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Authors: Susan Isaacs

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Magic Hour

BOOK: Magic Hour
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Magic Hour

 

 

by Susan Isaacs

Dedication

To my best friend, Susan Zises

Acknowledgments

I sought advice and information from the people listed below. All of them gave it freely and cheerfully. I want to thank Arlene Abramowitz, Janice Asher, Peter Corwith, Lawrence Goldman, Maddy Kahn, Susan Lawton, Neil Leinwohl, Tony Lepsis, Fr. Thomas McCarthy, Bob Mitchell, Catherine and Robert Morvillo, Saundra and Herschel Saperstein, Cynthia Scott, Abby Singer, Dustin Beall Smith, N. T. Thayer, Sr., William Wexler, and Frank and Lisa Cronin Wohl.

A hug and a kiss to my great pal Frank Perry who taught me about making movies.

A salute to the police officers who answered my technical questions. Unlike Detective Stephen Brady, they were all straight shooters and gentlemen. I apologize if I twisted the facts to fit my fiction. Thanks to Detective-Lieutenant Eugene Dolan of the Nassau County Police, Captain William Kilfoyle and Officer Alan Paxton of the Port Washington (New York) Police, Lieutenant William P. Kiley and Captain John McFJhone of the Suffolk County Police, and Sergeant William Crowley of the Southampton Town Police.

The staffs of The Hampton Library in Bridgehampton and the Port Washington (
New York
) Public Library were unfailingly courteous and helpful.

A special thank you to Paul Brennan, who was generous enough to share his memories of growing up in Bridgehampton with me.

My assistant, AnneMarie Palmer, deserves cheers, bouquets, standing ovations, and whatever else she might want for her hard work and grace under pressure.

Owen Laster, my agent, manages to be both hard-headed and kindhearted. He is truly a class act.

Larry Ashmead is a great editor. All writers should be as lucky as I am.

My children, Andrew and Betsy Abramowitz, are no longer children. I thank them for their wise and perceptive editorial comments and, of course, for their love.

Finally, in case anyone is curious about who the best person in the world is, it is still my husband, Elkan Abramowitz.

*1*

Seymour Ira Spencer of Manhattan and Southampton was a class act. Hey, the last thing you'd think was "movie producer." No herringbone gold chain rested on a bed of chest hair; there was no fat mouth, definitely no cigar. If you could have seen him, in his plain white terry-cloth bathrobe (which he was too well-bred to have monogrammed), standing on the tile deck of the pool of his beachfront estate, Sandy Court, sipping a glass of iced black-currant tea, talking softly into his portable phone, you'd have thought:
This
is what they mean when they say good taste.

I'll tell you how tasteful Sy Spencer was. He actually might have hung up, strolled inside and picked out a Marcel Proust book to reread. Except just then he got blasted by two bullets, one in his medulla, one in his left ventricle. He was dead before he hit the deck.

Too bad. It was a gorgeous August day. I remember. The sky was a blue so pure and powerful you almost couldn't look at it. Who could take that much beauty? Down at the beach, where Sy was, silver-white gulls soared, then dive-bombed into the ocean. The sand gleamed pale gold. Farther north, out beyond my backyard, potato fields gave off a rich, dark-green light.

It was the kind of perfect Long Island day that makes the summer people say: "Dahr-ling [or
Ma cbere
or Kiddo], this is
such
a glorious time out here. And do you know what's so pathetic? All the little social climbers are so busy being upwardly mobile that they never get to appreciate"—taking a deep, sensitive sniff of fresh air through their dilated nostrils—"such breathtaking loveliness."

Jesus, were they full of shit! But they were right. That day, the sun bathed the entire South Fork of Long Island in glorious light. It was like a divine payoff. For the last five years, one of the secretaries in Homicide had been bestowing the same benediction on me: "Have a nice day, Detective Brady!" Well, God had finally come through. This was it.

For Sy Spencer, of course, this was not it. And to be perfectly honest, the day, wonderful as it was, wasn't so nice for me either. Nothing as dramatic as Sy's day. Definitely not so fatal. But the events of that sunny summer afternoon changed the ending of my story almost as much as they did Sy's.

I was home in the northwest corner of Bridgehampton, six miles east and five miles north of
Sandy Court
, in considerably less impressive circumstances. My house was a former migrant worker's shack. It had been renovated by a hysterically ambitious, pathetically untalented, ponytailed
Brooklyn
Heights
architect, who comprehended, too late, that the place would never be considered a Find. He had been forced to sell it cheap to one of the locals (me) because even the most gullible smoothie from New York would not buy a low-ceilinged, Thermopaned, whitewashed hovel with a six-burner restaurant stove and aggressively cute fruits and flowers stenciled along the walls and floors, situated on a rutted, geographically undesirable road between a potato field and a stagnant pond.

Anyway, somewhere around the time the bullet blasted through the base of Sy's skull, my life also blew up. Our two lives—ka-boom!—were joined. Of course, I didn't know it. Unlike movies, life has no sound track; there was no ominous roll of drums. For me, it was still a nice day. A fantastic day. There I was, with my fiancee, Lynne Conway, lying on a blanket on the grass in my backyard, having moved outside from the bedroom for a little postcoital sun, conversation and iced tea. (I'd even thrown a couple of lemon circles into our glasses, to show that, okay, Lynne might have gone to Manhattanville College and known about fish forks, but I could still be a gracious host.)

Of course, if I had been truly gracious, we would have been stretched out on lounge chairs, but in the last few years I hadn't had time for amenities like towels without holes, much less outdoor furniture. So what? I knew all that would change in three months, when we got married. We'd have lounge chairs on a brick patio. A barbecue with a domed cover. Tuberous begonias. I would stop referring to the bacon-cheddar cheeseburgers I ate in the greasiest diners in
Suffolk
County
as dinner; I would come home to poached salmon with parsleyed potatoes, fresh asparagus. I would, at age forty, be a newlywed.

I turned over onto my side. Lynne was so pretty. Dark-red hair, that Irish setter color. Peachy young skin. A perfect nose, slightly upturned, with two tiny indentations on the tip, as though God had made a fast realignment in the final seconds before her birth. She wore khaki shorts that revealed her fabulous long legs. It wasn't just her looks, though. Lynne was a lady.

She came from a good family ... well, compared to mine. Her father was a retired navy cipher expert. His retirement seemed to consist of sitting in a club chair, his white-socked feet on an ottoman, reading right-wing magazines and getting enraged at Democrats.

Lynne's mother, Saint Babs of Annapolis, went to Mass every morning, where she probably prayed that the Lamb of God would strike me dead before I could marry her daughter. Babs Conway needlepointed all afternoon while she watched
The Young and the Restless
and
Geraldo
; she was eight years into her masterwork, a gigantic "The Marys at the Sepulchre" throw pillow.

So there was Lynne: a nice Catholic girl. And a good woman. A beauty. Believe me. I knew precisely how lucky I was to have her. My life had not been what you'd call a charmed existence. Happiness was a blessing I'd doubted I deserved and never believed I would receive.

"For the honeymoon," she said softly, adjusting the shoulder seam of my T-shirt, "what would you think—this is just another option—if instead of Saint John we spent a week in London?"

"You want to snorkel in the Thames in late November?"

Lynne smiled, and the smile made her look even lovelier. She offered no wisecracks. No: Do you think I want to spend my honeymoon with some schmuck in flippers? What she said, without a trace of sarcasm, was: "I think I get the point. Saint John." I gazed into Lynne's fine brown eyes.

And then I stopped having a nice day.

Because there I was with a wonderful, kind-hearted, titian-haired, honey-skinned woman, and all I was having was a nice day. I wasn't having fun.

This is nuts, I said to myself. I had to understand that Lynne was young. She didn't quite get me yet. To her, I was a man of the world. It was kind of sweet. Okay, I wished she'd loosen up just a little. I admitted it. I even admitted I was a little tense. I should have wanted a drink. But listen, I told myself, I
don't
want a drink. I'm doing fine.

Still, that was why, when Headquarters called fifteen minutes later and said, There's been a homicide reported in your neck of the woods, ha-ha, on Dune Road in Southampton—that's
the
high-rent district, right?—a movie producer, Somebody Spencer, was shot...

Jesus H. Christ, I said. Sy Spencer.

You know him?

I know about him. My brother's doing some work for him on the movie he's making out here.

Hey, is it true he won an Oscar a couple of years ago?

Yeah.

I bet I saw him! On TV, you know, one of those guys saying: I wanna thank my agent and my parents and my late cat, Fluff. Listen, it's your day off, but you're the only one who lives way the hell out in the Hamptons, and we just got called in on a mess in Sachem where some computer nerd got into a fight with his old man and strangled him and tried to hide him under the compost heap, so could you get over and establish a presence? Keep the village police eager beavers from playing cops, sticking everything not nailed down into Baggies. You know how they can fuck up a crime scene. Thanks, pal.

...Well, I felt a certain gratitude toward Sy Spencer.

I walked Lynne out to her car and kissed her good-bye. "Sorry, but this one sounds like it's going to totally screw up our weekend."

She squeezed my hand and said, "Come on. I'm an old pro by now. I just feel awful about your brother's boss. What a shock!" Then she added, "I love you, Steve."

I thought: This woman is going to be a wonderful wife. A terrific mother. So I said, "I love you too."

A homicide would be a snap compared to this. Which shows you how much I knew.
 

The night was as beautiful as the day had been. But neither the moon that rose four hours later nor the floodlights from the Emergency Services truck shining on the crime scene could make cheerful what was, in fact, gruesome: a corpse.

Although a corpse in a spectacular setting. Sy Spencer's lifeless body sprawled facedown on his tile deck. These were no ordinary exorbitantly priced tiles; about one out of every five of the deep-blue squares was hand-painted with a different fish, all of them too fashionably thin and richly colored to truly exist in Long Island coastal waters. But as some
New York
exterior decorator probably explained to Sy, they combined an oceanic motif with tongue-in-cheek chic.

The pool itself was long, luminous aqua. In the cool night air, a mist, like a rectangular cloud, hovered over the water. Sy's graceful, sprawling gray-shingled house, built in the early twenties, in that lost era of huge families and happy servants, rose up three stories high behind the pool. If you turned the other way, you saw soft sand and the Atlantic.

"How's your beautiful bride-to-be?" Sergeant Ray Carbone asked me. We were standing right near Sy's head. Carbone wore a blue serge suit and Clark Kent glasses. With his small frame, potbelly and hunched-over back, he looked more like an overtaxed accountant than a disguised Superman.

"Still beautiful," I said.

"She's a lot more than beautiful. Rita and I were talking about you two the other day. Lynne gives you just what you need. Stability. Stability's the name of the game."

"For me, it has to be."

"Don't think I was talking about the drinking."

"It's okay. You can talk about it."

"As far as I'm concerned, that's history. Look, I know there's no such thing as a recovered alcoholic. You're always recovering—for the rest of your life. But, Steve, you were classic emotionally unstable." Carbone, who had a master's in forensic science, was going for a second one, in psychology. "You'd be Mr. Nice Guy, and then you'd become so withdrawn—like no one was home inside—and then you'd start with the belligerence. But the past few years: what a difference! You're as solid as they come. Trust me. You don't have to worry."

"No. I always have to worry."

"Wrong. But you know what? Your not being complacent is a sign of wellness." That's what happens to a guy after twenty-four credits at the
State
University
at Stony Brook. "Actually," he went on, "what I meant by stability was a fire in the hearth. Good company. A nice bowl of soup. We need something normal, healthy to come home to after what we have to look at." Twenty-four credits couldn't entirely knock out Carbone's basic common sense.

A technician from ID elbowed his way past us, knelt down beside Sy, and slipped bags over the lifeless hands. (Paper bags, in movies they use plastic. Scary when the camera moves in close, those lifeless hands wrapped like last week's Oscar Mayer pimento loaf. Very visual. But very phony: we never use them. Plastic traps moisture and screws up any chance of doing an FDR test, to see if the victim fired a weapon.)

"What did you find inside?" I asked Ray.

"Nothing. No signs of robbery, no violence. Sy had packed a carry-on bag to go to L.A. for some meetings. There was an unmade bed in the guest room. He could have taken a nap." The button on Carbone's too-snug suit jacket popped open. Not counting his midsection, he was thin. But his clothes were always a size too small for his basketball of a belly. "The cook was downstairs the whole time," he continued. "Nice lady. She gave me a bowl of clam chowder, the red kind. She's making something now for all the guys. All she heard were the shots. Nothing before that."

"Nothing after?"

"No. She looked out the window, saw Sy, ran out to him, saw he was dead. The way his head was turned, she could see that one eye, open." We both glanced down. The hood of Sy's bathrobe was pulled back far enough that you could see his quarter profile and a bit of his hair: short, tight gray curls, cut middle-aged-gladiator style. The one eye that was visible was wide open. Because of the position of his head, the eye stared downward, as though it had found a hideous flaw in one of the fancy fish tiles. "She called the village police."

"From the portable phone?"

"No. She said she knows not to touch anything near a murder victim. She went into the kitchen."

Okay, I thought, what kind of homicide do we have here? Not a heat-of-the-moment crime of passion, a murder arising out of jealousy or a family quarrel. And so far there was nothing to indicate a felony murder, a killing that occurs during the commission of another crime, like a burglary.

I knew I should hang on for forensic results—the autopsy report with photographs and videos, the toxicology and serology reports—but there I was, itching to figure out what kind of a guy/gal (I'm an equal-opportunity detective) the perpetrator was.

Well, it was easy to figure out that this killer wasn't some impulsive jerk who, in a moment of madness, grabbed a stake from the flower garden and turned Sy into a human shish kebab. No, this killer was extremely well organized, bright enough to plan the murder, bring his own weapon and take it away with him. His getaway had been slick too: completely uneventful. From the lack of any physical evidence so far, he hadn't gotten rattled.

Another thing that struck me—from the first minute I saw Sy—was that although the killer had a brain, he had no heart. I always notice how the perpetrator treats the victim; it tells so much. This one didn't seem like any psychopath. I knew I'd have to wait for the autopsy, but it didn't seem like there would be mutilation—no sicko ritualistic marks, no deranged slashing. So he was heartless but no sadist; there was no need to terrify, no gun shoved in the victim's mouth or gut or genitals. Sy had been shot from a distance, from behind, impersonally.

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