Jasper Whiteacre, a.k.a. Jay White Owl Thorne (a meld of his Meskwaki grandfather's fondness for White Owl Cigars and his boss' wry pun about Whiteacre being a thorn in his State's side), raised his field glasses and peered through the leaded panes of the front parlor window.
In the east, seamless dark clouds blended into the snow-dusted landscape. The visual subtlety, partially illuminated by the globe lamps lining the driveway, was knocked askew by a turquoise minivan turning off the county road. Jasper watched it roll slowly down the drive toward him and halt before the brick mansion.
A moment later the van driver stepped out in a swirl of black cape and a halo of light hair.
Helene Apricot, a.k.a. Helen Shoemaker, by her publicity photo. Fortyish, divorced, pretty in a tailored way. Business manager of the performing group hired by Del Englewood to entertain his guests on this New Year's Eve deep in the Missouri countryside.
Six bundled passengers, ranging in size from miniature to super-king, spilled from the van, permitting its rear to rise gently as though expelling a sigh.
The Psychic Circle had arrived.
Jasper lowered the glasses and permitted his lips to curl in disdain. According to its promo brochure, the group included at least one psychic reader "compatible with any seeker of hidden truths."
Mavis Hostetter, the housekeeper (and paramour, if the occasional sounds from her employer's bedroom were any indication) met the group at the door, her servant's camouflage a long leopard print dress, rimless glasses and bland makeup.
The arrivals were divesting themselves of coats and capes in the marble-tiled entry when Del Englewood and Jasper, who was overpaid to protect the promoter from bodily harm, joined them.
Englewood greeted his temporary employees with the briskness that might be expected of an important man with important things on his mind. "Welcome, everyone. Ms Hostetter here will escort you to the room where you will, ah, offer my guests whatever information you may wish to impart this evening. However, as I explained to Ms Apricot--" a nod in that lady's direction "--this is a party. So I wouldn't want any of my guests--" he paused for dramatic emphasis "--distracted by any, ah, disturbing revelations, if that's the correct term?" He smiled and shrugged, obviously beyond his depth when it came to psychic affairs. "I mean, this is a party, folks. So let's keep it light, okay?"
Despite his clubby words and tone, it was an order, and Jasper saw that the 'psychics' understood. Light, it would be.
"Oh." In afterthought, Englewood introduced Jasper. "This is my assistant, Jay Thorne. Don't pay any attention to him. He tends to wander."
Jasper acknowledged the responding murmur with the stoic Native American nod he figured Politically Correct Whites expected, then moved to stand against the wall and give the others more space. Some of them needed it.
At least Englewood didn't make a crack about Indian Guides.
Englewood passed one hand over his thin, expertly silvered hair in a habitual preen before addressing the shepherdess. "Now if you'll excuse me, Ms Apricot, I'll leave you in Ms Hostetter's capable hands. As you can imagine, I have several dozen things to attend to. We're expecting around forty guests--" he frowned at the jeweltone stained glass insert in the front door "--that is, if the weather pros are correct. They're predicting only an inch of snow for us, with the heavy fall shifting North."
Then he was off, probably to check that the toilets had enough tissue to see sixty people through a night of eating, drinking and psychic-analysis. A guy hoping to collect millions of investor dollars tonight didn't leave such important details to his staff.
Helene Apricot switched an unreadable blue-gray gaze from the entrepreneur's backside to Jasper. To his surprise his reaction was, well, less than professional detachment.
From what he'd heard, the woman was no fool, and he did his damnedest to keep a straight face during her crisp introductions of her flock.
"The Lord High Priestess Evangeline."
Thin six-footer, virginal long gown, waist-length bottle-red hair, startling, probably near-sighted aquamarine eyes. Asexual vibes.
Tiny, wizened 'blonde.' Ethereal floral dress at odds with sharp dark eyes. Not asexual.
"Our witch, Marlayna."
Youngish, obese. Insecure imitation of The Munsters' Morgana.
Mousey, comfortable type. Matronly shape covered by flowing silver polyester, big brass cross.
Sixties, cowled brown robe, size 14 sandals. Pompous-looking for a priest. Wheezing candidate for Weight Watchers or an obituary.
Paunchy, bandy-legged, jester costume with mask. Batman, anyone?
Finished, Ms Apricot tilted her poodle curls at Mavis. "I believe we're ready to be installed."
Like a refrigerator, or a swimming pool?
Jasper swallowed hard, trying not to grin as he trailed Mavis and the troupe through the two-story central hallway to the sun room at the rear of the house. By day the large room overlooked a modest lawn edged in privacy by thick blue spruce; at night the windows were black mirrors reflecting the softly lit room. Golden brass, chintz roses, cream wicker and plush green carpet coaxed the mind into believing in the ripeness of summer in the dead of winter.
Built around 1920 and situated on a pastoral rise, the house didn't quite merit mansion status, but the site showcased its dominating, matriarchal air, and most visitors referred to it that way. Originally it housed an active family. Englewood had purchased it a year ago. During the renovation he'd stopped the workers from buffing out scars in the black walnut woodwork, whether from sentiment or calculation, Jasper didn't know. An oil portrait of a kilted Scot that had come with the house hung in the central hall, lending instant ancestry to its current owner. Beneath the painting a console displayed twin Christmas trees composed of green foil-covered balls of chocolate the size of oranges. Jasper had seen the invoice for them: two hundred dollars for the chocolate, plus another fifty for the designer. He couldn't guess the total Englewood had spent on his holiday decorations, indoors and out, but he'd say this for the guy, the entrepreneur didn't flinch at spending thousands to draw in millions.
Old houses, even handsome ones, weren't to Jasper's taste, but he had to admit he'd been assigned to rougher quarters.
After depositing their wraps in a corner behind a folding Oriental screen, the psychic pack circled the large room, sniffing out the territory, before settling into their choices of the six cozy seating arrangements. Props began to appear. The Monk, a.k.a. Walter Bledsoe according to Jasper's list, unwrapped his Tarot cards from a piece of black velvet and placed them on the table in front of the loveseat where he'd parked his ample behind. The Witch unpacked a bunch of Barbie-size dolls from a suitcase and arranged them on the table beside her chair. Princess Lucia dropped a shawl the color of sea foam on a petite chair near Walter. Finally everyone was ready for a Mavis-led tour of the downstairs rooms.
Jasper tagged along at a discreet distance, his gaze lingering on Helene Apricot. Sleekly gowned in a dark green ankle-length sheath, with gold sandals, small diamond earrings, subtle makeup and classic hairstyle, she struck just the right party-note. As for himself, he'd given his best navy suit a lift with a gray and red striped tie.
Can't have the hired help competing with the guests.
Ruby and sapphire lights flashed in the stained glass window of the front door, causing Mavis to desert her charges and take up her post beside it. Jasper moved to stand in the shadowy niche next to the archway connecting the hall and the chandelier-lit dining room with its glistening mahogany table and hors d'oeuvres. Invisible audio equipment pumped festive music into the air.
Englewood emerged from his library-office, locking the door behind him, and joined Mavis.
He remained there until ten p.m., welcoming his guests, most from the Kansas City area, with host-warmth. The guests' valeted cars were whisked away and parked along the u-shape drive.
Snowflakes sparkled on the hair and shoulders of the arrivals. Tanned men of indefinite ethnicity accompanied by brunette and platinum-haired women in black and diamonds. White bread types with Chardonnay blondes in black or red or white and diamonds. Two women in black denim and diamonds. A lone male wearing frayed jeans, shetland sweater and cowboy boots. Derek Fortesque, former soap opera medic and heart throb now 'resting' between dinner theater engagements, hired for the evening to flatter the women with his urbane charm.
Fortesque's counterpart, Glenda Mellon, hostess of a local TV talk show called Glenda's Agenda, and near-ringer for Rita Hayworth's Gilda, paused in her wriggling walk past Jasper. "You the bodyguard?" she asked in her trademark throaty growl.
Something lioness-like gleamed in the redhead's topaz eyes. "Any chance of our getting together for the stroke of midnight?"
He moved his head in a fractional show of regret. No point making an enemy this early in the evening. "The boss is unveiling his project then. How about breakfast?"
Glenda's wide, scarlet lips pouted for all of two seconds. Then she ticked one dangling emerald earring with a long, crimson nail. "Eggs Benedict, champagne. Beats McDonald's."
She took her time extracting an ultra long cigarette from her tiny black handbag. Before Jasper could light a match, though, Fortesque materialized like some genie, dipping into his left pocket and producing a gold lighter not much bigger than a kitchen match. A nonsmoker's lighter; otherwise he'd have to refill it daily.
"When you're limited to three a day," said Glenda, her eyes on Jasper as she exhaled smoke at the ceiling, "you want every inch you can get."
I don't doubt it!
The over-bright eyes of a few guests identified the early celebrants, including the pair of idiots who'd dragged along their six-year-old son. "Syl, short for Sylvester the Scion," explained his mother with a giggle. It seemed their sitter had canceled at the very last moment and they knew he wouldn't be one speck of trouble, "Will you, darling?"
The kid, a miniature Marlon Brando, replied with a one-shoulder shrug. "I won't get any more piss-eyed than you two."
Briefly grateful to his ex-wife for denying him progeny, Jasper signaled Mavis to oversee the brat, hoping she wouldn't slip Valium into his Hawaiian Punch.
While a few of the guests had the avid look of track and casino goers, most seemed ready to party with dignity.
Why not, since they expected their host to return a 50% profit on the checks they write tonight?
Silent and restless as a lone wolf at the edge of an elk herd, Jasper prowled the downstairs rooms, never straying far from Englewood. By ten-forty-five he was downright edgy. His backup, Candace, should've arrived an hour ago.
So where the hell was she? No telling what juicy tidbits they were missing in the powder room. He'd never figured out why women tended to use the buddy system to go to the toilet, especially early in the evening.
He ducked into the kitchen and nabbed a couple of salmon truffles off the caterer's tray. Felisa Montez' coal-color eyes snapped like those of the grandmother he dimly remembered. "Mind your manners! Get a plate."
"Yes'm," he said through a mouthful, and filched a third truffle.
Felisa's twenty-year-old grandson, Oliverio, shot him an admiring glance. "Lucky, man. She'd use a ladle on me."
Jasper looked up as Englewood's handyman-cum-parking attendant, Pete Stubbs, stepped into the kitchen from the north porch amid a rush of artic air, and stamped snow on the mat by the door. The few inches of face between his turned-up collar and pulled-down knit cap reminded Jasper of a ripe strawberry, complete with seeds. "Man, it's gettin' heavy out there. Mark 'n me'r headin' for the garage, Jay. You want us, switch on the lights and hit the buzzer."
Stubbs lived over the garage. He called in his nephew, Mark, as needed, tonight to park cars.
Jasper poked his head outdoors to check Pete's weather report. Sure enough, the delicate flakes of fifteen minutes ago had thickened to feather soup, leaving only the first three globe lamps along the drive visible.
Shit! Candace lived north of the river, and the snow was bound to be heavier there. In the staff washroom off the kitchen, he used his cell phone, trying both her cell and home numbers, where a recorder asked him to leave a message. He did, short and none too sweet: "Where the hell are you?"
Then he hunted up Englewood to warn him of the deteriorating weather.
Del, unlocking the door to his office, merely shrugged. "So what? Tell the staff to keep their mouths shut and bring out the lobster bisque."
Jasper supposed the promoter's lack of concern made sense. His guests were already on the premises. There was enough food and booze in the house to lull an army, and the invitations had included breakfast. Even if the power went out, the generator would kick in, with light from the fireplaces and candles adding to the ambiance. If necessary there were flashlights on hand to show off Del's latest project, a scale model of The Afterglow: carefree living for retirees with a taste for elegance.
Elegant, yes -- until Del sold off the surrounding non-arable property to a landfill operator or corporate hog farm, the glitzy bath faucets broke off in the homeowners' hands, and the asphalt parking lots dipped as the monthly fees skyrocketed. Shoddy materials and workmanship were hallmarks of Englewood's projects in other States, which explained Jasper's presence as undercover agent for the State Department's Fraud Division. Missouri didn't intend Del to hang the financial scalps of some of its senior citizens on his belt.
After passing along Englewood's instructions to the caterers, bartender, maids, rent-a-cops and Mavis, Jasper wandered, yawning, back toward the kitchen. Fresh coffee sounded good, and by decree of the Supreme Master, only fresh coffee was ever served in this household. Later, assuming Glenda was still upright and amiable, he might go for a little pre-breakfast celebrating. Despite the diamonds and checkbooks on the premises, a rising blizzard ought to preclude any robberies tonight.
Englewood's ripoffs would show up later -- stealthy, subtle and hard to pin responsibility. Unless Jasper did his job
Changing his mind about the coffee, he veered and headed for the sun room to see how the psychics were doing. Maybe he'd pick up some tips on what to look for in Englewood's meticulously kept files. Whenever the master was out, Mavis kept an eagle-eye on his usually locked office and bedroom. The few glimpses Jasper had managed since moving into the house three weeks ago showed that the guy knew how to cover his slug tracks.
"You little devil!"
Catching himself, Jasper didn't yank the .38 from his shoulder holster as he spun around.
In the short corridor off the kitchen, Helene Apricot's eyes sparked like a malfunctioning generator.
"What happened?" he asked, although the smirk on Sylvester's face gave him a pretty good idea.
"He manhandled me! Six years old and he manhandled me!"
Giving Syl 'the eye,' Jasper told her to stay put, and before the brat could so much as squeak, snatched him around the hips so that his head dangled by his toes, and stepped into the pantry. In one continuous motion he elbowed the door shut, plopped the boy on his rump on the counter, moved out of kicking range, folded his arms across his chest and assumed the menacing lean of a vulture.
The kid stared up at him with wide, awestruck brown eyes. Then he opened his mouth and inhaled.
The boy jerked back, and swallowed the promised yowl.
"I haven't scalped anybody in over a month," rumbled Jasper. "Don't tempt me!"
The kid's lower lip trembled a little, but he put on a show of bravado. "You can't keep me here! You'll go to prison for kidnapping, 'n the guys there will--" He stopped.
Hovering, Jasper said, very softly, "Really?" "Yes! I saw it on TV!"
"Well, I don't want to do that, so I guess I'll have to let you go. After you apologize to Ms Apricot. Tell her you're sorry about your insulting behavior, and you'll never do it again."
His confidence restored, Sylvester crossed his arms, mimicking his captor. "No way."
Jasper rubbed his chin and appeared to do some deep thinking. Finally he said, "Then I guess I'll have to lose you in the snow." He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and shook it out. "By the time they find you..." His voice took on a tone of regret. "You won't notice the cold more than a few minutes."
Sylvester's wiry little body seemed to shrink and his eyes grow larger. "You can't do that! I'll yell and bite and scratch you all over!"
Sighing, Jasper twirled the handkerchief between his thumbs and forefingers. "It would be so much better if you did as I said. Exactly as I said."
"All right! I'll do it!"
Suppressing a smile, Jasper opened the door a crack. The cogs in the kid's brain were whirring, and the minute the brat was out of sight, he'd run bellowing to his parents. "Ms Apricot, come in here, please."
With prompting, Sylvester got out Jasper's words of apology. Then, uncertain, he said, "I guess I'll go now."
"I have a better idea." Still blocking the doorway, Jasper made a production of restoring his handkerchief to his back pocket. "There's a video room upstairs. Lots of movies, soda, microwave popcorn. Jellybeans, too, if I remember right. Have it all to yourself. Nothing to do down here but watch some old people behave like horses' asses."
Though interested, the boy nevertheless remained wary. "What about popping balloons, tooting noisemakers and waking the dead at midnight?"
"Stay awake, make all the noise you want." Jasper grinned. "Hell, I may join you."
Whether it was the "Hell" or the jellybeans, Sylvester slid off the counter, and ignoring Helene, said, "If the movies are any good, you got a deal."
Jasper motioned for Helene to accompany them and hustled the boy upstairs. He didn't want him changing his mind and squealing 'kidnap' to his parents. In the video room he showed Syl how to pop corn in the microwave, then unlocked the bar refrigerator, let him choose a couple of sodas, and relocked it. From the recessed top of the armoire that held the thirty-six-inch TV he plucked the key to the video cabinet and a bag of gourmet jellybeans, Del's private supply. After pouring a handful into a dish, he returned the bag to its former hiding place and selected half a dozen PG-rated titles from the video cabinet.
Syl scanned the videos with a practiced eye. "What about the other ones?"
"Take it or leave it." Jasper locked the cabinet and pocketed the key. "Stay awake now."
On the way downstairs, Helene said, "That was almost too easy. What if he decides to explore?"
"The bedrooms are locked, and he won't find much in the bathroom. If he shows up downstairs, he's Mavis' -- Ms. Hostetter's -- problem. I don't think he's a bad kid. Just the product of careless parents."
"That sounds like the voice of experience."
He laughed, sort of. "You do psychic readings, too?" When she didn't reply, more to prolong the conversation than from curiosity, he said, "What did he do to set you off?"
By then they'd reached the central hall. She turned that fine, inscrutable blue-gray gaze to him. "Let's put it this way, Mr. Thorne. If you'd done it, you'd still be hurting where I hear it hurts the most."
"At least he showed good taste."
Jasper could tell she didn't know how to take that, so he said, "How about checking on your psychics? See if they need some refreshments?" Most of them didn't look like it, but maybe their psychic hotlines thrived on calories.
Helene gave him a shrewd look. "You don't think much of the Circle's abilities, do you?"
Watch it! Methinks the lady doth read me over well.
"Let's say I've heard a lot of mumbo-jumbo from people who figure a dumb Indian will be thrilled to buy whatever they're selling."
Far from offended, she grinned, and he felt the clink of a connection. "You may not be a dumb Indian, Jay Thorne, but you are a cynical one."
You don't know the half of it!
Steering her toward the sunroom, he lifted a pair of champagne flutes from the tray of a passing maid and passed one to Helene. "First chance I've had," he said, and took a sip of the cold blonde vintage. "Not bad. If you don't want that one, you can hold onto it for me. Can't have the boss catch me with a drink in each hand."
Helene studied him, her direct gaze level with his; in her heeled sandals they were five-foot-nine equals. "What do you do here, Jay? Besides being some kind of guard."
"What makes you think I'm a guard?"
She shrugged. "Watchful attitude. Slightly tense posture. Masked expression. The eyes."
So much for forty-five years of stoic practice.
"You're right. I watch the silver. Englewood likes the old English stuff."
"Whereas you prefer stark modern. And neutral colors."
He laughed. "So how'd you guess the neutrals?"
Her gaze dropped to his tie. "It doesn't look like you. I think you don't like to stand out. Through color, anyway."
"Much more of this, and I'll start spilling my invisible childhood." He was about to retract the impulsive revelation by turning it into a joke when an abrupt awareness between his shoulder blades brought him around, to fix on Glenda. Her steely gaze instantly loosened and she herded the guy in cowboy boots into the dining room. A grin tugged at Jasper's mouth; he'd bet ten bucks the lady dug spurs and rode hard.
However, his light flirtations had gone far enough for now. His watch said eleven-ten, and it was time to check on Englewood. Setting his empty glass on the console outside the library, he guided Helene by the elbow through the archway and into the sunroom.
Five of the psychics were giving readings, their expressions confiding, while those of the guests ranged from mildly skeptical to enraptured. Princess Lucia's small throne was vacant.
Jasper said, "I'd better look in on the boss. Your people need anything, tell Mavis or one of the staff." Then as if sensing a hole in the space between them, he added, "See you later."
Helene chuckled. "Don't forget to check on that young pervert upstairs. I've met house guards who'd shut him in the cellar."
She watched him walk away, his stocky body moving with an easy, predatorial grace that suggested training and discipline would stave off middle age for at least another decade. At the door opposite the kitchen passage he halted and knocked lightly. From his attentive stance, someone must have responded through the door, because Jay's lips moved in reply before he crossed the hall to the front parlor.
She passed unobtrusively through the sunroom, alert for any signal from a member of the Circle. Seeing none, she returned to her post in the archway.
Princess Lucia -- who hated her real name of Martha Mattingly -- brought a man in black tie and a woman in a skimpy white dress back to the sunroom with her.
Helene understood Englewood's reasons for showing off the miniature version of his proposed development at midnight. As one showman to another, she'd complimented him on the party arrangements during their contract signing.
"Just make sure your Circle folks don't give my guests any advice about the project or about me," he'd warned. "By breakfast on New Year's Day, I expect at least a third of them to have their checkbooks out, panting to get on the elevator to the top. This is my biggest project yet, and I don't want any screw-ups."
This was the first time Englewood had employed the Circle. He assured Helene that if their performance proved satisfactory he'd send her plenty of future business, and she didn't doubt it. The Circle members were childishly inept about financial arrangements and scheduling, so she in turn had assured him that she was firmly in charge, without mentioning her protective lioness instinct. King-of-the-Pride men like Del Englebrook and her late husband were users; in their eyes, most men, and certainly women, were servers. Which made their superficial charm all the more dangerous -- and damning.
She continued to observe the group for several minutes. Finally, satisfied by the expressions of the departing guests, most of them having tipped their reader, she glanced down at the untouched glass of champagne in her hand. She never drank on a job. How would Jay react if she delivered the warm wine to him now?
The usual questions flickered through her mind. Was he married? If so, he was off-limits for both personal and professional reasons; she hadn't devoted years of her life to this business to endanger its prospects with a casual fling. Was he gay? She smiled. No way. Was he really what he indicated, an assistant? She frowned. It didn't feel right, and yet...
Suddenly thirsty, she visited the kitchen, where she downed a cup of coffee, and also a slice of mushroom pizza. As she passed the wall intercom in the passageway on her return, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was cut off in mid-Merry. Then Englewood's disembodied voice came over the speaker and she paused to listen.
"Friends," he said, "we have a fine young blizzard outside, but there's nothing to worry about inside. I promised you a show at midnight and breakfast at six, with dancing and psychic readings in between, and you're going to get all of them. If the lights should go out, a generator will take over. So welcome in the new year, and then come to the my office at twelve-fifteen to view the opportunity of a lifetime. Afterwards, just relax and party the night away!"
The man had covered all the bases. She wouldn't be surprised if there was a dormitory set up in case his guests started dropping.
Again stationed in the sunroom archway, and still holding Jay's glass of warm champagne, Helene resumed her contemplation of the resourceful bodyguard. Was he with Glenda Mellon right now? He seemed to have better taste, but she'd bet he wouldn't be the first strong, quiet type to follow that particular hormone trail. Whatever made him tick, the guy interested her, and not only as a male.
"Helene! Come with me!"
Juggling the flute of champagne, she whirled, startled both by Jay's warm breath and the intensity of his whispered order in her ear.
"What's wrong?" she demanded, also in a whisper.
"I can't find the kid."
Copyright © 2004 by C.J. Winters