Sunday afternoon. A time when families all across the country spend quality time together—breaking bread, acknowledging how important they are to one another, sharing secrets. And the Hightower family, one of the richest broods on Long Island, was no exception.
“Who made the martinis?” Marilyn said as she sipped the drink she had just poured out of the tumbler.
“Mummy,” Morgan replied, not looking up from his magazine. “Why do you ask?”
“Because as far as I can tell, it’s straight gin.”
Morgan nodded. “That’s our Mummy.” Morgan and Marilyn were brother and sister. Morgan was six feet tall, underweight, and carried himself with an air of determined dissipation. Marilyn was almost as tall and was often described as having “steely good looks,” which meant both that she was uncommonly attractive and that her beauty was encased in a titanium shell no one had yet managed to penetrate. Morgan was a year older; they were both well into their thirties.
Marilyn poured her drink into the sink, took a tall glass, and reached for a Coke bottle. “That was a bit strong for the first drink of the day.”
“Mummy’s first drink of the day came shortly after breakfast. What you sampled would be the—oh, I don’t know—third or fourth batch of the day. Which might explain why she didn’t detect any subtle variations in flavor.”
“Toodle-doo, Morgan. Can I come in?” The voice in the hallway came from Cecilia, better known as Sissy, Morgan’s well-proportioned wife. She was not generally considered nuclear scientist material, but what she had downstairs compensated Morgan for what she didn’t have upstairs, or so everyone assumed, anyway.
Sissy snuggled up beside Morgan, who wrapped his arm around her. “What’s my little Morgy doing?”
Morgan had the look of supreme boredom down cold. “Reading, obviously.”
She pressed against him. “Could I interest Morgy in doing something a little more . . . athletic?”
“I’m reading, dear.”
She brushed her lips against his cheek. “I can think of something more fun than reading.”
A pained expression crossed Morgan’s face. “Not now, dear. My sinuses are acting up.”
“Please?” She traced a line up his neck with her finger, ending at his mouth. “I’ll make it worth Morgy-Worgy’s time.”
“Morgan,” Marilyn said sternly. “Be a dear and take your nymphet bride to your bedroom. If I have to listen to any more of this, I’m going to vomit.”
“Oh, all right.” He laid his magazine down and sighed heavily. “Back to the salt mines.”
Before he could move, however, he heard galumphing footsteps signaling that his father was on his way. And that he wasn’t in a good mood.
“Has anyone seen Julia?” Morgan and Marilyn’s father, Arthur Hightower, was an overweight bear of a man. He was blunt, gruff, and willfully unvarnished. He’d made a fortune in the oil business while the boom was on and managed to keep it when the boom was over. “How long must a man go on searching for his own wife?” He throttled up the volume. “Julia!”
The blanket on the sofa beside Sissy moved. Sissy let out a short, high-pitched cry. Morgan attempted concern. “What’s wrong, dearest?”
“The blanket moved!”
The blanket did move. And then it moved again. And a few moments later, a head peered out over the top. “Did someone call me?”
It was Julia, Morgan and Marilyn’s mother. Her hair was mussed, and what they could see of her clothes looked as if she’d been wearing them for days.
“Mummy!” Morgan said. “How long have you been there?”
She took a long time before answering. “What time is it?”
Her head bobbed slowly. “Where did the after- noon go?”
Morgan crouched beside the sofa and helped her sit upright. “Are you all right, Mummy? It’s nearly time for dinner.”
“Forget dinner.” Her voice was harsh and raspy. “Where’s my martini?”
Morgan rushed to the wet bar to fix it.
“Well, I’m glad I’ve found you all gathered together in one place,” Hightower said. “I’ve got something on my mind and I want you all to hear it.”
“Could it possibly wait, Daddy?” Marilyn asked. “It’s time for dinner. And I’m famished.”
Hightower made a hmmphing noise. “And I suppose we’ll be having the usual twelve-course meal. You children don’t know how lucky you are. There were no big face feeds when I was a boy, that’s for certain.”
Morgan’s eyelids drooped. “Here we go . . .”
“When I was growing up on that hardscrabble farm in Omega County in a family of nine, we were poor, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Poor, that’s the only word for it. Dirt poor, if you don’t mind my saying so. We never had enough to eat. Most nights, I went to bed hungry.”
“You’ve certainly compensated for it in the intervening years,” his wife observed.
He didn’t hear her, or at any rate, didn’t let it check his monologue. “We only had meat once a week. Can you imagine? Only once a week—if we were lucky. For Sunday dinner, my poor mother would fix a chicken. One scrawny little chicken. To be split by the nine of us. You know what piece I always got?”
Marilyn’s long lashes fluttered. “Would that perhaps be . . . the feet?”
“That’s right,” Hightower said. “The feet. I’ll bet you didn’t even know the feet were edible.”
“Only since I was two.”
“There’s not much meat on the feet, I don’t mind telling you. Not much meat at all. But I didn’t complain. No, sir. I was glad to get it.”
“I’ve heard that in Paris,” Marilyn said, just to be evil, “chicken feet are all the rage. They’re considered quite a delicacy.”
Hightower repeated his hmmphing. “Perhaps in Paris, where they’ll eat anything if it has enough sauce poured on top of it. But not in Omega County. No, sir. Not a bit of it.”
“I’ve never had chicken’s feet,” Sissy said, giggling. “But I had frog’s legs once. And they tasted like chicken.”
Marilyn bit down on her lower lip, struggling to maintain control.
“You children don’t appreciate how privileged you are. Never learned the value of money, that’s what it is. You’re spoiled. Spoiled rotten. I don’t know how it happened, but that’s what it amounts to. Spoiled.”
Marilyn decided the time had come to add some rum to her Coke. “I think that’s a bit harsh, Daddykins.”
“Maybe it is, but I’m just a poor boy from a hardscrabble farm in Omega County, and I never learned to put on airs or mince words. I call ’em like I see ’em. And when my children are spoiled, I’m not afraid to say so. Not a one of you has ever worked a day in your life.”
“Now, Father,” Morgan said, “that’s not true. I take my work very seriously.”
Marilyn snorted into her glass. “Your work? Puh-leese.”
The bridge of Morgan’s nose crinkled. “Marilyn, you know I’ve always been very dedicated to my art.”
“Art? Goopy watercolors of sunrises are not art.”
Morgan’s chin rose. “There are certain critics who would differ with you. May I remind you that my art has had a private showing in an important gallery?”
“Yes, a gallery that Daddy owns. When was the last time you completed a painting, anyway? The Carter administration?”
“Every great artist goes through a difficult period.”
“More like a difficult decade.”
“Enough,” Hightower proclaimed. “If this bickering is supposed to impress me, it doesn’t.”
“Daddy,” Marilyn said, “I’m just trying to bring Morgan around to reality.”
“You’re just trying to be nasty, Marilyn. You were a nasty baby and you haven’t improved much in the last thirty years.”
“It’s painful for a man like me to admit it, but the fact is you’re all a worthless, heartless pack of wretched refuse, and the thought that I’ve worked so hard all my life to create a gigantic fortune to be passed on to the likes of you just makes me sick.”
“Don’t think I don’t intend to do something about it, either. I’m leaving tonight for an important business trip in Washington, but I’ll be back by Thanksgiving, and as soon as I am, I’m having a long talk with my lawyer. I’m not going to let my fortune be squandered on watercolors and trips to Paris for . . . fancy chicken’s feet!”
This last bit definitely attracted Marilyn and Morgan’s attention. “Daddy!”0345
Excerpted from Natural Suspect by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 2002 by William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.