My Gal Sunday
A Crime of
“‘Beware the fury of a patient man,’ ” Henry Parker Britland IV observed sadly as he studied the picture of his former secretary of state. He had just learned that his close friend and political ally had been indicted for the murder of his lover, Arabella Young.
“Then you think poor Tommy did it?” Sandra O’Brien Britland said with a sigh as she patted homemade jam onto a hot scone, fresh out of the oven.
It was still early morning, and the couple was comfortably ensconced in their king-sized bed at Drumdoe, their country estate in Bernardsville, New Jersey. The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Times (London), L’Osservatore Romano, and The Paris Review, all in varying stages of being read, were scattered about, some lying on the delicately flowered, gossamer-soft quilt, others spilling over onto the floor. Directly in front of the couple were matching breakfast trays, each complete with a single rose in a narrow silver vase.
“Actually, no,” Henry said after a moment, slowly shaking his head. “I find it impossible to believe. Tom always had such strong self-control. That’s what made him such a fine secretary of state. But ever since Constance died — it was during my second administration — he just hasn’t seemed himself. And it was obvious to everyone that when he met Arabella he just fell madly in love. Of course, what also became obvious after a while was that he had lost some of that steely control — I’ll never forget the time he slipped and called Arabella ‘Poopie’ in front of Lady Thatcher.”
“I do wish I had known you then,” Sandra said ruefully. "I didn’t always agree with you, of course, but I thought you were an excellent president. But then, nine years ago, when you were first sworn in, you’d have found me boring, I’m sure. How interesting could a law student be to the president of the United States? I mean, hopefully you would have found me attractive, but I know you wouldn’t have taken me seriously. At least when you met me as a member of Congress, you thought of me with some respect.”
Henry turned and looked affectionately at his bride of eight months. Her hair, the color of winter wheat, was tousled. The expression in her intensely blue eyes somehow managed to convey simultaneously intelligence, warmth, wit, and humor. And sometimes also childlike wonder. He smiled as he remembered the first time he met her: he had asked if she still believed in Santa Claus.
That had been the evening before the inauguration of his successor, when Henry had hosted a cocktail party at the White House for all the new members of Congress.
“I believe in what Santa Claus represents, sir,” Sandra had replied. “Don’t you?”
Later, as the guests were leaving, he had invited her to stay for a quiet dinner.
“I’m so sorry,” she had replied. “I’m meeting my parents. I can’t disappoint them.”
Left to dine alone on this final evening in the White House, Henry had thought of all the women who over the past eight years had readily changed their plans in a fraction of a second, and he realized that at last he had found the woman of his dreams. They were married six weeks later.
At first the media hype threatened to be unending. The marriage of the country’s most eligible bachelor — the forty-four-year-old ex-president — to the beautiful young congresswoman, twelve years his junior, set off a feeding frenzy among journalists. Not in years had a marriage so completely captured the public’s collective imagination.
The fact that Sandra’s father was a motorman on the New Jersey Central Railroad, that she had worked her way through both St. Peter’s College and Fordham Law School, spent seven years as a public defender, then, in a stunning upset, won the congressional seat of the longtime incumbent from Jersey City, already had made her a champion to womankind, as well as a darling of the media.
Henry’s status as one of the two most popular presidents of the twentieth century, as well as the possessor of a considerable private fortune, combined with the fact that he appeared with regularity at or near the top of the list of America’s sexiest men, made him likewise a favorite source of copy, as well as an object of envy by other men who could only wonder why the gods so obviously favored him.
On their wedding day, one tabloid had run the headline: LORD HENRY BRINTHROP MARRIES OUR GAL SUNDAY, a reference to the once wildly popular radio soap opera that daily, five days a week, for years on end, asked the question: “Can a girl from a mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of England’s richest and most handsome lord, Lord Henry Brinthrop?”
Sandra had immediately become known to one and all, including her doting husband, as Sunday. She hated the nickname at first, but became resigned to it when Henry pointed out that for him it had a double meaning, that he thought of her as “a Sunday kind of love,” a reference to the lyrics of one of his favorite songs. “Besides,” he added, “it suits you. Tip O’Neill had a nickname that was just right for him; Sunday is just right for you.”
This morning, as she studied her husband, Sunday thought back over the months they had spent together, days that until this morning had remained almost carefree. Now, seeing the genuine concern in Henry’s eyes, she covered his hand with hers. “You’re worried about Tommy. I can tell. What can we do to help him?”
“Not very much, I’m afraid. I’ll certainly check to make sure the defense lawyer he has hired is up to the task, but no matter who he gets to represent him, the prospects look bleak. Think about it. It’s a particularly vicious crime, and when you look at the circumstances it’s hard not to assume that Tom did it. The woman was shot three times, with Tommy’s pistol, in Tommy’s library, right after he told people how upset he was that she had broken up with him.”
Sunday picked up one of the papers and examined the picture of a beaming Thomas Shipman, his arm around the dazzling thirty-year-old who had helped to dry his tears following his wife’s death. “How old is Tommy?” Sunday asked.
“I’m not sure. Sixty-five, I’d guess, give or take a year.”
They both studied the photograph. Tommy was a trim, lean man, with thinning gray hair and a scholarly face. In contrast, Arabella Young’s wildly teased hair framed a boldly pretty face, and her body possessed the kind of curves found on Playboy covers.
“A May-December relationship if I ever saw one,” Sunday commented.
“They probably say that about us,” Henry said lightly, forcing a smile.
“Oh, Henry, be quiet,” Sunday said. Then she took his hand. “And don’t try to pretend that you aren’t really upset. We may still be newlyweds, but I know you too well already to be fooled.”
“You’re right, I am worried,” Henry said quietly. “When I think back over the past few years, I can’t imagine myself sitting in the Oval Office without Tommy at my side. I’d only had one term in the Senate before becoming president and in so many ways I was still very green. Thanks to him I weathered those first months without falling on my face. When I was all set to have it out with the Soviets, Tommy — in his calm, deliberate way — showed me how wrong I’d be to force a confrontation but then publicly managed to convey the impression that he was only a sounding board for my own decision. Tommy is a true statesman, but more to the point, he is a gentleman, through and through. He’s honest, he’s smart, he’s loyal.”
“But surely he’s also a man who must have been aware that people were joking about his relationship with Arabella and just how smitten he was with her? Then when she finally wanted out, he lost it,” Sunday observed. “That’s pretty much the way you see it, isn’t it?”
Henry sighed. “Perhaps. Temporary insanity? It’s possible.” He lifted his breakfast tray and put it on the night table. “Nevertheless, he was always there for me, and I’m going to be there for him. He’s been allowed to post bond. I’m going to see him.”
Sunday quickly shoved her tray aside, barely managing to catch her half-empty coffee cup before it spilled onto the quilt. “I’m coming too,” she said. “Just give me ten minutes in the Jacuzzi and I’ll be ready.”
Henry watched his wife’s long legs as she slid out of bed. “ The Jacuzzi. What a splendid idea,” he said enthusiastically, “I’ll join you.”
Thomas Acker Shipman had tried to ignore the army of media camped outside, near his driveway. When he and his lawyer pulled up in front of his house, he had simply stared straight ahead and barged his way from the car to the house, desperately trying not to hear the roar of questions hurled at him as he passed. Once inside, however, the events of the day finally hit him, and he visibly slumped. “I think a scotch may be in order,” he said quietly.
His attorney, Leonard Hart, looked at him sympathetically. “I’d say you deserve one,” he said. “But first, let me once again reassure you that if you insist, we’ll go ahead with a plea bargain, but I’m compelled to once more point out to you that we could put together a very strong insanity defense, and I wish you’d agree to go to trial. The situation is so clear that any jury could understand: you went through the agony of losing a beloved wife, and on the rebound you fell in love with an attractive young woman who at first accepted many gifts from you, then spurned you. It is a classic story, and one that I feel confident would be received sympathetically when coupled with a temporary insanity plea.”
As he spoke, Hart’s voice became increasingly passionate, as though he were addressing a jury: “You asked her to come here and talk it over, but she taunted you and an argument ensued. Suddenly, you lost your head, and in a blinding rage so intense that you can’t even remember the details, you shot her. The gun normally was kept locked away, but this evening you had it out because you had been so upset that you actually had entertained thoughts of killing yourself.”
The lawyer paused in his presentation, and in the moment of silence the former secretary of state stared up at him, a puzzled look on his face. “ Is that actually how you see it?” he asked.
Hart seemed surprised at the question. “Why, yes, of course,” he replied. “There are a few details we have to iron out yet, a few things that I’m not completely clear on. For example, we’ll have to explain how you could simply leave Miss Young bleeding on the floor and go up to bed, where you slept so soundly that you didn’t even hear your housekeeper’s scream when she discovered the body the next morning. Based on what I know, though, I would think that at the trial we would contend that you were in a state of shock.”
“Would you?” Shipman asked wearily. “But I wasn’t in shock. In fact, after I had that drink, I just seemed to start floating. I can barely remember what Arabella and I said to each other, never mind recalling actually shooting her.”
A pained look crossed the lawyer’s face. “I think, Tom, that I must beg you not to make statements like that to anyone. Will you promise me, please? And may I also suggest that certainly for the foreseeable future you go easy on the scotch; obviously it isn’t agreeing with you.”
Thomas Shipman stood behind the drapes as he peered through the window, watching as his rotund attorney attempted to fend off a charge by the media. Rather like seeing the lions released on a solitary Christian, he thought. Only in this case, it wasn’t Attorney Hart’s blood they were after. It was his own. Unfortunately, he had no taste for martyrdom.
Fortunately, he had been able to reach his housekeeper, Lillian West, in time to tell her to stay home today. He had known last evening, when the indictment was handed down, that television cameras would be camped outside his house, to witness and record every step of his leaving in handcuffs, followed by the arrangement, the fingerprinting, the plea of innocence, and then this morning’s less-than-triumphal return home. No, getting into his house today had been like running the gauntlet; he didn’t want his housekeeper to be subjected to that too.
He did miss having someone around, though. The house felt too quiet, and lonely. Engulfed by memories, his mind was drawn back to the day he and Constance had bought the place, some thirty years ago. They had driven up from Manhattan to have lunch at the Bird and Bottle near Bear Mountain, then had taken a leisurely drive back to the city. Impulsively, they had decided to detour through the lovely residential streets in Tarrytown, and it was then that they came across the For Sale sign in front of this turn-of-the-century house overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades.
And for the next twenty-eight years, two months, and ten days, we lived here in a state of happily ever after, Shipman thought. “Oh, Constance, if only we could have had twenty-eight more,” he said quietly as he headed toward the kitchen, having decided on coffee instead of scotch as the drink he needed.
This house had been a special place for them. Even when he served as secretary of state and had to travel so much of the time, they managed to have occasional weekends together here, and always it was a kind of restorative for the soul. And then one morning two years ago, Constance had said, “Tom, I don’t feel so well.” And a moment later she was gone.
Working twenty-hour days had helped him numb the pain somewhat. Thank God I had the job to distract me, he thought, smiling to himself as he recalled the nickname the press had given him, “The Flying Secretary.” But I not only kept busy; Henry and I also managed to do some good. We left Washington and the country in better shape than it’s been in for years.
Reaching the kitchen, he carefully measured out enough coffee for four cups and then did the same with the water. See, I can take care of myself, he thought. Too bad I didn’t do more of it after Constance died. But then Arabella entered the scene. So ready with comfort, so alluring. And now, so dead.
He thought back to the evening, two days ago. What had they said to each other in the library? He vaguely remembered becoming angry. But could he actually have been angry enough to carry out such a terrible act of violence? And how could he possibly have left her bleeding on the library floor while he stumbled up to bed? He shook his head. It just didn’t make sense.
The phone rang, but Shipman only stared at it. When the ringing stopped, he took the receiver off the hook and laid it on the counter.
When the coffee was ready, he poured a cup and with slightly trembling fingers carried it into the living room. Normally he would have settled in his big leather chair in the library, but not today. Now he wondered if he would ever be able to enter that room again.
Just as he was getting settled, he heard shouting from outside. He knew the media were still encamped on his street, but he couldn’t imagine the cause of such a racket. Yet before he even pulled back the drapes far enough to allow him to peer outside, he had guessed what had caused the furor.
The former president of the United States had arrived on the scene, to offer friendship and comfort.
The Secret Service personnel tried valiantly to clear a path for the Britlands as they forged their way through the crowd of reporters and cameramen. With his arm protectively around his wife, Henry paused, indicating his willingness to offer at least a cursory statement: “As always in this great country, a man is innocent until proven guilty. Thomas Shipman was a truly great secretary of state and remains a close friend. Sunday and I are here today in friendship.”
Having made his statement, the former president turned and headed toward the porch, ignoring the barrage of questions the reporters hurled at him. Just as they reached the top step leading to the porch, Tom Shipman unlocked and opened the front door, and his visitors glided inside without further incident.
It was only when the door had closed behind the Britlands, and he felt himself enclosed in a firm and reassuring bear hug, that Thomas Shipman began to sob.
Sensing that the two men needed some time to talk privately, Sunday headed to the kitchen, insisting against Shipman’s protest that she prepare lunch for the three of them. The former secretary kept saying that he could call in his housekeeper, but Sunday insisted that he leave everything to her. “You’ll feel a lot better when you have something in your stomach, Tom,” she said. “You guys say your hellos and then come join me. I’m sure you must have everything I need to make an omelet. It’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”
Shipman, in fact, quickly regained his composure. Somehow just Henry Britland’s presence in his home gave him the sense, at least for the moment, that he could handle whatever it was that he would have to face. They went to the kitchen, finding Sunday already at work on the omelet. Her brisk, sure movements at the chopping board brought back for Shipman a recent memory of Palm Beach, and of watching someone else prepare a salad, while he dreamed of a future that now could never be.
Glancing out the window, he realized suddenly that the shade was raised, and that if somebody managed to sneak around to the back of the house, there would be a perfect opportunity to snap a candid photo of the three of them. Swiftly, he moved across the room and lowered the shade.
He turned back toward Henry and Sunday and smiled sadly at the two of them. “You know, I recently got talked into putting an electronic setup on the drapes in all the other rooms, something that would let me close them either by a timer or by a mere click of the control. I never thought I’d need that in here, though. I know almost nothing about cooking, and Arabella wasn’t exactly the Betty Crocker type herself.”
He paused and shook his head. “Oh, well. It doesn’t matter now. And besides, I never did like the damn things. In fact, the drapes in the library still don’t work right. Every time you click to either open or close them, you get this loud cracking noise, almost like somebody firing a gun. Oddly appropriate, wouldn’t you say? I mean, since there really was a gun fired in there less than forty-eight hours ago. You’ve heard about events casting their shadows before them? Well . . .”
He turned away for a moment, the room silent except for the sounds of Sunday getting the omelet ready for the pan. Then Shipman moved to the kitchen table and sat across from Henry. He was reminded almost immediately of the times they had faced each other across the desk in the Oval Office. He looked up, catching the younger man’s eye. “You know, Mr. President, I —”
“Tommy, knock it off. It’s me. Henry.”
“All right, Henry. I was just thinking that we are both lawyers, and —”
“And so is Sunday,” Henry reminded him. “Don’t forget. She did her time as a public defender before she ran for office.”
Shipman smiled wanly. “Then I suggest that she’s our resident expert.” He turned toward her. “Sunday, did you ever have to launch a defense where your client had been dead drunk at the time the crime was committed, in the course of which he not only shot his . . . ah . . . friend, three times, but left her sprawled out on the floor to bleed to death while he staggered upstairs to sleep it off?.”
Without turning from the stove, she responded. “Maybe not quite those circumstances, but I did defend a number of people who had been so high on drugs at the time that they didn’t even remember committing the crime. Typically, though, there were witnesses who offered sworn testimony against them. It was tough.”
“So they were found guilty, of course?” Shipman asked.
Sunday paused and looked at him, smiling ruefully. “They had the book thrown at them,” she admitted.
“Exactly. My attorney, Len Hart, is a good and capable fellow who wants me to plead guilty by reason of insanity — temporary, of course. But as I see it, my only course is to plea bargain in the hope that in exchange for a guilty plea, the state will not seek the death penalty.”
Henry and Sunday now both were watching their friend as he talked, staring straight ahead. “You understand,” Shipman continued, “ that I took the life of a young woman who ought to have enjoyed fifty years more on this planet. If I go to prison, I probably won’t last more than five or ten years. The confinement, however long it lasts, may help to expiate this awful guilt before I am called to meet my Maker.”
All three of them remained silent as Sunday finished preparing the meal — tossing a salad, then pouring beaten eggs into a heated skillet, adding chopped tomatoes, scallions, and ham, folding the ends of the bubbling eggs into flaps, and finally flipping the omelet over. The toast popped up as she slid the first omelet onto a heated plate and placed it in front of Shipman. “Eat,” she commanded.
Twenty minutes later, when Tom Shipman pushed the last bit of salad onto a crust of toast and stared at the empty plate in front of him, he observed, “It is an embarrassment of riches, Henry, that with a French chef already employed in your kitchen, you are also blessed with a wife who is a culinary master.”
“Thank you, kind sir,” Sunday said briskly, “the truth is, whatever talents I have in the kitchen began during the time I put in as a short-order cook when I was working my way through Fordham.”
Shipman smiled as he stared distractedly at the empty plate in front of him. “It’s a talent to be admired. And certainly one Arabella didn’t possess.” He shook his head slowly from side to side. “ It’s hard to believe I could have been so foolish.”
Sunday put her hand on top of his, then said quietly, ”Tommy, certainly there have got to be some extenuating circumstances that will work in your favor. You’ve put in so many years of public service, and you’ve been involved in so many charitable projects. The courts will be looking for anything they can use to soften the sentence — assuming, of course, that there really is one. Henry and I are here to help in any way we can, and we will stay by your side through whatever follows.”
Henry Britland placed his hand firmly on Shipman’s shoulder. “ That’s right, old friend, we are here for you. Just ask, and we will try to make it happen. But before we can do anything, we need to know what really did happen here. We had heard that Arabella had broken up with you, so why was she here that night?”
Shipman did not answer immediately. “She just dropped in,” he said evasively.
“Then you weren’t expecting her?” Sunday asked quickly.
He hesitated. “Uh . . . no . . . no, I wasn’t.”
Henry leaned forward. “Okay, Tom, but as Will Rogers said, ‘All I know is just what I read in the papers.’ According to the media accounts, you had phoned Arabella earlier in the day and begged her to talk to you. She had come over that evening around nine.”
“That’s right,” he replied without explanation.
Henry and Sunday exchanged worried glances. Clearly there was something that Tom wasn’t telling them.
“What about the gun?” Henry asked. “Frankly, I was startled to hear that you even had one, and especially that it was registered in your name. You were such a staunch supporter of the Brady Bill, and were considered an enemy by the NRA. Where did you keep it?”
“Truthfully, I had totally forgotten I even had it,” Shipman said tonelessly. “I got it when we first moved here, and it had been in the back of my safe for years. Then coincidentally I noticed it there the other day, right after hearing that the town police were having a drive to get people to exchange guns for toys. So I just took it out of the safe and had left it lying on the library table, the bullets beside it. I had planned to drop it off at the police station the next morning. Well, they got it all right, just not in the way I had planned.”
Sunday knew that she and Henry were sharing the same thought. The situation was beginning to look particularly bad: not only had Tom shot Arabella, but he had loaded the gun after her arrival.
“Tom, what were you doing before Arabella got here?” Henry asked.
The couple watched as Shipman considered the question before answering: “I had been at the annual stockholders’ meeting of American Micro. It had been an exhausting day, exacerbated by the fact that I had a terrible cold. My housekeeper, Lillian West, had dinner ready for me at seven-thirty. I ate only a little and then went directly upstairs because I still wasn’t feeling well. In fact, I even had chills, so I took a long, hot shower; then I got into bed. I hadn’t been sleeping well for several nights, so I took a sleeping pill. Then I was awakened — from a very sound sleep, I must say — when Lillian knocked on my door to tell me that Arabella was downstairs to see me.”
“So you came back downstairs?”
“Yes. I remember that Lillian was just leaving as I came down, and that Arabella was already in the library.”
“Were you pleased to see her?”
Shipman paused for a moment before answering. “No, I was not. I remember that I was still groggy from the sleeping pill and could hardly keep my eyes open. Also I was angry that after ignoring my phone calls, she had simply decided to appear without warning. As you may remember, there is a bar in the library. Well, Arabella already had made herself at home by preparing a martini for both of us.”
“Tom, why would you even think of drinking a martini on top of a sleeping pill?” Henry asked.
“Because I’m a fool,” Shipman snapped. “And because I was so sick of Arabella’s loud laugh and irritating voice that I thought I’d go mad if I didn’t drown them out.”
Henry and Sunday stared at their friend. “But I thought you were crazy about her,” Henry said.
“Oh, I was for a while, but in the end, I was the one who broke it off,” Shipman replied. “As a gentleman, though, I thought it proper to tell people that it had been her decision. Certainly anyone looking at the disparity in our ages would have expected it to be that way. The truth was, I had finally — temporarily, as it turns out — come to my senses.”
“Then why were you calling her?” Sunday asked. “I don’t follow.”
“Because she had taken to phoning me in the middle of the night, sometimes repeatedly, hour upon hour. Usually she would hang up right after hearing my voice, but I knew it was Arabella. So I had called her to warn her that it couldn’t go on that way. But I certainly did not invite her over.”
“Tom, why haven’t you told any of this to the police? Certainly based on everything I have read and heard, everyone thinks it was a crime of passion.”
Tom Shipman shook his head sadly. “Because I think that in the end it probably was. That last night Arabella told me that she was going to get in touch with one of the tabloids and was going to sell them a story about wild parties that you and I allegedly gave together during your administration.”
“But that’s ridiculous,” Henry said indignantly.
“Blackmail,” Sunday said softly.
“Exactly. So do you think telling that story would help my case?” Shipman asked. He shook his head. “No, even though it wasn’t the case, at least there’s some dignity to being punished for murdering a woman because I loved her too much to lose her. Dignity for her, and, perhaps, even a modicum of dignity for me.”
Sunday insisted on cleaning up the kitchen while Henry escorted Tommy upstairs to rest. “Tommy, I wish there were someone staying here with you while all this is going on,” the former president said. “I hate to leave you alone.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Henry, I’m fine. Besides, I don’t feel alone after our visit.”
Despite his friend’s admonition, Henry knew he would worry, as he began to do almost immediately after Shipman went off to the bathroom. Constance and Tommy had never had children, and now so many of their close friends from the area had retired and moved away, most of them to Florida. Henry’s thoughts were interrupted by the sounding of his ever-present beeper.
Using his cellular phone, he replied immediately. The caller was Jack Collins, the head of the Secret Service team assigned to him. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. President, but a neighbor is most anxious to get a message to Mr. Shipman. She says that a good friend of his, a Countess Condazzi who lives in Palm Beach, has been trying to get through to him, but he is not answering his phone and apparently his answering machine is turned off, so she has been unable to leave him a message. I gather that she has become somewhat distraught and is insisting that Mr. Shipman be notified that she is awaiting his call.”
“Thanks, Jack. I’ll give Secretary Shipman the message. And Sunday and I will be leaving in just a few minutes.”
“Right, sir. We’ll be ready.”
Countess Condazzi, Henry thought. How interesting. I wonder who that can be?
His curiosity deepened when, on being informed of the call, Thomas Acker Shipman’s eyes brightened, and a smile formed on his lips. “Betsy phoned, eh?” he said. “How dear of her.” But almost as quickly as it had appeared, the brightness faded from his eyes, and the smile vanished. “Perhaps you could send word to my neighbor that I won’t be accepting calls from anyone,” he said. “At this juncture, there seems to be little point in talking to anyone other than my lawyer.”
A few minutes later, as Henry and Sunday were being hustled past the media, a Lexus pulled into the driveway next to them. The couple watched as a woman jumped from the car and, using the stir created by their departure as diversion, managed to get to the house undisturbed, where, using her own key, she entered immediately.
“That has to be the housekeeper,” Sunday said, having noted that the woman, who appeared to be in her fifties, was dressed plainly and wore her hair in a coronet of braids. “She certainly looks the part, and besides, who else would have a key? Well, at least Tom won’t be alone.”
“He must be paying her well,” Henry observed. “That car is expensive.”
On the drive home, he told Sunday about the mysterious phone call from the countess in Palm Beach. She made no comment, but he could tell from the way she tilted her head to one side and puckered her forehead that she was both disturbed and deep in thought.
The car they were riding in was a nondescript, eight-year-old Chevy, one of the specially equipped secondhand cars Henry kept available for their use, especially helpful in allowing them to avoid detection when they so desired. As always, they were accompanied by two Secret Service agents, one driving while the other rode shotgun. A thick glass divider separated the front seat from the back, allowing Henry and Sunday the freedom to talk without being overheard.
Breaking what for her was an extended silence, Sunday said, “ Henry, there’s something wrong about this case. You could sense it from the accounts in the paper, but now, having talked to Tommy, I’m certain of it.”
Henry nodded. “I agree completely. At first I thought that perhaps the details of the crime might be so gruesome that he had to deny them even to himself.” He paused, then shook his head. “But now I realize that this is not a question of denial. Tommy really doesn’t know what happened. And all of this is just so unlike him!” he exclaimed. “No matter what the provocation — threats of blackmail or whatever — I cannot accept that even confounded by the combination of a sleeping pill and a martini, Tommy could go so completely out of control as to have killed the woman! Just seeing him today made me realize how extraordinary all this is. You didn’t know him then, Sunday, but he was devoted to Constance. Yet when she died, his composure was remarkable. He suffered, yes, but he remained calm throughout the entire ordeal.” He paused, then shook his head again. “No, Tommy simply isn’t the kind of man who flips out, no matter what the provocation.”
“Well, his composure may have been remarkable when his wife died, but then falling hook, line, and sinker for Arabella Young when Connie was barely cold in her grave does say something about the man, you’ll have to agree.”
“Yes, but rebound perhaps? Or denial?”
“Exactly,” Sunday replied. “Of course, sometimes people fall in love almost immediately after a great loss and it actually works out, but more often than not, it doesn’t.”
“You’re probably right. The very fact that Tommy never married Arabella after actually giving her an engagement ring — what, nearly two years ago? — says to me that almost from the outset he must have known it was a mistake.”
“Well, all of this took place before I came on the scene, of course,” Sunday mused, “but I did keep abreast of much of it through the tabloids, which at the time made a big fuss over how in love the staid secretary of state was with the flashy PR person only half his age. But then I remember seeing two photos of him run side by side, one showing him out in public, snuggling. Arabella, while the other was taken at his wife’s burial and obviously caught him at a moment when his composure had slipped. No one that grief stricken could be that happy only a couple of months later. And the way she dressed — she just didn’t seem to be Tommy’s kind of woman.”
Sunday sensed rather than saw her husband’s raised eyebrow. “Oh, come on. I know you read the tabloids cover to cover after I’m done with them. Tell me the truth. What did you think of Arabella?”
“Truthfully, I thought of her as little as possible.”
“You’re not answering my question.”
“I try never to speak ill of the dead.” He paused. “But if you must know, I found her boisterous, vulgar, and obnoxious. She possessed a shrewd enough mind, but she talked so fast and so incessantly that her brain never seemed able to keep up with her mouth. And when she laughed, I thought the chandelier would shatter.”
“Well, that certainly fits in with what I read about her,” Sunday commented. She was silent for a moment, then turned to her husband. “Henry, if Arabella really was stooping to blackmail with Tommy, do you think it is possible she had tried it before, with someone else? I mean, is it possible that between the sleeping pill and the martini, Tommy passed out, and someone else came in without him knowing it? Someone who had followed Arabella, and who suddenly saw an opportunity to get rid of her and let poor Tommy take the blame?”
“And then carried Tommy upstairs and tucked him into bed?” Henry again raised an eyebrow.
They both fell silent as the car turned onto the approach to the Garden State Parkway. Sunday stared out the window as the late afternoon sunshine turned the trees, with their copper and gold and cardinal red leaves, aglow. “I love autunm,” she said pensively. “And it hurts to think that in the late autumn of his life, Tommy should be going through this ordeal.” She paused. “Okay, let’s try another scenario. You know Tommy well. Suppose he was angry, even furious, but also was so groggy that he couldn’t think straight. Put yourself in his position at that moment: what would you have done?”
“I would have done what Tommy and I both did when we were in a similar state of mind at summit meetings. We would sense that we were either too tired or too angry — or both — to be able to think straight, and we would go to bed.”
Sunday clasped Henry’s hand. “That’s exactly my point. Suppose Tommy actually staggered upstairs under his own steam, leaving Arabella behind. And suppose someone else really had followed her there, someone who knew what she was doing that evening. We have to find out who Arabella might have been with earlier. And we should talk to Tommy’s housekeeper. She left shortly after Arabella arrived. Maybe there was a car parked on the street that she noticed. And the countess from Palm Beach who called, who so urgently wanted to talk to Tommy. We’ve got to contact her; it’s probably nothing, but you never know what she might be able to tell us.”
“Agreed,” Henry said admiringly. “As usual, we’re on the same wavelength, only you’re farther along than I am. I actually hadn’t given any thought to talking to the countess.” He reached his arm around Sunday and pulled her closer. “Come here. Do you realize that I have not kissed you since 11:10 this morning?” he asked softly.
Sunday caressed his lips with the tip of her index finger. “Ah, then it’s more than my steel-trap mind that appeals to you?”
“You’ve noticed.” Henry kissed her fingertip, then grasped her hand and lowered it, removing any obstruction between his lips and hers.
Sunday pulled back. “Just one more thing, Henry. You’ve got to make sure that Tommy doesn’t agree to a plea bargain before we at least try to help him.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” he asked.
“An executive order, of course.”
“Darling, I’m no longer president.”
“Ah, but in Tommy’s eyes you are.”
“All right, I’ll try. But here’s another executive order: stop talking.”
In the front seat, the Secret Service agents glanced in the rearview mirror, then grinned at each other.
Henry was up by sunrise the next morning for a ride around a portion of the two-thousand-acre property with the estate manager. Back by 8:30, he was joined by Sunday in the breakfast room, which overlooked the classic English garden at the back of the house. The room itself was decorated to complement the view, with a wealth of botanical prints set against the background of Belgian linen awning-stripe wall covering. It gave the room a feeling of being constantly filled with flowers, and as Sunday frequently observed, was a long way from the upstairs apartment in the two-family house in Jersey City where she had been raised, and where her parents still lived.
“Don’t forget that Congress goes into session next week,” Sunday said as she eased into her second cup of coffee. “Whatever I can do to help Tommy, I have to start working on it right now. My suggestion would be that I begin by finding out everything I can about Arabella. Did Marvin finish the complete background check we asked for?”
The Marvin she referred to was Marvin Klein, the man who ran Henry’s office, which was situated in the estate’s former carriage house. Possessed of a droll sense of humor, Marvin called himself the chief of staff for a government in exile, referring to the fact that following Henry Britland’s second term, there had been a groundswell of opinion urging a change in the restriction that a United States president could serve only two terms. A poll at the time showed that eighty percent of the electorate wanted that prohibition amended to read no more than two consecutive terms. Quite obviously, a majority of the American public wanted Henry Parker Britland IV back in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I’ve got it right here,” Henry said. “I just read it. It would appear that the late Arabella successfully managed to bury quite a bit of her background. Some of the juicy bits that Marvin’s sources were able to come up with include the fact that she had a previous marriage which ended in a divorce that saw her taking her ex to the cleaners, and that her longtime on-again, off-again boyfriend, Alfred Barker, spent some time in prison for bribing athletes.”
“Really! Is he out of prison now?”
“Not only is he out, my dear, but he had dinner with Arabella the night she died.”
Sunday’s jaw dropped. “Darling, how on earth did Marvin ever discover that?”
“How does Marvin ever discover anything? All I know is that he has his sources. And furthermore, it seems that Alfred Barker lives in Yonkers, which as you probably know is not far from Tarrytown. Her ex-husband is said to be happily remarried and does not live in the area.”
“Marvin learned all this overnight?” Sunday asked, her eyes bright with excitement.
Henry nodded in answer, as Sims, the butler, refilled his coffee cup. “Thank you, Sims. And not only that,” he continued, “he also learned that apparently Alfred Barker was still very fond of Arabella, however improbable that may sound, and had recently been heard bragging to friends that now that she had ditched the old guy, she’d be getting back together with him.”
“What does Barker do now?” Sunday asked.
“Well, technically he owns a plumbing supply store, but Marvin’s sources say that actually it is a front for a numbers racket, which he apparently runs pretty much on his own. My favorite bit of information, though, is that our Mr. Barker is known to have a violent temper when double-crossed.”
Sunday scrunched her face as though deep in thought. “Hmmm. Let’s see now. He had dinner with Arabella just before she barged in on Tommy. He hates being double-crossed, which probably means he is also very jealous, and he has a terrible temper.” She looked at her husband. “ Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I knew this was a crime of passion!” Sunday said excitedly. “Only it appears that the passion was not on Tommy’s part. Okay, so I’ll go see Barker today, as well as Tommy’s housekeeper. What was her name?”
“Dora, I believe,” Henry replied. Then he corrected himself: “No, no — that was the housekeeper who worked for them for years. Great old lady. I believe Tommy said that she retired shortly after Constance died. No, if memory serves me, the one he has now, and that we caught a glimpse of yesterday, is named Lillian West.”
“That’s right. The woman with the braids and the Lexus,” Sunday said. “So I’ll take on Barker and the housekeeper. What are you going to do?”
“I’m flying down to Palm Beach to meet with this Countess Condazzi, but I’ll be home for dinner. And you, my dear, have to promise me that you’ll be careful. Remember that this Alfred Barker is clearly an unsavory character. I don’t want you giving the Secret Service guys the slip.”
“I mean it, Sunday,” Henry said in the quiet, serious tone he had used so effectively to make his cabinet members quake in their boots.
“Oooh, you’re one tough hombre,” Sunday said smiling. “Okay, I promise. I’ll stick to them like glue. And you fly safely.” She kissed the top of his head and then left the breakfast room, humming “Hail to the Chief.”
Some four hours later, having piloted his jet to the West Palm Beach airport, Henry arrived at the Spanish-style mansion that was the home of Countess Condazzi. “Wait outside,” he instructed his Secret Service detail.
The countess appeared to be in her mid-sixties, a small slender woman with exquisite features and calm gray eyes. She greeted Henry with cordial warmth, then got straight to the point. “I was so glad to get your call, Mr. President,” she said. “I read the news accounts of Tommy’s terrible situation, and I have been so anxious to talk to him. I know how much he must be suffering, but he won’t return my phone calls. Look, I know Tommy could not have committed this crime. We’ve been friends since we were children; we went to school together, including college, and in all that time there was never a moment when he so lost control of himself. Even when others around him were being fresh or disorderly, as they tended to be at the prom, and even when he was drinking, Tommy was always a gentleman. He took care of me, and when the prom was over, he took me home. No, Tommy simply could not have done this thing.”
“That’s exactly the way I see it,” Henry said in agreement. “So you grew up with him?”
“Across the street from each other in Rye. We dated all through college, but then he met Constance and I met Eduardo Condazzi, who was from Spain. I got married, and a year later, when Eduardo’s older brother died and he inherited the title and the family’s vineyards, we moved to Spain. Eduardo passed away three years ago. My son is now the count and lives in Spain still, but I thought it was time for me to come home. Then, after all these years, I bumped into Tommy when he was visiting friends down here for a golfing weekend. It was so wonderful to see him again. The years just seemed to melt away.”
And love was rekindled, Henry thought. “Countess . . .”
“Betsy,” she instructed firmly.
“All right, Betsy, I have to be blunt. Did you and Tommy begin to pick up where you left off years ago?”
“Well, yes and no,” Betsy said slowly. “I made it clear to him how very glad I was to see him again, and I think he felt the same way about me. But you see, I also think that Tommy never really gave himself a chance to grieve for Constance. In fact, we talked about it at length. It was obvious to me that his involvement with Arabella Young was his way of trying to escape the grieving process. I advised him to drop Arabella, and then to give himself a period of mourning, something like six months to a year. But then, I told him, he had to call me and take me to a prom.”
Henry studied Betsy Condazzi’s face, her wistful smile, her eyes filled with memories. “Did he agree?” he asked.
“Not completely. He said that he was selling his house and was going to move down here permanently.” She smiled. “He said that he’d be ready long before six months were up, to take me to the prom.”
Henry paused before asking the next question: “If Arabella Young had gone to the tabloids with a story claiming that during my administration and even before his wife’s death, Tommy and I had thrown wild, debauched parties in the White House, what would your reaction be?”
“Why, I’d know it wasn’t true,” she said simply. “And Tommy knows me well enough to be sure that he could count on my support.”
On the return flight to Newark airport, Henry let his pilot take over the controls. His time was spent deep in thought. It was becoming increasingly clear to him that Tommy was being set up. Obviously he was aware that his future had promised a second chance at happiness and that he didn’t have to kill in order to safeguard that chance. No, it just didn’t make sense that he would have killed Arabella Young. But how were they going to prove it? He wondered if Sunday was having any better luck in finding a likely motive for Arabella’s murder.
Alfred Barker was not a man who inspired instinctive liking, Sunday thought as she sat across from him in the office of his plumbing supply store.
He appeared to be in his mid-forties, a thick, barrel-chested man with heavily lidded eyes, a sallow complexion, and salt-and-pepper hair, which he combed dramatically across his skull in an obvious effort to hide a growing bald spot. His open shirt, however, revealed a wealth of hair on his chest. The only other distinctive thing she noticed about him was a jagged scar on the back of his right hand.
Sunday felt a fleeting moment of gratitude as she thought of Henry’s lean, muscular body, his altogether pleasing appearance, including his famous “stubborn” jaw and the sable brown eyes that could convey or, if necessary, conceal emotion. And while she frequently chaffed at the omnipresent Secret Service men — after all, she had never been a First Lady, so why should she need them now? — at this moment, closeted in this squalid room with this hostile man, she was glad to know that they stood just outside the partially open door.
She had introduced herself as Sandra O’Brien, and it was obvious that Alfred Barker did not have a clue that the rest of her name was Britland.
“So why do you wanna talk to me about Arabella?” Barker asked as he lit a cigar.
“I want to start by saying that I’m very sorry about her death,” Sunday said sincerely. “I understand that you and she were very close. But, you see, I know Mr. Shipman.” She paused, then explained, “My husband at one time worked with him. And there seems to be a conflicting version of who broke up his relationship with Ms. Young.”
“What does that matter? Arabella was sick of the old creep,” Barker said. “Arabella always liked me.”
“But she got engaged to Thomas Shipman,” Sunday protested.
“Yeah, but I knew that would never last. All he had was a fat wallet. You see, Arabella got married when she was eighteen to some jerk who was so dumb he needed to be introduced to himself every morning. But Arabella was smart. The guy may have been stupid, but he was worth hanging onto ’cause there were big bucks in the family. So she hung around for three or four years, let him pay for her to go to college, get her teeth fixed, whatever, then waited until his very rich uncle died, got him to commingle the money, and then dumped him. She cleaned up in the divorce.”
Alfred Barker relit the tip of his cigar and exhaled noisily, then leaned back in his chair. “What a shrewd cookie she was. A natural.”
“And was it then that she started seeing you?” Sunday prodded.
“Right. But then I had a little misunderstanding with the government and ended up in the can for a spell. She got herself a job with a fancy public relations firm, and when a chance to move to their Washington branch came up a couple of years ago, she grabbed it.”
Barker inhaled deeply on the cigar, then coughed noisily. “Nope, you couldn’t hold Arabella down, not that I ever wanted to. When I got sprung last year, she used to call me all the time and tell me about that jerk, Shipman, but it was a good setup for her, because he was always giving her jewelry, and she was always meeting fancy people.” Barker leaned across the desk and said meaningfully, “Including the president of the United States, Henry Parker Britland the Fourth.”
He paused, once again leaning back in his chair. He looked at Sunday accusingly. “How many people in this country ever sat down at the table and traded jokes with the president of the United States? Have you?” he challenged.
“No, not with the president,” Sunday said honestly, remembering that first night at the White House when she had declined Henry’s invitation to dinner.
“See what I mean?” Barker crowed triumphantly.
“Well, obviously, as secretary of state, Thomas Shipman was able to provide great contacts for Arabella. But according to Mr. Shipman, he was the one who was breaking off the relationship. Not Arabella.”
“Yeah. Well, so what?”
“Then why would he kill her?”
Barker’s face darkened, and he slammed his fist on the desk. “ I warned Arabella not to threaten him with that tabloid routine. I told her that this time she was running with a different crowd. But it had worked for her before, so she wouldn’t listen to me.”
“She got away with it before!” Sunday exclaimed, remembering that this was exactly the scenario she had suggested to Henry. “Who else did she try to blackmail?”
“Oh, some guy she worked with. I don’t know his name. Some small potatoes. But it’s never a good idea to mess around with a guy who’s got the kind of clout Shipman has. Remember what he did to Castro?”
“How much did she talk about her efforts to blackmail him?”
“Not much, and then only to me. I kept telling her not to try it, but she figured it would be worth a couple of bucks.” Unlikely tears welled in Alfred Barker’s eyes. “I really liked her. But she was so stubborn. She just wouldn’t listen.” He paused, apparently lost for a moment in reflection. “I warned her. There was even this quotation that I showed her.”
Sunday’s head jerked back in involuntary reaction to Barker’s startling statement.
“I like quotations,” he said. “I read them for laughs and for insight, or whatever, if you know what I mean.”
Sunday nodded her head. “My husband is very fond of quotations. He says they contain wisdom.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean! What’s your husband do?”
“He’s unemployed at the moment,” Sunday replied, looking down at her hands.
“That’s tough. Does he know anything about plumbing?”
“Do you think he could run numbers?”
Sunday shook her head sadly. “No, mostly he just stays home. And he reads a lot, like the quotations you were mentioning,” she said, trying to get the conversation back on track.
“Yeah, the one I read Arabella fit her so well it was amazing. She had a big mouth. A real big mouth. I came across this quote and showed it to her. I always told her that her big mouth would get her in trouble, and boy it did.”
Barker rummaged through the top drawer of his desk, then pulled out a tattered piece of paper. “Here it is. Read this.” He thrust a page at Sunday that obviously had been torn from a book of quotations. One entry on the page was circled in red:
Beyond this stone, a lump of clay,
Lies Arabella Young,
Who on the 24th of May
Began to hold her tongue.
“It comes from an old English tombstone. Just like that! Except for the date, is that a coincidence or is that a coincidence?” Barker sighed heavily and then slumped back in his chair. “Yeah, I’m sure gonna miss Arabella. She was fun.”
“You had dinner with her the night she died, didn’t you?”
“Did you drop her off at the Shipman house?”
“Nah. I told her she should give it a rest, but she wouldn’t listen. So I put her in a cab. She was planning to borrow his car to get home.” Barker shook his head. “Only she wasn’t planning to return it. She was sure he’d give her anything just to keep her from talking to the tabloids.” He fell silent for a moment. “Instead, look what he did to her.”
Barker stood up, his face twisted with fresh anger. “I hope they fry him!”
Sunday got to her feet. “The death penalty in New York State is administered by lethal injection, but I get your drift. Tell me, Mr. Barker, what did you do after you put Arabella in a cab?”
“You know, I’ve been expecting to be asked that, but the cops didn’t even bother talking to me. They knew they got Arabella’s killer from the start. So, after I put her in the cab, I went to my mother’s and took her to the movies. I do that once a month. I was at her house by quarter of nine, and in line to buy tickets at two minutes of nine. The ticket guy knows me. The kid who sells popcorn at the theater knows me. The woman who was sitting next to me is Mama’s friend, and she knows I was there for the whole show. So I didn’t murder Arabella, but I know who did!”
Barker pounded his fist on the desk, sending an empty soda bottle crashing to the floor. “You wanna help Shipman? Decorate his cell.”
Sunday’s Secret Service guards were suddenly beside her, staring intently at Barker. “I wouldn’t pound the desk in this lady’s presence,” one of them suggested icily.
For the first time since she had entered the office, Sunday noticed, Alfred Barker was at a loss for words.
Thomas Acker Shipman had not been pleased to receive the call from Marvin Klein, Henry Britland’s aide, informing him of the president’s request that he delay the plea-bargaining process. What is the use? Shipman wondered, disgruntled by not being able to get on with it. It was inevitable that he would have to go to jail, and he just wanted to get it over with. Besides, this house already had taken on the aspects of a prison. Once the plea-bargaining was finished, the media would have a surge of interest in him, but then he would be dropped and they would be on to another poor slob. A sixty-five-year-old man going to prison for ten or fifteen years didn’t remain hot copy for long.
The only thing that keeps them churning so much, he thought as he once again peered out at the mass of reporters still camped outside his house, is the speculation about whether or not I’ll go to trial. Once that’s been resolved, and it’s clear that I’m taking my medicine without putting up a fight, they’ll lose interest.
His housekeeper, Lillian West, had arrived promptly at eight o’clock that morning. He had hoped to discourage her coming today by putting on the safety chain, but apparently all he succeeded in doing was in making her more determined than ever to get in. When her key did not gain her entrance, she had pushed the doorbell firmly and called his name until he let her in. “You need taking care of, whether you think so or not,” she had said, sharply brushing aside the objection he had voiced yesterday, that he didn’t want her private life invaded by the media, and that, in fact, he really did prefer to be left alone.
And so she had gone about her usual daily chores, cleaning rooms that he would never again get to live in, and fixing meals for which he had no appetite. Shipman watched her as she moved about the house. Lillian was a handsome woman, an excellent housekeeper, and a cordon bleu cook, but her overly bossy tendencies occasionally made him wistfully remember Dora, the housekeeper who had been with him and Connie for some twenty years. So what if she had sometimes burned the bacon, she had always been a pleasant fixture in their home.
Also, Dora had been of the old school, while Lillian clearly believed in the equality of the employee to the employer. Nevertheless, Shipman realized that for the short time he would be in the house before going to prison, he could manage to put up with Lillian’s takeover attitude. He would just make the best of it by trying to enjoy the creature comforts of delicious meals and properly served wine.
Recognizing that he could not cut himself off completely from the outside world, and acknowledging that he actually needed to be available to his lawyer, Shipman had turned on the telephone answering machine and had begun taking calls, although screening out those that weren’t necessary. When he heard Sunday’s voice, however, he gladly picked up the phone.
“Tommy, I’m in the car and on my way to your house from Yonkers,” Sunday explained. “I want to talk to your housekeeper. Is she in today, and if not, do you know where I can reach her?”
“Lillian is here.”
“Wonderful. Don’t let her leave until I have had a chance to visit with her. I should be there in about an hour.”
“I can’t imagine what she’ll be able to tell you that the police haven’t already heard.”
“Tommy, I’ve just talked with Arabella’s boyfriend. He knew of her plan to extort money from you, and from what he said, I gather that it was a stunt that she had pulled on at least one other person. We’ve got to find out who that person was. It’s entirely possible that someone followed Arabella to your house that night, and we hope that when Lillian left she might have seen something — a car, maybe — that didn’t seem significant at the time but could prove to be important. The police never really investigated any other possible suspects, and since Henry and I are convinced that you didn’t do it, we’re going to sniff around for them. So buck up! It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Shipman hung up and turned to see Lillian West standing in the doorway to his study. Obviously she had been listening to his conversation. Even so, he smiled pleasantly. “Mrs. Britland is on her way here to talk to you,” he said. “She and the president seem to feel that I may not be guilty of killing Arabella after all and are doing some sleuthing on their own. They have a theory that might prove to be very helpful to me, and that’s what she wants to speak to you about.”
“That’s wonderful,” Lillian West said, her voice flat and her tone chilly. “I can’t wait to talk to her.”
Sunday’s next call was to Henry, on his plane. They exchanged reports on what they had learned so far, he from the countess and she from Alfred Barker. After Sunday’s revelation about Arabella’s habit of blackmailing the men she dated, she added a cautionary note: “The only problem with all this is that no matter who else might have wanted to kill Arabella, proving that that person walked into Tommy’s house undetected, loaded the gun that happened to be lying there, and then pulled the trigger is going to be difficult.”
“Difficult maybe, but not impossible,” Henry said by way of reassurance. “I’ll get Marvin started right away on checking out Arabella’s last places of employment, and maybe he can find out who she might have been involved with there.”
After saying good-bye to Sunday, Henry sat back to ponder what he had just learned about Arabella’s past He felt a strong sense of unease, but he couldn’t quite put it together. He had a growing premonition that something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on just what it was.
He leaned back in the swivel chair that was his favorite spot on the plane, other than the flight deck. It was something Sunday had said, he decided, but what was it? With almost total recall, he reviewed their conversation. Of course, he said to himself when he reached that point in his recollection, it was Sunday’s observation about the difficulty in trying to prove that some unknown person had walked into Tommy’s house, loaded the pistol, and pulled the trigger.
That was it! It didn’t have to be an outsider. There was one person who could have done that, who knew that Tommy felt both sick and overwhelmingly tired, who knew that Arabella was there, who in fact had let her in. The housekeeper!
She was relatively new. Chances are that Tommy hadn’t really had her checked out, probably didn’t know much of anything about her.
Quickly, Henry phoned Countess Condazzi. Let her still be home, he prayed silently. When her now-familiar voice answered, he wasted no time in getting to the point of his call: “Betsy, did Tommy ever say anything to you about his new housekeeper?”
She hesitated before answering. “Well, yes, but only jokingly.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know how it is,” she responded. “There are so many women in their fifties and sixties who are unattached, but there are so few men. When I spoke to Tommy last — it was the morning of the day that poor girl was killed — I said I had a dozen friends who are widowed or divorced who would be jealous because of his interest in me, and that if he showed up down here, he would be the center of attention. I remember that he said that except for me, he intended to steer clear of unattached women, and that, in fact, he had just had a most unpleasant experience in this regard.” She paused before continuing. “It seems that only that morning he had told his new housekeeper that he was putting his house on the market and would be moving to Palm Beach. He confided to her that he was finished with Arabella because someone else had become important to him. Later, when he was thinking back over the conversation and her reaction to it, he realized that the housekeeper may have gotten the crazy idea that he had meant her. So he made a special point of informing her that, of course, he would not need her services once the house was sold and, naturally, would not be taking her with him to Florida. He recounted that she at first had seemed shocked and then had become cool and distant.” Again the countess paused, then gasped, “Goodness, you don’t think she could have had anything to do with this mess Tommy’s in, do you?”
“I’m afraid I’m beginning to, Betsy,” Henry replied. “Look, I’ll get back to you. I’ve got to get my man on this right away.” He broke the connection and swiftly dialed Marvin Klein. “Marvin,” he said. “I’ve got a hunch about Secretary Shipman’s housekeeper, Lillian West. Do a complete check on her. Immediately.”
Marvin Klein did not like to break the law as he would be doing by penetrating private computer records, but he knew that when his boss said “Immediately,” the matter had to be urgent.
It was only a matter of minutes before he had assembled a dossier on fifty-six-year-old Lillian West, including her rather extensive record of traffic violations and, more to the point, her employment history. Marvin frowned as he began to read. West was a college graduate, had an M.A., and had taught home economics at a number of colleges, the last one being Wren College in New Hampshire. Then, six years ago, she had left there and taken a job as a housekeeper.
Since then she had held four different positions. Her references — citing her punctuality, her high standard of work, and her cooking ability — were good but not enthusiastic. Marvin decided to check on them himself.
Less than a half hour after Henry’s call, Marvin was on the phone to the former president, who was still winging his way back from Florida. “Sir, the records indicate that Lillian West, while employed in various college-level teaching positions, had a history of troubled relationships with her superiors. Six years ago she left her last teaching job and went to work as a housekeeper for a widower in Vermont. He died ten months later, apparently of a heart attack. She then went to work for a divorced executive, who unfortunately died within the year. Before she went to work for Secretary Shipman, her employer was an eighty-year-old millionaire; he fired her but gave her a good reference nonetheless. I spoke to him. He said that while Ms. West was an excellent housekeeper and cook, she also was quite presumptuous and seemed to put no stock in the more traditional relationship between the head of the house and the housekeeper. In fact, he said that it was when he became aware that she had set her mind on marrying him that he decided she would have to go, and shortly after that he showed her the door.”
“Did this man report ever having any health problems?” Henry asked quietly as he absorbed the possibilities that were presented by Lillian West’s troubled history.
“I did think to ask him that, sir. He said that he is in robust health now, but that during the last several weeks of Ms. West’s employment, specifically after he had given her notice, he experienced extreme fatigue, followed by an undiagnosed illness that culminated in pneumonia.”
Tommy had spoken of a heavy cold and overwhelming fatigue. Henry’s hand gripped the phone. “Good job, Marvin. Thanks.”
“Sir, I’m afraid there’s more. According to the records, Ms. West’s hobby is hunting, and apparently she is very familiar with guns. Finally, I spoke to the president of Wren College, where she had her last teaching job. As he remembered it, Ms. West was forced to resign. He said that she had displayed symptoms of being deeply disturbed but refused all attempts at counseling.”
Henry ended the conversation with his aide as a wave of anxiety swept over him. Sunday was on her way right now to see Lillian West, totally unaware of any of the background Marvin had uncovered. She would unwittingly alert the housekeeper to the fact that they were looking into the very strong possibility that someone other than Thomas Shipman had murdered Arabella Young. There was no telling how the woman might react. Henry’s hand had never shaken even at summit meetings, but right now his fingers could barely punch the numbers to reach Sunday’s car phone.
Secret Service agent Art Dowling answered. “We’re at Secretary Shipman’s place now, sir. Mrs. Britland is inside.”
“Get her,” Henry snapped. “Tell her I must speak to her.”
“Right away, sir.”
Several minutes passed before Agent Dowling was back on the phone. “Sir, there may be a problem. We’ve rung the doorbell repeatedly, but no one is answering.”
Sunday and Tommy sat side by side on the leather couch in the library, staring into the muzzle of a revolver. Opposite them, Lillian West sat erect and steady as she held the gun. The persistent pealing of the front doorbell did not seem to distract her.
“Your palace guard, no doubt,” she said sarcastically.
The woman is crazy, Sunday thought as she stared into the housekeeper’s wild eyes. She’s crazy and she’s desperate. She knows she has nothing to lose by killing us, and she is just nuts enough to do it.
Sunday thought next of the Secret Service agents waiting outside. Art Dowling and Clint Carr were with her today. What would they do when no one answered the door? They’d probably force their way in, she reasoned. And when they do, she will shoot Tommy and me, she thought, her level of alarm increasing. I know she will.
“You have everything,” Lillian West said to Sunday, her eyes fixed on her prisoner, her voice low and angry. “You’re beautiful, you’re young, you’ve got an important job, and you’re married to a rich and attractive man. Well, I just hope that you have enjoyed the time you’ve had with him.”
“Yes, I have,” Sunday said calmly. “He is a wonderful man and husband, and I want more time with him,”
“Too bad, but that’s not going to happen, and it’s your fault. This wouldn’t be necessary if you’d just let well enough alone. What difference would it make if he” — Lillian West paused, her eyes cutting momentarily to Tommy — “if he went to prison? He’s not worth your trouble. He’s no good. He tricked me. He lied to me. He promised to take me to Florida. He was going to marry me.” She paused again, this time turning her full glare on the former secretary of state. “Of course, he wasn’t as rich as the others, but he has enough to get by. I’ve gone through all his papers here and I know.” A smile played on her lips. “And he’s nicer than the others, too. I liked that especially. We could have been very happy.”
“Lillian, I didn’t lie to you,” Tommy said quietly. “Think back over all that I ever said to you, and I think you’ll agree. I do like you though, and I think you need help. I want to see that you get it. I promise that both Sunday and I will do everything we can for you.”
“What, by getting me another housekeeping job?” Lillian snapped. “Cleaning, cooking, shopping. No thanks! I traded teaching silly girls for this kind of drudgery because I thought that somebody would finally appreciate me, would want to take care of me. But it didn’t happen. After I waited on all of them, they still treated me like dirt.” She directed her gaze again at Tommy. “I thought you were going to be different, but you’re not. You’re just like all the rest.”
While they had been talking, the pealing of the doorbell had stopped. Sunday knew that the Secret Service men would be looking for some way to get in, and she had no doubt that they would succeed. Then she froze. When Lillian West had admitted her, she had reset the alarm. “We don’t want one of those reporters trying to sneak in,” she had explained.
If Art or Clint tries to open a window, the alarm will go off, Sunday thought, and once that happens, Tommy and I are goners. She felt Tommy’s hand brush hers. He’s thinking the same thing, she realized. My God, what can we do? She had often heard the expression “staring death in the face,” but it wasn’t until this moment that she knew what it meant. Henry, she thought, Henry! Please don’t let this woman take away our life together.
Tommy’s hand was closed over hers now. His index finger was insistently jabbing the back of her hand. He was trying to send her a signal. But what? she wondered. What did he want her to do?
Henry stayed on the line, anxious not to break the connection to the Secret Service agent outside Tommy Shipman’s house. Agent Dowling was on his cellular phone now, and continued to talk to the former president as he carefully worked his way around the house. “Sir, all the draperies are drawn, in virtually every room. We’ve contacted the local police and they should be here any moment. Clint is at the back of the house, climbing a tree that has branches that reach near some windows. We might be able to get in undetected through there. The problem is that we have no way of knowing where they are within the house.”
My God, Henry thought. It would take at least an hour to get the special equipment over there that would enable us to follow their movement inside the house. I’m just afraid we don’t have that time to spare. Sunday’s face loomed in his mind. Sunday! Sunday! She had to be all right. He wanted to get out and push the plane to make it go faster. He wanted to order the army out. He wanted to be there. Now! He shook his head. He had never felt so helpless. Then he heard Dowling swear furiously.
“What is it, Art?” he shouted. “What is it?”
“Sir, the draperies in the right front downstairs room just opened, and I am sure I heard shots being fired inside.”
“That stupid woman provided me with the perfect opportunity,” Lillian West was saying. “I knew I was running out of time, that I wouldn’t be able to kill you slowly, the way I wanted. But this was just as good, really. This way I not only punished you but that dreadful woman as well.”
“Then you did kill Arabella?” Tommy exclaimed.
“Of course I did,” she snapped impatiently. “It was so easy, too. You see, I didn’t leave that evening. I showed her to this room, woke you up, said good night, shut the door, and hid in the coat closet. I heard it all. And I knew the pistol was there, ready for use. When you staggered upstairs, I knew it would be only a matter of minutes before you lost consciousness.” She paused and smiled mischievously. “My sleeping pills are much more effective than the ones you were used to, aren’t they? They have special ingredients.” She smiled again. “And a few interesting viruses as well. Why do you think your cold has improved so much since that night? Because you haven’t let me in to give you your pills. If you had, your cold would be pneumonia by now.”
“You were poisoning Tommy?” Sunday exclaimed.
Lillian West stared indignantly at the younger woman. “I was punishing him,” she said firmly. Then she turned again to Shipman. “Once you were safely upstairs, I went back into the library. Arabella was rummaging around on your desk and was flustered at first by having me catch her. She said she was looking for your car keys, said that you weren’t feeling well and had told her to drive herself home, that she would be back with the car in the morning. Then she asked me what I was doing back there, since I had told you both good night. I said I had come back because I had promised to turn your old pistol in at the police station but had forgotten to take it. The poor fool stood there and watched me while I picked it up and loaded it. Her last words were, ‘Isn’t it dangerous to load it? I’m sure Mr. Shipman didn’t intend that.’ ”
Lillian West began to laugh, a high-pitched, almost hysterical cackle. Tears ran from her eyes and her body shook, but through it all she kept the gun trained on them.
She’s working up to killing us, Sunday thought, for the first moment fully realizing that there was little hope for escape. Tommy’s finger was still jabbing the back of her hand.
“ ‘Isn’t it dangerous to load it?’ ” West repeated, mimicking Arabella’s last words, her own voice cracking with loud, raucous laughter. “ ‘I’m sure Mr. Shipman didn’t intend that!’ ”
She rested her gun hand on her left arm, steadying it. The laughter ended.
“Would you consider opening the draperies?” Shipman asked. “At least let me see sunlight one more time.”
Lillian West’s smile was mirthless. “Why bother with that? You’re about to see the shining light at the end of the tunnel,” she told him.
The draperies, Sunday thought suddenly. That was what Tommy had been trying to get across to her. Yesterday when he had lowered the shade in the kitchen he’d mentioned that the electronic device that worked the draperies in this room was defective, that it sounded a lot like a gunshot when it was used. Sunday looked around carefully. The control for the drapes was lying on the armrest of the couch. She had to get to it. It was their only hope.
Sunday pressed Tommy’s hand by way of indicating that she finally understood. Then, as a prayer raced through her mind, she reached out and with a lightning-fast movement pressed the button that would open the drapes.
The sound, loud as a gunshot, just as promised, made Lillian West whirl her head around. In that instant, both Tommy and Sunday leapt from the couch. Tommy threw himself at the woman’s lower body, but it was Sunday who slammed West’s hand upward just as she began to pull the gun’s trigger. As they struggled, several shots were fired. Sunday felt a burning sensation in her left arm, but it did not deter her. Unable to wrest the gun from the woman, she threw herself on top of her and kicked at the chair so that it toppled over with all three of them on it, just as the shattering of glass signaled the welcome arrival of her Secret Service detail.
Ten minutes later, a handkerchief wrapped securely over the superficial wound on her arm, Sunday was on the phone to a totally unnerved ex-president of the United States.
“I’m fine,” she said for the fifteenth time, “just fine. And Tommy is fine, too. Lillian West is in a straitjacket and on her way out of here. So stop worrying. Everything has been taken care of.”
“But you could have been killed,” Henry said, not for the first time. He didn’t want to break the phone connection. He didn’t want to let his wife stop talking. This had been too close. He couldn’t bear the thought that he might ever not be able to hear her voice.
“But I wasn’t killed,” Sunday said briskly. “And, Henry, we were both right. It was definitely a crime of passion. It was just that we were a little slow in figuring out whose passion was the cause of the crime.”