Alicia Reynolds looked down at the note, double- and triple-checking the address. 555 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. That was where she was, in front of one of those understated apartment buildings where the very rich lived. From the outside, the only thing that tipped off the casual observer that the locale was upscale was the presence of a doorman in full regalia. He did not stand in front of the building, but he could easily be seen just inside the front door, which featured a large, elegantly designed insert of beveled glass.
Alicia had found the advertisement about two weeks before. That afternoon, she had rushed out from her job as copy editor at a large publishing company to the newsstand just across the street from the publishing house, eager to buy a copy of her favorite literary journal. It was published quarterly, and the wait between issues was agonizing. She always skimmed the contents page and then, if none of the articles appealed to her immediately, she turned straight to the classifieds, looking for a better job.
This time, an ad caught her eye right away: “Well-published author seeks research assistant with copy editing skills. Must be willing to travel, detailed-oriented, and persistent. Send resume and cover letter to P. O. Box 555, care of this magazine.”
She stood staring at the advertisement, her heart pounding, until finally the newsstand owner’s voice got through to her. “Hey, you! Pay for that magazine!”
She mumbled an apology and thrust a five-dollar bill into the man’s hand. At home, she pulled up her resume on the computer and began editing and polishing it, tailoring it specifically for the requirements outlined in the ad. When she was finally satisfied, she printed out a copy on the special parchment paper she kept specifically for this purpose, then began composing her cover letter. It took until almost midnight for her to make it as perfect as she could. She put all the documents into a matching envelope and mailed it on her way to work the next morning.
She had included her email address with her resume, and five days later she had an email – not from the author, she noted with a tinge of disappointment, but from his agent. The agent said the author preferred to remain anonymous until he interviewed the candidates. That way, if they were not familiar with him or his work, they would not have a chance to read up on him. The agent very carefully avoided any indication of whether familiarity with the author’s work would be a plus or a minus when it came to the interview.
In any case, that was a week ago, and now Alicia was loitering outside the author’s residence. As usual, she was early; she was also nervous. She had to wait at least five more minutes before ascending the steps to the building. Hopefully that would give her time to calm her nerves, so she could present herself to her best advantage.
To Alicia’s consternation, she felt no better when she entered the author’s building and announced herself to the doorman. There was a stiffness to his demeanor that seemed to go beyond exclusivity. He was foreboding. Reminding herself that she was there at the author’s invitation, she announced herself.
“Mr. Longridge is expecting you,” the doorman replied after checking the day’s list of expected callers. “Take the third elevator on your right. It will take you directly to the penthouse.”
“Longridge?” Alicia asked in surprise. “Peter Longridge?”
Alicia struggled to maintain her composure. Why, Peter Longridge wrote the Drew Anderson mysteries! Author’s Review called him “the author America has long needed to compete with England’s top mystery writers.” And he wanted to interview her? She knew she was a good copy editor and writer, but if Peter Longridge thought she could write and edit, then she must be among the best!
Remembering where she was and why she was there, Alicia turned and walked toward the elevator lobby. There, she saw that five elevators served all floors but the top one, while the sixth elevator served only the penthouse. Even as Alicia drew near, its door opened. She peered in but found no one else on board. Hesitantly, she stepped onto the elevator. As soon as she boarded, the doors closed, and the elevator began to rise – all without her having pressed any buttons.
It was a slow elevator, and the ride to the top floor seemed endless. Alicia wished it would speed up. She had a touch of claustrophobia, and being closed in this old, slow cage with no way out until she reached the top was grating on her nerves. She wondered whether, if she wanted to, she could stop the elevator and return to the lobby. Well, yes. There was a “stop” button, and there was a button to command the elevator to return to the first floor. A third button commanded the elevator to go to the penthouse. Alicia did not depress any of the buttons. Just knowing that she had control over this self-operating conveyance bolstered her self-confidence and allowed her to continued her slow, but steady, rise to the top floor.
Presently, the elevator came to a halt, and the doors opened. As she stepped out, she found herself within an environment unlike any she ever had seen before. It was as far from the reclusive writer’s small den of books and papers, where she had imagined she would be going, as it possibly could have been. Alicia found herself standing in a wide-open space of post-modern architecture and mid-century modern furnishings. Beyond, glass walls looked out over a rooftop terrace with raised planting beds framed in redwood. As she stood, trying to take it all in, a male voice penetrated her thoughts.
“Welcome, Ms. Reynolds! It’s good of you to come.”
"Oh, Mr. Longridge, it is my pleasure" Alicia stammered while extending her hand for a hand shake.
"Oh no, my dear Ms. Reynolds. One thing that you must know immediately about me, is that I never shake hands. I just find the world, and all the people in it, are just too prone to be just covered with all sorts of little buggies. I find that I stay healthier if I don't come into direct contact with people, or the things that they all put their hands on. The world, sadly, is just such a dirty place. Nothing personal, you understand."
"Of course Mr. Longridge. But just let me tell you that I have read several of your Drew Anderson mysteries and found them all fascinating."
"Oh really, Alicia...may I call you Alicia?"
"Certainly, Mr. Longridge."
"Ok, Alicia. Would you mind my asking what your favorite mystery was?"
"Oh wow, I am not sure. Maybe the Case of the Locked Room. I just love how Drew uses science and mathematics to deduct that the secret door had to be just in the precise spot. That story, and just about all the others of yours I have read, just seem to built on the tiniest details."
"Right, Alicia. And that is part of what your job would be. Oh, I know that you were probably thinking that it was a proofreading type job. But you see, I use real mysteries as inspiration for my books. For example, the Case of the Locked Room was based on a real life crime that happened in England a few years before the book was written. Real research was conducted to get those tiny nuances that made the story what it was. You would be doing some of that type of research."
Suddenly they heard the dinging sound as the elevator arrived again. Turning around, Alicia saw the doorman step off the elevator and into the room..
"Oh meet Max. He is not actually the doorman for the building, you know.. He works directly for me. He...er, well, he helps me get things done."
"Oh, hi, Max."
Alicia tried, unsuccessfully to suppress an involuntary shudder. Now, what was it about Max that made her so nervous?. Surely Mr. Longridge was entitled to an assistant. especially with his unwillingness to touch people or things. There were lots of things somebody would have to do for him, such as opening doors. Yes, surely that was a reasonable explanation. So why was she still shivering nervously?
“Pleased to meet you Miss Reynolds.” answered Max.
Alicia noticed that his voice was deep and slow. He was very tall and almost as wide. She decided she would not like to meet him on a dark night. Max was not wearing gloves but Alicia would not have minded if he had. It was one of those clammy loose handshakes which transformed her shiver into a shudder.
“Have you heard anything new in the Santini case Max?”
“He is still amongst the missing Mr. Longridge.”
Alicia started to listen. She remembered reading the story in the newspaper. Johnny Santini was a well known heavyweight boxer. He had won all the fights he had participated in up to now and had now been challenged by the best Cuban heavyweight, José Garcias. The problem was that Johnny Santini, went for an evening walk with his poodle, Jango, a week ago, and has not been seen since. The area around his villa in Palm Beach had been searched but with no result. So possibly the new Drew Anderson mystery might be based on this disappearance.
“Alicia what do you know about the boxing world?”
This was not exactly the question Alicia expected from Peter Longridge, so she decided to tell the truth.
“Nothing Mr. Longridge, I have never interested myself for the sport.”
“Now that is ideal Alicia. You have a nice neutral point of view. How would you like to spend a few days in Florida, Palm Beach? It seems that Max found no new ideas to help with my story, so I think it would be a good idea if you would have a look around at the scene of the crime. A lady’s eye on the situation might see something more. Of course Max will accompany you. I am sure he can be of help.”
Alicia decided that she would not turn this one down, in spite of the fact that a slow talking deep voiced Frankenstein lookalike would be going with her. “You should not always judge people by their looks, he might have a heart of gold. Perhaps he has a sweet little wife and children at home” she thought to herself, although she to admit after a second look at Max she decided this would not be the case.
“Alicia do you want the job or not?” went through her mind. She made her decision.
“Mr. Longridge I would love to go to Palm Beach to research for your new book. I am sure Max will be a good help.”
It was then that Max laughed, not a normal laugh, one of those monotonous deep throated laughs that seem to come from more from the stomach than the brain.
“Max, not everyone shares your sense of humour” said Peter Longridge. “Please organise the flight and hotel for yourself and Alicia. I would say for tomorrow morning. Will this suit you Alicia?”
“That’s fine Mr. Longridge” answered Alice with a sort of uneasy feeling inside thinking Palm Beach is ok, but Max?
Mr. Longridge supplied Alicia with some information to get started; Johnny Sanitini’s home address, the name of Santini’s agent, and the location of a park where Santini was known to walk Jango.
The flight to Palm Beach was arduous owed mostly to the fact that Max was not an ideal traveling companion. Alicia’s attempts at conversation were met with monosyllabic responses. It was like traveling with Lurch from The Addam’s Family.
Alicia thought Palm Beach would bolster her spirits but when they stepped out of the airport the Florida humidity was oppressive. Instantly her hair went limp and sweat soaked her underarms and panty liner.
“Let’s find some air conditioning,” she said. Max grunted.
After checking into the hotel and having a bite to eat Max uttered his first full sentence since they left. “Where’re we starting?” His voice was gruff and implied that no matter where she chose it would be the wrong answer. She decided to turn the tables.
“Where would you suggest?”
His answer was quick and sounded premeditated, and his smile held no comfort.
Santini’s house was at 5 Pentagram Circle in a subdivision of overpriced mini-mansions meant to evoke the Mediterranean. Alicia tried the doorknob. It was locked. She turned to Max saying, “Now what, Sherlock? We’re here but we can’t get in.”
She strolled away from Max and in a moment she heard a click and the squeak of hinges. She turned to see the door was open and Max disappearing inside. With a deep breath, she followed. She wondered if she would get arrested for breaking and entering and, if so, could she blame it on Max.
From the foyer she peeked into the room on the right. It was a living room that looked like it was decorated by a magazine; impeccable taste but nothing to suggest the owner‘s personality. She looked into the room on the left. It appeared to be Santini’s personal study. The walls were decorated with posters from Santini’s prize fights. A poodle sized bed sat on the floor beside a computer desk.
She moved into the room looking at Santini’s face gazing at her from the posters. On the last poster something caught her eye; “Presented by Longridge Promotions.” Was Peter Longridge, wealthy mystery writer, also a fight promoter? He certainly hadn’t seemed the type. She looked at the other posters again. Santini’s last five bouts had been the work of Longridge Promotions.
She moved to the computer desk. It was extremely neat except for the corner of a small white envelope sticking out from under an old fashioned desk blotter. She picked up the envelope. It was made of fine linen paper and embossed with a cursive L inside a wreath. It was addressed to Santini. The return address was Peter Longridge‘s. The envelope was empty. As she studied the envelope she felt the flow of hot breath on the back of her neck and knew that Max had walked up behind her.
“Calm down,” she told herself firmly, “you know he is here to help you find Santini.” But her hands, holding the envelope, were shaking.
She dropped the envelope on the floor when the woman walked in.
“Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in,” the woman said in a tone of contempt, then called out, “hey, Victor, we’ve got company!”
The next moment Alicia found herself staring at the wrong end of a gun, and thinking, what’s the point of having mister muscle with her when these people have guns! And who were these people? What were they doing in Santini’s house?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Max’s gruff voice from behind her. “Come on, Monica, stop that nonsense. You know what happened last time...”
“Ha,” said the woman, “last time you had the element of surprise. This time... we are prepared. Aren’t we, Victor, darling?”
Alicia swallowed. She could feel the sweat dripping down her, despite the air con – she had never felt so scared in her whole life. Why hadn’t she just stayed in her boring old copy-editing job... why on earth had she gone looking for new challenges and excitement... why did she have to come all the way to Palm Beach to die in some boxer’s house... she was too young to die...
When the woman whistled and the dogs came into the room, Alicia fainted.
Alicia was awakened by the dogs licking her face. Startled, she looked around the room while she jumped a little. She noticed that Max was sitting in a chair bound and gagged. The view of this sight didn’t help her fear in the slightest. As Alicia started to get up, she felt a firm grip on her arm. Looking around, Alicia saw a man that she assumed to be Victor helping her up. Victor was a two-bit thug that looked like a cross between crash test dummy and Goodfella reject. All the way down to the patented slicked back hair with a toothpick hanging from his mouth.
Once she was on her feet, Victor placed his hands on her shoulders to steady her. The smell of cheap cologne and stale beer was rancid. She backed away holding up her hand and nodding her head, signaling that she was okay. Alicia noticed a chair next to Max walked over to it. As Alicia sat down noticed the look in Max’s eyes, it was somewhere between anger and fear. Victor walked over and handed her a glass of water. She took a drink then placed the glass down the table next to her.
Monica sat across the room with her legs crossed holding the gun. She had a devilishly grin on her face as her eye were watching Alicia’s every movement. Wondering what this obviously young inexperienced girl was doing here in “The Palms”. Monica began stroking the dogs’ neck still studying Alicia movements.
Still crippled with fear Alicia realized that she needed to make a move quickly if she didn’t want to die here. The look on Monica’s face told Alicia she didn’t have much time. Alicia began remembering a lesson had taught her about fear as a child. She had previously used to conquer speaking in front of the class and such. Teleporting her mind into character of one those ultra cool film actresses, she swallowed hard and said.
“Now Monica, there is no need for all of this.” Alicia’s finger pointed at the dogs and the gun. Then she gingerly pointed at her bound and gagged muscle.
Monica sat silently, now stone-faced. It took everything she had, but Alicia stood up and began taking off Max’s gag. Victor started to move towards her, but Monica raised her hand to stop him.
“Max here won’t move a muscle without me saying so.” Alicia said, as removed the rest of the gag and Max took a deep breath.
“Isn’t that right, Max” Alicia said, in an assertive tone as she squeezed Max shoulder letting him know to play along.
Alicia, now deep into her character she gracefully sat back down and crossed her legs looked deep into the eyes of Monica. Monica motioned for Victor to release Max. Everything was going quite well Alicia thought.
Monica sat directly across from them, the gun pointed at them, all the while. "I have a few questions for you", she said, "and then I will let you go. First of all, I need to know who you're working for, and why you are in this house."
Alicia said, "I don't care to divulge my resources, however I can assure you that my employer has an interest in Mr. Santini's whereabouts, and we are here to investigate his disappearance."
You are not with the police, then? asked Victor. "No, most assuredly not," said Alicia.
Monica had sat quietly listening, and then suddenly there were tears in her eyes, and she started sobbing. Johnny Santini is my boyfriend. He disappeared a few days ago while he was out walking the beach, as he does early every morning. He was supposed to meet me at the Casa Grandview for lunch, but he never showed up.
Jango was found wandering the beach by himself, and he had a man's wristwatch in his mouth, but it was not Johnny's. The police have it in their possession now.There was an engraving on the back of the watch that said C.H. I think that is my fiance's best friend Carl, who is a mystery writer, and it seems that he has disappeared, also.
Carl was to be Johnny's best man. We are to be married in two weeks. I am heiress to the family fortune, and if I am not married by June 1st, my 21st birthday, the money reverts back to the estate, and everything goes to my step mother.
She never liked Victor, nor myself. She did everything she could to turn our father against us, and she succeeded with Victor. Daddy had threatened to write him out of the will, if he persisted with his boxing career. My father always considered it ungentlemanly behavior, and wanted Victor to follow in his footsteps, and study law. He tried it for a few years, and found that it wasn't to his liking. I think he went into boxing as a means of rebellion, to show dad that he was his own man. He had been very good at boxing in high school, and always dreamed of fighting in the big league.
As a result of that, my father supposedly wrote him out of his will, and said that I had to settle down and live the life of a proper lady. My father was murdered less than a year ago, and I suspect that his wife, the lovely Veronica, has something to do with it. It was a boating accident. They were out sailing and were caught in a storm. She said the boat capsized. His body was never found.
I am positive that she tampered with the will, but I haven't found proof. My dad had a secret vault, that is hidden in his study, and even Veronica does not know about that. I sent Johnny to do some snooping ...
…last night in my fathers house, unfortunately Veronica came home early and nearly caught Victor before he had a chance to grab this” Monica handed her a piece of paper that read:
C.H. 1:30 Spirit
“What does it mean?”
“I am hoping you can help me figure that out. C. H. is obviously Carl, but there is no am or pm on the time. My fiancé disappeared at around 11:30 pm close to midnight and I think maybe she met with Carl. I pray that Carl wasn’t in on the disappearance of Johnny because if he is, I’m gonna kill him!”
A fierce look came upon Monica’s face as she held the gun close to her and Alicia could see she was dead serious about killing Carl.
“So you think that your stepmother had something to do with the disappearance of your fiancé than?”
“It makes sense to me, I got wind of Veronica being buddy, buddy with Carl from the maid, Sherry Ann. She spilled it all to me and Victor two days ago when I went to retrieve a painting of me and my fiancé we left in the library for safe keeping. It was painted by a famous artist named Georgio from Manhattan.”
“And you believe this Sherry Ann and what she said?”
“Yes, of course, Sherry Ann hates Veronica as much as anyone who has every worked for her, she is a real ball buster when it comes to getting things done perfectly and when she wants it done and in what time.”
The strange smell of cherry tobacco wafted into the room and a knock on the door made everyone jump.
Victor lurched to the door to answer it. Alicia heard a muffled muttering and almost a growl before a petite woman stepped into the room. She was regal in the way of queens, an arrogance in her demeanor. Her silver hair was coiled tightly at the back of her head, her pale blue suit crisp in every detail. The only odd part was the smoking cigarillo she held clasped in an ivory holder between her perfectly manicured fingers.
“I see we’re having a tea party and I was invited,” the woman said, her purring voice holding menace.
Monica nearly leapt out of her chair, her face twisted into a mask of hate. “You aren’t welcome here, Veronica.”
“And soon, neither shall you, if your dear fiancee doesn’t show back up. Whatever shall you do then?”
“Did you come over here just to gloat?”
“Of course not, I could have easily done that over the phone, if I felt the need. No, I’m here on Carl’s behalf.”
Monica’s forehead furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Veronica took a long drag from her cigarette. “I just had lunch with Carl. He said he’s terribly sorry not to have contacted you, but he’s been quite ill. Food poisoning, you see.”
“That makes no sense whatsoever! The police have been looking for him as well and he says he’s had some tummy troubles?”
“He’s been convalescing out of town and shall return there shortly. He wanted me to pass on his sympathies to you and to inform you that he will be in touch very, very soon. I, too, sympathize with your situation. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one.”
She sounds very trite, Alicia thought to herself, watching the strange, haughty woman turn on her heel and walk back out of the house. Victor was fairly vibrating suppressed anger as he turned to his sister.
“She’s got something to do with it, I know it in my gut. We follow her,” Monica said.
Max startled them all when he broke his long silence. “I suggest we use our car, it’s less recognizable to her,” he suggested.
In the drive, they all piled into the sedate black sedan, which was unremarkable for everything other than its price tag. Max had obviously done this before, tailing Veronica’s Mercedes from a few cars behind, always keeping steady and never doing anything to call attention to themselves.
“That’s strange,” Monica murmured.
“What?” asked Alicia.
“Veronica is driving herself. She rarely, if ever, does that; she prefers the show of wealth that having a chauffeur brings.”
An hour later and they had followed away from the city and into lush greenery, swampy land with mourning trees draped with shrouds of moss. The road had dropped from a two lane highway to a narrow road lined with mudholes. The car bumped and swayed along, ever deeper. As though the conversation had never ended, Alicia mused out loud.
“Perhaps Veronica doesn’t want a witness.”
Veronica turns off the path into an even narrower country trail and comes to a halt. Not wanting to be seen the others park at the beginning of the trail and go by foot. It was then that an old wooden hut came into sight, Veronica’s car parked outside.
“What to do now?” asked Monica
“We sneak up to the hut and see if we hear anything suspicious. There is a window, quite high up but I am sure Max will oblige, won’t you Max.”, Alicia looking at Max with a determined look. She had gone through so much in this adventure that she did not really care if Max was the grandson of the Boston murderer; she just wanted to bring this thing to an end.
“No problem” said Max and stretched to look through the window. It was then that the door opened and a man came out.
“Looks like we are having a real party.”
Alicia was astonished, it was Peter Longridge, even without his white gloves.
“Well it looks like you have all arrived, so come on in. You, too Alicia, you are the main figure in this mystery.”
“You know Peter, she was almost too good, I nearly gave up, but I think you should introduce her to the gang” said Veronica.
"Yes, I suppose I should be fair, now that the job is done.”
“Can someone tell me what is going on, it looks like a meeting of the Peter Longridge fan club here, and I am no longer a fan, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Sorry Alicia” said Peter, “but I interviewed at least ten girls until I found someone to do the job; but let’s not waste any more time. Let me introduce you to my brother, Johnny Santini. It’s not his real name, but he is the one with the muscle in the family, and I am the one with the brains.” And the two brothers laughed at the family joke. It was just Alicia that did not feel in a laughing mood.
“You mean this is all a hoax.”
“Well it was all for a good cause. I cannot just let anyone play around with my story lines. They have to be researched seriously. I don’t want any law suits on my shoulders if I start having stories printed that doesn’t rhyme with the reality. Now Max, he is one of Johnny’s colleagues. He used to be a boxing trainer. Tell her yourself Max.”
“Yes Miss Alicia. I was one of the best. In my younger days I was quite a well known name as a boxer, but then I started training the others. Now I am more in an advising capacity to Johnny and of course I look after our Peter and his stories, but an old giant like me cannot go everywhere. There are even people that are frightened of me, can’t understand it really. Anyhow, that’s me in a nutshell. So what about it Alicia, do you think you can put up with me.”
“Yes Alicia, the job is yours, all you have to do is say yes.”
“But who is Monica, Victor and Veronica? I though Monica was going to marry Johnny Santini.”
“No way Alicia, Monica is my cousin, as well as Johnny’s. Victor is Monica’s brother.”
“Three guesses Alicia, I am Peter’s wife. Have to keep my eye on him now and again.”
“Just a minute, what about the “C.H.”. Who is he, I thought that was someone called Carl.”
“Do you remember it was the watch that had C.H. on it in the beginning? Now where are most watches made, and what is the official abbreviation for that country. If you can answer that one then you are really the ideal person for the job.”
“Switzerland is well known for the watch making industry and, of course, the official abbreviation for that country is CH Confedratio Helvetia.”
“Well done Alicia. So now to business. Max did you get the meat from the butchers this morning and Veronica, have you got the vegetable. I am really hungry. Johnny has set up a nice b-b-q in the garden so I think we all deserve a bite to eat. Alicia, not hungry?”
“Well, yes I am, but I am speechless. At least someone likes me.” Jango decided that Alicia was his flavour and was licking her hand all the time.