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Authors: Teri Brown

Born of Corruption

BOOK: Born of Corruption
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One

“W
oolworth’s?” I ask my best friend dubiously. “Are you sure you want to go to Woolworth’s? Why not Saks Fifth Avenue? Or even Macy’s?”

Anna shakes her head, her blue eyes amused. “Woolworth’s. I need to pick up a few things for Mother. We can eat at the lunch counter afterwards. Oh, come on, Cynthia, please?”

I frown, my shoulders slumping. Anna can be annoyingly obstinate. And her frugal streak is so ingrained that she even wants to budget
my
money, though I’m simply rolling in dough. “Fine,” I say, giving in. “We can go to Woolworth’s so you can do your shopping and we’ll eat at the lunch counter, but only if you let me buy you a dress at Bergdorf’s for the party tonight. Deal?”

“You just bought me a new dress for Christmas. I don’t need another one,” she complains, slipping into a pretty, though cheap, wool coat.

I blow out a breath in frustration. “It’s not about the need, Anna. You don’t understand at all, do you?”

A smile lights up her face. One of the many things I love about Anna is her complete unawareness of her own beauty. That and the fact that she
never
flirts with Jack.

“You sound like my mother.”

I stiffen. Even though I never show it, Anna’s mother scares me. I carry a gun for protection, but the flamboyant—and newly married—Marguerite Estella Van Housen Mauvais doesn’t have to. She could eat me alive and not even have to pick her teeth after. I shove the thought out of my mind with a shiver and link arms with Anna. “Onward.”

The department store is overflowing with shoppers. I trail behind Anna, looking this way and that at the shelves and shelves of merchandise. Even though Woolworth’s is the biggest five-and-dime in the world, I’ve only been here a handful of times. I’m just not a five-and-dime kind of girl.

All of New York must be breaking for lunch now because the counter is packed by the time we elbow our way up to it. We order sandwiches and Anna sips her tea with the same satisfied look I get after ordering several thousand dollars’ worth of Paris couture.

Sometimes I wonder why our friendship works. Anna is frugal. I’m a spendthrift. Anna is serious. I most decidedly am not. Anna works for a living and is fiercely independent, while my job mostly consists of changing clothes and looking good on the arm of some man, either my father’s, my uncle’s, or my husband’s. Independence is overrated. One of my cousins is independent. She went to college and now makes her own money working in the advertising business. She also has hair on her chin. I’m sure there’s no connection, but still.

Besides, the only true independence comes from having money.

The harried server sets our sandwiches down on the chipped counter and Anna digs into hers as if she’s starving. I eye mine suspiciously. You never can tell with department store lunches.

Anna suddenly pauses midbite, her hand hovering in the air. I can almost see the hair on the back of her neck rise.

“What’s wrong?” I lean closer, peering at her sandwich.

She shakes her head a little desperately, and I frown. “Are you all right?”

Her eyes take on a faraway look and little tremors run through her body. My pulse leaps as I realize what’s happening.

She’s having a psychic episode!

I’ve read about them and even witnessed Anna have one the first time I met her at one of her mother’s séances. She’d helped a woman talk to her deceased son. I glance around, wondering if anybody else has noticed, but no one is looking.

I wonder at the wisdom of interrupting her but can’t contain my excitement. “Do you see a spirit?”

Then as quickly as it began, it’s over. Anna turns to me, pale as a ghost herself. “I’m sorry. Did I embarrass you?”

Maybe having psychic powers isn’t as exciting as it seems. I shake my head and reassure her. “No one even noticed. See for yourself.” I wave a hand and she takes a deep, shuddering breath.

“What happened?” I ask.

She swallows and then says very quietly, “You already know that I’m psychic and that I’ve seen a spirit. Well, sometimes I also have visions of the future.”

Excitement pulses in my chest. “I knew it!” I crow. Anna tries to downplay her psychic abilities, but I knew she was special from the moment I met her.

Her lips quirk up in a wan half smile.

“What did you see?”

She closes her eyes briefly. “A dead man. I saw a dead man.”

Shivers race up and down my spine. “Who was it?” I know that I should be properly horrified and I guess part of me is, but the other part of me is rather thrilled by the melodrama.

She shakes her head, color returning to her cheeks. “I don’t know. I couldn’t see his face.”

I hesitate over the next question. I usually just say what I want, but this situation seems to call for a modicum of tact. “How did he die?”

Maybe tact isn’t my strong suit.

Anna shoves her roast beef sandwich away. “I don’t know. He was lying facedown in a pool of blood.”

I look at my own sandwich, my stomach churning. “What should we do?” I finally ask.

Misery mars her pretty face. “There’s nothing we can do. That’s how it works. I see horrible things, but they’re usually so vague I have no idea how to stop them. I don’t even know if I can. It’s miserable.” Anna sighs. “Maybe I shouldn’t come to the party. I’ll just be a wet blanket.”

“Wait, what? No! You can’t do that,” I wail, causing people to look over at me disapprovingly. I ignore them. “It’s your party! You’re leaving in a week for Europe and I’ll be all alone!”

Her brows arch. “You have a husband, tons of friends, and your family. Why would you say that?”

I trace the edge of the counter with my finger. She has a point, but still. “It’s not like having my best friend around.”

“You’ll find another best friend.”

“Not like you.” I pout. “Please say you’ll come.”

She chews on her lip, considering.

“Why wouldn’t you come to the party? We don’t know anything about this man. For all we know, he’s already dead in Scranton, Pennsylvania! If you can’t help him, there’s no reason to fret. And after all the preparations . . .” I shake my head sadly and hold my breath.

“All right,” she says finally, and my heart leaps.

“That’s just swell! You won’t regret it, I promise—it’s going to be a ton of fun. Guess what I’m giving away to the winners of the scavenger hunt?”

“What?”

“Brand new Lincoln Model Ls!” I bounce in my seat.

“You’re giving away cars?” She’s so surprised her voice squeaks up at the end.

I nod.

“All right.” Anna takes a sip of her tea and slips off the stool. “I guess we’re having a party then!”

My excitement ebbs as she forces a smile that doesn’t reach the shadows in her eyes. I get the feeling that she may need this party more than I do.

 

The strident ring of the telephone greets me the moment I walk through the door of my Gramercy Park mansion. I toss my silver fox coat at Parker and his eyes widen as he scrambles for it, no doubt afraid that the pistol in the pocket will go off if the coat hits the floor. Uncle Arnie offered us a bodyguard-butler as a wedding gift, but Jack declined, preferring the real thing. My uncle had to be satisfied with giving me my driver, Al. It makes him feel better to know I’m protected by at least one of his thugs.

The phone is still ringing as I race through the cream-and-gold foyer, the heels of my Mary Janes rat-a-tatting across the marble like a machine gun.

“Hello,” I say breathlessly. Parker follows me and picks my pocketbook up off the Oriental carpet with an aggrieved air. I resist the urge to stick my tongue out at him. He’s such a fussy old man.

“Hello?” I ask again as I pull off my silver clip earrings, drop them on the mahogany desk, and remove my shoes. After shopping with Anna most of the day, my feet are killing me. No one answers, and I frown at the phone. “Hello?”

The telephone is still silent, but I get the feeling that someone is listening. Goose bumps rise on my arms. “Who is this?” I snap. A click sounds and I uneasily return the phone to its cradle. This is the third time this week that I’ve answered the phone and no one responded.

My stomach tightens as suspicion tickles at the back of my mind.

“Could you send some tea up to my room?” I ask Parker, heading back into the foyer at a more leisurely pace. Silk stockings and marble tiles don’t mix. I’d learned that the hard way after taking a nasty fall and spraining my wrist at our last shindig.

Of course, the gin didn’t help.

The foyer opens into the spacious room that passes for a lounge. There’s a piano in one corner and only a few small groupings of furniture. The wide-open space is perfect for all the parties we throw.

I pick up speed once I reach the safety of the carpeted staircase. “Tell Olivia I need her,” I call over my shoulder. When I reach the second floor, I step to the wall so I won’t have to look down. The stairs wind up to the fourth floor, where you can look all the way down to the main floor, though I did that for only one terrifyingly dizzy moment when we first moved in. I begged Jack to put our master suite on the first floor or even the second, but he just laughed and said I’d get used to it.

Our boudoir is lovely even if it
is
way up on the top floor. Unlike the old-world glitz downstairs, the master suite is refreshingly modern. Our designer did the entire floor in black and cream, with sharp geometric shapes and edges. Tall, wrought-iron-framed windows offer views onto the park, and matching French doors lead out onto the terrace. I never go out there no matter how Jack teases.

He doesn’t know about the nightmares I had as a child after learning about the Triangle fire tragedy and how all those girls had jumped to their deaths rather than die in the blaze. I shiver, remembering, and then shove the thought from my mind. I have a million things to do and think about before the party.

Like whether my husband is cheating on me.

I shake my head. Those telephone calls could be from anyone and about anything.

I turn away from the windows and unroll my stockings. Tossing them behind me, I reach back and struggle to get the hooks at the back of my dress undone.

Alice, our maid, comes up behind me to help. “Would Madam like a bath?”

“Madam wants her tea and Olivia!” I snap, and then take a deep breath. It isn’t her fault I suspect my husband of stepping out on me. My mother would say it’s my own fault for quitting in the middle of my last year of high school to get married, though I have no idea what that has to do with suspecting my husband of infidelity barely a year after the wedding.

And I wouldn’t think it now except for the phone calls and Jack’s propensity for boredom. He tires of things so easily . . . how do I know he isn’t simply weary of me?

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired. Please have the packages brought straight up here to me after you’ve started my bath, all right?”

“Yes, madam.”

I ignore the disapproval in her voice, wishing that I could get rid of all of Jack’s judgmental servants. But I’m stuck with them. Again, my fault for marrying a man from an aristocratic New York family with oodles of money instead of a nice Jewish boy. Jack’s family and their old-world customs intimidate me.

And there isn’t much in this world that intimidates me.

I snatch up my silk dressing gown. “That’ll be all, Alice.”

My social secretary enters the room. Olivia Barnhill, whom I hired personally after marrying Jack, is the only one I trust. “What took you so long?”

Olivia, a slender young woman from Philadelphia whose skin is the color of coffee with a shot of cream, gives me an impudent smile. “Keep your knickers on. You’ve been home for five minutes and you’re already giving me a hard time?”

“Never mind that. We need to iron out all the details for tonight.”

Since I’d only thought of throwing Anna a party yesterday, there’re still a lot of details to iron out. Olivia can handle it, though. My social secretary’s true worth lies in her ability to remain calm no matter what the circumstances. She once came across a city councilman passed out naked on my Chippendale dining table the morning after one particularly wild party. Without batting an eye, she woke him up and asked him how he liked his eggs.

I don’t know what I’d do without her.

She follows me into the expanse of my black-and-white marble bathroom, carrying a pad and pencil. The scent of wet lilacs tickles my nose as I slip into the hot, silky water.

My tension eases as the water laps against my skin. Stupid telephone call. I rub my temples.

“Has Jack seemed odd to you lately?” I ask Olivia.

She arches an eyebrow. “No more than usual.”

Olivia thinks Jack is a cold fish. Hell, everyone thinks Jack is a cold fish. But he isn’t really. When he opens up, he’s witty and charming and a real gentleman. Not once has he ever treated me as less than a lady, even though his family acts as if I’m a slug they can’t shake off their shoes.

As we go over the details of the party, depression swirls around me like steam from the water. Even though I haven’t known her for very long, I’m going to miss Anna like crazy. She’s smart, sweet,
and
a powerful psychic. I sit up quickly, the water sloshing up the sides of the tub. Maybe she can tell me whether Jack is cheating on me or not! Why didn’t I think of that sooner? I grin like a loon until Olivia clears her throat, bringing me back to the task at hand.

“Can you fetch me my telephone? We need to make sure the hooch is on its way.”

She brings me the white-and-gold phone with the special cord that reaches everywhere in the entire suite. I dry my hands and ring up my infamous uncle.

“How’s it going, doll? I was just thinking about you.”

“Only good thoughts, I hope!”

“Always! Whatcha need?”

“I was just checking on my order.”

“I got champagne, gin, rum, and Russian vodka coming in. Need anything else?”

“That should be enough. And thanks, Uncle Arnie. You know you’re welcome to come.” I always invite him even though I know he’ll decline.

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