High fashion has never been a distinguishing characteristic of the Rocky Mountain West, the way it is in other parts of the country. We don't have the slim sophistication of Manhattan women, or the polished chic of San Francisco's society matrons, or the climate to wear Palm Beach's beautiful chiffons and linens. Our fashion is influenced more by the Southwest and Texas--neither known as a fashion mecca in any sense of the word: lots of glitzed-up squaw dresses and rodeo-queen jeweled bomber jackets.
Whatever mainstream haute couture is available can be found at the department store founded by Cyrus Vaile's ancestors in the late 1800s: the Roundup Dry Goods Company.
Cyrus was always a prominent, tolerated fixture in Roundup society. Prominent because the store had a very hard-working public relations girl who was always more than happy to loan out jewelry and gowns for special occasions, and tolerated because he had so much money and was so generous with it, which made it easier for people to overlook his behavior. In many ways he was the big, smelly, fat kid who owned the ball.
Cyrus's greatest claim to fame was the Roundup Repertory Company, which he'd brought to town from southern Connecticut twenty years ago because the people there wouldn't contribute enough money to support it.
Bidding for the company's presence was lively, and by using the same middle-of-the-night-we'll-build-you-whatever-kind-of-stadium-you-want tactics the really big power guys use to entice major league baseball, or hockey, or football teams, Cyrus bought the ensemble of actors, directors, set and costume designers, and stage managers right out from under those Connecticut Yankees. He installed George Wrightsman, the company's young founder and general director, and his troupe of classically trained, much-admired artists in Roundup's exquisitely restored beaux arts Vaile Theater, so named because Cyrus had personally paid for the restoration.
Frankly, I'd rather have a baseball team.
Still the company's greatest patron, Cyrus pretty much regarded the Roundup Rep, all the actors in its company, and all the students in its conservatory, as his personal possessions and himself as the Louis B. Mayer of Roundup.
Such were my thoughts and recollections that afternoon as I rode the elevator up to his penthouse apartment in the Roundup Grand Hotel. I got laughing about the last time I'd seen him, when he told me I was still young enough to be an ingenue, and I had all the makings of a great actress, and wouldn't I let him help me, and then he tried to French-kiss me and I slapped him. The truly funny part about the whole thing is that I was almost forty years old at the time and he thought I'd believe his ingenue bit. The unfunny part is that he was about eighty and, believe me, there is nothing funny about being French-kissed by an eighty-year-old man unless maybe you're a ninety-year-old woman.
Well, anyhow, today I had on a smart, hot pink linen suit, black patent high heels, and a little Glock 26 in my black patent purse, and, as I mentioned before, I'd already decided that if Cyrus tried anything I'd have to shoot him.
A young nurse opened the door. She had long, straight, glossy dark hair and wore a short, pressed white cotton uniform, white stockings, and white shoes--the way nurses used to dress in the old days--which made me think she probably wasn't a nurse at all but an actress over to play "doctor" with Cyrus for the afternoon--sort of a Debbie Does Nursing
deal. Her skiff of makeup was so expertly applied it was almost invisible, just a blush on the cheeks of her clear young skin and light mascara on her long thick lashes.
"Miss Bennett?" She smiled and stood back so I could enter the foyer. I followed her into the living room. "Mr. Vaile will be right in," she told me. "Please make yourself comfortable."
The huge living room was straight from the sixties: black and white. The cushions on the sofas and armchairs were smooth surfaces of buttery soft fine white leather, and sculptured white area rugs covered the veined black marble floor. The tables were slabs of thick glass balanced on curved white pedestals, molded to look like elephant tusks. All the table and floor lamps were white twists of thick rope with white lacquered shades. I thought the place was all right. Not great.
But through the large picture windows the view was spectacular, especially on such a cloudless, bright-blue-sky day with the Wind River Range a glistening deep purple silhouette in the distance. It's hard to find a bad view in Roundup because you're looking either at the mountains or at the hill country and prairies, and in either case they're all vast, reaching landscapes that let you take a deep breath, refuel, calm down. It takes a real Westerner to appreciate our big empty sky on a permanent basis--we can just stare at it for hours.
Unfortunately, we're a rare breed--our towns are mostly full of newcomers who just want to fill up our prairies with prefab houses and trees and sprinkler systems, and to use all our water on their fancy landscaping. They may be here, but they aren't of
here, and in my opinion they should go back where they belong.
I heard the unmistakable shuffling of an old man in leather-soled slippers on a hard floor, and turned from the window to see the nurse escorting Cyrus into the room.
He'd aged drastically since I'd seen him last ten years ago. He was tiny and thin and his back had hunched horribly, which made him leer up at me out of his bleary blue, white-lashed eyes, like the witch in Sleeping Beauty.
His big yellow teeth seemed bigger than ever in his skull-thin face. White flakes of dandruff flecked his shoulders, and some kind of something had caked into a white crust in the corners of his mouth.
"Lilly, how are you?" he said. Even from across the room his breath flowed to me like the gutters of Calcutta. "You're more beautiful than ever. What a lovely lavender suit. St. Laurent, I believe, although I've not seen it in that color."
His eyesight obviously was wrecked. I didn't look that great and the suit was as pink as pink can be. I didn't say anything, though--it didn't make any difference.
"Thanks, Cyrus," I answered, feeling held in place on the far side of the room, not by acrimony, but rather by a deep sadness that the game, for him, was over. "I'm sorry to be late."
The girl helped him into a chair whose cushions were flattened with use, and his palsied clawlike hand patted her hip. I felt so sorry for him--not long ago he would have grabbed, or bitten, or at least blithely brushed her breasts and made sure I'd seen it. Now, I imagine, he was just glad to be breathing.
"Thank you, Kissy," he said wearily. "What would you like to drink, Lilly?"
"Jameson's on the rocks, please."
"That sounds so good." Cyrus grinned up at the sweet-faced Kissy. "Can't I have one? Please?"
"Sorry. Just tea. Doctor's orders." She turned to me. "He's got a little heart trouble, and unfortunately liquor and his medication don't mix," she said, and left the room.
"Lovely girl," Cyrus said.
"Yes," I said, thinking he had more than a little heart trouble. He looked terrible. Pale and clammy. He smelled of mildew and death.
Cyrus nodded. "Been with me for three years now, I think. This aging business is lousy. Now my eyes are shot. Everything's fuzzy, got yellow outlines. Makes me feel lousy all the time."
"I'm sorry," I said.
Kissy returned with our drinks, and while he fumbled around and she helped him to a small sip of his tea, I took a healthy belt of my whisky, which caressed deliciously all the way down, and then plunged right in to the matter at hand, which is one of the reasons I made a great cop and detective and would never have lasted a week in the corporate world: foreplay has never been my forte. Like many of my lovers, unfortunately.
"What can I do for you?" I said. "Why did you call me?"
Cyrus placed his bony elbows on the chair arms and leaned forward. "You know," he began, his voice thin and watery, "the Roundup Repertory Theater is the top in the country. I brought them here from Connecticut twenty years ago. George was just a young man then. And brilliant--absolutely brilliant. Best young director in the country," he said wistfully.
Past his shoulder, I saw a maid and Nurse Kissy arranging hors d'oeuvre around a massive white lilac centerpiece on the dining-room table.
"Over the years we've built it up into one of the largest theater companies in the country--our annual budget is ten million. Of course, once all the tickets have been sold and all the fund-raising is done, I still have to make up the shortfall of at least a million dollars a year while the board sits on their behinds congratulating themselves on what a great job they've done."
I took another sip and looked at him over the rim of my glass. "Cyrus," I said, "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm quite sure you haven't brought me here to give me a public relations pitch about the Roundup Rep. You said it was business and you're obviously expecting a number of guests. Let's work without pretense or else we'll run out of time."
He glared at me with hard, bad-tempered eyes. A look that, even in his greatly diminished state, still flashed the cutthroat steel that had made him always willing to pay the price of success at any cost. Son-of-a-bitch, killer eyes. I could tell it inflamed him that he could not control me. That he knew he had nothing I wanted, unless maybe it was an interesting case, and frankly, for me to work for him, it'd have to be a hell of a problem.
"You're a pretty tough cookie, Lilly."
"Yes," I said. "And I'm a pretty busy cookie, too."
"All right, then," he said, hurt.
I felt like a crumb. I didn't need to sit here and beat up this old guy. Pick on someone your own size, Bennett, I said to myself. Give him a break.
"I won't waste your time. I have two requests. First, I would like you to consider serving on the Board of Trustees of the theater."
"Me?" I almost laughed out loud. "I'm very flattered, but I can't imagine why you would want me on your board. I'm not what's known as a team player, Cyrus, and I know the Bennett Foundation already makes a large gift every year."
"This invitation has nothing to do with your money."
"Come on." I smiled. And I'm afraid my expression might have been patronizing, even a little cynical. "You know everything has to do with money."
He became very agitated. His quaking hands clenched into fists and his jaw tightened. "This is not a joke, Lilly, and it has nothing to do with your ability, or lack of ability, as a team player or a board member. It has to do with finding solutions, in a discreet and covert way, to what has become a twenty-million-dollar shell game."
"Tell me," I said.
"George and I have grown far apart the last couple of years, and now we're locked in a power struggle for control of the company. He's trying to convince the board to move me into the role as honorary chairman and freeze me out of all the decision making. I know I'm an old man, maybe not as sharp as I was, but this is my company and they can't just throw me out on the street. If they do, I'll stop the money." Cyrus had gotten very worked up. White foam appeared in the corners of his mouth. "George is crazy. He's a megalomaniac, a tyrant. He acts like Napoleon or somebody."
With every word, Cyrus spewed foam like he was spitting out his teeth. "He and Winston McMorris sit around and snort cocaine and smoke marijuana and make up outlandish rumors about me and spread them among the other board members--that I'm nothing but a senile, doddering old geezer--and he threatens to resign if they don't give him total financial and artistic control of the company."
Cyrus drew in a ragged breath and I bit my tongue against conflicting emotions, against snapping out the first smart-aleck thought that came to my mind: such as, if George Wrightsman and Winston McMorris--whoever he is--want to sit around and get stoned and tell a bunch of lies, I pretty much feel that's up to them. I'm more helpful when it comes to murder and larceny. And pity. Cyrus's eroding power base held no interest for me, but I felt terribly sorry for him. It's sad to watch the lions get old, even when they're old bastards like Cyrus.
"You mentioned a twenty-million-dollar shell game," I said. "Tell me about it."
The doorbell rang.
Cyrus leaned toward me. His tone became more urgent. "It's the new endowment fund I set up, and it's gone. Vanished. I'll tell you after the party," Cyrus said as Kissy helped him struggle to his feet. "Just watch George."
"I'm not sure George is coming," Kissy told him.
"It's my birthday party," Cyrus spat. "The bastard better show up."
He snatched his cane from her hands and started to shuffle.
Excerpted from Tramp: A Lilly Bennett Mystery
by Marne Davis Kellogg. Copyright (c) 1997 by Marne Davis Kellogg. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tramp by Marne Davis Kellogg. Copyright © 1997 by Marne Davis Kellogg. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.