Clubbed to Death - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood


Chapter 1

“Do you know who I am?” The woman’s high-pitched whine sliced through Helen Hawthorne’s phone like a power saw cutting metal.

Yes, ma’am, Helen thought. You are another rude rich person.

“I am Olivia Reginald. I am a Superior Club member. I spend thousands at this country club.”

Everyone spends money here, Helen thought. That’s how they get in. “How may I help you, Mrs. Reginald?” she said.

The power-saw whine went up a notch. “I’m sitting by the pool waiting for you to call. I left a message at eleven o’clock. It took you half an hour to call back.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Reginald, but we’ve had a busy morning.”

“My husband is in the pool but I can’t go in until I arrange a guest pass for my sister. Laura is staying at our home while we’re on vacation. How can I enjoy myself when I have to wait by the phone?”

I’m sitting in a stuffy office on a fabulous January day in South Florida, Helen thought. How can I enjoy myself when I have to deal with you?

“I’ll fax the paperwork right now,” Helen said.

“I am on vacation. I am not sitting by a fax machine. Just give Laura the guest pass. I said it was OK.”

“I can’t,” Helen said. “I need your written approval. It’s for your protection. When you give someone a guest pass, she can charge thousands of dollars to your account. It will take two minutes to fax the paperwork to your hotel.”

“Well, hurry up. I’m wasting my vacation on the phone.”

Helen fought the urge to say something straight out of high school: “My heart bleeds purple peanut butter.”

Instead, she summoned heroic willpower and the memory of her new credit-card bill and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know who I am?” should be the Superior Club’s new motto, she thought. In the old days, the members would have never asked that question. Everyone knew the Prince of Wales, the queen of Romania, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. For the club’s gently bred socialites, the question would have been unthinkable. A lady didn’t want to be known outside her circle. The painted mistresses of the robber barons were politely infamous, but always discreet.

The new members were a different breed. They’d invaded the historic Superior Club like a swarm of termites, and they were just as destructive. Helen prayed the balky fax-copier machine was working, or she’d have to listen to Mrs. Reginald’s power whine again.

Helen never made it to the copy machine. She was stopped by another club member before she got down the hall. This one looked like he’d escaped from the Early Man display at the natural history museum and hijacked a suit. His forehead was so low it seemed to collapse on his thick eyebrows. Make that eyebrow. The man only had one, and it was fat and furry. Helen was sure his back and chest were covered with a thick pelt.

The surprise was his hands, which he must have swiped from a higher primate. They were long and slender and only slightly hairy around the knuckles.

The creature spoke with an educated accent.

“I’m a doctor,” the caveman said. “This is an emergency. I need to speak to the department supervisor.”

“I’m sorry, she’s out to lunch,” Helen said. In more ways than one, she thought. “Solange will be back in about two hours. How may I assist you?”

“You can’t.” His eyes narrowed to feral slits. Helen wondered if he had a stone ax up his sleeve. “I need someone important and I need him now.”

The doctor’s simian face was hard, but not from exercise or responsibility. This hardness came from too much cocaine, too much money, or both. It stripped the softness from the personality, leaving only the nasty “gimme” part. Helen had seen many versions of the doctor at the Superior Club, although none quite so hairy.

He was right. She couldn’t help him. She was only a clerk in customer care – a polite name for the country club’s complaint department. The other staffers didn’t even look up when the doctor screamed at Helen. They’d heard these tantrums before.

“How much longer are you going to keep me waiting?” The doctor’s soft, smooth fingers drummed the marble counter top. His brownish hair bristled with rage. “Didn’t you hear me? I said this was an emergency.”

Maybe someone really was dying. Helen thought. He was a doctor, after all. “Let me find Kitty, our manager. May I have your member number, please?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” the doctor said.

“I can assist you faster, sir.”

“I’m a doctor,” he corrected her, as if he expected her to bow down and worship him.

Helen dropped Mrs. Reginald’s paperwork on her desk and sat at her computer. She looked expectantly at the caveman, her hands hovering over the keys. He capitulated. “My Superior Club number is eight-eight-six-two.”

Helen typed in the number and saw the confidential profile: “Doctor Rodelle ‘Roddy’ Dell, breast augmentation specialist, married to Irene ‘Demi’ Dell. Status: Paid in full. See comments on behavior.”

A boob doctor. So what was the big hurry: Someone needed an emergency C cup? Of course, there was that young woman at the fitness center who’d picked up too heavy a weight and busted the stitches on her new implants. She had to go to the emergency room. Imagine the embarrassment when you bust your boobs, Helen thought.

“Are you going to stare at the computer all day?” the doctor demanded.

Helen picked up the phone and called Kitty. “Dr. Rodelle Dell is here, and he has an emergency. His member number is eight-eight-six-two.”

Helen heard the clack of Kitty’s keyboard as she looked up the account. “Oh, no. Roddy the Rod. Is he foaming at the mouth?”

“That would be correct,” Helen said. “He says it’s an emergency.”

“He’s too important to have anything else,” Kitty said. “Bring him to my office, please. And stay. I need a witness with Dr. Dell.”

“This way, doctor,” Helen said. She noticed little hairs were trapped in the gold-and-steel links of his TAG Heuer watch. He looked like a well-dressed Cro-Magnon.

And what do I look like, in my navy uniform with the gold Superior Club crest on the chest? A nobody. An eleven-fifty-an-hour clerk. The sad part is, this is more money than I’ve made in years.

Helen knocked on the door to Kitty’s comfortably cluttered office. She could hardly see her Kewpie-doll boss over the vase of yellow roses, the piles of paper and framed photos of her children. A teddy bear in pearls and a pink dress slouched next to her computer. The only empty space was where the photo of her almost ex-husband once stood.

“Please sit down, doctor.” Kitty indicated a leather wing chair that shrieked “country club.” Usually, Kitty’s soft voice and big brown eyes disarmed the angriest club member.

The doctor paced in front of her desk, too agitated to sit. Helen stayed in the office doorway, but he didn’t notice her.

“I have an emergency,” he said. “I need my bill.”

“The monthly statements will be mailed this afternoon,” Kitty said. She checked the computer. “Yours will go to your home in Golden Palms.”

“That’s the emergency, dammit. I can’t have my wife see that bill.”

“Is there a problem, sir?” Kitty said.

He was too upset to correct her about his proper title. “I treated a friend – a young woman – to a day at the Superior Club. She’s one of my office staff. Strictly business. It helps her perform better.”

Doing what? Helen wondered.

“She needed to relax,” the doctor babbled. “Job stress. We had breakfast in the Superior Room before I went to the office. Then she used the pool, the fitness club, had some lunch and bought a few things in the gift shop. The total came to three thousand dollars. I let her put the charges on my club account. My wife, Demi, will completely misunderstand the situation when she sees those charges.”

The doctor was sweating, though it wasn’t warm in the office. Helen was sure Demi would understand perfectly. That philandering cheapskate. As a club member, the doctor got a fifteen-percent discount on meals, goods and services if he used his club card. That could be the most expensive four hundred and fifty dollars the doctor ever saved.

“What would you like me to do?” Kitty’s dark hair curled innocently around her smooth forehead. Her lips were soft and pink. Only her determined chin gave a clue to her real strength.

“I’d like you to give me the damned bill right now so Demi doesn’t see it,” the doctor said.

“I’m sorry,” Kitty said. “I can’t do that. Your wife is a member of this club. I cannot deny her access to her own account, which she shares with you. Club rules require me to send the statement to your billing address. But I can give you a copy now if you wish.”

The doctor’s fist crashed down on Kitty’s desk. The teddy bear jumped and the children’s pictures rattled. “I don’t want a copy. I want the bill. I’m entitled. I make all the money.”

“But it’s also her account as long as you two are married,” Kitty said.

“That’s just it,” the doctor said. “She’ll give the bill to her lawyer.”

“If I were you, doctor, I’d be home tomorrow when your mail arrives. Then I’d explain those charges to your wife. Have a nice day. Helen, please show the doctor out.”

Helen had no idea how Kitty managed to defeat him with her soft words, but the doctor realized he was dismissed. He pushed past Helen and slouched out of the office.

The two women waited until he slammed the mahogany door to customer care. “He is a brilliant boob doctor,” Kitty said. “But rumor has it the only way he can cop a good feel is through his specialty. Otherwise, he has to give the ladies lavish gifts.”

“But why bring his mistress to the club?” Helen asked. “He knew he was going to get caught.”

“That’s part of the thrill,” Kitty said. “You’ve only been here a week, sweetpea. You’ll see a lot more emergencies like this one. Some idiot brings his bimbo to the club and then tries to cover up his mistake. Do these guys really think their wives won’t find out? Demi plays golf and tennis here. One of her friends is bound to spot her husband with another woman.”

“If I knew the name of his wife’s lawyer, I’d fax the bill to him,” Helen said.

“I know Demi,” Kitty said. “She’s no fool. She won’t divorce the doctor during his peak earning years. Besides, he still cares enough to try to cover up. My guess is she’ll get another little gift from Harry Winston. When she’s finally had enough, Demi will cash in her diamonds for a good divorce lawyer.”

Helen saw Kitty staring at the empty spot where her almost ex-husband’s photo used to be. She still loved him. Helen had no idea what caused the split. A single tear slid down Kitty’s cheek.

Helen silently shut the door to the office and went back to her desk to unearth Mrs. Reginald’s guest pass paperwork. The woman was still languishing by the pool. She’d call back any minute and assault Helen’s ears with that power-saw whine.

Jessica, at the next desk, was on the phone with a club member, making placating noises without making promises. It was an art form Helen had yet to master.

“Yes,” Jessica said in her hypnotic voice. “Yes, I do understand.”

It’s her acting training, Helen thought. Jessica sounded so sincere.

She had remarkably pale skin for someone who lived year-round in South Florida, and long straight blond hair that was either natural or a first-rate dye job. Helen really envied Jessica her bones. She had razor-sharp cheekbones, a strong chin and a thin, elegant nose.

Jessica’s aristocratic face had earned her small, choice parts in the New York theater, but she made her real money selling champagne and pricey chocolates in TV ads. Four years ago, Jessica and her husband, Allan, moved to Florida. Their luck ran out about the same time as her acting career went on hiatus, and she took a job at the club. Fifty was a tough age for an actress. Jessica liked to say, “My greatest role is pretending to like the members at the Superior Club.”

Helen heard her finish another bravura phone performance. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” Jessica said, and hung up.

Helen wanted to applaud.

“I saw the doctor slam out of here,” Jessica said. “What was that all about? Was it really life and death?”

“Yes. His death. The doctor’s wife will kill him when she gets this month’s statement,” Helen said. “He’s been fooling around with some bimbo at the club.”

“They can’t even come up with an original sin,” Jessica said.

“You actresses,” Helen said. “Always complaining about the script.”

Jessica laughed. “I’m not much of an actress these days.”

“You’re resting,” Helen said. “Isn’t that the phrase?”

“If I get any more rested, I’ll be dead.”

“If I don’t get Mrs. Reginald her guest pass, I’m dead,” Helen said.

The Superior Club was like a stage set, Helen thought. The imposing pink stucco buildings were designed by Elliott Endicott, Addison Mizner’s greatest rival, in 1925. Critics called Endicott’s semi-Spanish architecture derivative. Helen thought it looked like it came from a Gloria Swanson movie. But that was OK. Gloria was once a club member, too. She must have felt right at home with the lobby’s throne-like chairs, massive wrought-iron chandeliers and twisted candelabra.

Behind this imposing front was a warren of battered storage rooms and dark passages that reminded Helen of backstage at the theater. They were used by the staff. But it was the club members who provided the drama. Too bad Jessica was right. The stories were old and trite, and it was easy to guess the endings.

Helen picked her way down the narrow, scruffy back hall of the customer care office to where the fax-copier machine growled and groaned in a former coat closet. The noises reassured her. The beast was working. Mrs. Reginald could receive her forms, sign them, fax them back and then go soak her head.

Helen’s office was part of the stage set. She sat at one of five original desks designed by Elliott Endicott, coffin-sized mahogany affairs carved with parrots and egrets. Endicott loved parrots and used to have them fly freely around the indoor garden in the lobby, until members complained the ill-mannered birds ruined their clothes and hair.

The drawers stuck on her antique desk and one leg tilted inward. The matching chair, with its original parrot-print fabric, was fabulously uncomfortable. But the view from Helen’s window made up for it. She could see the yacht club basin and the seagoing mansions. Today, the place looked like a boat show. Yachts the size of cruise ships were docking. Hunky young crew members in tight white uniforms were scrubbing decks and reaching for ropes.

“What’s going on?” Helen said. “Where’d all the yachts come from?”

“It’s the party tonight,” Jessica said, as if that should explain everything. “Oh, I forgot. You’re new. Every year, Cordelia van Rebarr, of the Boston van Rebarrs, has a yacht party. She invites some amazing entertainer to perform at a private party for one hundred of her closest – and richest – friends. This year, it’s Eric Clapton.”

“The real Eric Clapton? Not an impersonator? How can she afford him? The man sells out stadiums.”

“The man himself,” Jessica said. “Some people have money. Cordy is rich. She hires the major names for her parties the way you’d get a DJ.”

“Ohmigod. Imagine listening to Eric Clapton at a private party.”

“You won’t have to,” Jessica said. “Customer care helps out at the party. That’s why you’re working late tonight. We all work on party night. We’ll get to hear Clapton. It makes up for what we have to listen to during the day.

“It’s the social event of the season. Cordy’s guests arrive by private plane or helicopter. About twenty come by yacht. That’s twenty yachts at fifty dollars per foot per day. And none of the guests stay on their boats. They all take rooms at the yacht club for another thousand a day.”

Jessica broke off and said, “Look at that one. It’s huge, even for this crowd. Must be over a hundred feet long.”

The flashy white yacht’s dark windows gave it a sinister look, like a drug dealer in a white suit and sunglasses. A very successful dealer, Helen thought. The yacht had a helicopter and a swimming pool.

Then she saw its name.

“The Brandy Alexander,” Helen said. She didn’t even realize she’d said the name out loud.

“Now there’s a real-life mystery,” Jessica said. “Anyone who says there’s no good roles for older women doesn’t know this story. That yacht is owned by a merry widow somewhere south of sixty. She’s had five – or is it six? – husbands die on her. Her first one, the rich old one, died of a heart attack in his eighties. His death may have been natural. After that, she married one young stud after another. Rumor says they played around on her, and shortly after she found out, they died. Sometimes it was a boating accident, or a problem with their dive tank, or a fatal case of food poisoning. She’s never been charged with murder, but she’s notorious. I can’t remember her name, but she’s a club member.”

“Her name is Marcella,” Helen said. “The Black Widow.”

“You know about her?” Jessica said. “She’s married again. I wonder how long this one has to live.”

“His name is Rob,” Helen said. Her voice seemed to come from far away. “I tried to stop the wedding, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Really. How do you know him?”

“He’s my ex-husband,” Helen said.