Authors: Nancy Martin
Dead Girls Don’t Wear Diamonds
In the final weeks of her pregnancy, my sister Libby inexplicably took to wearing an enormous tie-dyed shirt that magnified her belly with a nauseating swirl of pink and green that seemed to depict a pair of lovesick whales.
When she waddled into my kitchen at Blackbird Farm one crisp afternoon in October, I said, "Paint a peace sign on your stomach, and you'd pass for the Partridge family bus."
"How about if I just give you half a peace sign?" she asked, plunking a plastic bag from The Home Depot on my kitchen counter and making a beeline for the pantry. She returned with the box of assorted Godivas I'd been saving for a crisis. "When we're pregnant, the Blackbird women all get as big as Guernsey cows. Is there any danger of that, by the way? Does the gangster have you hanging on to the headboard for dear life yet?"
"Not that it's any of your business," I said. "But no."
"Darn. I don't even get vicarious sex anymore."
She sat down at the kitchen table and tore the gold cord off the candy box, and I opened her plastic bag to see what she'd brought. Over my shoulder, I said, "And Michael is not a gangster."
She put both her Birkenstocks on an adjacent chair.
"I thought the two of you had broken up. Now I see he's back—and with reinforcements, no less. What are all those men doing out at the barn?"
"Working on an idea."
That got her attention, and she looked up from the Godiva box with wide eyes. "Dear heaven," she said. "What is it this time? Another tattoo parlor? A motorcycle shop? Or maybe something classy like a strip joint?"
"He doesn't run any strip joints. He thinks there's a way for Blackbird Farm to make some income by growing grass."
Libby looked shocked. "Oh, Nora!"
"Not marijuana! Lawn grass, for heaven's sake! God knows I could use the money."
I was still scraping every penny to pay the bill left to me by our tax-evading parents, who were currently avoiding extradition while traipsing around Brazil in search of the ultimate pina colada. Meanwhile, I struggled to keep the ancestral homestead out of the hands of land developers eager to turn two hundred years of family history into an outlet mall.
But of course Libby didn't want to discuss anything as mundane as financial matters. My dear sister could easily be mistaken for a complete ninny, if she didn't love her family to excess and prove it by way of an occasional selfless act and frequent butting into business other than her own. She frowned prettily over the selection of chocolate truffles. "Well, I was much happier when you weren't seeing Sonny Corleone."
"I'm not 'seeing' him," I said, which was true for the most part, since Michael Abruzzo and I had agreed to disagree over the summer and he'd just turned up again last week to propose his latest business venture.
"Your association with him is doing damage to our family reputation."
I laughed out loud. "First our parents blew our inheritance and fled the country to avoid paying their taxes. Now we've learned they stole money from their best friends to make their escape in style. How much worse can our reputation get?"
"Well, you know what I mean," Libby said, un-apologetic. "At least they're not connected to organized crime."
"What will it take to terminate this discussion right now? And why are you bringing me plaster of paris?"
She popped a truffle into her mouth. "I need your help."
I watched my sister lean back, close her eyes and savor the chocolate with bliss. Okay, maybe she deserved a break. Libby had buried her second husband just a few months earlier. But true to form, Libby managed to put all that unpleasantness out of her mind—at least, that's the appearance she worked at keeping up—and seemed to be enjoying her pregnancy even if the father of the baby had been shot dead at a high-society wedding. Of course, some of us secretly suspected that Ralph's death was the result of his own suicide mission after he learned he was going to be a father to one of Libby's demonic offspring.
So it was with the foreknowledge that my sister might require some service I was going to find highly unpleasant that I asked uneasily, "What kind of help do you need?"
"I want to do a belly cast."
"We're going to take the plaster and make a cast of my stomach."
We both looked at her stomach, and I said, "I don't think you brought enough plaster."
"Nonsense. It'll be a work of art. Or I can use it as a fruit bowl."
Her sixteen-year-old son, Rawlins, chose that moment to come out of the downstairs powder room. He'd been using the mirror to examine his new nose ring, which nearly got lost among the eyebrow studs, lip post and the multiple hoops in both his large ears. He slouched into the kitchen chair farthest from his mother and proceeded to sulk on general principal.
I said, "Rawlins, would you like some hot chocolate? I'm going to make some for your mother in the hope that it will bring her back to sanity."
"May the Force be with you," he said.
"Rawlins," Libby said, "tell your aunt Nora what you're doing in school these days."
Rawlins didn't answer. He picked at the tablecloth.
"What's going on in school?" I asked. "Are you playing basketball this year?"
"Nu-huh," he mumbled, and began to gnaw at his thumbnail.
Libby gave me a helpless look. Libby liked the idea of having lots of children, but she didn't cope terribly well with the houseful she already had. Her baby would make five children by at least three different fathers, who were either dead or missing in action. Like all Blackbird women, she had bad luck with husbands.
She said to me, "Do you have a plastic bucket?"
"Under the sink."
"Great. I'll mix the plaster."
She began rummaging under the sink while I got a quart of milk from the refrigerator and some cocoa from the pantry. Then we heard a truck in the loop of driveway behind the house, and an instant later
the door slammed. Our younger sister, Emma, strode into the kitchen in boots and riding breeches. The three of us were tall with auburn hair and very pale skin, but Emma looked like Barbarella with a punk haircut.
She said, "I
love the smell of testosterone in the morning!"
"Go wipe your feet," I said automatically. "You've been riding horses."
"No, I haven't," she said, and plunked a large, filthy puppy on the counter. "There. I brought you a present."
"This is a joke, right?"
It was either a very large puppy or a young water buffalo. It had matted black hair and slightly crossed blue eyes, a blunt Newfoundland's nose and white toes on his enormous front paws. Emma pinned the squirming beast firmly on the counter. "You need a dog, Nora. You shouldn't be living out here all alone."
"I don't want a dog. I don't need a dog. I certainly don't want a dog on my kitchen counter!"
"Try him out. You'll get to like him."
"It's not a question of liking," I said, trying to keep the hysteria out of my voice. "I'm too busy to take care of a dog properly. Take him back where you got him."
"Look at this face!"
I looked at the puppy's face. I'll admit he was cute. He had floppy ears that reminded me of my mother's cousin Cuss. But I didn't need a dog to make myself feel safe. Certainly not one that looked like he might grow into a marauding grizzly that overturned garbage cans and minivans for sport. I said, "Take him out of here immediately."
With a sigh Emma handed the puppy to Rawlins
and plucked a pickle from the array of sandwich ingredients I had spread out on the counter. I guessed she'd given up smoking again. "Why are all those men out in the barn? Is Mick planning some sort of assault on your virtue with those troops?"
"We were just discussing that," said Libby, pouring white powder into the bucket of water. "Rawlins, dear, wouldn't you like to go play with the puppy outside?"
"No," he said, tussling with the delighted dog. "I'm old enough to hear about Aunt Nora's sex life."
"I have no sex life," I assured him.
Emma looked into Libby's bucket. "What are you doing?"
"You're going to help me make a belly cast. Where have you been this morning?"
Emma pulled a beer from the refrigerator despite the clock clearly stating the time was not quite noon. "Shopping."
"In those clothes?"
"For horses," she said, twisting off the cap with a practiced yank. She always managed to look stunning, even with a smear of mud across one of her perfect cheekbones. Emma wore dirt with as much aplomb as an eighteenth-century French courtesan displayed her beauty spots, and men fell at her feet even when she had manure on her boots. She said, "I've decided to go into the training business for myself. I bought a jumper this morning. Can I rent some space in your barn?"
"You'll have to get in line," said Libby, already elbow deep in plaster. "She's letting Mr. Abruzzo do something out there."
"Yeah, I know all about that." Emma dug into her pocket and came up with a grubby business card.
She tossed it onto the counter. "Look what I found down at the gas station yesterday."
She drank her beer while Libby leaned over and peered at the card.
"Oh, my God," said Libby. She read aloud, "The Marquis de Sod."
"You're going into the sod business?" Emma asked me.
I snatched the card off the counter and read it for myself. "He said he was only going to grow grass!"
"And sell it to rich people who want instant lawns."
"That man!" Libby said. "He has no sense of propriety, no sense of—of—"
"It's not a bad idea, if you ask me. But that name, Nora," Emma said, cocking an eyebrow at me, "isn't exactly your style."
"Catchy, though," Libby admitted before going back to the plaster.
I threw the card onto the table. "I'm not a part of that business. It's his idea. He's just leasing fields from me!"
"Well, everybody is town assumes you're partners."
Emma's grin broadened. "Everybody thinks you own the used-car lot, too."
Libby moaned. "A Blackbird reduced to selling old cars!"
I'd found myself entangled with Michael "The Mick" Abruzzo for a short while about five months earlier, when he and Rory Pendergast conspired to buy some of Blackbird Farm to start one of Michael's dubious businesses. Despite his building Mick's Muscle Cars just a stone's throw from my front porch, we'd hit it off, if I could put it so mildly, except on
the subject of his wheeling and dealing. Not to mention the shadier aspects of his life, which I admit I found both frightening and annoyingly magnetic.
Safe to say I didn't care for the various ways he made his living. Michael argued that I was being unnecessarily righteous about finances when I really should have been searching for every possible source of income to hang on to my admittedly ramshackle inheritance. If I wanted to keep Blackbird Farm, he said, I ought to be ready to make sacrifices. My job as a society columnist for the
barely paid me enough to live on, let alone help with my tax problem. But most of Michael's ideas seemed to involve the sacrifice of too much dignity for me.
This grass-growing venture was business as usual for Michael. He didn't care if he looked ridiculous as long as he made money. Except he wanted to use Blackbird Farm to make it happen.
The Marquis de Sod, indeed.
The man in question appeared at the kitchen door just then. He was six-foot-four with a well-used face and incendiary blue eyes, not to mention the kind of shoulders most women dream about clawing during the throes of passion. "Lunch ready yet?"
I picked up a knife and sent him a look.
"What?" he asked. "What did I do?"
"We'll talk later," I vowed. "Lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes."
"She's a terrible cook, you know," Libby volunteered, laboring over the bucket. "Usually she eats only food that microwaves in plastic."
"Careful," I said. "I'll find another use for that plaster."
Michael grinned at my other sister. "Hey, Emma."
"Hey, yourself, Mick," she said back, and they
shared a look that communicated something amusing in the secret language Emma had with men.
"That your dog?"
"I tried to give him to Nora, but she's stubborn. You want him?"
He laughed. He'd been the first to bring a puppy around for me, and I assumed he was still trying to find a home for the gangling Great Dane he'd procured somewhere in New Jersey. "No, thanks," he said.
"You gonna take me for a ride on your motorcycle later?"
"Nope," he said. "You're too scary for me."
"Nora scared you off, too, I notice, but that didn't last."
"Not for long," he agreed, and turned his grin back on me. I felt as if he'd trained the guidance system of a nuclear missile in my direction.