Authors: Marian Babson
“Steady on.” Lorinda was barely in control of her own voice. It was true, she brooded. All those joking remarks she had heard at American conventions weren't jokes at all, but the literal truth. “You can be alone in your own room at midnight in an empty house,” they ran, “and sneeze. And first thing in the morning, one of the colleagues will be on the telephone asking how your cold is.”
The mystery world was such a small community to begin with, had it been wise to narrow the boundaries still more by moving here to Brimful Coffers?
Too late to ask oneself that now. The move had been made, the mortgage was in place, the die was cast. She had to learn to live with it. With them.
Spasmodic flashes of brilliance lit up the reception area like heat lightning on a summer's day. Lorinda noticed that she was not the only one keeping a wary eye on Jackley as he circled the marble hall looking for fresh victims. Macho had maneuvered himself behind him while edging closer to the door.
“Not thinking of leaving?” She slid away from the others and moved to cut him off.
“I've been thinking of nothing else all day.” He gave her a hangdog look. “Too soon, you think?”
“We've only just arrived.”
“Really? It seems like hours.” He sighed and allowed her to lead him over to her group.
Karla, clutching a glass and with an expression of desperate gaiety on her face, also joined the group, obviously positioning herself for the next photograph. Macho quivered and Lorinda caught his arm before he could bolt.
“We were just saying” â Gemma greeted Karla with a bright smile, conscious of the approaching camera herself â “that it's so easy to become fed up with your series characters that the temptation to kill them off becomes intense. Don't you find that?”
“Not yet,” Karla said. “But I might if I were stuck with the same one for any length of time. As it is ...” She shrugged. “I've got to clear up a three-book contract completing the unfinished manuscript Aimee Dorrow left behind her when she died and writing the next two from her notes, all featuring the endless dreary detections of Miss Mudd. And then there's this nonfiction account of our year in England.” Her voice rose as her husband approached. “Heaven knows when I'll be able to get back to my own Terri and Toni series again.”
“Smile, everybody!” Jack ordered. “Show 'em what a great time we're having.” He levelled the camera at them.
Macho ducked behind Freddie just as she raised her eyebrows and gave Lorinda a meaningful look. Precisely what it was supposed to mean, Lorinda wasn't sure.
“Reverting to what we were just saying” â Freddie smiled dangerously â “I agree that it isn't done to kill off one's series character. Not fair on the readers, they take it so seriously, poor darlings â look at Holmes, look at Van der Valk. But have you noticed the increasing trend to kill off the character's spouse or partner?”
Really, it was unspeakably wicked of Freddie. She even widened her eyes innocently at the Jackleys as she said it. Jack lowered his camera and there was an awkward pause before he laughed loudly. Too loudly.
“Well, we've got the expert on that right here!” he indicated Macho. “None of his heroines ever make it through the final chapter to get as far as the altar.”
Or, if they did, they were killed off in the first chapter of the next book to provide Macho Magee with a mission of revenge in tracking down the killer and administering his own brand of rough justice.
A ripple of amusement eased the tension. Even Macho joined in, although his face darkened.
“Oh, how delicious they look! I really shouldn't!” Gemma's practiced cries of delight welcomed the appearance of one of the catering staff bearing a tray of rather ambitious canapÃ©s. Leave it to Plantagenet Sutton to have his party professionally catered. Although, Lorinda noticed, he was using the local caterers, thereby ensuring local goodwill while saving on London prices.
“Hey, that looks good enough to eat!” Jack Jackley laughed immoderately at his own wit. Karla gave a strained smile.
They all gazed in admiration on the neat rows of assorted delicacies before swooping to demolish them. The pinwheel sandwiches of smoked salmon and cream cheese melted like snow in the sun, the flaky oblong boats of creamed chicken and the prawn vol-au-vents also vanished rapidly.
“Don't go 'way.” Jackley caught the waitress's arm as she turned. “Stay right here. We can finish these all by ourselves.”
“Jack!” Karla's whisper was anguished. “Please!”
“What's the matter? That's what they're here for: to eat. We're not depriving anybody. There's plenty to go round.” He indicated more waitresses moving into the throng, offering their trays to other guests. “Eat up â and we'll send her back for a refill.”
Macho didn't need urging. He was steadily devouring one canapÃ© after another with the grim expression of a man determined to salvage what he could from this ghastly evening.
Lorinda helped herself to a around greyish mass, almost the only item left on the tray, and nibbled it cautiously: a marinated mushroom stuffed with crabmeat and tasting, thank heavens, a great deal better than it looked.
“Freddie, darling!” One of the London crowd materialized beside them. “What a fantastic place. You could have written it yourself!”
“She did.” Suddenly, Dorian was there. “We all did. And now, like Brigadoon, it has appeared and we've moved in. Beware it doesn't disappear again tonight, taking all of you with it â into the fourth dimension!”
“Oh, Dorian!” The woman laughed skittishly. “You
a horror!” Her gaze shifted nervously to the world beyond the long windows and brightly blossoming window boxes, as though checking that it was still there. Dorian could have that effect on people.
“Only to those I love.” He bussed her cheek smoothly. “I'm frighteningly polite to strangers and small children.”
you keep rubbing it in, Dorian?” Stately as the proverbial galleon, Rhylla Montague glided into their midst and dropped anchor. “I'm trying to forget â and savour my last few days of freedom.”
“Nonsense, Rhylla,” Dorian said heartily. “You know you're looking forward to it enormously. Any doting granny would.”
“Don't!” Rhylla shuddered. “A deadline and a granddaughter, both looming. How am I going to cope?”
“Here we are!” Betty Alvin appeared in their midst, bearing a laden tray. “I could see that some of you hadn't bothered with lunch, so I liberated this for you.” The invaluable communal secretary thrust the tray at them.
“Hot dog!” Jackley said.
“Hot cocktail sausages, actually,” Macho corrected. They both regarded the bounty for an. appreciative moment before diving in. Hot cocktail sausages, satay chicken sticks, giant prawns, sweet-and-sour pork, steak medallions and bowls of tempting spicy dips. Heartier fare than that on the earlier tray.
“Betty, you're a lifesaver!” Rhylla breathed.
“She's spoken for, remember,” Dorian warned. “She's completely tied up preparing my final draft. There'll be no time for her to play nanny to your bratling.”
“You can't work her twenty-four hours a day!” Rhylla shot him a poisonous glance.
“Neither can you!”
Betty swung the tray around the circle, a faintly anxious frown rippling across her forehead. Lorinda sympathized. It must have seemed like an ideal arrangement when Dorian persuaded Betty to move her freelance secretarial service into the attic flat at Coffers Court, asking only a peppercorn rent and promising an assured group of clients. Now it looked as though Betty was another one questioning the wisdom of having moved into a situation from which there might be no easy escape.
“How thoughtful of you.” Lorinda gave her a sympathetic look as she managed to spear four giant prawns on one toothpick and stood holding them with an innocent expression while she tried to plot the logistics of transferring the toothpick into a napkin and then into her handbag unobserved. The lengths to which being a cat owner reduced one! But she could not pass up those tempting prawns when she imagined the delight of Had-I and But-Known upon being presented with them when she returned. She noticed that Macho had also filled a cocktail stick with the luscious prawns and was gazing at it absently, obviously lost in the same calculations as she. Roscoe, too, loved prawns. It was not that they could not afford to buy them themselves for their pets, it was just that the sudden unexpected treat was greeted with such delight.
With a quick look around and a sudden decisive move, Macho rammed the prawn-laden cocktail stick into his jacket pocket. Lorinda winced. How lucky that Macho was currently between girlfriends. Otherwise some poor woman would have had a fit before delivering the jacket to the dry cleaners.
“Is there another emergency pending?” Betty asked uneasily.
“Nothing to do with you,” Dorian assured her. “Rhylla has carelessly allowed her son and daughter-in-law to dump the grandchild on her for the holidays. Again.” He smirked heartlessly. “She's going to find it a little more difficult to entertain the child in a village than in the heart of Knightsbridge, where she could send her off with a pocketful of money and all the theaters, shops, museums and exhibitions of London at her command. You may have to take some time out of your busy routine and actually hold a conversation or two with the child yourself, Rhylla.”
“You know all about it yourself, of course,” Rhylla snapped. “A bachelor's children are always the best brought up.”
Lorinda noticed that Gemma had taken advantage of the fact that the others were absorbed in the altercation to quietly empty the plate of sirloin medallions into a plastic sandwich bag she had ready and waiting. Lionheart and Conqueror, the pug dogs, would also snack well this evening.
“I wish I'd thought of that,” Lorinda murmured as Gemma caught her watching.
“Come prepared! That's the secret.” With the conspiratorial wink of the veteran of a thousand PR launches, Gemma slipped an extra sandwich bag to her.
“One scavenger to a tray, that's the unwritten rule.” Gemma gave her a gentle push toward a group across the room, who seemed to be London visitors unnaturally concerned about calories â in food, that is. They appeared to have no qualms about the caloric content of champagne.
Taking the hint, Lorinda began circling the room in a delicate stalking operation she recognized she had learned from observing Had-I, the peerless hunter of the two cats. But-Known's qualms about her sister's intrepid activities especially extended to the hunting procedure; although she knew in a vague way that hunting was a Good Thing, But-Known could not bring herself to hunt prey that had to be killed. She was exceptionally generous, however, in her gifts of pebbles, leaves, flowers and the occasional trifle pilfered from a guest's handbag or pocket. That was prowess enough for her.
Behind Lorinda, the heat lightning flashed again and she heard a low growl which, in the absence of any four-legged animals, she had to suspect had come from Macho Magee. But there was also a suppressed hiss among the reactions. Jack Jackley was getting on everyone's nerves. He could not be allowed to go on like this all winter, proposed book or not. Someone was going to have to speak to him about his neighbours' right to privacy. But would that really stop him? Sensitivity to the opinion of others did not appear to loom large in his make-up.
“Lorinda Lucas!” Carelessly, she had passed too close to Professor Borley. He caught her arm and drew her into a corner. “I've been meaning to talk to you. Now that I'm all settled in, we must fix a time for me to interview you for my new book.”
“Oh. Yes. We must.” Anguished Lorinda watched the tray she had been stalking carried out of reach.
“Over here!” The professor noticed and gestured imperiously to the waitress, who swerved and bore the tray over to them. “I can recommend the chicken,” he beamed. “I think it's especially good.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Trapped, Lorinda took a satay stick and then stood holding it helplessly. She realized she could not slip it into the plastic bag with Professor Borley watching â and probably making mental notes for posterity.
“Try the peanut sauce,” Professor Borley instructed. “Or the sweet-and-sour.” He indicated the bowls of dip. “They're both very good.”
Recognizing defeat, Lorinda dipped the chicken into the peanut sauce and nibbled delicately. At the back of her mind, Had-I's accusing eyes watched every selfish bite. Had-I was particularly fond of chicken. But-Known favoured prawns. They both loved little surprises.
she promised silently.
I'll bring you your share of the party.
“Shall we say Monday morning?” Professor Borley was caught up in his own concerns.
“Afternoon, if you prefer. This will just be in the nature of a preliminary interview, of course.”
“Preliminary?” Lorinda wished she could stop sounding like an echo.
“I thought we'd start with an overall view of your career. Then, in subsequent interviews, we can get down to the nitty-gritty.”
“Subsequent? Nitty-gritty?” If only she could attribute that sinking feeling in her stomach to impending food poisoning, but she knew that the canapÃ©s were blameless. It was due to the prospect of not just one, but a series of interviews with an earnest American academic.
Damn Dorian! This was all his fault. During one of his American tours, he had met Professor Borley and learned of the projected scholarly tome on the wellsprings and influences of popular culture as evinced in the mystery field. With his penchant for collecting people who might be useful, Dorian had kept track of the professor's progress and written to suggest that a sojourn in Brimful Coffers, where he would be surrounded by actively creating mystery writers, might facilitate his research. Naturally, Dorian hoped to figure prominently in the book, if not dominate it. Meanwhile, he had unleashed this ... this
on the rest of them.