While at the BooksNJ2017 festival, mystery author David Brown and I wandered a little off topic during our session on sidekicks. He tossed out this line: So a story could be about who killed the smart guy at the blackboard.
Taking up the challenge, here is the story:
The party was winding down when she arrived, beyond fashionably late, beyond annoyingly late, so late it was well into headlining rock star, drunk in the trailer, three teen-age girls, career defining, ticketholders rioting late.
And the party had been thrown in her honor.
But she pulled it off.
She had that ability; smug as hell, she knew people would wait to see her.
More than that, reporter Derek Mainly knew, she had the looks and style and an aura that left the party hosts, like so many before them, apologizing to her; they were so sorry, they said between weak smiles, that the remaining crowd was so thin.
The fault for her tardiness, and the embarrassment it had caused the hosts of the fund-raiser, was shrugged from her tanned shoulders like a stray hair, her red-lipped smile a shield, the tilt of an eyebrow the warning that no one should challenge her.
That was Blondell, Mainly thought. Cassie Blondell, rising federal prosecutor, whispered political operative waiting for some fat Congressman to retire or die.
Her name had been attached to so many potential offices she could have used the list as a resume.
But she was only thirty-eight, and the Pennsylvania pols who ran the system liked their candidates for office a little older, a little more pliable, a little more married, and a whole lot more male.
Mainly knew she was not a deeply original political thinker – he had covered for the local paper her first failed attempt for city council when she was twenty-four and fresh from law school — a lovely education, to be sure, but one that had not prepared her to answer questions about tax rates, abandoned homes and factories, and backed-up sewers.
Instead she learned the fine political art of double talk, mouthing words, dropping key phrases like “we’ll get to the bottom of this,” whether she knew if the topic had a bottom or not, smiling directly into TV cameras and making succinct eight-word statements as she brushed past the gaggle of reporters.
Mainly had also been late to the party, arriving just before the barbecue was being wrapped in foil tins by the catering crew. He had managed to fill a plate and down it before the really important consumption of the evening — the beer and bourbon round — began.
There was a skill to maneuvering through a crowd of half-drunk politicians and business bigwigs, Mainly knew. A half-filled glass of something brown, the occasional head-shaking refusal to have it topped off, before taking another shot, an overly-loud laugh at a bad joke or whispered smear, with an accompanying back slap, all sent the message that he, like they, was on that slippery slope to having the spouse, by now inside the house bored and drinking wine with the other wives, drive them home.
But Mainly had come alone, had come, in fact after filing a story about the apparent murder of a college professor. He kept up the sloppy drunk ruse by occasionally asking loudly if anyone had ever called an Uber.
The poor man had been shot in a classroom while he was apparently preparing for a lecture by entering on a blackboard several long theorems, subjects for discussion. At that time, an hour before class, the professor’s colleagues told police, he would have been alone. The detective had told Mainly off the record that the shot had come from below, entering the professor’s throat near his right collarbone and exiting behind his ear. Looked like a .22, the cop said, but they had yet to find the bullet.
Off the record as well, the cop mentioned that the professor’s pants were unzipped.
Cassie Blondell stood alone in the driveway, bathed in the soft combined glow of a streetlight and house-mounted spotlights. Her hair was golden and her figure was framed so perfectly by the lights Mainly dwelled on the thought of how beautiful she was, and forgot for a moment that she really disliked him, having once ordered her staff thugs to throw him out of her office. It was something about a story that included her, a campaign donor and a missing check.
He watched as a waiter offered a tray of shot glasses filled with a tawny liquid.
Blondell took two and hammered them back, placed the empties on the tray and took a third. She then found a plastic glass, found the ice, and emptied the shot glass into the plastic cup.
She used her right pinkie to discretely wipe away a drop of whisky from the corner of her lip.
Blondell slipped behind the corner of the house and emerged at a small table under a tree. She sat down and after crossing her legs, massaged her right knee and brushed the top of her dress and bare shoulders and straightened the spaghetti straps.
She closed her eyes and poured back the cold whiskey.
The man’s name was Cole Hansen. He was a top astrophysicist who had taken part in NASA’s Pluto program. He was the cable news networks’ go-to guy for Mars stories and climate change. He and Cassie Blondell were once a number, a high profile number, Mainly recalled.
Hansen was shot about noon. Wouldn’t the cops reach out to Blondell? Maybe the chief, even as a courtesy? Maybe as a suspect? It was a harsh break-up, Mainly recalled. Maybe that was why she was drinking.
A waiter came by with another tray. Blondell swallowed one more shot and poured two others into her plastic cup.
Mainly worked around the crowd to Blondell’s table and came up behind her.
“Picked a target yet?” he asked.
She jerked her head around. “Derek Manly. I’m sorry. It’s Mainly, isn’t it? That’s your name, but it is manly that you hope to be.”
“Good to see you, too, Cassie.” He sat.
“How’d you get in here. I thought this was an exclusive fund-raiser for moi.” She laughed and pursed her lips. “Two grand a head. A head. That’s funny. Look at these old farts. Not much head to be had here.”
“You have such a high opinion of your supporters, Cassie. Arriving very late, ignoring the old boys, even their wives. Is that the new Cassie Blondell standard for political success?”
He watched as she scanned the crowd, her eyes narrow and mouth a grim line; her usually perfect red lipstick had flaked off in spots. Mainly discretely gazed at her face and hair and bare perfect shoulders and scanned the low-cut top of her yellow summer dress.
It was odd, he thought. Yes, this was a casual event, but the dress seemed too casual, more beach party than political fleecing session; even the sheep had a dress code. He leaned back and looked at her shoes. They were sandals; he had never seen Cassie Blondell at a political event in anything less than high heels. She was five-nine, and the added two inches of heels brought her to eye level with most of the men who challenged her, and allowed her to tower over all the others.
She was staring into the distance, trance-like; the whiskey shots announced, “Houston, we have landed.”
Mainly smiled. He had never talked to a drunken Cassie Blondell.
What was that? he wondered. In her hair, a few dark spots. Was that the effect of the poor lighting? And the spot on her dress. He didn’t recall that he had seen her eat anything.
“Earth to Cassie,” he said.
Her face had crawled into a dark scowl when she turned back to face him.
“How did you get in here?” she softly growled, shaking her head. “I’d never let you in.”
“That’s for sure,” he replied, chuckling. “I know the host. We go way back.”
She leaned back in her chair and grunted or something, before barking, “I’ll bet.”
The light was brighter after she had leaned back. There was certainly something dark in her hair, and a spot, maybe two of something else on her dress.
“Why are you looking at my tits?” she asked with a grin, and the thrust out her chest. “You men, always looking at my tits.”
Mainly thought of verbally jousting with Blondell about the quality of her bosom, but said instead, “You have a spot of something on your dress, and a couple of spots of something dark in your hair, above your left ear.”
Without alarm, Blondell brushed back her hair, looked at her hand and ran her thumb over her fingers. Then she slowly wiped a hand across the top of her dress, slipping a finger below the hem and pulling it down slightly.
“Is it still there, Manly?” she asked, licking her lips. “Point it out to me.”
He shook his head.
“It’s there. You’ll see it when you get home.”
Blondell reached for the ice-filled glass and swallowed the watered down whiskey.
“So why were you ridiculously late?” Mainly asked.
“Had things to do,” she said. “I wanted to be late so they could fawn over me.” She laughed, then dismissively waved a hand. “A couple of appointments, lunch with a friend that ran long. I hadn’t asked them to hold this event. I don’t need the campaign money because I am not running for office anytime soon.” She again waved abstractly at the scattered crowd. “They know that. What is their problem?” Mainly had seen this side of Blondell before, the whining, the irritation. She wanted a high public office so badly she would do nearly anything for it, even becoming the best friend of the dirtiest ward heeler around if it gained her a place on the ballot. She had done it before; it was how the game was played.
“Someone said earlier, before you got here, that they saw what looked like your Mercedes at the lookout on South Mountain.”
Blondell huffed. “Lot of red Mercedes in this area.”
“But not many with federal district court parking stickers.”
She stared at the table and then pushed the hair away from her face.
“Okay, yeah, I went up there after lunch. It was a hard lunch, a lot of bad news. Needed to clear my head.”
Mainly furrowed his brow to appear to be concerned. “Sorry. Not a death or anything like that?”
She placed her elbows on the table. “In fact, it was. His mother had cancer.”
“Sorry again. Any one I know?”
End of topic.
They sat in an awkward silence. Then she grinned.
“So, Manly, tell me a story.”
His phone buzzed inside his jacket pocket. “Hang on.” A text from the investigator: “Call when you can. More on this. Looks like a woman.”
Mainly stared at his phone. Jesus. Interesting.
“Better yet, let me tell you about my day. Better than a story,” he said.
She rolled her shoulders and half-closed her eyes.
“Will it keep me awake? I might need a ride home.”
“I’m sure one of your buddies would be glad to assist.”
“Assist me right out of this dress, there, Manly. That’s why you should drive me home. I’d never let you within three feet of me.” She giggled. “Besides you’d get to drive my red Mercedes and I could call the cops and say you were kidnapping me. That’s fair, huh? Payback for that little bitch of a story on the missing campaign funds when after all it was just a lost check that showed up a year later in the folds of the back seat of that guy’s car. Which I reported and you never wrote about.” “You never told me about it.” Mainly shrugged. “Whatever happened to him, that guy?”
Blondell leaned over the table and cupped her chin in her hands. A harsh whisper. “Died. Year or so ago. You don’t remember? You’re the reporter. Car fire in Philly?”
He scratched his nose. “Okay. Maybe I remember.”
Blondell placed her arms behind her, hands in the small of her back and stretched like a cat, head tilted to the sky, eyes closed, a tiny, almost dreamy, smile on her lips.
“Your day, sir.”
Mainly shook his head. If only…
“Yeah, so I was at the college. They found a professor shot to death. A friend of yours, Cole Hansen. Your old flame.”
He waited. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Miss…
“I heard.” Her breaking voice, then a quick breath. “The chief called me.” Her face was blank.
“Why didn’t you cancel this event? I mean, he was…”
“Was,” she said, more harshly than Mainly might have expected. “That’s the operative word. Was.”
“Still he was your, what, companion.”
Face and eyes hard, voice cold. “Cole was gay. We were a sham, a public façade. Each using the other for our own purposes. His lover was a six-figure lawyer in Chicago. They had agreed to keep it all a secret. The lawyer protected his career and Cole was allowed to talk about fucking Mars on TV instead of being asked questions about coming out.”
Mainly stared at the table. Maybe it was harder than he thought it was to be Cassie Blondell.
“I have to ask. Why did you both give it up, since even though it was phony, everyone else bought the act. Didn’t you both get something out of it?”
She shook her head. “No, Derek. It was more than a public clown show. I wanted Cole to love me. But he couldn’t. He threw me away. His lawyer-lover saw the newspaper and TV stuff about us and got jealous. He was going to expose our ruse, and we both would have been Page Six for the rest of our days. There I would be on the front page of those grocery store rags.”
Mainly met her hard gaze with one of his own.
“It is possible that no one would have cared,” he said.
“No, Manly. I had heard the rumors. These lovely supporters of mine made it clear that if I created a public spectacle out of my phony gay lover, I was done. I’d be a regional district attorney for a few years, lose the appointment and go into private practice where I could write mortgages for a living.” She leaned on her elbows, bit her lip and tipped her head. Sighing: “These guys needed me to be with Cole because he was their way into the liberal college cash cow. They needed him to teach them how to say nice things about cleaning up the river and fighting poverty and giving sick kids a chance, and the tap would open. And they needed me standing and smiling next to Cole at the opening of the State Theatre or the fair.” She laughed. “It’s all crap, Manly. All crap. But you know that.”
He ran his hands though his thinning hair.
“A cop might think that is motive, you know. Jilted lover, career threatened. Was he still planning on talking? TV guy like him. TV guys love live confessionals. And Little Cassie left holding the bag. Just saying. If I was a cop.”
“But you’re just some stupid reporter. You’ll believe anything, even that story about the car fire in Philly.”
“What about it?” Blondell rubbed her neck and smiled slyly. “I made it up. Just to see your reaction. That check was never found. The committee shuffled some cash from other accounts to cover up the shortfall. And that guy was found in the outlet mall parking lot off 80. Local cops said it was a suicide.”
“God, Cassie. That’s illegal. You’re admitting right here that your campaign committee broke the law.”
“Well, crap, it’s a fine.” She laughed, the knowing laugh of the insider. “In two years the state elections board will send me a sternly worded letter about the violation and tell me to send them fifteen-hundred bucks. But, there’s no story here. I’d never admit that I told you. I mean, it’s just you and me here, your word against mine. Who are they going to believe? Me, the federal prosecutor with the winning smile and the body they all want to tap into, or you, a beat reporter on a dying newspaper. There are stories to tell, you know.”
“Oh, Cassie. Your beauty is only surpassed by your cynicism. What would you do if I texted my editor with your campaign cash story. How do you know I haven’t?”
She didn’t flinch.
“I’d have you killed.”
Mainly held her gaze for a long as he could. He pressed his lips together so she could not see how dry his mouth was.
They stared, silent. Their breath quickened.
“Jesus, Manly. It was a joke, but you weren’t sure, were you? If you weren’t here, who would I have to torment? No one else has your sense of humor. I’d have you killed. Right. I’m that stupid,” she said bitterly. She smiled, and then bit her lower lip. Did she wrinkle her nose? “I’d have my lieutenant do it.” She reached for his hand. “Kidding!”
Sweat broke out on his brow and under his armpits. He glanced down at the table, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. I was not ready for that.
A waiter appeared with a tray of shots, and each of them took two. Mainly downed his in anxious gulps.
Cassie Blondell poured hers into the plastic cup that still held some ice and cold water. She stirred the mix with a long finger, put the finger in her mouth and slowly sucked off the liquid.
In a hollow voice Mainly said, “Cops are looking for a woman suspect in Cole Hansen’s death.”
Blondell drained her glass, and stared at Mainly with a darting, narrow-eyed glare. “And you think it’s me?” she scoffed. “Up yours. I told you I was at lunch. Know what, come to my car. I have the receipt in my purse in the glove box. It was deductible, a political lunch.”
When he hesitated, she stood, reached for his hand and pulled him out of the chair.
Then she kissed him, deep and sloppy, leaving a faint smear of lipstick.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I get joking, and I lose the sense. Truth is, I’m so tired of this political game, I just want to walk away.” She patted his chest. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
“Ah, Cassie Blondell, you are a wonder.” The last shots of booze lifted his unease. “I wonder what you are up to all the time.”
She had parked the red Mercedes more than a block from the party house, across from an open lot and close to a fence post. The houses were dark; moths and flies buzzed at the rooftop lights.
“Do me a favor?” she asked. “Get my purse, please? It’s in the glove box. I don’t want you staring at my ass while I get it,” she laughed.
She tossed him the keys and then stood aside while he opened the long front door and leaned across the driver’s seat.
“Did the cops say what kind of gun was used to shoot Cole?” she asked.
“Ah … it was a .22.”
She leaned over and from behind the front seat pulled out a handgun and shot Mainly in the head.
“I’m afraid they are wrong. It was a .357.”
She tore the dress to her navel and clutching the ripped garment, ran toward the house where the lights had just come on.