Janet Ford lifted the cocktail glass. “To the perp.” She stood by the low bricked wall that marked off the terrace from the dizzying edge of the cliff. Behind her the summer sun hung midway to the horizon, turning spume on high rolling breakers to silver. Her booming voice rose above the thunderous crash of waves on jagged black rocks a hundred feet below. Janet’s face hardened, lines drawing down the ends of her mouth as she looked at the others.
Kate Dubois never paused as she poured a stream of hot tea into a delicate china cup. The sleeve of her violet silk dress rippled in the ocean breeze. One black eyebrow arched in an exotic face that might have graced a Eurasian model or a French film star. “Your point?”
Winifred Watkins rose from a deck chair, strolled to the parapet. In her mid fifties she moved as smoothly as a much younger woman. Ash-blond hair, aided and abetted by a gifted hairdresser, glistened in the sunlight. She was slim enough, the result of sparse calorie intake and determined exercise, to look svelte in the boxy green jacket that afforded warmth in the chill breeze off the Pacific. She gave Kate a cool glance. “You’re a bit old to play the ingenue even if your characters never progressed to any kind of maturity.”
Kate’s slender lips curved in a mocking smile, but her violet eyes glittered with anger. “This from a writer who substitutes mayhem for plot. In your latest, was it nine or eleven bodies? Are you going for a Guinness record?”
Sybil Anderson brushed away a crumb of tea cake. She held a partially eaten orange scone in a plump hand. “Girls, girls.” Her voice was dreamy, her expression pleasant. “Janet has a point. Summed up, I believe, in two words: joint tenants.”
There was a moment’s silence. The four women on the terrace avoided looking directly at each other. Four women: Janet Ford, shaggy iron-gray hair in an untidy mop, a strong-boned face, a large, muscular body, unfashionable mannish white shirt beneath a heavy argyle sweater, worn gray slacks, sturdy low-heeled black shoes. Kate Dubois, ebony hair framing delicate features, grace and style in every movement, the violet of her silk dress a perfect match for her eyes, of an indeterminate age, possibly thirty, possibly forty. Winifred Watkins, sleek blond hair, classic features, always chic, today wearing pearls, an ivory shell under her green jacket, short black skirt, absurdly high heels that emphasized trim ankles. Plump, amiable Sybil Anderson, brown curls around a round face with china-blue eyes, eyes that might seem to hold innocence but were always noticing, recording, analyzing, a rounded body as well, all softness, unfashionable but appealing in an oversize blue sweater, white blouse, gray skirt with pockets to hold pens and note cards and nibbles to satisfy a sweet tooth.
“Joint tenants.” Sybil’s tone was musing but now she looked at the other women and there was no softness in her gaze.
“Why the hell did we do it?” Janet abruptly upended her glass, downed the golden Scotch in a single gulp.
Winifred held up one hand, riffled slender fingers against her thumb. “Money. Moola. Swag. Fins. Tenners. Doubles.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “About as original as your books.”
Winifred eyed her as a tiger might consider a gazelle.
Sybil’s expression remained placid. “A good writer is always understood. No one is left in doubt after reading Winifred’s books.”
Janet and Winifred looked immediately at Kate.
Kate lifted the china cup, took a sip. “Dick and Jane narratives have no appeal. Ambiguity rather defines the world.” Her tone was supercilious.
Sybil’s sleepy gaze moved to the imposing facade of the multimillion-dollar mansion that rose behind them: three stories, sheets of glass affording light and space, huge windows with an unimpeded view of the surging Pacific. “It seemed like a wonderful idea at the time. Joint tenants with right of survivorship.” Her voice was uninflected, as if reciting a recipe for sugar cookies. “Upon the death of one, the others acquire proportionately that joint tenant’s interest. Now,” her smile was agreeable, “each of us holds a one-fourth interest where we previously held a one-fifth interest.” She glanced again at the huge house, remote from any neighbors. “None of us could afford the house on our own. Together we managed to buy it. Now we inhabit one of Big Sur’s magnificent mansions. I remember we were out here on the terrace after we moved in, celebrating our new domicile. I think it was Liz who suggested we name the house. I don’t remember who first suggested Murderous Pursuits. And I don’t remember who first suggested we combine forces, buy the house, agree that each of us would be joint tenants and upon any death that share would be divided among those remaining. Now that Liz is dead, we four remain. As I recall, the legal mechanism operates automatically. All that is required is submission of a death certificate.” She cleared her throat. “There is one other technicality we should address.”
“Technicality?” Janet’s voice was gruff. The big woman hunched forward, her face brooding.
Sybil met Janet’s gaze. “Let me rephrase your toast. ‘To the perp’ is very perceptive of you, but I suggest, ‘Who’s the perp?’”
Winifred brushed back a strand of blond hair. Her thin face was touched, briefly, by a smile. “Trust Sybil to refine the discussion. To be blunt, my fellow writers,” a sideways glance at Kate, “who killed Liz?”
No answer came to her question, the terrace heavy with silence, the only sound the unending boom of the surf against the rocks far below.
Finally, Janet gave a loud bark of laughter. “Liz must be mad as hell, missing out on the drawing-room scene. Poor old bore, that’s how she ended every book, the suspects sitting around on brocaded chairs, sipping tea”—she glanced at Kate—“nattering on about Reginald in the garden at midnight and what Hortense saw and, clap of hands, Lord Everton is unmasked and led away by the scintillating inspector. Never occurred to the old dear with her fluffy white hair and alabaster complexion that one of her housemates would dispatch her to the Great Writers Sweatshop in the Sky.”
Kate’s nose wrinkled. “Crude.”
Winifred’s voice was cool. “But accurate. Liz overdosing, either accidentally or deliberately, on Seconal and sherry might fly with a coroner, but we all know better.”
Sybil gazed at each in turn. “Now, of the Five Mystery Mavens, four of us remain: Janet Ford, author of the madcap Merry MacIntosh series; Katherine Dubois, author of the critically acclaimed, literary Emmet Ruley series; Winifred Watkins, author of noir thrillers, and”—she spoke her own name clinically—“Sybil Anderson, author of the fog-wreathed Northern California series, latest title Peril at Daybreak.”
Janet walked to the bar, poured another shot of scotch in her glass. “Always have to have top billing, don’t you? Can’t be bothered with our titles.”
Sybil ignored her, heaved to her feet. “Glad we cleared the air. Just in case there is any misunderstanding, whoever tiptoed into Liz’s room and dumped the Seconal in her sherry, don’t even think about trying it on with any of us now.”
Winifred knew her face revealed strain, eyes staring, lips pressed together, lines grooved on each side of her mouth. She sat in a plaid overstuffed chair in the magnificent library, four walls of mahogany bookshelves, floor to ceiling.
The deputy sheriff was trim in a golden tan shirt and sage-green trousers. Her face was blunt, square, and forceful. Gray eyes regarded Winifred unblinkingly. “Did Mrs. Anderson suffer from vertigo?”
A portion of Winifred’s mind dwelled on the oddity of considering Sybil as Mrs. Anderson. Sybil had been divorced for a quarter-century. She was Sybil, round-faced, plump, mild-mannered, but possessing rock-ribbed determination. Once Sybil set out on a course, nothing diverted her. Winifred never doubted that Sybil’s pronouncement on the terrace, right on the heels of the memorial service for Liz, meant she intended to use her sharp analytical mind to find Liz’s killer. For, of course, Sybil had been right. One of them had slipped Seconal into Liz’s sherry.
“Mrs. Watkins?” The deputy’s tone was sharp.
“Sorry.” Winifred felt breathless. She must focus on the moment. Had either Janet or Kate talked about murder? “I’m struggling with shock. To come home and find the drive jammed with cars and an ambulance and Sybil dead on the rocks.”
Deputy Alvarez reached up to click on her body camera to film Winifred and record her replies. “Ms. Ford heard a scream at a quarter after eleven. She and Ms. Dubois ostensibly reached the terrace at the same time.” The implication was clear. One of them might have timed her arrival. “Where were you?”
Winifred brushed back a strand of blond hair. “I have a weekly massage at the Nordic Spa.” It was a luxury she cherished. She always felt vibrant, refreshed when she left. “I stopped at Whole Foods on the way home. They have a special caviar we like.” She took a quick breath. “Especially Sybil. . . .”
Nights are cold on Big Sur. The customary fire blazed in the library fireplace.
Winifred jabbed with the poker. Sparks whirled. Heat surged. She returned the poker to the stand, turned to face them.
“Why didn’t either of you say anything to the deputy?”
In the oversize red leather chair, Janet sat with her shoulders squared, hands flat on the knees of her corduroy slacks. Her shaggy hair framed blunt features now set in tight, hard lines. She looked hard, angry, and dangerous.
Kate’s film-star face was empty of expression. She lounged at one end of a brocaded sofa, elegant in ivory silk pajamas. Legs tucked beneath her, she had the aura of a wild thing, alert, predatory, elusive.
Janet’s cold brown eyes challenged Winifred. “I can imagine the deputy’s reaction now. Oh, your friend was murdered? Why? . . . Joint tenants? . . . No one on the premises but the dead woman and the two of you? So, one of you is a killer. And the deputy looking at me, then at Kate. No problem for you, Freddie. You were safely in town.” Janet heaved to her feet, walked heavily across the parquet floor, her footsteps thudding. She stopped at the sofa, stared down at Kate. “I would have told the deputy, but I can’t prove you killed them both.”
Kate’s heavy-lidded eyes narrowed. Her fine-boned face was abruptly implacable. “You pushed Sybil over the parapet.”
Janet’s bark of laughter was metallic. “You know and I know we were the only ones here. I didn’t kill Sybil. I don’t write literary books. Maybe that’s where you learned to spin nonsense. I wouldn’t know. I write clever books. And I’m clever enough to keep myself safe. You won’t get me, Kate.” She turned and strode across the room.
After a moment’s pause, Winifred hurriedly drew the fire screen across the hearth and started after Janet.
Kate’s satin house shoes slapped on the floor behind them.
The three women moved up the curving staircase in silence. The steps rose and rose to the second floor far above the central atrium with the sparkling pool and fountain. Water splashed softly.
The women walked swiftly down the hall, each to her own room.
Winifred waited an instant before she shut her door.
Two clicks sounded.
She closed and locked her door.
Three women, all with locked doors. . . .
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