As Mike Manning grieves over the heroic death of his lover, NY police officer Ken Farley, he gets a call from socialite Mildred Hamilton who confesses to killing her husband and his girlfriend. Drawn into a double murder on a snowy New Year's Eve takes Mike from a Fifth Avenue penthouse to a gay strip bar, a ride on a corporate jet and, finally, to two humpy preppies who do their best to change Mike's grief into unabashed passion. Many private lives go public before Mike uncovers THE MASK OF NARCISSUS to reveal the face of a murderer.
New York is a late town and on New Year's Eve it becomes an even later town. At 7 p.m. on this December 31st, upper Fifth Avenue, except for a scattering of smartly dressed people leaving and entering cabs and limousines, was deserted. It would remain deserted because the rich, as a rule, do not like crowds.
"Have a nice evening, Mr. Manning." The driver turned to look at his passenger, flagging down the cab's digital meter as he spoke. Having verbally been presented with the celebrity's equivalent of the Nobel prize - recognition - Mike Manning responded in kind by waving away the offered change for his five dollar bill. The meter read two dollars and eighty cents. Both were hard core New Yorkers and as such knew by instinct the etiquette necessary for survival in their natural habitat. Give and take...the object being to take a lot more than you give. In this particular instance the cab driver was the momentary winner. However, before the evening was over a dozen hack drivers would be told that Mike Manning was a sport. In two days the fact would be common knowledge to every hack driver in the city and any of their passengers who cared to listen and take the hint. It's the kind of goodwill publicity that is unobtainable from the media at any price, but Mike Manning had just purchased it for two dollars and twenty cents. Mike had lost the first round but would ultimately win the game. Mike Manning usually did. A strong wind blew from the west and carried with it the particular odors of the zoo across the street as well as a chill factor that was close to zero. Mike pulled the collar of his camel-hair coat tightly about his neck as he walked under the canopy which stretched from the curb to the building it graced. The ancient keeper of the door, warm and snug behind his insulated glass post, saw him approach and opened the door just in time for Mike to enter the lobby without breaking his cadence.
"Good evening, Mr. Manning." Mike flashed the old man his most insincere smile. The corners of his mouth jerked upward and his eyes squinted in myopic fashion. A moment later the old man was gazing at the back of a camel-hair coat draped over the frame of a tall, muscular body. Mike had not been deliberately rude. He knew that a simple, "How are you Joe?" would bring forth a detailed account of the old man's diseased lungs and his need, stymied by a lack of cash, to move to a warmer climate. As he retreated Mike was keenly aware of the old man's eyes boring into the back of his neck.
Counsel: "Did Mr. Manning visit the Burke residence often?"
Joe: "I wouldn't say (cough) often."
Counsel: "But often enough for you to recognize him."
Joe: "Yes, (cough) sir."
Counsel: "And did he pay a call on Mrs. Burke on the evening of December 31st at approximately seven p.m.?"
Joe: "Yes, sir, he did."
Counsel: "And did you notice anything unusual about Mr. Manning on that particular occasion?"
Joe: "Well, sir (cough) I would say he was somewhat abrupt."
Joe: "Yes, sir (cough) we usually pass the time of day, Mr. Manning and me, but that evening Mr. Manning was (cough) abrupt."
The elevator door stood open but the attendant was conspicuously absent. As Mike entered the car he remembered that the cooperative had elected to forego the luxury of twenty-four hour attended elevator service in favor of one shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the official working hours of most New York thieves. Even the rich were feeling the pinch of inflation.
Mike pressed the button marked seventeen. The elevator door closed and the lift began to rise. It was really very simple. When the elevator stopped Mike exited and walked a straight line to the only door on the seventeenth floor. Opening it he entered a large, marble-floored foyer, sparsely but elegantly furnished and mirrored from floor to ceiling. Ignoring the infinite number of Mike Mannings which now accompanied him he crossed the marble floor and, turning left, stepped into a room the size of which a family of four would be content to call home.
Mike's eyes moved down the length of the room and came to rest on Mrs. Stephen Burke, nÃ©e Mildred Hamilton. Milly, seated in the corner of a couch especially built for the vast space it occupied and under a sixteen-foot-high ceiling, looked like a miniature representation of an adult female. She was framed by a picture window which presented a scene as black and forlorn as the park it overlooked. Even the lighted apartment buildings on Central Park West resembled a slightly blurred rendition of a pen and ink sketch on this dark, winter night.
The room, with its mahogany fireplace, dark wood-beamed ceiling and huge pieces of ugly, Empire furniture, reflected as much warmth and charm as a baronial castle. Milly was wearing a simple black dress, the kind Mike Manning never tired of describing as a simple black dress. Her eyes were red and swollen. In one hand she held a rock glass filled with Scotch and no rocks. Her other hand held a cigarette.
As Mike walked into the room he was tempted to ask, "Where's the body?" but under the circumstances the quip would be in very bad taste, indeed. Instead he opened with,
"Drinking is not going to help." Then he glanced at an ashtray filled with the remains of at least a pack of filtered cigarettes and added,
"Neither is smoking." Milly watched him approach. The hand holding the cigarette shook and a long, white shell of ash fell onto the plush carpet.
"I don't need a lecture," Milly responded.
"You don't need more Scotch, either." Mike took the glass from Milly's hand and put it on the coffee table which fronted the couch.
"Where?" he asked, making a deliberate effort to place a question mark after the one word.
"I'm glad you're here, Mike," she said, trying to sound relieved and failing miserably. Mike acknowledged this with an almost imperceptible nod of his head. Then she whispered, "In the bedroom." Mike turned and retraced his steps, passing the foyer with its mirrored walls, down a long hall until he came to a closed door on his left.
Without hesitation, he opened the door and entered the master bedroom suite. The room was large enough to hold two king-size beds and an array of American antique furniture of museum quality. The room's prime colors were blue and white...cheerful colors which could not cheer the two bodies that lay sprawled between the twin beds.
Mike moved into the room for a closer look. Before taking over the society column of the New York Ledger from a deposed Count who knew all the right people but none of the right words to describe their antics, he had been a first-rate crime reporter for the same newspaper. Mike had tackled that job in the same manner with which he approached everything in life: a determined will to succeed. Corpses - whole, mutilated and in various stages of decay - were not a new sight to the Ledger's society editor.
He looked at the two bodies in the blue and white room with a callous detachment his crime reporting days had taught him. His story, without emotion or opinion, began to form in his mind as the critical eye of the reporter took in every detail of what lay before him. Stephen Burke was lying on his back, stark naked, parallel to the beds.
Most men would have looked ridiculous, even obscene, to be exposed thusly in death. Stephen Burke looked beautiful. The longish blond hair, always in a state of studied disarray, fell like corn-silk across his forehead. The face, with its perfect complexion, square jaw and high cheekbones, looked tranquil in repose and there was even a hint of a smile on the thin lips. The eyes, had they been open, would have revealed a dazzling shade of blue; a perfect match for the room's color scheme and, Mike had always suspected, not by coincidence.
The shoulders were broad, the chest full and masculine and covered with down a shade or two darker than the white-blond hair on the head. The smooth, tanned skin was broken only by the small red hole which appeared directly over the area of Stephen Burke's heart. Mike was surprised that so little blood flowed from the fatal wound.
Next, the flat, hard stomach and then Stephen Burke's most celebrated attribute met Mike's eyes. The degree of celebrity it was accorded depended, to be sure, on what end of the give-and take line the rater was currently on. However, true cognoscenti had long ago awarded it an eleven on a scale of one to ten.
The sturdy, masculine legs were a familiar sight to Mike. He had seen them often in tennis shorts, bathing trunks and beneath the hem of a variety of cashmere dressing robes. This reminder of Stephen Burke's wardrobe caused Mike to quickly survey the bedroom. Where were Burke's clothes? There was not one personal article of male clothing visible in the room. But there was a pile of female attire stacked at the foot of the bed furthest from where Mike stood.
Their owner lay at a perfect right angle to the body of Stephen Burke, her head almost touching his waist and forming with him the letter T. For together?...tragedy?...Mike discarded the idea almost as soon as it occurred.
The lady was more modestly attired in a pair of yellow bikini panties. Mike was ready to wager his typewriter that the hair under the bikini was darker than the blond, curly hair on the lady's head. She was a pretty girl, not more than twenty, with a narrow waist and full breasts which rose proudly from her now stilled chest. The nipples were dark and pointed.
Her face, upside-down from Mike's point of view, was cute rather than beautiful. The hole over her left eyebrow didn't help her cause. Blood had turned her forehead and nose a brownish red. On impulse Mike walked across the room to the bed which held the girl's clothing. With one finger he pushed back the collar of a white blouse and read the label. If the lady was a hooker she belonged to the sisterhood's upper echelons.
Mike looked at the body, now right-side up, again. The girl looked more Vassar than Eighth Avenue. He took a deep breath and started for the door. On the other bed, in the center of the blue satin spread, he saw the gun. How like Milly, tossing it like a hair brush or magazine she had no further use for. There had always been a maid to pick up after Mildred Hamilton Lakewood Burke. Well, not this time, Milly...not this time.
Mike took off his coat as he re-entered the baronial living room. Under it he wore a blue blazer over a white turtleneck sweater. His grey flannel trousers completed the picture GQ would have been proud to run on its cover. Manning was six foot one, with a full head of brown hair, green eyes and the kind of regular, clean-cut features that made it possible for him to work his way through the Columbia School of Journalism as a male model. The agency that employed him had begged him to stay in the business, but once he got his degree Mike wisely left the fickle modeling world for a job as cub reporter for the Ledger and had never regretted this decision. There's a time for everything and the smart crowd knows when the time for moving on has arrived.
He still did some modeling, but now it was strictly for endorsements. Cigarettes, liquor, sports cars and anything else fancied by those who liked to spend and had the cash to do so. It was a fast, easy buck and Mike Manning liked to live fast, easy and expensively. All things considered it worked .. and what worked was good in Manning's book.
He dropped his coat on the couch and reached for the drink he had taken from Milly Burke. Milly stared at him as he swallowed the liquor and Mike wondered if the new widow was drunk or in a state of shock.
"Did you call the police?" he asked.
"Why the hell not?"
"I didn't know what to tell them."
"You didn't know what to tell them?" Mike almost shouted. "Milly, I can't see how one could make an ambiguous statement about what's in the bedroom."
A faint smile appeared on Milly's face. It was the first sign of animation she had displayed since Mike's arrival.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, "now that you're here." The expression on her face reflected neither humility nor embarrassment. It was a simple statement of fact.
"Why did you do it, Milly?"
"You saw the scene in the bedroom and you have to ask why?"
"Stephen Burke in flagrante? I've seen that scene a thousand times and so have you."
"But never in our home." Milly sounded adamant. Mike again reached for the glass of Scotch and sipped as he thought. Was this going to be the line of defense? The wandering husband piling up straw after straw until finally the straw that broke the wife's sanity? Not very good but, God knows, he had heard worse.
"And with a friend of the family," Milly added, speaking so softly that Mike, lost in his own thoughts, almost missed it. He put down the glass and picked up a cigarette.
"Who is she, Milly?"
"A friend of Kevin's."
"Kevin! Christ...where is he?"
"At a party."
Milly shook her head as she spoke. "He went out early and then was going on from there. I don't understand the very young, Mike, and have given up trying."
"The police aren't going to ask for a philosophical accounting of your relationship with your son, Milly. They're going to want the facts."
"May I have a cigarette?" she asked.
"Go ahead, they're yours." Her hand seemed much steadier as she lit the cigarette.
"There's a party tonight...here in the city, I suppose. Kevin drove out to the Island to pick up a friend...Brad, I think...yes, Bradley Turner...he was going to have dinner with Brad and then drive in for the party." She looked at Mike as if silently asking if he were satisfied.
"Were you home all day?" Mike continued, ignoring the look and its implication.
"No, I went out to do some shopping around four this afternoon."
"When did you get back?"
"Six ... I think."
"He was gone when I got back."
" Mike nodded toward the bedroom.
"Susan Kennedy," Milly answered the unspoken question. "She's a friend of Kevin's. I don't know where they met."
"So Susan must have arrived between the time Kevin left and you arrived."
"I would imagine...yes."
"Tell me exactly what you did from the minute you entered the apartment."
"Well," Milly began slowly,
"I didn't think there was anyone here..."
"Where's your housekeeper?" Mike interrupted.
"Betty is off for the holiday. She's gone to her daughter's in New Jersey, I suppose. That's where she usually goes."
"Go on," Mike prompted.
"I put some packages down in here, hung up my coat in the hall closet and...and then I heard sounds coming from there." She pointed in the general direction of the bedroom without looking that way.
"I was afraid. I told you I didn't think there was anyone at home. I started for the bedroom and then I remembered the gun. We keep it in that drawer." She nodded at a refectory table which flanked the wall at the opposite end of the long room.
"Why?" Mike asked.
"Why did I take the gun?"
"No...why do you keep one in the house?"
"For protection, I guess...I don't know, Mike. We've had it for years."
"I took the gun from the drawer and went to investigate." She spoke very rapidly now. "I opened the bedroom door and there they were. I lost my head and fired. That's it, Mike." One between the eyes and one directly into the heart. Not bad for someone who had just lost her head. Mike wondered what Milly would be like on a firing range when she had her wits about her. He began to pace the width of the room.
"It doesn't make sense, Milly."
"It's what happened."
"What was she doing here...on New Year's Eve? Kevin obviously didn't invite her, and did Steve think you were gone for the day or did he know you had just gone to do some shopping?"
"I told him where I was going," she answered.
"So why did he take what's-her-name into the bedroom for a quick screw knowing that you would return any minute?"
"You know Steve," she replied.
"Knew, Milly, knew...he's dead. And I knew him very well. He was as sharp as a fox and twice as cunning. He would never pull a stunt like that."
"Well he did...and I did...and if you don't believe it go back into the bedroom and have another look." Milly's voice was a pitch below total hysteria.
"I'm sorry, Milly. I didn't mean to badger you but the police will. And they won't stop if you get hysterical."
"But why? There's nothing for them to prove or disprove. I did it and that's that."
"That's not that," Mike answered, shaking his head.
"There's going to be a trial and at a trial all the facts are going to be laid out for a jury of your peers and those facts have to add up. What you just told me does not add up to the two bodies on the bedroom floor."
"Do you want me to lie?"
"God, no...the truth sounds bad enough. And where the hell are Steve's clothes?"
Milly raised her eyebrows.
"His clothes, Milly, there's not a sign of them in the bedroom."
"I don't know. He took them off, naturally. One usually does."
"One usually does, yes, but one does not usually put them all away in closet and drawer, including socks and underpants. Your husband was casual with his affairs but that would be carrying nonchalance to the point of comedy."
"I don't know," Milly repeated. "I wasn't there for the warm-up."
Mike crushed his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
"Why did she come here on New Year's Eve? Did she know Steve?"
"She might have met him. Yes, I guess she had. And I told you I don't know what she was doing here."
Mike shrugged his broad shoulders and helped himself to more Scotch. "Let's take it from the top. A friend of your son's calls on New Year's Eve, unannounced, is greeted by your son's stepfather, in the nude I guess, and ten minutes later friend and daddy prepare for a toss in the hay." He looked at Milly and she stared back, her lips drawn in a straight line. Mike shrugged again, sighed and continued.
"Was she having an affair with Steve? They seemed to have gotten down to the nitty-gritty in record time."
"Steve was a fast worker."
"Not that fast, Milly not that fast. Were they having an affair?"
"I don't know."
"Would Kevin know?"
"I won't, but the police will."
"Kevin has nothing to do with this." Milly's voice rose an octave.
"And what did you think...what did you feel when you saw them. Did you just raise the gun and bang, bang? You're not the type, Milly. My God, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking I had had it." Her voice continued its upward climb. "I was thinking I had goddamned well fucking had it, that's what I was thinking." And then she broke down. Her head fell into her hands and she began to sob, long heavy sobs that echoed sorrow and anger, frustration and despair, sobs which told more clearly why two bodies lay on the bedroom floor of a fourteen-room apartment high over fashionable Fifth Avenue than had her precise answers to Mike Manning's questions.
"I'm sorry," Mike whispered. Milly shook her head and answered without looking up.
"It's not you...it's not you." When she raised her face to reveal again the red, swollen eyes, her cheeks were bone dry. There had been no tears left to shed. "I just wanted it to be over and done with...and now it is."
Wanted what to be over and done with...the marriage? Divorce is certainly simpler than murder. And, if one could measure such things, one murder is simpler than two.
"Why the girl?" Mike spoke this final thought aloud.
"Why not?" Milly let out a short, hysterical laugh.
"I don't know, Mike...I was crazy, that's why. Temporary insanity, isn't that what it's called?" Mike looked at the Tiffany clock on the mahogany mantle. It was almost seven-thirty.
"What time did it happen?"
"Over an hour and the police haven't been notified. I'm going to have to call them, Milly."
The woman nodded.
Mike reached for another cigarette and thought aloud. "I'm worried."
"Everything...what she was doing here...Steve's clothes...you...everything, Milly."
"Would it make you and the police happy if I went in there and dumped his entire wardrobe all over the damn room?"
"Christ, no. Don't touch a thing."
"Mike, if I had staged it all the facts would mesh. But I didn't and they don't. I don't know where his clothes are or why she came here. It happened just as I told you it did."
She's right, Mike thought. The perfect set-up or alibi is always suspect. Reality contains neither perfection not logic. Perhaps that was the point that was worrying Mike. Milly's story was too perfect because it was complete with imperfections. He recalled how quickly and accurately she had described the entire shoddy scene. Had she rehearsed it? Of course...she had almost an hour to think of nothing else before Mike's arrival. This last thought moved him directly to the telephone.
"Get me the 19th precinct, this is an emergency...if I wanted nine-one-one I would have dialed nine-one-one...no, I don't want an ambulance, just connect me with the 19th precinct, please. This is Mike Manning. I'm at the home of Mr. and Mrs....of Mrs. Stephen Burke, 830 Fifth Avenue. There's been an accident. Could you send a couple of men here at once...if I wanted nine-one-one I would have dialed nine-one-one...no, I don't want an ambulance, it's too late for that...look, sergeant, there's been an accident and two people are dead of unnatural causes, now would you please get someone here as quickly as possible."
Mike put down the phone and turned to Milly Burke.
"Go ahead, Mike."
"I feel like a damn fool."
"Why? It's your job. Go ahead, I'll try not to listen." She stood up and headed for the liquor cabinet, certain Mike wouldn't criticize her a moment after she had been so gracious to him. Mike picked up the phone and dialed again. When the connection went through he spoke into the mouthpiece with the assurance of one who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it.
"Harry?...Mike...get your pencil and pad, take down everything I say and don't interrupt...there's no time. Ready?" Mike's opening line contained, in one sentence, the gospel of journalism...Who, What, Where, When.
"Stephen...that's S-T-E-P-H-E-N...Burke was shot to death in the bedroom of his posh Fifth Avenue apartment at six p.m. on New Year's Eve. Lying next to Burke's nude body was a second victim of this crime of passion; beautiful, blond socialite Susan Kennedy. Ms. Kennedy was clad in a pair of yellow bikini panties. Mrs. Stephen Burke, nÃ©e Mildred Hamilton and formerly married to Kevin Lakewood, has confessed to the double murder.
"Burke, born Steven...that's S-T-E-V-E-N...Burkowski in Astoria, Queens made headlines in...check the date, Harry... when he eloped with heiress Mildred Hamilton Lakewood. Milly Hamilton, only child of the late millionaire Russell Hamilton, made her debut in New York society in...check the date, Harry...and a year later married the socially prominent sportsman, Kevin Lakewood. They had one child, Kevin junior, and Milly was widowed in...check the date, Harry...when Kevin Lakewood died of a heart attack at the young age of thirty-eight.
"It has often been rumored, and the story persists, that Burkowski was chauffeur to Mildred Hamilton Lakewood. In fact, Burkowski was employed by a limousine service based in Long Island City. In this capacity he often chauffeured Mrs. Lakewood but was never on her personal payroll.
"Shortly before eloping with Milly, Burkowski changed the spelling of his first name and shortened his second name to become Stephen Burke. The couple moved in a society peopled by the rich, the famous, the beautiful, the Ins of the moment...take out Ins, Harry, and put in celebrated. This lifestyle was maintained because of Burke's ambitions and not Milly's desire. Add, it has long been thought, to that last sentence, Harry.
"The extraordinarily handsome Burke was the quintessential playboy whom wife and stepson were never able to domesticate. Stephen Burke had an eye for the ladies and the ladies never seemed to tire of Stephen Burke. One could say the circumstances of his death accurately summarize the story of his life...
"That's it for the early edition. I'll send you a more detailed version for the later editions and, Harry, tell them to kill the front page photo of Times Square at midnight and dig up one of Burke in a bathing suit. That should be easy to come by...I told you, Harry, no questions...of course it's an exclusive, the police don't even know about it yet."
"You do your job very well," Milly said when Mike put down the phone.
"That doesn't make doing it any easier."
"But it had to be done and I'd rather you did it than some hack or sob sister."
"Oh, my little exclusive is just the beginning, Milly. This is going to be bigger than your elopement."
"Murder wins out over love."
"It usually does. It's so much more permanent." Milly smiled and held out her hand. He moved toward her and took the offered hand in his.
"I wish I could say I was sorry, Milly, but I'm not. I hated the bastard."
"That makes it unanimous."
She moved closer to him and his arms encircled her ; her small body pressed tightly against his.
"It could have been different, Mike."
"Yeah," he grinned over her head, "that could be me on the bedroom floor."
"Never, Mike, never...we would have made it work."
"I doubt it, Milly," he sighed, "it's easy to think it would after the fact."
"When this is over..."
The house phone rudely interrupted their conversation with a loud, persistent buzz.
"Over? Christ, Milly, it's just beginning."