Slow Dancing with the Angel of Death [Hollis Ball and Sam Westcott Series Book 1]
Click on image to enlarge.
by Helen Chappel
Description: Newspaper reporter Hollis Ball is shocked to find herself shedding a tear when she learns her ex-husband, Sam Wescott, was killed in a boating accident. She is even more shocked when Sam's ghost shows up, asking her to find out who murdered him.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, 2006 ebook
eBookwise Release Date: May 2007
14 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [316 KB]
Reading time: 201-281 min.
Just to Make Sure He Was Dead
If you were Sam Wescott's ex-wife, you'd go to his funeral, too.
Just, you understand, to make sure that he was really dead.
Actually, I was part of the cluster of mourners because my editor told me that I had to be there. It seemed my former father-in-law had personally requested my presence. And what H.P. Wescott wants, H.P Wescott gets.
At the Watertown Gazette, where the motto is Don't Offend the Advertisers, Wescott Real Estate and Development Corp. is a major advertiser. In a small place like Santimoke County, H.P. Wescott is a 900 pound gorilla, as in where does a 900 pound gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants to, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
So, there I was, on the hottest day of the summer, standing beside Chesapeake Bay, dressed in basic black and dark sunglasses, doing my best to be invisible, lurking in the background beneath some scraggly old willow trees wishing I were somewhere else, anywhere else.
H.P. must have been calling in his chips everywhere, I thought, looking around and taking notes. It must have taken some intense maneuvering to get this bunch to come to the Eastern Shore on a day like this.
I scanned the skies for some sign of clouds, but they were blue and empty; we were in the midst of a long summer drought.
There were some well-known faces here, slowly burning red in the blazing August sun. I spotted our governor checking his watch and looking impatient. Our congressperson alternately played with her pearls and her beeper, doubtless annoyed that her hair helmet was melting in the heat. Annapolis was represented in force. I noted the Speaker of the House of Delegates of the Maryland General Assembly, a Good Ole Boy from up the Shore, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. The Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources glared at me in concert with the State's Attorney General. I had the feeling they disliked the media even more than they despised each other.
And of course, all of the Daughters of Santimoke Lineage were here; when a Wescott dies, they troop the colors. A fluttering flock of blue-haired old ladies more interested in studying the old Wescott tombstones than the services for the more recently departed.
But I knew I wasn't going to escape unscathed when I saw Jason.
State Delegate Jason Hemlock, looking absurdly handsome and absurdly cool, glanced once at me, then quickly fixed his attention firmly on the casket. After that quick, stabbing recognition, I preferred not look at him again. Too much baggage, you understand, even though almost a year had passed since we'd parted company under less than amicable circumstances, to say the least.
Idly, I picked out several other prominent types, both political and social, some of them breathtakingly famous. None of them looked like they were thrilled to be here, even to pay their respects to the son of the man who owned a good chunk of the state and regional action. In fact, I doubted if many of them even knew Sam, who had left the Eastern Shore a more than decade ago, to, as they say, pursue other interests. Like being a boat bum in the Caribbean and the Keys and staying the hell away from the Eastern Shore and his family and the whole worlds of trouble he'd caused from Cape Charles to Harve de Grace and all points in between.
Sam's had not been a useful life, all things considered.
Having made my findings on who was there, I tucked my notebook into my bag and focused on the enormous mahogany coffin about to be lowered into the open grave. The Wescotts were one of the few old families left in Santimoke County who could afford to maintain their own private cemetery on the ancestral estate. It had a better waterfront vista than anything I'd ever be able to afford. From this lovely point on Mandrake Creek, you could look across Chesapeake Bay all the way to the Western Shore. If Sam and I had stayed married, eventually I too could have been buried here among the historically prominent dead. Postmortem waterfront is not a good reason to stay married.
See, on the Eastern Shore, there are three types of Society with an up S. There's old blood and old money, old blood and no money, and then there are the ten-cent millionaires, whom everyone deplores. Their money is welcome; everyone just wishes they'd stay home in Washington or Philadelphia or wherever. The Wescotts are old blood and old money and all the new money H.P. has spent his life accumulating, which is considerable.
Me? I'm neither blood nor money. Look back far enough to the family of Hollis Ball and all you'll see is generation after generation of dirt poor but church honest watermen from Beddoe's Island. When I married Sam Wescott, it was the mésalliance from hell, according to both sets of parents.
Well, Sam was dead now. The obituary that had been faxed into the paper from Dreedle's Funeral Home said he'd been back in Santimoke County for thirty-six hours when his propane galley stove had exploded, blowing him and a hundred thousand dollars worth of sailboat very high and quite wide.
The investigating cops I'd spoken to this morning said you could hear the explosion all the way into the next county. What was left, and I understood it wasn't much, was being lowered into the ground in that mahogany and brass coffin. But I heard that the watermen were still bringing up bits and pieces of boat and Sam from all over Mandrake Creek. I preferred not to contemplate the improvement in the crabbing in that body of water.
Sam had gone out in a blaze of glory, and there were no wet eyes here.
I was not surprised that the VIP's were not exactly prostrate with grief. They were here to pay honor to H.P.
God help them, if they weren't. Lack of respect for H.P. could be fatal. Care must be taken, attention should be paid where H.P. Wescott's ego was concerned.
But it was the Wescotts--my former in-laws--who interested me. None of them seemed to be grieving Sam's unfortunate demise, either. And so soon after the Prodigal Son had returned, too!
I wasn't terribly surprised. For all of his charm, Sam had left a trail of careless damage everywhere he went. And someone else had always cleaned up the mess. Usually it was his father, wielding his battalion of lawyers, his flotilla of influential friends and his fat checkbook. It's amazing how much damage can be smoothed out with money. It's always in style, it's always the correct size and the right color and it soothes and silences and placates like nothing else. Himself sat there with his arms crossed looking like Big Daddy's evil twin in a bus and truck tour of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, without so much as a tear marring his once handsome face. He had not aged well. Still, the aura of power clung to him like an expensive cologne.
And it made him look virile, even though he must have been about seventy. He was tall and bulky, with sharp blue eyes beneath bristling brows, eyes that took in everything, missed nothing, like an old hawk. Truth to tell, I'd always been slightly afraid of him. Unlike most people, I'd always done my best never to let it show. I could even feel a grudging amount of sympathy for the Old Man, for his having lost his only son. Not that Sam had been much of a son.
All that remained was H.P.'s daughter Claire.
Draped in expensive black, Sam's sister twisted her good Republican pearls and lifted her sunglasses so that I could see the displeasure snapping in her eyes as the service droned on. If she'd been paying attention to the service instead of counting the house, she never would have noticed my humble presence.
Now, Claire is a woman who gives new depth to the word bitch. Butter would freeze in her mouth. Money and social position are her twin obsessions, and oh, how she enjoys being a large fish in the Eastern Shore's small social pond. Her face, so much like Sam's, turned up with depressing regularity on the social page of the Gazette. The Daughters of Historical Santimoke, of the American Revolution, the Confederacy, Blitis, it mattered not as long as it was Social; Country Clubs, Yacht Clubs, Garden Clubs, the Junior League; they were her natural habitat. She was a leading light in the Daughters of Santimoke, a group dedicated to worshipping their ancient connections to blackbirders, criminals and Tories, the founders of this county. Historical ( read: Hysterical) Societies, Preservations, Heritages were all hers. Something known nebulously as The Arts (but God forbid, not any artists, so undependable and unpredictable and likely to be unimpressed by her mighty position) knew her all too well as a one woman steamrolling committee. The Historical Arts Preservation Benefit Ball for Distressed and Genteel Interior Designers at the Santimoke County Yacht Club was hers to kill, but Habitat for Humanity or Eastern Shore Fuel Fund or Head Start would have gone into shock if she'd as much as peeled a dollar out of her Gucci wallet for them.
If you guessed that I cannot stand my former sister-in-law, you get 25 points. The feeling is mutual, fear not.
Unfortunately for both of us, her passion for publicity brought us into more contact than either one of us really wanted. God help the Gazette if every single event she graced with her presence failed to show up in our pages, with photo, written up in fawning terms worthy of a ball at Versailles.
Unfortunately, Claire's latest fancy was real estate. Here she could parlay her social connections into a series of million dollar deals, mostly selling her friend's waterfront estates to each other after every successive divorce. Recently, she'd been demanding free news space for her latest project, hawking new, badly built and overpriced waterfront houses to rich retiree Republicans from the Western Shore.
Hey, it's a family tradition.
Alas, Wescott Development Corp. had lately run up against some trouble with a tract of land that the Environmental Protection Agency had declared an official wetland, or so I remembered reading somewhere in the business section. Rumor had it that Delegate Jason Hemlock had worked long and hard to have a special exemption bill passed to drain and fill the marsh, making way for more Victorian Colonial chalets and French Tudor scholsses.
Happily, Claire was the business editor's problem on this one. He had my deepest sympathies, since Claire's reaction to unfavorable publicity was a public tantrum in the newsroom, full of threats to sue us until our teeth rattled. Since her understanding of the legalities of libel was limited, it made for exciting guerilla theater, to say the least.
This latest project had led to a new outlet for satiating her desire to see her name in print. Her vociferous, irrational and book-length letters to the editor detailing how unfair it was that she couldn't buy, drain and develop every square inch of wetlands on the Eastern Shore had branded her as a full-fledged pest to every news editor in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Staring at her back, I felt just like Robespierre contemplating Marie Antoinette's neck.
Sensing someone staring at her suicide blonde (dyed by her own hand) head, she turned and looked at me. "What are you doing here?" her glare asked me. With a little toss of her Gloria Vanderbilt bob, she turned away. I was amazed she didn't stamp her Ferragamo'd foot and demand my removal from the premises.
Her husband, CJ. Cromwell "Skipper" Dupont, patted her hand from time to time. He looked sort of sad and beige, but that was his natural aspect. Skipper had done himself proud by marrying the boss' daughter and done himself wrong by marrying Claire, who had made his life a living hell ever since. Poor Skipper. Old blood and no money, he had that rabbity, inbred look so many of the Eastern Shore aristocracy have after marrying their first cousins for the past three centuries. Poor Skipper. He'd been taking orders from his father-in-law for fifteen years and never once had H.P. expressed the least gratitude or praise for the way Skipper labored for the family firm. As the two in-laws in that family, there had always been a certain terse sympathy between us. I wondered if he had a mistress. I hoped so, and I hoped she was good to him. God knows, the Wescotts, father-and-daughter weren't.
Although it was hard to imagine Skipper and Claire actually having sex, I suppose they had because there were the twins Cromwell VI and Wescott, who I supposed, had been flown in from Groton or St. Paul's or somewhere to present what passed in the Wescotts for a united family front. I couldn't believe how they'd grown. The nose studs were particularly attractive and would have made Sam proud.
A soft sobbing caught my attention and I glanced at the edge of the crowd where an elderly black couple stood a little apart from the whites. Estelle and Phillips Brooks had worked for the Wescotts since birth, no doubt, slavery being only de facto dead in some sections of Santimoke County. After Miss Rose, H.P. 's long-suffering wife, had turned her face to the wall and (some said) taken an overdose of Seconal, Estelle and Phillips had pretty much raised Sam and Claire, along with their own daughter Charlotte, whose busy career as a Washington attorney no doubt prevented her return to the old plantation for this event. Smart girl.
H.P. was of course, too busy making money to pay much attention to his offspring.
Alone of all the people here, Estelle genuinely mourned Samuel Sewall Wescott. Even Phillips didn't look that upset. And why should he? Sam had been a pain in the ass. A charming pain, but a pain nonetheless.
In fact, it may largely have been due to Sam's great charm that no one had killed him. That smile, that sunny personality, you could just about forgive him anything. Almost anything, I added to myself.
It was hard to admit that ten years later, I was still smarting over what he'd done to me ... damn Sam!
There was a general stir among the gathered mourners and I snapped back into the present tense. Apparently, the service was over. The Governor's State Police boys almost ran me over trying to get him into his limo, and our Congressperson stared right through me as she was literally carried away by her entourage.
State Delegate Jason Hemlock looked like he was dying to come over and pick a fight, but Claire looped her hand into his arm and almost jerked him out of his handmade loafers. I jammed my notebook deeper into my battered old Coach bag, and turned to wend my way through the tombstones and boxwood toward my car, waving my hand in front of my face as an ineffectual mosquito repellent.
Dammit, why in hell did Jason have to be here? I wondered angrily. You would have thought that seeing him these days would have produced no more than a mild nausea, but anger, never too far from the surface, was rising fast from his sleazoid presence.
I felt my heart beating a little to fast and turned away. I was sweating. There's nothing quite like an Eastern Shore summer. From June through September, it's like breathing bath water. It's not the heat, it's the humidity, so thick you can touch it. And yet, it had not rained in six weeks. Farmers were complaining as their soybeans dried up, as corn browned and drooped in the fields.
I turned to see Phillips coming toward me. He moved a little more slowly these days, as did we all. As usual, he was immaculately attired in a black summer worsted, his graying hair neatly trimmed, his dark eyes impassive. The perfect butler. Ice ran in his veins.
I put my hand out and after a moment's hesitation, he took it with a faint air of lèse-majesté. One simply doesn't shake hands with the servants; they don't want to touch you. "How are you, Phillips? Long time, no see," I offered.
Not so much as a smile cracked that glacial exterior. If anything, he was still more elegant than any of the white people he worked for. He certainly had a whole lot more dignity. "Mr. Wescott has requested that you come back to the house for the buffet. He said 'please'."
I stared at him for a moment. "He said 'please?" H.P., you understand, never says please. He says 'jump' and everyone else says 'how high'?
Phillips nodded impassively. Prince Charles could have learned a thing or two from him about dignified behavior.
I sighed. "Okay." I guessed I was getting soft in my old age. "Tell him I said thank you, but I--"
"Hollis, I think you should come," Phillips said firmly. "Estelle would like to see you."
Well, in that case.
I couldn't say no to Estelle. No one could. Beneath that motherly exterior, there was a whim of iron. Besides, she makes the best crabcakes in Santimoke County. Besides, I genuinely liked Estelle. She had been kind to me in my brief tenure as a Wescott, something no one else had seen fit to be.
Phillips nodded, almost clicked his heels and turned toward the family, who were clustering around the Mercedes for the ride up the road to the homeplace.
I sighed and walked across the yellow, parched grass toward my beaten up, decade-old Honda Civic. It was the last car left, all the Beemers, Mercedes and Land Rovers having taken off for the funeral buffet or parts unknown.
I opened the door and fell into the sweltering pigpen that is a reporter's car. If you know a journalist with a clean car, chances are excellent that person is a lousy reporter. I crawled in among the old newspapers, burger wrappings and diet soda cans, turning on the engine and collapsing against the seat, waiting for the a/c to kick in as I fumbled in my bag for a cigarette. I lit it with trembling hands, letting out a long sigh. As I exhaled smoke, I thought about things I could do to revenge myself on my editor for this assignment. None of them were pleasant and many are forbidden by the Geneva Convention.
When I felt the tepid air pumping into the car from the air conditioner, I stole a look at myself in the rearview mirror, wondering if there was anything I could do to repair heat damage to my hair and face before making my entrance chez Wescott.
Then I saw my ex-husband's face floating in the rearview mirror.