The Shimmering Blond Sister

A Berger and Mitry Mystery

Berger and Mitry Mysteries (Volume 7)

David Handler

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

CHAPTER 1
“REMEMBER TO BREATHE! FILL your lungs with breath! Breathe!”
Okay, okay—Mitch breathed. And shook. And sweated. The damned perspiration was streaming down his face. Or make that up his face, since the pose he was currently holding was a punishing form of torture known as downward facing dog. And the yoga studio at the Dorset Fitness Center was a steamy 92 degrees, same as outside on this Friday afternoon in August. No air-conditioning allowed. Not for a heat-generating Vinyasa class.
“Now step forward with your right foot into Warrior One,” Kimberly commanded the class, which comprised Mitch and three pear-shaped middle-aged ladies who never got tired or broke a sweat. Next to them, Mitch felt like an overstimulated water buffalo. “Stay strong through your left leg!”
Mitch complied, wavering there on his mat in Warrior One pose—right knee bent, left leg strong—okay, semistrong—his hips square, core grounded, arms upraised to the sky. The truth? A gentle poof would have blown him right over. This was only his third try at yoga. He’d always had an aversion to things that make you go “Omm. . . .” But there was nothing New Agey about Kimberly’s class. It was a brutal ninety-minute workout—a cross between Simon Says and a Navy Seals fitness certification test. Plus Mitch Berger was not a human pretzel and never had been.
But Hal, the trainer there whom Mitch lifted with three times a week, had urged him to try yoga to improve his flexibility and core strength. Why not, figured Mitch, a recovering shlub who’d taken off nearly forty pounds of man blubber after Dorset’s resident state trooper had accepted his proposal of marriage and then dumped him in the very same week. Now that he and Des were back together again, he wanted to keep those pounds off. He ran two miles every day through the Peck’s Point Nature Preserve. Lifted. Disdained all junk food. Most junk food. Actually, he’d thought he was in great shape when he signed up for his first class with Kimberly. He’d also thought yoga would be something gentle and soothing. Way wrong on both counts.
Right now this sadistic Zen drill instructor was sending them into their eighth nonstop round of sun salutations. Mitch flowed gamely along, every muscle in his body shaking. He felt certain that he was going to die there and then. By the time Kimberly mercifully allowed them to relax into Savasana—or Corpse Pose—it was not an exaggeration. Mitch didn’t just melt into the floor. He was the floor.
Kimberly owned the Dorset Fitness Center, which occupied a spacious windowed corner of The Works, the old red brick piano works on the banks of the Connecticut River that had been converted into a food hall and shopping arcade. She was in her early thirties and quite desirable, if your taste happened to run to blue-eyed blondes who were lovely, leggy, lithe, limber . . . were there any other L-words to describe Kimberly? Lissome. She was definitely lissome. And she cared about people. Taught yoga twice a week to the inmates at York Correctional, the women’s prison in Niantic. She also happened to be a Farrell.
Yes, one of those Farrells.
Kimberly did have a man in her life. She was engaged to some rich guy up in Cambridge who came to see her every weekend. Or so said Hal the trainer. Hal was a twenty-something jock who’d been recruited out of Dorset High by Boston College to play wide receiver. Hal wasn’t big—no more than five feet eleven—but he told Mitch he’d possessed world-class shifty moves until he blew out his right knee freshman year. He’d dropped out of BC after that. Returned home to Dorset and, near as Mitch could tell, morphed into the village’s preeminent stud muffin. Hal Chapman seemed to have his nightly pick of the college girls, secretaries and divorcées who found their way to the Connecticut shoreline every summer. This despite his truly appalling skullet haircut—a shaved head with a full-tilt mullet in back—and his rather broad snow shovel of a jaw. Hal also wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he had broad shoulders, slim hips, a complete six-pack of abs and an easy, upbeat personality. The ladies loved him.
As the class lay there in Savasana Kimberly urged each of them to gaze inside with their third eye and focus on their intention. Mostly, Mitch’s intention had been to survive until dinner. Although he was learning to use these introspective moments to connect more deeply with his new job. Mitch had been lead film critic for New York’s most prestigious newspaper. When the paper got taken over by a huge media conglomerate, they’d made him over into their resident cutesy cable news quote-machine whore. Or tried. But he’d walked away from all of that—handed in his license to shill and rejoined his old editor, Lacy Nickerson, who’d just launched a prestigious e-zine devoted to thoughtful criticism of the arts. His intention now was to write about whatever was on his mind. Hold nothing back. Just run with it. Working for Lacy meant less money, but who wasn’t working for less money these days? Besides, he had a contract to complete another film reference volume, Ants In Her Plants, which he hoped would do for screwball comedies what his first three bestselling guides had done for sci-fi, crime and the western. And now he was free to enjoy life in his antique post-and-beam caretaker’s cottage out on Big Sister Island. He puttered in his garden. Played the blues on his beloved sky blue Fender Stratocaster. And spent as much time as he could with the lady in his life. All talk of marriage was off the table. They were just letting it happen. Mitch, the Jewish movie critic from New York City. Des, the West Point graduate who was six feet one, black and knew eighteen different ways to kill him with her bare hands.
After Savasana they sat cross-legged on their mats and said “Namaste.” Then Mitch drank down an entire liter of mineral water and staggered to the showers, his arms so tired he could barely raise them over his head to shampoo his hair. But he did feel unbelievably mellow as he toweled off and put on his complimentary red Saw IV T-shirt, baggy shorts and rubber flip flops.
Hal was out on the floor working out a sexy young redhead in spandex. “Later, bro,” he exclaimed, bumping knucks as Mitch oozed on by. Hal had a tendency to lay on the “bro” thing a bit thick, but it didn’t really bother Mitch. Nothing bothered Mitch after yoga class.
The vast food hall, with its fragrant stalls and coffee bar and Parisian style seating area, was totally mobbed. It was a Friday afternoon, and during the summer the population of this quaint, historic New England village at the mouth of the Connecticut River doubled. It also developed a showier, more Hamptons vibe. Dozens of fashionably dressed young women with tanned legs and salon-streaked hair sat drinking iced mocha-whatevers and talking loudly on their cell phones. Mitch found himself looking forward to Labor Day, when Dorset’s population would return to its normal seven thousand cranky Yankees.
Mitch bought some fresh buffalo mozzarella from Christine to go with the tomatoes and basil that were growing in his garden. Then he ambled over to the fish market in search of something to throw on the grill that night. As he stood there trying to choose between the striped bass and the sushi-grade tuna, Mitch found himself shooting glances at the woman next to him. She was an attractive, frosted blonde in her late forties or early fifties, fashionably put together in an aqua-colored silk top, tailored white slacks and a pair of Manolo Blahnik gold sandals that had to run at least six hundred dollars. The Hermès handbag she was clutching would easily go for at least twice that.
Mitch smiled to himself, thinking: Yet another one. Whenever he saw a shapely, good-looking blonde of a certain age, he always thought of Beth Lapidus, the sexy divorcée who’d lived in the apartment across the hall from him in Stuyvesant Town when he was thirteen. She and her son Kenny—a blinky, twerpy little ten-year-old whose nickname on the playground was Spiny. Beth Lapidus held an exalted place in the pantheon of Mitch’s romantic life. She was his first true love. The unwitting object of his sexual awakening. God, how he’d adored her. Whenever he’d heard Beth’s hallway door slam shut, he’d race to his bedroom window to watch her stride across the Oval, her hips swaying, blond hair shimmering in the sunlight. Mitch was heartbroken—truly devastated—when she got married to a rich Park Avenue eye doctor and moved to Scarsdale. He never saw her again.
Maybe it was the yogic glow on his face. Or maybe it was his stint as a big-time TV celebrity. But this particular frosted blonde was smiling at Mitch.
“Why, Mitchell Berger, it is you, isn’t it?” Her voice was soft and slightly trembly. “I used to live across the hall from you in Stuyvesant Town. Beth Breslauer? I was Beth Lapidus then. My boy, Kenny, was always so fond of you.”
Mitch swallowed, dumbstruck. Because this wasn’t really happening. He was still on his mat in Savasana. Had to be . . . Omm . . .
“I’d heard that you had a place in Dorset,” she went on. “I’ve been hoping we’d run into each other. I figured it was just a matter of time.”
“You mean . . . are you saying you’ve moved here?”
Beth tilted her head at him fetchingly, much like Natalie Wood used to do. “Why, yes. I’ve lived here since the end of May.”
“This is incredible. Why didn’t you call me?”
“You’re a big star now. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“As if. I was just going to get a fruit smoothie. Could I buy you one?”
He could. He did. They sat, Mitch trying his darnedest not to stare at her across the table. Beth wore her hair shorter now, cropped at her chin. But otherwise she’d changed remarkably little in the twenty years since Mitch had last seen her. Same curvy figure. Same plump, inviting lips. Same melting gaze from those big, dark eyes. Beth’s face was remarkably smooth and unlined. No bags, no sags. He wondered if she’d had some high-end cosmetic surgery done. She looked as if she could afford it. She was wearing a lot of gold. Not ostentatiously, but it was there. Several rings on her soft, delicate fingers. A necklace, a bracelet, the Rolex on her wrist.
“My husband, Irwin, died last year,” she informed him, sipping her smoothie. “We had eighteen good years together. And I liked Scarsdale well enough. But there’s nothing worse than rattling around in a big house in suburbia all by yourself. So I sold the place. Just decided to do it and did it.” Beth’s manner, he realized, hadn’t changed either. She somehow managed to convey helpless fragility and steely self-reliance at the same exact time. “I’ve bought myself a small apartment in the city, on East 62nd, and I have the condo here so I can be closer to Kenny. He’s up in the Boston area. This way we get to see each other on weekends. He’ll be coming in tonight after work. Mitch, I can’t wait to tell him I’ve bumped into you.”
“What does Kenny do for a living?”
Beth stuck out her lower lip fretfully. “I was afraid you were going to ask me that.”
“Why, is it a deep, dark secret?”
“No, I just don’t understand a word of it. He’s a computer wiz. And apparently knows more about something called ‘molecular modeling’ than anyone in the country. He was on the faculty at MIT. Now he designs research computer systems for pharmaceutical companies.”
“Sounds pretty impressive.”
“He’s still the same Kenny,” she responded, swelling with motherly pride.
“Beth, I’d love to get together with both of you. Where are you living?”
“In the Captain Chadwick House.”
Mitch’s eyes widened. The Captain Chadwick House was the choicest condo colony in town. The only one situated in the Dorset Street Historic District. Des’s housemate, Bella Tillis, had been trying to grab up one of its precious units for ages. But they changed hands very discreetly and rarely, if ever, came on the open market. “It’s impossible to get in there. How did you manage it?”
“It was no trouble at all,” Beth answered with a shrug. “Your folks must be so proud of you, Mitch. How are they?”
“Oh, fine. They live down in Vero Beach now.” Retired New York City public school teachers, both of them.
“And how do they feel about you and your fiancée?” she asked, arching an eyebrow at him.
“You’ve heard about us, have you?”
“Who hasn’t? You and our resident trooper are the talk of the town.”
“She’s not. My fiancée, I mean. We’re not engaged. We were. But we’re not anymore. Although we’re getting along great.”
“And they’re okay with the . . . differences?”
“You mean the part about how she carries a fully loaded SIG-Sauer and I don’t?”
“You know what I mean.”
“They just want me to be happy.”
“That’s all that any parent wants, Mitch. Kenny’s engaged, you know. To a girl here in town named Kimberly Farrell.”
“Kimberly? No way!” Although this sort of thing was not unusual in small-town Dorset, Mitch had discovered. It was a world of wheels within wheels. “She’s my yoga teacher.”
“Very sweet girl,” Beth said with a noticeable lack of conviction. “Mind you, there’s baggage. She was married once before—very briefly. A local fellow named J. Z. Cliffe. I don’t suppose you know him, too, do you?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“I can’t help asking myself why it didn’t work out. She and Kenny have discussed it, but Kenny won’t share the details with me. He doesn’t usually keep secrets. I suppose it’s none of my business. It’s just that I’m concerned. Kenny . . . he isn’t that experienced when it comes to women. And he’s done really well financially.” Beth’s mouth tightened. “There’s also the matter of her father’s notoriety. Dex and Maddee live across the hall from me. That’s how the two kids met. Kimberly has been living with her folks for the past few months. Maddee needs the emotional support, I gather. Kenny ran into her one morning as she was heading off in her yoga gear. They struck up a conversation. Next thing I knew he was coming down every weekend to see her, not me. Please don’t get me wrong, Mitch. He and Kimberly positively glow in each other’s presence. I’m excited for him. For both of us, really. I’m loving my new life. I’m taking sculpture classes at the art academy. And I dash into the city whenever I feel like it. My girlfriends and I go to the theater together, shop til we drop, talk our heads off. I’m having a lot of fun.”
And yet Mitch saw sadness in Beth’s eyes. He saw loss. He knew all about these things. He’d lost his own beloved wife, Maisie, to ovarian cancer after only two years of marriage. Had spent months telling people how great he was doing when he was actually a lonely wreck. Although he figured Beth had to be dating someone by now. A woman who looked like Beth didn’t stay alone for long. “Where are Kenny and Kimberly planning to live?”
“Up in Cambridge. She wants to keep the fitness center running. Her trainer, Hal, will manage it during the week. She’ll come down on weekends to teach a few classes and keep an eye on her folks. The wedding’s next month. Maddee has her heart set on a big fat Dorset wedding at the Yacht Club. Two hundred guests, an orchestra, the works. She’s hoping it will get her back in the good graces of their former friends.” Beth wrinkled her nose slightly. “I must confess, I have problems with her. And Dex I just plain can’t stand.”
“Well, you’re not alone there.”
Indeed, Dex Farrell was a pariah not just in Dorset, but all across America. As the head of Farrell and Co., the venerated credit-rating agency started by his grandfather, Dex Farrell was one of the Wall Street power brokers who’d been at the epicenter of the subprime home-mortgage meltdown. Dex Farrell had misrepresented the rating on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities. His name was synonymous with Wall Street recklessness, dishonesty and greed. The only reason he hadn’t been indicted for fraud was that federal prosecutors had concluded he was off his gourd. When pressed by a committee of the U.S. Congress to justify the high ratings he’d given to so many risky securities, he’d famously testified: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.” And then proceeded to start quacking. And wouldn’t stop quacking even as he was being led from the chamber. His personal physician attributed Farrell’s unusual behavior to an adverse reaction to a prescription medication for stress. Whatever it was, the disgraced Dex Farrell and his shamed wife, Maddee, had unloaded their shorefront estate in Dorset—where a lot of their blue-blooded, old-money friends had lost a lot of that blue-blooded old money—and fled to Hobe Sound, Florida. Recently, they’d slipped quietly back into town.
“There’s no worthwhile cause that Maddee won’t donate her time to,” Beth said. “She delivers hot lunches to the housebound for Meals on Wheels. Stockpiles canned goods for the Food Pantry. Collects old clothes for the Nearly New shop at St. Anne’s. She’s quite the juggernaut. And so desperate to get back onto Dorset’s A-list that it’s kind of sad. Or it would be if she weren’t always reminding me how many servants she had when she was growing up.”
“And Dex?”
“He keeps to himself. Doesn’t talk to a soul, near as I can tell. God, maybe. If he believes in God. Do you think swindlers like Dex Farrell believe in God? Or do they just worship money? I’ve always wondered about that.”
“How do they feel about Kimberly and Kenny?”
“You mean because he’s a J-E-W? They’re okay with it. Kenny’s the one who’s not okay. He’s dreading this fancy Yacht Club wedding of Maddee’s. It’s just not Kenny’s style. Or Kimberly’s. They’re honeymooning at an ashram in the Himalayas, for pity’s sake. Kimberly doesn’t want to disappoint her mother. But if you ask me, it’s their wedding and they ought to do what they want.”
“Which is . . . ?”
“Get married on a beach somewhere at sunset with a few close friends.”
“Well, if they change their minds, I have one.” Mitch finished off the last of his smoothie.
“One what, Mitch?”
“A beach. And we get a sunset pretty much every day.”
They headed back to the fish counter now to purchase their dinners. A glistening slab of striped bass for Mitch. Two slender fillets of sole for Beth. Dinner for one. Then he walked her out to the parking lot. Mitch got around town in a bulbous, kidney-colored 1956 Studebaker pickup. Beth was driving a frisky, red Mini Cooper convertible.
‘I know, I know—it’s too young for me,” she acknowledged as Mitch stood there admiring it. “But I love it. And Kenny likes to drive it when he’s here. Mitch, why don’t you and your lady friend join us for dinner tomorrow night?”