“The Widow’s Walk” is the second installment of Ted Bell’s ‘Blackford Blaine’ series. The first installment, “The Pirate of Palm Beach,” appeared in an anthology edited by Nelson DeMille, entitled The Rich and the Dead.
WRITTEN BY TED BELL
IT HAD BEEN COLD the previous evening, unseasonably cold, even for late November. The chill wind howled and shrieked around the massive grey-shingled Nantucket ‘cottages’, those stately ‘Grey Ladies’, perched high atop the Eastern dunes overlooking the Atlantic. Whistling down the massive bricked chimneys and round the window sashes, the frozen blasts clawed at the shutters, as insistent and noisy as angry banshees seeking entry and perhaps heinous revenge.
Charlotte Whidby, tall, handsome, and of a certain age, stood shivering atop the mansion’s Widow’s Walk. Standing fast against the blow, her eyes were focused in the middle distance, twixt the heaving blue ocean and the icy pinprick stars above. Such foul weather. That cold sea air, that bottomless chill that lies deep within the cloistered heart of ghost stories.
Raising the binoculars to her eyes once more, she scanned the horizon. Many a hopeful whaler’s goodwife had stood where she stood now, a lonely soul praying for her husband’s safe return after years in the deadly Pacific whaling grounds. But Charlotte wasn’t praying for her husband.
She was praying for her lover.
Blackford Blaine’s lovely old schooner, Narcissus, was en route from Northeast Harbor, Maine. His ship’s radio voice message had been brief and plain-spoken, nevertheless it had thrilled her to the bone. “Ahoy, Charlotte, your captain speaking. Making damn good time, too, a fresh blow out of the east. You might glimpse the old girl fairly close inshore, entering the harbor nigh on midnight. Seeya manana, kid.”
BLACKIE LOOKED ALOFT. A keen-eyed sailor, he could spot the least trace of luff in his mainsail. He nudged the helm off the wind a few degrees, stuck a Camel in his mouth and cupped his sea-chapped hands round the Zippo he’d carried since the war. “Blackie?” the blonde stowaway said over the wind. Bundled inside his old foul-weather gear, she was curled up in the cockpit under thermal blankets. She was cute, all right, but had that way of getting on your nerves that some women do. Fingernails on the blackboard type of thing. Earlier, he’d radioed his captain to fly the King Air over from Hyannis. Pick up a certain blonde headed back to Northeast tomorrow morning. Brandy here would be wheels-up out of ACK at first light. He took a drag, looked at her and said,
“What’s on your mind, pumpkin?”
“How much longer? I’m cold.”
“Go below, baby. Nice and warm.”
“I get seasick down there.”
Blackie inhaled and flicked the butt overboard. “You told me back in Maine you’re were a sailor.”
“Not on sailboats. On yachts.”
“This is a yacht.”
“Yeah, right. I meant the kind with no sails.”
“A stinkpot? I don’t play for that team, sugar.”
“You talk funny.”
“Thanks. I get paid by the word. You ever read Mark Twain?”
“No. Who wrote it?”
He smiled at her, eased the main and punched a button. Bose cockpit speakers started streaming Sinatra, loud. St. Francis healed all wounds, even minor blackboard scratches like the ones in his head. Women.
SHUDDERING WITH COLD and some nameless dread, Charlotte descended the steep staircase and took to her bed, seeking solace from storms both within and without at the bottom of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. At some point she must have drifted off, forgetting to undress or even draw the draperies. She lay there upon her starlit bed all night long, tossed about by merciless tempests.
Thus, the following morning brought no great rush to arise. Not trusting her pale blue eyes to the light, she lay abed in her silk sleep mask, steeling herself for the sound of her husband of thirty years approaching her door. Ah, yes, on his way now, leather slippers slap-slapping on the hardwood floors. Next, his hoary and unamusing rap-rap-a-rap-rap upon her chamber door. And then the inevitable and equally absurd suggestion that they have sex. Sex? Save a few deeply unsatisfying midnight kamikaze attacks in the early years there had been none. He had other women. She didn’t hate them. She pitied them. Her voice, a deep whiskey timbre tinged with smoke, said it all.
But “Yes, darling, what is it?” is what she said.
He cracked the door and stuck his great balding and chiseled head inside. In a loud stage whisper:
“Hey, you. Wanna play doctor?”
Putting her forefinger to her temple she said, “Perhaps later, dear. I have an awful head.”
Somebody shoot me.
“Poor wookums. No biggie. See you at breakfast, babe. I asked Cook for pickled herring on Portuguese bread, sour cream and gherkins and a pitcher of Bloodys. What the hell, Sunday morning, right? Let’s live a little.”
“How utterly marvelous,” she said, stifling a gag. “I’ll put on my face and be right down.”
He headed for the broad staircase, his grin a thin crack in a granite face only a stonecutter with a jackhammer could love. Each fragment was sharp enough, yet like jigsaw puzzles that have been jumbled, not all the pieces seemed to have come from the same box. In the bedroom, a solitary tear gathered in the corner of an eye, spilled, and made a slow trek down Charlotte’s cheek. She swiped it away angrily and touched the fingertip to her tongue. Salty, like the sea itself. Bittersweet. Her life in a nutshell in other words.
She grabbed the sterling hand mirror from her bedside table, peeking at her two-day old black eye, once purple, now turning a particularly hideous shade of green. He’d smacked her good, all right. Maybe the weekend before make-up could conceal her husband’s latest love tap.Good God. Her once glamorous face once the face of a hundred magazine covers on both sides of the Atlantic. Her body—oh, dear God, the sheer power of it then—wielded mercilessly as she bit and chewed and clawed her way to the very summits of those twin Everests called Broadway and New York. Now, tired bones besieged by gravity, Charlotte pushed the silk coverlet aside, and slid her perfectly painted toes into a pair of pearly satin slippers. She padded across the faded Aubusson and flung the tall French doors wide with a vengeance. Sparkling sunlight and crystalline air flooded the room, the rolling ocean beyond a lovely hue of deepest blue.
What a wonderful girl you are—
They thrill me through and through—“
George M. Cohan. “The Little Millionaire”.
Mummy had taken her to see a revival on Broadway when she was just a girl. Little Charlotte’s own eyes had been brimming with tears at the sensuous, heavy fragrance of paint and powder, the footlights, the sheer magic and loveliness of it all.
PASSING ANOTHER MIRROR above her silvery vanity, she deliberately paused and studied her face, the cheekbones holding on despite the vicious vicissitudes of time and abuse. “Johnnie B. doesn’t help, you know, dollface,” she said to the reflection. “Makes mama all puffy and grey. Foolish woman, stop the booze.” She turned away from herself and regarded the silk-tufted headboard of her canopied bed, the faded pink and white toile covering the walls behind it, the rosy glow of the silk-shaded silver sconces mounted to either side. Just a pretty set, she thought, casting her eyes around the room. The whole damn thing. An exquisitely decorous set bereft of actors, a plot, or even a goddam audience. “I coulda been a contendah, Charlie,” she snarled at her reflection over her shoulder. “Hell, I was a contender…and maybe I still am…”
BREAKFAST WAS HELL, naturally.Later, as Eduardo hovered about the dining room removing the dishes, she sat back and gazed out the window. Edgar’s long blue Bentley ghosted down the twisting drive, en route to the Nantucket Golf Club. His Sunday morning foursome. Golf. She had nothing against it, really, except for the ways in which it made some people dress. And couldn’t they go on about it at dinner parties? “Y’see, Charlotte, there I was lying three, your hubby had gotten on in two, so I knew I had to chip it within—”
“Save me,” she sighed, pushing back from the breakfast table. Rising to her feet and, grabbing the New York Times, she retired to the library to while away the day with the crossword puzzle.
DINNER COULDN’T COME soon enough. What did they talk about? Children. Money usually, Edgar was obsessed with the stuff. For years, she’d defended every damn dime sent to her beloved daughter by a previous marriage. Someone once joked that Edgar didn’t just want to win the pot, he was never happy unless everyone else left the table empty handed. It was more than greed, she’d decided. It was absolutely psychotic. Still,she soldiered on, minding her manners and pretending to pay attention to the blessed union as the years rolled by.Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment, somebody said.So hard to keep that faux sweet smile in place, her dinner face, but she managed it one more time. Edgar didn’t eat, he gobbled. When the trial was finally over, and Eduardo slid into the dining room to clear, Edgar sat back and placed both hands on his signature beachball belly.
“Eduardo?” he growled, turning the word into a sentence laced with menace. And then she waited for it. In her view, the worst sin in the world was to be abusive to poor souls who could not defend themselves.
“Tell cook that lamb was underdone and she better get her ass in gear or she’s outta here. Capisce?”
“Si, Senor. Besame cula. Mucho,” he said straight-faced. He shot her a furtive look and hurried out to the kitchen and ‘Cook’ as Edgar deigned to call Illuminada de los Reyes. Lumi was a lovely little woman, a splendid cook from Santo Domingo, the beloved wife of thirty years to Eduardo. Over the years, she had watched the proud and dignified houseman grow to hate Edgar almost as much as she did herself. Perhaps more. Edgar turned to Charlotte as he levitated his girth from the table.
“What’d he say? Why can’t these people speak English?”
Charlotte coughed into her napkin, hiding her chuckle. “What, darling?”
“You heard me. Hell’d he say?”
“He said he’s terribly sorry.”
“Damn well ought to be sorry.Worthless.”
SHE FOLLOWED HIM into the cherry paneled library where a fire crackled in the stone hearth. This was their nightly post-prandial ritual. She perched on the long sofa while he poured drinks, bourbon for him, sherry for her. Then he’d plop down in the leather armchair and light a plump ‘stogie’. Next stop, the Wall Street Journal, the only literature he ever read. He’d literally hide behind it to discourage discourse, not that she bloody wanted any.
Tonight, she herself went straight to the drinks table, saying, “Go sit down and relax, darling. I’ll pour you a big fat double. You’ve had a tough day.”
“Shot three birdies on the back nine, babe. Nothing tough about that.”
“Here you go, Killer,” she said, handing him a tumbler full of bourbon. Moments later, as expected, the ‘Wall’ went up between them. She remained on the divan gazing at the sea beyond the windows, sipping her drink. Plenty of moon and starlight, but a grey fogbank was advancing from the far horizon.
HALF AN hour later she drained her sherry and got to her feet. “Darling, I think I’ll go for a stroll before the fog rolls in. It’s lovely out, you should come.”
No response, then a muffled grunt.
“Is that a ‘no’?”
“All righty, then,” she said gaily, “I’ll take my chances alone. I shan’t be long. Unless of course I run into some devastatingly attractive man, that is. In that event, I’ll not return till dawn. TTFN,” she added, knowing full well he would not know this was textual for “Ta-ta-for-now!”
She left him behind his newspaper and strode out into the main hall. A row of coats hung along the wall. Choosing a long black mink with a hood, she was out the door in a heartbeat.
At the end of the flagstone walk she took off her shoes and went tripping down to the sea. The sand was gleaming white, soft and sugary beneath her feet.
It was cold and damp but her long, voluminous fur coat kept her cozy along the water’s edge, keeping her distance a few feet above the shore break. A wave caught her by surprise, liquid ice stinging her toes and ankles, but she was so happy she barely felt it. Because she felt him. Felt him long before she saw him. A ghostly figure in white, standing atop a high dune with his long legs wide apart, his arms crossed over his broad chest, gazing out to sea. Clearly, he hadn’t seen her approach. She circled around behind the dune to surprise him. She was ten feet from the top when she heard his deep voice. Blackford Blaine, not bothering to turn around, said, “Good evening, Charlotte. Lovely night for it, isn’t it?”
“Lovely night for what, Blackie, you old hound,” she said, closing the distance.
He turned and opened his arms, grinning his big white grin, and she fell into his embrace, pressing her frozen cheek against the warmth of that broad chest, feeling his strong arms encircle her, making her feel safe like he always did. Safe and warm and…happy. Oh, God. Yes, happy, that was the only word for it.
Charlotte didn’t kid herself. She knew full well she was only one of Blackford Blaine’s women, knew it and had accepted it years ago. They all had, every one of them, and why not? No secrets, no drama, just romance, short and sweet. But she’d always felt special in his eyes, even though Blackie’s Girls had much in common. Rich, of a certain age, unhappily married, widowed or divorced, beautiful, well educated (he didn’t suffer fools, or anyone else who crossed him, gladly) and, finally, discreet.
One thing kept her sane: She was pretty damn sure he loved her best. No, she wasn’t sure; she was positive.
No secrets lay between her and her long-time lover. Blackie never hid the fact that his life was one many might disapprove of. The fact was, he actually cared deeply for these women and they all cared deeply for him. Lonely, most of them, unhappy certainly, and always glad to see his 130-foot, black-hulled schooner sail into port.
Lunching one blue summer’s day at Bailey’s Beach in Newport with chums, she’d heard Blackie’s name bandied about. “You know him, don’t you, Charlotte, dear?” someone said. “You were both boldfaced once on Page Six, I believe.”
“Why, why, no, I don’t.”
“Well, honey, you should. People say he reminds them of Errol Flynn only better looking.”
She’d smiled at that. It was true. Blackie, despite his dashing good looks and somewhat outré lifestyle, was a true gent in every sense. More than any man, Blackford Blaine understood women down to the bone. Knew not just what they wanted, but what they needed.
MAINE, NEWPORT, NANTUCKET, the Vineyard, the Hamptons, Savannah, Hobe Sound, Palm Beach, and every other posh port along the Eastern seaboard, all were among the Narcissus’s annual ports of call.
And Blackie had a girl in every port; all of them most generous in their appreciation of the attention, affections, and his many kindnesses over the years. This generosity was usually expressed through discreet but lavish gifts of private jewelry from currents and exes. Blackie ended up selling nearly all of it to Tiffany, Winston, or Van Cleef. One had to pay one’s way, after all.Blackie saw no problem with his way of life, though he knew many people could and probably did. Once asked by a flirty little Vogue reporter what he did for a living, he’d said,
“Kid, believe it or not, you’re talking to the Playboy of the Western world.”
He’d gone through life at full sail, not giving a hoot in hell what others thought and he’d lived his life by one very simple but powerful rule: Never, ever, intentionally hurt another human being. And, to his knowledge anyway, he never had.
“WHAT ARE YOU wearing, you silly fool?” Charlotte said. “It’s freezing out here. Even my mink is soaking wet from the fog.”
Blackie looked as if he’d forgotten what he was wearing. “Winter whites?”
She eyed him up and down. White flannel trousers, a white tennis sweater over a white open-necked polo shirt that set off his magnificent tan, and a white cashmere blazer. Not to mention a scuffed pair of white bucks on his feet, no socks of course.
“Winter whites, darling,” Blackie said, grinning with those big white sparklers. “One always strives to stay one step ahead of current fashions. Just you watch, dear Charlotte. Next year, white will be winter’s must have hue. Betcha.”
The one thing that saved Blackie Blaine was that he had absolutely no idea how devastatingly attractive he was, nor how charming. He could have any woman he wanted, and did, and she was one of the fortunate few. And therein, lay the problem.
“Oh, Blackie, darling,” she said, squeezing him tightly, “I do love you so. And I’ve been longing for you, positively aching.”
“Hell, let’s get you out of that wet mink and into a dry martini.”
“Where are you staying? Let’s hurry.”
“That ramshackle guest house back there, among the dunes. They call it ‘Bachelor’s Gulch’.”
“The one on the old du Pont estate?”
“Yep. Pal of mine, Mike McCarty from Palm Beach, owns it now. I get a discount.”
“Sounds like a band playing.”
“Yeah, he’s having a fancy soiree on the lawn. Regular Jay Gatsby that boy.”
“Take me there. To Bachelor’s Gulch. Take me now.”
“I’d be delighted, darling. All those steamy love letters are tough on a lonely sailor at sea.”
LATER, THEY SAT on the hooked rug before the fire. Charlotte was wearing her mink and little else, Blackie, a faded maroon velvet smoking gown from Turnbull’s in London. She stared into the flames, a troubled look on her face.
“Cigarette, kid?” he said, flipping open his gunmetal case, “Penny for your thoughts.”
“I’d adore one,” she said, extracting it just as his Zippo was coming up.
“What’s wrong, baby? Tell daddy.”
“Blackie, I’m sorry. I can’t live this way. I simply can’t stand to share you with all those other women anymore. The sad truth is I’m head over heels and I don’t know what the hell to do about it.”
“What do you want to do, Charlotte?” he said, suddenly serious.
“Me? C’mon, Charlotte. You’ve already got one husband. Isn’t that pushing it?”
“I loathe Edgar. You know that. I’ve decided it’s over. I’m—I’m leaving him…listen, Blackie. I’ve got a proposal.”
“You’ve already proposed.”
“No, no, not that kind of proposal. A business proposal. Now, don’t interrupt me until I’m finished. Just shut up and listen. The way I see it, you can marry me and continue the lifestyle you lead without having to—what’s the word—earn it. I will give you one million a year, after taxes, to spend as you wish. In addition, I will—“
Blackie got to his feet, a dark aspect to his chiseled profile. “I think we should go. Get dressed. I’ll walk you home. Fog’s rolling in.”
“But, darling, I haven’t told you about—“
“You’ve said quite enough. I’ll be waiting outside.”
THE FOG HAD rolled in, swirling in filaments and tendrils around them as they neared their destination. They hadn’t spoken a word since leaving the guest house. As they climbed the final dune before Charlotte’s cottage she said, “Oh, Blackie, I’ve hurt you somehow. I’m so sorry.”
“If you don’t know how, sorry doesn’t work,” he said as they reached the top.
“Oh, my God, Blackie, look!”
The large house was barely visible in the thick fog. But there were flashing blue lights everywhere on the property, haloed in the gathering sea mist.
“It must be Edgar,” she said, looking frightened. “He’s been having—heart problems. I must go. But promise me you’ll meet me tomorrow. That little crab shack over in Wauwinet. Promise me. Please, no matter how angry you are with me now.”
“Go see about your husband, Charlotte,” he said, turning to descend the dune for the walk back home.
SHE DIDN’T THINK he’d come. Two martinis, considering a third. Getting up to leave she saw his tall frame silhouetted black against the red sky filling the doorway. He strode toward her, a rolled newspaper in his hand, pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Hello, Charlotte. I’m so sorry to hear about Edgar. You’ve seen the evening edition I imagine.”
“No. I haven’t seen a thing. I’ve been walking the beach all day long. I—I walked all the way here.”
“Widow’s walk. Here. You’d better read this.” He handed her the Inquirer & Mirror. “The police suspect foul play. In the course of the autopsy, the ME found traces of a supposedly untraceable poison in his blood. Oleander. It missed the Medical Examiner’s first screen, but not the second. Down at the bottom you’ll read that you are considered a person of interest.”
“Me! Outrageous. How can they possible suspect me?”
“They always suspect the spouse first, Charlotte. Always.”
“Blackie, you have to believe me. I didn’t do it.”
“Then who did?”
“Eduardo. Our houseman. He hated Edgar with a passion. He could have easily put something in his food. They had words last night. I’ll swear to it. He actually told Edgar to kiss his ass.”
“Charlotte, everyone on this island knows you and Edgar fought like cats and dogs. How many times have the police been to your house?”
“Yes, he abused me!”
“That’s one motive.”
“What’s the other?”
“Your recent business proposition.”
“But—but nobody knows about that.”
“Oh, Blackie. That’s between you and me—oh, darling don’t be like this. I love you.“
“Listen to me carefully, Charlotte. I’m not for sale. You obviously see me like a lot of people do. The cheapest kind of bum, a guy who takes advantage of wealthy women just to satisfy his lust for the lush life. But I’m not that kind of man, Charlotte. I don’t take advantage of anyone, much less women. You know that, and you know I don’t have any secrets. Now, you tell me the truth. Did you poison your husband last night? Before you came to meet me?”
She stared at him in shock, her thoughts suddenly kaleidoscopic. “Blackie, I—I…”
“If you didn’t do it, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.” He stood up, expressionless, save the faint, mirthless echo of a smile in the corners of his mouth.
“Blackie! Don’t leave me to the wolves! I did it for you, darling! I want us to be together and—“
“The crew’s getting Narcissus ready for a sunset departure. I’m leaving this beautiful little island far astern, and I probably won’t be back. So I’ll say good-bye, Charlotte. And good luck.”
He turned and started for the door. Halfway there, he paused and looked back at her. “One last thing. My pal Mike McCarty called. Seems the cops are canvassing the neighborhood. See if anyone saw anything unusual out on the beach last night between the hours of nine and ten. Mike told them he got tired of his noisy party and strolled down to the beach for a cigar and a little peace. Said he saw a couple up on that dune. You and me.”
“Detective wants to talk. Going there now, before heading back to the boat.”
“Oh, God, Blackie. What are you going to do?”
“You should know this by now, Charlotte. I’m lousy at keeping secrets.”
Ted Bell is the New York Times best-selling author of the “Alex Hawke” spy series as well as the young adult adventure books, Nick of Time and The Time Pirate. Bell’s novels are read worldwide, and have been translated into sixteen languages. Most recently, he served as visiting scholar and writer-in-residence at Cambridge University. “The Widow’s Walk” is the second installment of Ted Bell’s ‘Blackford Blaine’ series. The first installment, “The Pirate of Palm Beach,” appeared in an anthology edited by Nelson DeMille, entitled the Riche and the Dead.