—it was a lovely getaway,” I said.

It had been more than lovely, of course. Sailing the Caribbean on a borrowed yacht had been almost heaven. Fourteen days of sun, sparkling waters, azure sky and three meals a day prepared by a private chef had been therapeutic, but endless champagne and long, passionate nights had been a real sojourn from reality. I’d hated to come home. But I told myself it was time to face the world. To get on with our lives.

So I summoned some cheer. “What about you, Em? You haven’t been to Blackbird Farm since I got back. Did you find a new apartment?”

“Nah, I figured I’d give you and Mick some space at the Love Shack. You know—in case you want to howl at the moon or tie each other to the headboard once in a while.”

“So where have you—?”

“Don’t spend any energy worrying about me. I’ll be back when I run out of other pillows to rest my head. Anyway, I’ve been busy. I’m holding down a couple of jobs these days, plus some extracurricular stuff that keeps me on my toes.”

I didn’t smell liquor on her breath, and Emma seemed quite clear-eyed. But even if she was busy with assorted jobs, there was no telling what kind of trouble she could get herself into. And if Raphael Braga was hanging around, trouble was definitely in the wind.

A mob of little girls suddenly splashed up and engulfed us—a flock of chattering ten-year-olds in breeches and boots and riding helmets. Their nearly identical French-braided ponytails dangled between their shoulder blades, and their freckled faces glowed with excitement. They clamored for Emma’s attention, half of them jumping up and down. I stepped back to avoid the mud. If my sister had been the latest teenybopper sensation, they couldn’t have been more adoring. Lucy scrunched herself back into me and stared at them with sudden-onset shyness.

“Hold on, hold on,” Emma snapped with mock irritation. She towered over the children. “Who let all the elves out of the Keebler factory?”

“Emma, Emma, we want the pony!”

“Can we let Brickle out of the van?”

“You said we could take turns riding him!”

“Not if you’re all acting like a bunch of ninnies,” she said. “What did I say about staying out of the way of the polo players?”

“But we have, Emma! We’ve been perfect, just like you said.”

“Not one person has yelled at us.”

“Except you,” one brave little girl piped up.

“We want to ride Brickle!”

“We’ll keep him away from the other horses, we promise.”

“We promise!”

“All right, all right,” Emma said gruffly. “I’ll come down and unload him.”

“We can do it! We know how!”

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