In this fifth installment of Robert Plunket’s new mystery series, Mr. Timothy Spryke attends a society gala with his new patroness, Doris Dickens—but not before another murder rocks Sarasota.
In last month’s chapter, Mr. Spryke’s carpenter, Rick, confessed he had lost his disabled son’s insurance settlement by flipping homes, and Mr. Spryke searched in vain for some new clients—including Herald-Tribune crafts editor, Magda Barlow, who lost her job right after his visit. His assistant, Mary Alice, suggested he could attract wealthy clients by donating his decorating services to a silent auction at a Designing Women fashion show. The donation did indeed draw a socialite: wealthy widow Mrs. Doris Dickens.
Suddenly things were different. Oh, the circumstances of Mr. Spryke’s life were more or less the same. Business was still terrible, and Rick’s financial problems still gnawed at his mind. But Mr. Spryke’s outlook had improved. Whose outlook wouldn’t? He had a new best friend, and she was worth $50 million.
He sat in his bed a week after the fashion show, reflecting on how much had changed. As he reflected, he performed his nightly ritual of moisturizing and plucking and making sure he had just the right ratio of black to gray to white in his temples. This had always been a special time—“my time,” he called it—but now it took on a real importance. He had to look his best.
Many a time he thought back to his first meeting with Doris, three days earlier. It had started out a little rocky. She lived in a penthouse about halfway up Longboat, one of the older buildings, conservative, solid and very 1980.
“Hi, Mr. Decorator,” she said as she flung the door open, and once again Mr. Spryke experienced a jolt at her appearance. That carrot-red hair, the heavy make-up. Today she was clad in a jeweled sweatshirt and a pair of capri pants. Style was clearly a priority to her, but her choices seemed inappropriate for one of her age.
She was known for doing strange things, Mary Alice had warned him. Talking during speeches. Humming to herself. Using other people’s silverware. Her age was anybody’s guess. Most people thought around 80, but she could easily have been an old 70. She had had a spot of bad health last year and had taken to using a wheelchair, but now she was back with a vengeance, trotting around everywhere with her determined little gait.
Mr. Spryke was eager to impress her with his ideas for decorating her apartment, and after pleasantries had been exchanged and Doris brought him a cup of coffee in a mug, he launched into his spiel. The apartment was worse than he’d expected, very early 1980s, with cream-colored carpet every where and big curvy sofas that were past their prime. Everything would have to be ripped out, and to do this right, it would cost an awful lot of money.
Of course he didn’t present it quite like this. He stressed the fact that beauty enriches our lives so much that we should pursue it with vigor.
Doris, however, was frustratingly unresponsive to his pitch. She didn’t want this, and she didn’t want that. “That sounds expensive,” was her constant comment. Mr. Spryke kept a smiling face, but he was getting a little on edge. His ideas were excellent, and if she wasn’t prepared to do something about this pit she was living in, then why had she even bid on him? Didn’t she want decorating advice?
Then it hit him. Of course she didn’t. She wanted attention. That’s what she was buying when she bid on his services. And if he was smart, he would deliver the goods.
So he paused a moment, took a deep breath, and switched gears.
“Actually, I have to say that I have rarely been in an apartment that is so . . . welcoming.”
“Ya think so?”
“I do think so. It’s lived in. It’s loved.”
Doris beamed. “Do you like it? Do you really, really like it?”
“Like it? I love it,” Mr. Spryke said, not really lying, for he loved all penthouses, just on general principle.
* * *
Once he had learned the secret of dealing with Doris—keep her in the spotlight at all times—it was relatively easy. He had merely to sit back and listen. No, not even listen. Just look interested. A certain amount of facial expression was necessary at times, and a nod every now and then, but basically, you flipped a switch and she kept going. He heard about her childhood in Rochester and her marriage to Dr. Dickens, a clever urologist from the Finger Lakes who made a fortune in shopping centers and strip malls. Dr. Dickens was dead now, and it was the great tragedy of her life that they had no children.
Hmm, Mr. Spryke thought. No children . . . Does that mean . . . no heirs?
This was a question he was still wondering about as he sat in bed. Saturday was to be their first big date. And what a date—the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Gala. Everybody in town would be there. The social set.
Exciting, yes. But there was something else. Something that had happened just before he left Doris’ penthouse that afternoon. He had been thinking about it a lot, playing it over and over in his mind. He had made some remark, some pleasant compliment (he couldn’t even remember what it was), and it had pushed him over the top. She looked at him and blushed. Then a girlish sigh and she batted her lashes.
“Oh, my God,” thought Mr. Spryke. “She’s got a little crush.”
In bed, Mr. Spryke slathered on the hand cream. Where was this going, he wondered. Of course it was much too soon to know, but human nature likes to speculate. Would he become Doris’ “walker?” Would he escort her to all the top social events?
Or would it lead to something even more? He had seen the look on her face. She was smitten. What if . . .
After a certain age, marriage was not a thing of passion and physicality but rather a matter of companionship and travel and shopping. It was not something he’d ever considered, but here it was, the possibility, at least, right in front of him.
Did he even want it? Of course he didn’t. She was a silly old woman.
But on the other hand, she was a silly old woman with $50 million.
He was about to clap loudly twice to turn off the TV when something caught his attention. There was Heidi Godman on the 11 p.m. news, and right over her left shoulder was a picture of Magda Barlow.
“The former crafts editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was found dead in her home around 6 p.m,” Heidi was saying.
Mr. Spryke let out a little cry. Oh, my God, they’ve driven her to suicide!
“Police have not released any details,” Heidi continued, “but a spokesman for the Sarasota Police Department said that Barlow’s death is definitely a homicide.”
* * *
Mr. Spryke decided that he would keep his big mouth shut. If the police put two and two together and found out that he, next-door neighbor of the first murder victim, had had an appointment with the second victim just days before she was killed, well, then, he would certainly answer any questions they might have. But he wasn’t going to bring it up.
So he was a little nonplussed the next morning at 8 a.m. when Officer Fernandez showed up with a forensic unit that swabbed the inside of his cheek with a Q-tip and then handed him a jar and demanded a urine sample.
“Is this really necessary?” he asked, trying to sound indignant when he was actually becoming more scared by the minute.
“I’m afraid it is,” said Officer Fernandez, “and I hope you won’t be offended if I stand right outside the door.”
After this degrading experience, Mr. Spryke and Officer Fernandez had a little talk in the living room. The easy camaraderie of their earlier sessions was vanishing quickly, replaced by wariness on both sides.
“Are you sure it was murder?” Mr. Spryke asked. “Magda was very depressed, what with losing her job.”
“Items were stolen,” said the policeman. Then he paused and looked Mr. Spryke in the eye. “Where were you yesterday?”
“Let me see,” said Mr Spryke, tapping all 10 fingers. “I was home in the morning.”
“Oh, you know. Futzing around.” Actually, Mr. Spryke had been Googling Doris Dickens and her late husband, Dr. Dickens, trying to figure out which strip malls they owned and how much they might be worth. But somehow that just didn’t sound right.
“And in the afternoon?”
In the afternoon Mr. Spryke had had a consultation at Hair Club for Men. But that didn’t sound right, either. “I ran errands.”
“Did you see or talk to Rick Yoder?”
Mr. Spryke immediately suspected a trick question. Had they spoken to Rick already? What had he said?
“Rick knew nothing about this. He didn’t know about Magda. He didn’t know I knew her. Not that I knew her.”
Officer Fernandez sighed. “But was he with you yesterday afternoon?”
A tiny pause, then an emphatic “No.”
“You and Rick Yoder are pretty close.”
Something in the detective’s tone made Mr. Spryke stiffen. “He works for me.”
“Does he ever spend the night here?”
“Of course not! Well, maybe once. He was . . . sick.”
Officer Fernandez wrote something down. Then he suddenly shut his notebook.
“Funny,” he said.
“That you’re the only connection between the two murders.”
Officer Fernandez was right, of course. Mr. Spryke worried about it. And late that night as he tossed and turned, he decided he’d better find out exactly what that connection was.
* * *
Mr. Spryke had been to fancy parties before. His mother’s people had been socially prominent in Duluth at the turn of the century—or rather, at the turn of the century, plus another century—and he had grown up with the feeling that he came from a family of substance, temporarily on hard times. He’d been to weddings at the Duluth Country Club and the cotillion at the Gitchee-Goo-Mee Yacht Club, and had once even attended a party at the home of Mrs. Gustave Hecklemann, the Duluth heiress whose fortune could be traced back to the beaver trade.
But even Duluth at its most opulent couldn’t hold a candle to Sarasota when it gets dressed up, he thought to himself as he escorted Doris into the lobby of the Grand Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency. The jewels alone were breathtaking. It seemed that every woman had a diamond necklace. And the gowns were Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, or at least looked that way.
Mary Alice had told him that everybody in town would be there. The Asolo was one of the major cultural institutions in town, and its 50th anniversary gala was the must-attend party of the season. In the packed lobby people came and went, chattering and laughing, kissing cheeks and sipping from flutes of celebratory champagne. Several performers left over from the cast of Barnum entertained, juggling, spinning hoops and eating fire.
Doris was in seventh heaven. She grabbed Mr. Spryke by the wrist with surprising strength and led him from one group to another, introducing him in a proprietary way. Mr. Spryke, who was much attuned to social nuance, noticed that many people who saw Doris coming got a panicky look in their eyes that seemed to say, “Oh, God, not her.” But this was not everyone, thank God, and many of the guests, particularly those who ran nonprofit organizations, were quite nice to her.
The talk of the party was the recent murders. People couldn’t get enough. It was generally agreed to be the work of some monster who was killing people for their collectibles. Would there be another victim? Who? Somebody at this very party?
Mr. Spryke could barely contain himself. Here he was, the star of the investigation, and he had to keep his mouth shut. Just think of the little details and tidbits he could dispense. He’d be the hit of the party. But as sorely as he was tempted, he wouldn’t let himself do it. To be introduced to the Sarasota social world as Doris’ new walker who’s also a murder suspect—no, that was the wrong way to go.
By the time they sat down to dinner, Mr. Spryke calculated that he had met more than 20 A-listers, and several more were at their table. Joan Brand was sitting right next to him, with her husband, Bob. They went everywhere and were very big with the animal charities.
“Do you have a pet?” Joan asked.
Mr. Spryke let out a sad sigh. “My poor little puppy died,” he said, neglecting to mention that it was 37 years ago.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Joan, touching his hand. “What was his name?”
For an awful moment Mr. Spryke couldn’t remember. Oh, well, he’d make one up. Fido popped into his mind, and so did Spot, but what came out of his mouth was “Sido.”
“What?” said Joan. “Spell it.”
Fortunately, at that moment the gazpacho martinis arrived (piquant, non-alcoholic gazpacho served in martini glasses), allowing Mr. Spryke to exclaim over their beauty and deftly change the subject.
In spite of being unable to talk about the murders, Mr. Spryke felt he was making a favorable impression on the social set. He looked good in his dinner jacket, an inky midnight blue, and he was adept at small talk. Most of all, he took pains to project just the right attitude as far as Doris was concerned. He paid her a great deal of attention and was always on the lookout for things to say that made her look good or insightful or witty.
This could be a lot of work. She didn’t like immigrants, taxes, the ACLU, welfare, French people or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The French people part was particularly vexing, as he had rather been hoping for a six-month Riviera honeymoon. Sometimes he drifted off to sleep thinking about it—a sun-soaked pool terrace in Juan-les-Pins, with him and Rick, who had somehow managed to come along, sipping wine and watching the sailboats, while Doris napped in another part of the villa . . .
Dinner arrived—Mr Spryke chose the beef—and then came the speeches. The ubiquitous Cliff Roles, who had a radio show and a magazine column, was emceeing once again, and after he plugged his new play several times—The Glass Menagerie at the Players— he then introduced the Asolo’s artistic director, Michael Donald Edwards, who plugged his play, The Winter’s Tale, which was being done in hippie garb and featured a controversial nude love-in. Several heartfelt testimonials followed about the Asolo’s 50- year history, rich donors were made to stand up and take a bow, and then the board president, Ron Greenbaum, received the biggest hand of the evening when he assured the crowd that absolutely none of the theater’s money had been invested with Art Nadel.
At about this point Mr. Spryke slipped off to the bathroom. He had gotten to the age where at every event he went to, the first thing he did was check out where the men’s room was. Afterward he lingered in the lobby for a moment. He needed a moment to relax. Taking care of Doris could be quite exhausting.
He sat down on a settee and closed his eyes. He was going to have to make a decision soon. How far was he going to take this? This flirtation. It was hard work, being attentive and pleasant. Was he up to the task? Was he selling his soul?
On the other hand, what was he doing other than being nice to an old lady? He’d been nice to his mother for all those long years, and he’d done quite a good job. He was very good at it. And look at the rewards. Fifty million dollars. And a place at the table—literally—with the Brands and the Greenbaums.
Full of resolve and feeling a second wind rise, Mr. Spryke returned to the ballroom.
There was a man sitting at his seat. He was talking to Doris, and she was laughing.
Mr. Spryke felt his second wind deflate. He didn’t like this. This man was young, and he had exactly the same look on his face when he talked to Doris that Mr. Spryke had—only more so, and he did it better.
“I’m back,” he said. The announcement didn’t have the impact he thought it might have; in fact, he had to repeat it twice. Finally he was noticed, and the man—who was freakishly young for this gathering, perhaps 30—shook his hand and identified himself as one “Marco Massima.” Then he went back to charming the old lady.
Mr. Spryke found an empty seat at the other side of the table. He sat there staring at his new rival.
Marco Massima’s looks were so wholesome and all-American that he might have been a college athlete. Not a football player, perhaps, but certainly a member of the swim team or one of those young men who jump hurdles. His dinner jacket was even nicer than Mr. Spryke’s, and at his cuff a Cartier watch was peeking out.
Marco whispered something in Doris’ ear, and she dissolved in yet another peal of girlish laughter.
A woman named Catt Williams came out and sang Unforgettable, and Mr. Spryke was still stuck at the other side of the table. Then the dancing began. He was appalled to see Marco lead Doris out to the floor, where they began a rumba. It became so painful to watch that Mr. Spryke finally cut in. “I’m getting a little headache,” he told Doris as they shuffled to the music. He knew he couldn’t compete with Marco, and he didn’t even try. “Perhaps we should call it a night.”
In the valet parking line, while waiting for their car, all Doris could talk about was her new friend. “Isn’t he great?” she gushed.
“Yeah,” said Mr. Spryke, trying to find someone to give his parking stub to. “Great.”
“He’s an art dealer.”
“And guess what?”
“He’s going to sell me stuff for my apartment!”
“Why will nobody take my stub?” Mr. Spryke exploded. “Where is everybody? What is going on?”
In fact, it did seem like something was going on. Back in the hotel lobby a commotion could be glimpsed through the glass doors. A crowd of people was jostling about, straining to see. Then the crowd parted, and who should Mr. Spryke see walking toward him but—Officer Fernandez? He slunk behind a pillar.
The policeman was accompanied by another officer, and between them was Cliff Roles, the emcee with the magnetic grin. But the grin was anything but magnetic now; it was fierce and snarling. “You’ll be bloody sorry for this,” Mr. Spryke heard him spit out as he passed by, a pair of handcuffs glinting at his wrists.
“What’s going on?” asked Mr. Spryke of the woman standing next to him.
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” she answered. “They just arrested Cliff Roles.”
“But what on earth for?”
“The murders. Both of them.”
Senior editor Robert Plunket is the author of two novels, My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie. He’s also a frequent contributor to national publications, including Barron’s, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times.