MURDER IN THE PAST TENSE
It's summer, and Amelia is a lady in waiting. When she happens on a familiar face in a tabloid newspaper, she and Gil reminisce about another summer, long, long ago when they were teens, working with a summer stock company. There was drama that summer, along with romance and danger. Though much has changed over the years, the danger is still there.
Who killed Danny?
Did they also kill Janey?
And what does it all have to do with an Adirondack hermit?
Who killed Danny?
Did they also kill Janey?
And what does it all have to do with an Adirondack hermit?
The Manhattan offices of DiNicco Enterprises even smelled new. There was mahogany wainscoting in the entry way, designer lighting throughout and executive assistant Martina Figueroa knew for a fact that the imported Italian wallpaper in the boss’s office had cost a cool three hundred dollars a roll.
Since their move from the far more modest location across town, she had received a substantial raise and today had spent the morning interviewing applicants. The executive assistant was to have her own assistant and a large crew of underlings.
“The painter has finished putting your name on the door. I gave him the check,” she said, leaning slightly in the office door, her purse hanging from her elbow. “So I’ll be going now, Mr. DiNicco,”
Her employer smiled. “That’s great, Martina.” He leaned back in his desk chair and waved both hands to indicate the entire room. “Tell me, are you getting accustomed to our new place, settling in okay?” Despite the thick carpeting, his theatrically trained voice reverberated in the large room, sending a small thrill through her body.
Stout, henna-haired Martina, a good fifteen years older than her boss, simpered as she stepped forward. “It’s wonderful, sir! That fancy new computer and the carpeting, it’s so soft! And I just love that whatchamacallit, the argo—argo—“
He nodded and the one silver lock in his thick, dark hair fell over his forehead. Glancing at the huge, gilt-framed mirror across the room and he swiped it back in place. “Your chair? It’s ergonomic. It’s good for your back, or so the office designer tells me. Things are looking up so much,” he said, nodding in the direction of his desk, where a stack of legal folders lay, “I might even buy a car.”
Martina was shocked. “A car? A parking space in this city costs more than my apartment rent!”
He dismissed the issue of parking with a wave of his hand. “I keep telling you, Ms Figueroa, we’ve hit the big time.” He tapped the top of his closed laptop computer. “Thanks to all these new contracts, it’ll be first class from now on!” He chuckled and glanced at his watch. “Are you going to Albany for Christmas?”
She nodded, fingering the Hermes scarf that had been his Christmas present to her. “Taking the train right after lunch. My nephews are waiting for me to come and make gingerbread men with them. It’s a tradition! How about you? Celebrating with Miss Yates again this year?”
He nodded. “Part of the time. Thanks for picking this up, by the way.” He smiled and tapped a flat beribboned gift box with the distinctive aquamarine paper of a famous jeweler “Charlotte’s meeting me for lunch at one-thirty. I’ll give it to her then. I’m taking her to the Russian Tearoom.”
The secretary’s eyes widened.
Daniel DiNicco, newly successful theatrical producer and entrepreneur, threw back his handsome head and laughed. “Don’t look so surprised! Don’t you think I deserve it after all those hot dog lunches from that rotten food wagon back at the old place?”
“Oh, yes, sir! Nobody has worked harder than you have.”
“Well, run along now. Merry Christmas! See you after New Year’s.”
As Martina pressed the elevator button, she thought, I have the handsomest boss in the city. And he and that actress have the friendliest divorce I’ve ever seen. Imagine, taking your ex-wife to the Russian Tearoom! She frowned a little, thinking of her own sad marital history.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a figure emerge from the stairwell, and proceed down the hall, raincoat collar turned up and a watch cap pulled down well over the hair and ears.
As the elevator descended, she thought, “That was odd. I know he didn’t have an appointment with anybody, and that certainly wasn’t Ms. Yates.”
Daniel DiNicco looked up as the door to his office opened slowly. “Charlotte? I thought we—“
He broke off, mid-sentence. “Oh. May I help you?” he said as the door was closed.
Without a word, the intruder walked quickly to the desk and stood facing the sitting man. “Now wait just a minute—“ Di Nicco began to rise, but the sight of a gun barrel caused him to sit back down. He squinted intensely at the face before him.
Recognition dawned gradually. “What are you doing here?” he asked as he heard an ominous click.
The answer was a bullet, at close range, another click, and another shot.
The reports were readily absorbed by the luxuriant surroundings and never reached the hallway.
Silently, the intruder turned, walked through the anteroom, out the office door, back down the hallway. The stairwell door was pulled open with a gloved hand and the murderer disappeared from view.
Down on the crowded street, jostled by last-minute holiday shoppers, Martina Figueroa hurried cheerfully through the crowd to her favorite restaurant. “Today, I’ll splurge and have the steak sandwich,” she thought, not realizing that for the last five minutes she no longer had a job.
I wish to state at the outset that until the day in question, I—Amelia Prentice Dickensen--had never in my life bought a supermarket tabloid.
That’s not to say that I never sneaked the occasional surreptitious glance at a lurid headline while unloading my grocery cart. And it’s also true that I’d once become so desperate that I actually encouraged one of my more recalcitrant English students to read them, just so he read something. Still, as literature, I understand that if you use a little vinegar, they’re excellent for cleaning windows.
But on that particular late summer evening, as I placed a sack of overpriced seedless red grapes on the conveyor belt and let my eyes drift absently over the rack of colorful papers, magazines and thin paperback cookbooks, my attention was snagged by a familiar face. Not just a famous one, but an actual, familiar, I-know-that-person face.
My heart made an audible thump. I read the caption: “Charlotte with third husband, Daniel DiNicco, on their honeymoon. Last year on December 24 the theatrical producer was found brutally murdered in his Manhattan office.”
Surely it wasn’t who I thought it was. But how could there be more than one? I looked again.
There he was, grinning into the camera with that wide, sensuous mouth, his hand carelessly draped over Charlotte’s shoulders, some long-ago breeze lifting the dark wave that always dipped just above his forehead. It was a small color picture, printed on cheap newsprint, but those glittering dark eyes with the long black lashes were unmistakable.
I pulled the paper from its metal stand and skimmed the front page. Apparently, the murder of an erstwhile husband was just another event in the colorful life of beloved character actress Charlotte Yates who, in the face of overwhelming misfortune, kept picking up the pieces of her life and carrying on, her pointed little chin held high and her famous squawking voice ever ready to entrance an audience.
There was a picture of Charlotte with Husband Number One (an acting teacher), from whom she was divorced; and with Husbands Number Two (a stockbroker) and Number Four (a rock musician), who had shuffled off this mortal coil due to motorcycle accident and drug overdose, respectively. More details and photos would be forthcoming on page eight.
I’d always liked Charlotte Yates, but fascinating as her life story was, it wasn’t she who interested me. It was her third husband.
“Amelia?” said Gil, “Are you going to buy that, or what?”
I looked up. Apparently, all our groceries had been checked, bagged and paid for by my spouse while I was doing my reading. “I’m buying it.” I fished a few dollars from my pocket and tendered them to the clerk, who, I noted with embarrassment, was one of my students, though I hadn’t seen her in a long time.
“That’s a good issue, Miss Prentice,” said Kim Mallard, smiling conspiratorially,
“Especially that spinach diet.” She leaned forward, her eyes on my expanding middle. “How’re you feeling? Any momorning sickness?”
Everybody knew everything in a small town. “No, I’m over that now. Just tired all the time. Thanks for asking.”
The girl sighed. “I hear you! Between swollen ankles and trips to the ladies room all day, I’m exhausted!”
That’s when I realized that her loose smock covered the same condition as mine.
“Oh, my,” I said.
Kim, by my figuring, was seventeen.
She waved a hand airily. “Oh, it’s OK. Brian ‘n me’re getting married as soon as the baby’s born and I can fit into a wedding dress!” She glanced over her shoulder and pointed to a magazine rack. “Hand me that Modern Wedding, wouldja?”
When I complied, she eagerly turned to a large full-color illustration of a thin, ethereal-looking young woman in an elaborate, stark-white wedding gown. “That’s it!” She tapped the page with an overlong fingernail decorated with a silver peace sign and turned a glowing smile at me. “Got it on layaway at Formal Dreams over at the Mall.”
“It’s lovely, Kim.”
“This book costs fifteen bucks. Better put it away.” Guiltily, she slapped the magazine shut and allowed me to replace it. “Of course, it all depends on Brian getting a job at that new foundry.” She looked at me speculatively. “I’m seven and a half months. How far along are you?”
“Eight.” I glanced over my shoulder at the line forming behind me and then at Gil’s back as he strode out of the store, pushing the cart. “I guess I’d better be going. Good to see you, Kim. Take care of yourself.”
Waving goodbye, I folded my tabloid under one arm and scurried after my husband, who was once again exhibiting the signs of his besetting ailment.
Rather than agoraphobia--fear of the marketplace--Gil suffered from what I call Fear of Shopping. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but I have it on good authority that approximately half the male population of this country is afflicted. I discovered this terrible secret on our honeymoon, but like the beloved comedienne, Charlotte Yates, I had decided to bravely get on with my life, embracing the good with the bad.
Making this job far easier was Gil’s solid, manly physique and head of thick, semi-silvery hair. Not to mention an I.Q. roughly the same number as the price of a loaf of multi-grain bread and a smile that--well, considering my condition, you can guess the rest. My students certainly did.
As I approached our where Gil was opening the trunk, I spotted another familiar figure; this time, a live one. “Vern! Hello!” I called, waving at the tall blond young man who was carrying a six-pack of soda and taking long strides away from the store. Without a glance my way, he continued walking until he was well out of earshot.
I sighed. “I think he heard me. Apparently, he’s still not speaking to us.”
Gil moved aside a case of bottled water and an emergency snow shovel to make room for the groceries. “And you’re surprised?”
“Well, I thought after everything kind of died down…”
We lifted the groceries into the trunk. Gil said, “Honey, you’re underestimating the grudge-carrying power of my side of the family. That kid may never speak to us again.”
“But Gil, we did the right thing!”
“I know that, and you know that, but well…” Gil shrugged, slammed the trunk door closed and grabbed the folded tabloid I was carrying. He read the headlines aloud, “’Aliens Endorse Academy Award Winner for President; Medium Martinka Yeka Predicts State Lottery Winning Numbers.’ Since when have you taken to reading those?” he asked teasingly. He was trying to change the subject and cheer me up.
With sad glance in the direction of our disappearing nephew, I said, “Since today. There’s somebody I know in it. Or rather, somebody I once knew.”
“You know that psychic woman? How do I get an exclusive?” Gil held tabloids in low regard. It was a matter of professional pride. He was, after all, editor of our town’s only real newspaper, The Press-Advertiser, which was struggling mightily in these hard times. “What does she predict about us?” Gil slid behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. He grabbed my hand and pulled it to his lips. “Will it last?”
I looked down at my round tummy and smiled, sending up a quick but fervent prayer of thanksgiving, “It better.”
I picked up my copy of Worldwide Buzz and turned to page eight. Impatiently, I skimmed the illustrated retrospective of Charlotte Yates’ career from her humble beginnings as a rubber-faced extra in a roller skating movie to her recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a Tennessee Williams remake.
There were just the barest facts about Daniel DiNicco. He’d met Charlotte in the mid-nineties on a movie set where they were both bit players. The marriage lasted a little more than a year and produced no children, but their split was apparently amicable.
That sounds like Danny, I thought.
After the divorce, he had become a theatrical entrepreneur, owning and managing a string of dinner theatres and dance clubs across New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To my frustration, after having imparted these newsy tidbits, the reporter dropped the subject of Danny and moved on to Husband Number Four.
The next mention of Danny was under a photo at the bottom of the page. The picture was in black-and-white, a grainy, angled shot of an ordinary office desk, topped by an expensive-looking pen in a holder, a laptop computer, stacks of files and a large blotter. This orderly still life was freely spattered with ominous black stains. I read the caption: “Scene of the Crime: Daniel DiNicco’s lifeless body was found in this Manhattan office last December, shot in the head, execution-style. Police are said to have no leads in the case.”
“What’s the matter?” said Gil.
“Huh?” I looked up.
“You made a funny noise.”
“I did? What kind of noise?”
“I don’t know. A kind of a groan; sort of high-pitched. A feminine kind of a groan. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know if I should tell you.”
“It’s about an old crush of mine. Are you the jealous type?”
Gil smiled his irresistible smile. “What do you think?”
So I told him. It had all been a long time ago, but once I got into telling about it, Gil remembered everything. He’d been there...
READ THE PROLOGUE OF BOOK #4: Incomplete Sentence (See menu above)
Coming February, 2016