Monday, May 25, 2009

IMPOLITE SOCIETY excerpt


Excerpt from CHAPTER ONE

“PARDON ME, BUT what’s that you’re drinking?”

“White port and tonic,” I answered.

This wasn’t just an idle question. I could see she wanted to engage me in conversation. It was unusual to come across Americans or any tourists in the Algarve at this time of year, and my curiosity is always piqued by the unexpected, so I decided to oblige.

“It’s the daytime drink around here. Tasty but not too lethal. It was invented by the resident English who consider it perfectly proper to tipple in the afternoon but bad form to get bombed,” I said with a smile.

She looked like she needed a smile and a drink—both she and the man seated next to her, who I assumed was her husband. I had observed them earlier and noted that they hadn’t exchanged a word in the past half hour, which wasn’t all that unusual. Many older married couples, once their children left home, found they had lost their sole basis for conversation and companionship. But this couple’s eyes projected an anguish that went far beyond that of facing the bleak future of living with someone with whom you have no common interests. I tried to imagine what they were doing here in March. Vila do Mar, Portugal, was on tourist schedules in spring and summer, the months we regular residents steered clear of the area. The town was then jammed with Europeans who came to enjoy the incredibly perfect sunny climate, the wide white-sand beaches abutted by golden cliffs that formed enchanting grottoes, and the cheap prices. At this time of year, it’s unusual to sit in the square in front of Sir Barry’s bar and find anyone you don’t know.

Sir Barry was not really a sir. He was English, but the closest he ever came to a knight was the judge who sentenced him for running off with his clients’ escrow accounts. While Barry sat out his prescribed time in gaol, his dutiful wife, Iris, scouted alternate career possibilities for a disbarred solicitor and came up with this saloon in the center of what turned into the hottest resort town in the Algarve. Now Barry affected a dragoon mustache and a slightly contemptuous lordly mien, which brought him the status of a major town character and a very large bank account.

I HAD BEEN here in Vila do Mar for a week in my small jewel of a house overlooking the Atlantic. I came for some R & R after completing a particularly demanding case in Brussels. Not that all matters I handle don’t require full dedication in order to straighten out the usually convoluted complications besetting my client’s lives, but this one involved an added wrinkle that upped the intensity—my life was on the line. Escaping two murderous attempts may have sharpened my wits but it did get a bit wearing. I came here to chill out and rest my little gray cells, and there was no better place to do absolutely nothing than this glorious fishing village on the southern coast of Portugal. Because of its low cost of living, which seemed to get less low every year, plus the idyllic climate and aspect, people from all over the world made their permanent residences here, which furnished me with a marvelously varied pool of potential friends to choose from. I was waiting for one right now, but time had little meaning in Vila do Mar, so the fact that Graham was thirty minutes late didn’t bother me a bit. In London or New York (where I also maintained residences) I would have been foaming at the mouth by now or probably gone. Here in the land of what-can’t-wait-till-tomorrow-probably-wasn’t-worth-doing-anyway, I had lots of time to observe the couple at the next table.
They were in their fifties, dressed right out of the Land’s End catalog in chino slacks, cotton knit shirts (hers pink, his green), Reeboks, and beige cotton sweaters. They looked tanned and fit, well-to-do, and seriously miserable. This was not the vexation of a lousy golf score or unsatisfactory hotel accommodations—this was deep distress. These particular people being in this particular place at this particular time of year was out of sync, presenting just the kind of enigma that jangles my antennae.
They both expressed surprise at the existence of a white port wine, and I explained that not too much of it was shipped out of Portugal. Mixed with Schweppes and ice it made a deliciously refreshing drink created by the local Brits.
The English, with their years of experience in discovering areas that offer good living at bargain rates, had many years ago landed full force in the Algarve. Their pensions in pounds went a long way with the lowly escudo. And the presence of the longtime fascist dictator Salazar had kept the people poor and uneducated, which made for a steady supply of domestic help at prices that would make a West End matron green with envy. By the 1960s, the place was discovered by the Dutch, Scandinavians, Germans, and lastly, the Americans like me, though I came along later. But the real big growth of the area started when the Salazar bridge was built over the Tagus river, giving easy access to the south. This brought down the wealthy Portuguese of Lisbon and the north, and turned the Algarve coast of Portugal into the poorer man’s Riviera. I fell in love with Vila do Mar on a visit in 1987 and bought my oceanfront house in ten minutes from a rich alcoholic German who could no longer manage the long stone staircase down to the beach. He signed the papers with his left hand because his right arm, leg, and shoulder were still in a cast from his most recent misstep.
I gave the couple this little history of the Algarve to see if a diversion would distract from whatever it was that troubled them. They listened politely and smiled with their mouths, but the tragedy in their eyes remained.
I knew they would tell me about it in time. People always tell me things. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I seem to project a simpatica quality that makes people pour forth the most intimate details of their problems within minutes of meeting me. It usually starts as a passive exercise to merely unburden themselves as one might to a bartender or hairdresser. But I don’t deal in passivity—my deep interest in human behavior (an upscale euphemism for what’s known in Bronx neighborhoods as a yente) plus my 165 I.Q. send my brain into instant action to work out ways to resolve their sorry situations. If the problem piques my interest (my threshold of ennui is rather low) and the sufferer is willing and able to pay my fee (which is rather high) I will offer to resolve their problems. My terms are very simple: I accomplish the task within two weeks or I’m out of there and they pay nothing, but when I succeed, they pay me twenty thousand dollars or the equivalent amount in whatever hard currency they wish. You may notice I didn’t qualify it with “if” because success was always a foregone conclusion. My record was one hundred percent, which is the result of my intelligence and the fact that I only take on cases I know I can resolve (if that isn’t proof of smarts I don’t know what is).
I’m a P.R.—Private Resolver. Don’t bother looking it up in the Yellow Pages; the business category is mine alone. I’m the sole practitioner of a unique profession that I founded, or rather found me. I was on a business trip in Denmark for the New York law firm that recruited me right out of law school and for whom I worked eighty-four hours a week to earn the large salary that I had no time to spend. On the hydrofoil to Malmö, Sweden, I met a high born Englishwoman who passed the entire voyage telling me between sobs the sordid intimate details of a sticky situation in which she was embroiled involving enough money, hate, and passion to make a Judith Krantz novel. It took me exactly ten minutes to figure a way out for her, but long ago I learned the financial foolishness of giving clients quick results: (a) they don’t trust the validity of solutions arrived at without days of deliberation and research; and (b) if it looks too easy, they’re loathe to pay the big bucks. I offered to resolve the matter for her within two weeks and, being blessed with total self-confidence that some may regard as cocky smugness but I see simply as a realistic evaluation of my abilities, I demanded no upfront monies or expenses, just thirty-three thousand pounds payable only upon success. Two weeks later she sent me her check along with a glowing note of thanks and began recommending me to her friends. You can’t imagine the lust, cupidity, and stupidity rampant in the upper classes, and I soon realized I had a new profession that was far easier and more lucrative than lawyering and a helluva lot more fun. My terms of employment are perfect for wealthy folks who love a bargain and adore a gamble. Unlike the other “helping professions” like lawyers and shrinks, who keep the meter ticking and charge for time but not necessarily results, I don’t get a penny unless I perform. It’s an offer you can’t refuse, provided you have twenty thousand dollars to drop on the deal. Kinsey Milhone and any other fictional P.I.s battled injustice on the cheap, but I don’t consider having a wardrobe of sweats and jeans, living out of ten-year-old VWs, and subsisting on a diet of take-out tacos and drive-in burgers either romantic, heroic, or necessary. Like them, I, too, get my kicks out of thwarting villains and righting wrongs, but I don’t see why I have to live like an impoverished poet and dress like a bag lady while doing it. I developed a clientele that supports my very pleasant style of living, which includes a flat on the King’s Road in London, an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and my casita in Portugal, each equipped with closets filled with designer clothes. (If you could afford three homes, you shouldn’t have to schlep garments from house to house.)
I was expecting Graham any minute so I decided to speed things along a bit. I have always found a direct question the best way to elicit information.
“What brings you to Vila do Mar at this time of year?” I asked.

They looked at each other and apparently made a decision. She was the spokesperson.
“Our son died here last week. He drowned. They said it was suicide.”
“No way,” said the father firmly. “Peter would never kill himself. Besides, the boy could swim like a fish—been in and around the water all his life.” He shook his head emphatically. “No way.”
“We came to bring his body back home—and to find out what really happened,” said his wife. “We don’t mean to sound chauvinistic, but somehow we felt that the local police are not, well, sophisticated enough to do a thorough job of investigation.”
“That’s why we had the American Consul step in and arrange to have Peter’s body sent to Lisbon for analysis. That’s where they discovered the presence of cocaine.”
I remembered. It was quite a sensation in this little town. The body was found on the beach, his clothes folded neatly on the rocks, the classic suicide.
I told them I was familiar with the tragedy and expressed my sympathy. What I didn’t say was that I knew it was always difficult for survivors to accept the suicide of a loved one. The guilt was overwhelming. Why couldn’t he come to me for help? The sense of personal failure, unrealistic though it may be, could torture parents, as it was undoubtedly doing to these nice people.
“But what do you think you can accomplish here?” I asked. “The police considered it an open and shut case.”

“The police are wrong,” said the wife angrily.
“They do deal in evidence,” I said gently.
“Yes, but they were missing one very crucial piece of evidence,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“They didn’t know our son.”
I should just nod my head and keep my mouth shut. But as anyone who knows me will tell you, silence and inactivity are two states I never enter.
“As I recall, there was a suicide note. And they, or the Lisbon medical examiner, found he had taken a large quantity of cocaine just before entering the ocean.”
“No,” she said firmly. “They said they found cocaine in him. No one has proven he had taken it.”
The father reached into his pocket and took out a picture, which he handed to me. “This is our son, Peter, taken six months ago.”
I looked at the picture and felt a frisson of shock. Around the neck of this very happy, open-faced young man was a clerical collar.
“He was a minister?”
“Yes,” said his father. “One of the most popular young ministers in Westchester.”
My home county. “What town?” I asked.
“You know Westchester?” she asked. Having spent the past ten years in London and Portugal, my speech has become an amalgam of accents so that no one country seems to want to claim me.
“I grew up in Rye,” I said.
Their faces lit up. A neighbor—in this faraway strange place.

“We’re from Larchmont. Peter’s pastorate is—was—in Port Chester.”
Port Chester was a depressed area, one of the fringe towns that seem to surround affluent areas. If Peter was a minister in Port Chester, his congregation was predominantly poor, black, and Hispanic.
“If you look closely at the picture,” said the father, “it was an award ceremony for Peter’s drug-free clinic that achieved the finest help record for youngsters in the entire state. Peter hated drugs. He didn’t need them; life gave him all the high he needed. And he had seen what devastation drugs caused. If there was cocaine in his body, you can bet your life that someone else put it there.”
“Why would he take his own life?” she asked.
“He came to Portugal on vacation. He was happy. He used to tell us that he was one of the luckiest men alive because he was able to really help people and contribute to this world. He had a mission—he felt fulfilled. You have to understand, Peter was dedicated to those kids. He knew he was their lifeline. He never would have deserted them.”
People did strange things. And often had secret demons that could be invisible to those close to them, quiet agonies that drove them into deeds of desperation.
I looked at the sensitive face in the picture.
“Was he gay?” I asked.
“No,” said his father. “Not that it would matter in our family. Our son Roger is gay and none of us has ever had a problem with it.”
I had no more doubting questions. The police of Vila do Mar were hardly Scotland Yard, and their high rate of solved crimes came from the Claude Rains technique in Casablanca, which was to “round up the usual suspects.” It was a resort town, and tragedy mixed poorly with suntan lotion, so the tendency was to look no further than the obvious and get the town fathers and hostelers off their backs by resolving unpleasantnesses rapidly.
“What are you planning to do here?” I asked. “By the way, my name is Emma Rhodes.”
“We’re Anne and Martin Belling,” she said. “And actually, we don’t have a clue what to do.”
Martin took out some letters. “He wrote us about the people he met here. I thought we might start with some of them.”

“But what will that do for us, Martin?” his wife asked. “We’re strangers to them and you know how people hate to get involved. And what would we ask them? And how? We don’t speak Portuguese.”
But I do. Finding out what really happened to Peter Belling should be fairly simple for me since I know everybody in town—the people who are nominally in charge as well as the ones who really run the place.
“Perhaps I can help you,” I said. “Actually, it’s what I do for a living.”
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Cynthia Smith's second Emma Rhodes high-society mystery, Impolite Society (trade paperback; $13; 978-0-9792709-7-0) will be available in a week, once Consortium takes over distribution... available for the first time in twelve years! Find copies at your favorite independent, chain, or online bookseller. See the list at the right for some of the indies that support & stock BFP titles.

"You'll enjoy every moment of international hobnobbing with this high society sleuth!”—Nancy Martin, best-selling author of the Blackbird Sisters mysteries

“I have been charmed right out of my high-heeled sandals by Cynthia Smith’s Impolite Society . . . a refreshing delight.”—The Washington Times

“Cool, sardonic, and unflappable Emma Rhodes sparkles diamond bright in Cynthia Smith’s clever, twisty tales. This highly original series has panache. A winning hand from Busted Flush Press.”—Carolyn Hart, best-selling author of the “Death on Demand” and Henrie O mysteries

“Wonderful! By Dominick Dunne out of Flora Poste, with a healthy mixture of Jessica Fletcher, the effervescent Miss Rhodes resolves sticky situations without ever getting her Manolos muddy. Encore!”—Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher novels

“Kiss Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher good-bye . . . here’s a woman sleuth who provides us with vicarious glamour, brains, and beauty on an international scale.”—Judith Crist, film critic

“Imagine a character with the panache of James Bond, the business purpose and personal code of Travis McGee, and the physical prowess (and appetites?) of Mike Hammer. Then put them into the female form of Emma Rhodes.”—Drood Review of Mystery

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