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 The Books of Barbara and Hy Brett


Sizzle > Prologue: Spring 1988

When Marietta Wylford was making love with a man she didn't care for, which was more often than not these days, she found it helpful to close her eyes and focus her mind on the first and last ride she had taken on the Coney Island Cyclone at the age of fifteen. A rather pimply boy named Tommy Something had talked her into it, and when their lead car reached the crest of the first incline, he grabbed her in his scrawny arms and clamped his wet lips on hers. The forces of gravity and wind velocity kept them glued together for the rest of the ride. Unable to disentangle herself, Marietta (she was just plain Marianne back then) clung to him, moaning and shrieking into his mouth as their car hurtled from peaks into valleys and catapulted from valleys onto peaks. Afterward, Tommy swaggered along by her side, convinced that he had given her the sex thrill of her life. She saw no reason to disillusion him by revealing that he disgusted her and that her reaction had been sheer animal panic evoked by speeding through space at such a terrifying rate, especially not after he bought her a huge stuffed panda. In the twenty-three years that had slipped through her fingers since that hot, sticky July night, she had made excellent and lucrative use of that memory.

Now, just when her mind had taken her halfway up the sharpest incline of her imaginary roller coaster, a dense weight plummeted down on her chest, making the air whoosh out of her lungs and into her companion's mouth. She managed to free her lips from his and to whisper as passionately as she could with the little breath she had left, "Don't stop now, darling."

His head dropped onto her pillow.

She lay there for a moment, staring up at the rainbow prisms the crystal chandelier cast on her ceiling in the soft pink glow of the night-light. Never had she felt such an oppressive weight. It crushed her breasts until they threatened to become concave. But the pain and the pressure were as nothing compared to the icy fear that had begun to pulsate from the dark recesses of her mind and radiate all through her body.

Her tongue darted out and moistened her dry lips. "Darling..." she whispered. "Darling...are you all right?"

There was no answer from the slack lips pressed against her cheek.

She closed her eyes and slowly turned her head. It took every ounce of courage she had to open them. When she did, she found herself staring into a pair of glasslike blue eyes that she knew could not see her, would never see again.

"Oh, my God!" she cried. With a strength born of necessity, she thrust off the body and groped for a pulse in his wrist and throat. When chest massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation both failed, she succumbed to the horror of the situation, and ran into the bathroom, vomited, and sank down on the floor.

She lay there, curled in womb position on the powder-pink carpet, her head pressed against the hard, cold porcelain of the bowl, telling herself that it wasn't true, that it couldn't be true. But finally she had to admit that it was. That was when the trembling began.

"Do something," she told herself through chattering teeth. "You can't just lie here-you have to do something."

She pulled herself to her feet and walked over to the white-and-gold French provincial telephone on the Lucite table beside the pink marble bathtub. She dialed a number and, while it rang, took a cigarette from a pink Wedgwood box and lit it with a matching lighter.

Be home, she repeated silently with each ring. Please, please be home.

On the fifth ring a rather breathless female voice came over the wire.

"Melanie," Marietta said, "Philip Bailey just died while we were in bed. What do I do?"

"Oh, my God! Are you sure he's dead?"

"Of course I'm sure."

"Have you called for an ambulance?"

"Are you out of your mind? I can't have him found naked in my bed."

"Well, you can't just have your maid put him out with the garbage in the morning. You have to call for an ambulance immediately. Any delay would sound fishy to the police."

"But he's in my bed, and he's naked."

"Since when have you been such a puritan?"

"I'm not a puritan. I'm a businesswoman, and I refuse to jeopardize the deal we were working on. God knows, I'm sorry for Philip, but that doesn't change the fact that the stock he was about to sell me will go to his wife now, and she'll never let me have it if she knows how he died."

"Get him dressed. Tell the police and the medics that he was taking a nap."

Her hands began to tremble. "Melanie, I can't touch him."

"You have to. What are you wearing?"

She glanced into a mirror. "One false eyelash and some hair spray."

"First call nine-one-one. Then get yourself dressed as though you were going out to dinner. I'll be over in five minutes. Pray that the cops are slow in getting there."

An officer answered the 911 phone on the fifth ring, and sounded so efficient as he took down her information that Marietta was tempted to tell him not to rush the ambulance over, that she had things to do before it arrived.

She hung up the phone and ran into her bedroom to dress. Though she knew it was there, it somehow came as a shock to find Philip Bailey's body still sprawled across her bed. It lay as it had fallen when she'd struggled out from beneath it, legs on the side at an angle that would have been awkward even for a contortionist, upper torso flat on its back, arms flung wide in a grotesque welcoming gesture. The eyes were the worst-those staring, unseeing eyes. She knew she should close them, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. Instead, she reached for the silk sheet that had tumbled to the floor and pulled it over his face. The blue of the sheet reminded her of cloudless spring skies and of heaven. She wondered fleetingly if there was a heaven. Philip Bailey would know by now. But only from hearsay. She doubted very much that he would be an inhabitant.

Not since her days of whirlwind changes during fashion shows had she dressed so quickly. In less than three minutes, her navy Yves Saint Laurent suit looked as though it had never been taken off. Unable to locate her missing false eyelash, she pulled off the remaining one, reglossed her lips, and combed her shoulder-length red hair.

She was picking up Philip's clothing when the doorman rang her on the intercom.

"Yes, William?" she said, praying he wouldn't announce the arrival of the ambulance.

"Miss Danielle is here to see you, Mrs. Wylford."

"Thank you, William. I'm also expecting an ambulance. A friend visiting me has taken deathly ill. It should be here any moment."

"I'll send the medics right up, ma'am." William's tone held the proper mixture of servility and humanitarian concern.

Marietta had the door open before Melanie could ring the bell. Closing it, she said, "The ambulance hasn't arrived. So far, so good."

"I'll bet you haven't dressed him yet," Melanie said, her brown eyes scanning Marietta's face. She was ten years younger and four inches shorter than Marietta, but her lack of makeup, angular body, and severe attire occasionally made people take her for the older of the two.

Marietta shook her head. "Melanie, I-"

But Melanie didn't wait for her to finish the thought. "Come on," she said, brushing past her and heading for the bedroom. "The Post printed another one of its bitchy editorials about the delay in response to emergency calls. The cops will be trying to break the sound barrier for the next few days."

By the time Marietta caught up with her in the bedroom, Melanie had pulled down the sheet.

"Couldn't you at least have closed his eyes?" she asked. Gently, she reached over and performed this final service. "Rest in peace," she whispered, her face suddenly filled with tenderness. Then she turned back to Marietta, all business again. "You'll have to help me. I can't do this by myself."

Marietta nodded. "I'll be all right now. I just couldn't touch him while I was alone."

Melanie picked up Philip's black silk socks from the floor and handed one to Marietta. "I've never known you to be squeamish. In your office, you make life-and-death decisions about corporations and careers every day."

"This is different. I don't like being out of control. It scares me."

The socks were the easiest to put on. The rest of the clothes posed a real problem: Philip Bailey was well over six feet tall and weighed two hundred and forty pounds, more than both women put together. For a moment the two stared at his hulking frame, feeling at a loss. Then Melanie picked up his undershorts from the floor. "Come on. If the Druids could build Stonehenge without modern technology, we can dress a corpse."

"They had more than just seconds to do it in," Marietta reminded her, but she reached for Philip's trousers.

Working together, they slipped the shorts and trousers up past Philip's knees. Then Melanie knelt on the bed, slipped her shoulders under his thighs, and hoisted him up like a wheelbarrow, while Marietta pulled the two garments over his buttocks and belly.

"Thank God he considered himself too macho for an undershirt," Marietta said as Melanie eased herself out from under his legs.

By rolling him first on one side and then on the other, they managed to slip his shirt on without ripping it. They decided to dispense with his tie and jacket, on the theory that he would have shed them if he had gone into the bedroom to lie down because he wasn't feeling well. Just as they finished buttoning his shirt and shoving it into his pants, the intercom buzzed.

"The ambulance guys are on their way up, ma'am," William announced.

"Did he have anything to eat here?" Melanie asked.

"A few martinis, some Stilton cheese, some caviar."

"Good. Tell them that. Say he came here to take you to dinner. You had some cocktails first, and then he said he wasn't feeling well. You suggested that he lie down for a while. A little later, when you went in to see how he was feeling, you found him dead and called for an ambulance."

Marietta nodded and ran a hand through her hair. "Do I look all right?"

"You always look all right." Suddenly, Melanie's face paled. "Damn! We forgot to zip his fly!" She ran into the bedroom and returned just as Marietta was opening the door.

The policemen were solicitous, the ambulance attendants swift and efficient. Within minutes the necessary information had been taken down and they left with the mortal remains of Philip J. Bailey, American publishing genius. The policemen followed the covered stretcher, one of them with Philip's jacket and shoes tucked under his arm.

Marietta closed the door after them and leaned against it. "How was I?" she asked.

"As always, you were magnificent. You had the perfect blend of reserve and concern one would expect from a person who had a strictly business relationship with the deceased."

"Well, it was strictly business. All I was doing in that bed was negotiating a special stock option and offering him a sweetener he'd never get from Harrison Kendricks."

Melanie gave her a level look. "He wasn't interested in any kind of deal with Kendricks. We both know you're the one he wanted to sell Sizzle to."

"All right. So I'd had a couple of drinks and I was high on them and on the news he'd just told me. He said he'd gotten some information on Kendricks that was guaranteed to force him to back off. It all combined to make me feel horny." She sighed. "He may have been a genius in the magazine world, but the guy was nothing special in bed."

"Considering what happened, maybe he wasn't feeling up to par."

Marietta dismissed the subject with a wave of her hand and walked into the living room. There, surrounded by the antique furniture she'd collected over the years-the ivory-brocade-covered Louis XVI giltwood sofa, the Louis XV beechwood bergères, the tulipwood writing tables and ormolu-mounted worktables, the eighteenth-century paintings and decorations, and the Waterford crystal chandelier-she began to relax. "God, I could use a drink," she said, collapsing on the sofa. "Is there anything left in the pitcher?"

Melanie walked across the room to the bar that had been handcrafted to resemble an elongated Louis XV commode. She inspected the monogrammed Steuben martini pitcher. "It's empty."

"Make us a few, will you?"

"What did you do with the gin and vermouth," Melanie asked, looking around, "polish them off?"

"They should be there." Marietta straightened up and peered over at the bar. "No, wait-Philip made the drinks in the kitchen. He must have left them there."

As Melanie passed the cocktail table, Marietta gestured toward the martini glasses that stood next to a sterling silver tray set out with dishes of crackers and caviar and cheese. "Get rid of this on your way, please. It depresses me."

Melanie cleared the table and disappeared into the kitchen. A few seconds later, she was back with the Gilbey's and vermouth.

Marietta had slipped off her shoes and stretched her long legs out on the sofa. She didn't speak until after she had taken two big swallows of her drink. "What's going to happen now?"

Melanie placed the well-filled martini pitcher on the cocktail table within easy reach and curled up on the other end of the sofa. "His family will be notified. There'll be an autopsy to determine cause of death. The fact that he was dressed won't fool the medical examiner, Mari. He'll know that Philip wasn't merely counting sheep when he died."

"Damn. Maybe we should have washed him."

"There wasn't time, and it wouldn't have helped. Don't worry. I'll make a few well-placed phone calls. The news shouldn't leak out. Do you know his wife?"

"We've never met."

"You'll have to pay your respects to her before the funeral and attend the service. Otherwise, she'll jump to conclusions, and so will the public."

"They'll jump to them anyway."

"Not if you make it hard for them. No one can carry it off better than you. When you do visit his wife, though, no matter how itchy you are to get your hands on her shares, you're not to talk business."

"I'll leave that to an emissary," Marietta said, giving her a meaningful look. "We're not going to be able to drag our feet on this, you know. Kendricks's bankers announced his intention to make a hostile raid Monday. This is Wednesday. That leaves us only seventeen business days before the SEC will allow him to start buying up shares."

"I thought you said Bailey had something on Kendricks that was bound to make him back off."

"Yes, but he hadn't told Kendricks-or me, either, damn it. When I asked him what he'd found out, he said that the fewer people who were in on the secret, the stronger his position would be. The only hint he would give me was saying something like, "Dallas would prove to be Kendricks's Achilles heel." And then he died before I could get any more out of him."

"So that's why you let him get you in bed."

Instead of responding, Marietta finished her drink and poured herself another. "Philip probably found out some dirt about the newspaper Kendricks bought down there, or about some of his real estate."

"I can't imagine anyone finding anything Kendricks would want suppressed. He's never made a secret of the fact that he's a bastard. He revels in his reputation. The whole world knows he was a mercenary in Africa twenty-five years ago and has used the same killer tactics he learned there to build his publishing empire. He started it off by inheriting his family's newspaper from his brother under pretty suspicious circumstances, but he never tried to hide that fact either."

Marietta brightened. "Maybe that's it. Maybe Philip discovered proof that Kendricks killed his brother."

"As far as I know, his brother never set foot in this country. He died in England. I think Philip was snowing you because he knew it was the only way you'd let him into your bed."

Marietta shook her head. "He knew something, I'm sure of it. He was too confident, too exultant to have been putting on an act."

"Then if it was something he could find out, I'm sure you can learn what it was too. He must have proof of it somewhere. He wouldn't be relying on hearsay."

"Yes, but where's the proof?"

Melanie shrugged. "In a safe or a safe-deposit box, maybe. Maybe in his desk at the office."

"I doubt that he'd let it out of his sight." Marietta jumped up, almost knocking over the pitcher. "His attaché case! I forgot to give it to the policemen. It's still in the hall closet." She ran from the room and returned a moment later with a brown leather case bearing the gold monogram P.J.B.

"As your lawyer, Mari, I have to tell you that you can't open that. It should be delivered to his heirs intact. I'll take it with me when I leave."

"For God's sake, Melanie-"

"Of course," Melanie cut her off, standing up and stretching, "I have no idea what you might or might not do while I'm in the john."

The moment Melanie was out of the room, Marietta opened the case. Its contents were disappointing: an advance issue of Sizzle with Diane von Furstenberg on the cover; the late-city edition of that morning's Times; a Xerox copy of an edited manuscript on Nancy Reagan; an advertising contract with Tiffany's; a bottle of Maalox No. 2 tablets; a pair of soiled socks. She returned the items, snapped the case shut, and shook her head as Melanie reentered the room.

"Would you like to spend the night at my place?" Melanie asked.

"No, thanks."

"Would you like me to stay here, then?"

"No. I'll be all right. I'll sleep in one of the guest rooms."

Melanie picked up the attaché case and headed for the door. She paused there for a moment, studying Marietta, here eyes full of concern. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Of course I am." A note of impatience crept into Marietta's voice. "I was shaken for a moment when it happened. That was to be expected. But it was only for a moment." She opened the door, and Melanie walked out into the hall. "Make those phone calls you mentioned and see to it that everything is done exactly as it should be. I don't want any loose ends. I'll see you at the office tomorrow. Nine sharp."

She closed the door briskly. She was in control again.

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