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Authors: Barbara Paul

In-Laws and Outlaws

BOOK: In-Laws and Outlaws
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In-Laws and Outlaws

Barbara Paul

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

1

A celebrity had died, an old Hollywood actress who was already a bit long in the tooth for the romantic leads she'd been playing back when I was a child. She'd gone on to character roles rather than retire, good for her, even garnering a supporting Oscar in her seventies. She'd ended up playing the grande dame (both on the screen and off) with a gusto that one could only envy, and her face and name were as familiar a part of moviegoers' lives as those of their own families. But at the age of eighty-eight her heart had simply given out; she'd come to Chicago to appear on some worthy telethon or other, still on the go, and had died in her sleep, in her hotel room. I was sorry she was gone. She'd made herself into a legend through sheer energy and will power, and now there was no one around to take her place; the lady was one of a kind. The obituary page offered a truncated version of her life; and then a new item began, headed
Death elsewhere
.

Isn't there always? I started to put the newspaper aside, but a name caught my eye.

Death elsewhere

Raymond Decker, 49, president of Decker and Kurland, a Boston-based venture capital firm with estimated assets of $600 million, died yesterday in a fire in his summer home on Martha's Vineyard. Decker was the nephew of Congressman Oscar Ferguson of Massachusetts.

Investigators say Decker appeared to have fallen asleep while smoking in bed. He was alone in the house at the time of the fire.

Decker is survived by his wife, Connie, and two sisters, Annette and Michelle. Decker's son Theo was killed by kidnappers four years ago in a case that made headlines throughout the world.

The family is planning a private service.

Oh dear god. Raymond was dead.

I couldn't believe it. Somehow I'd thought of Raymond Decker as one of those people who go on forever, part of that indestructible breed that survives everything … earthquakes, pestilence, plagues of locusts. Men like Raymond didn't die in accidents; they died in battle, or in bed of old age after winning all their battles. Causing his own death by smoking in bed? That was in the same realm of absurdity as the unstoppable Alexander the Great's choking to death on a chicken bone. And poor Connie—first her only child, and now her husband; that was enough to crush a spirit far stronger than sweet, vague Connie Decker's.

Several things occurred to me at once. No mention of Stuart, for one. And why hadn't Raymond just walked out of the house when he realized it was on fire? He must have been drinking, or perhaps he was on medication that made him stuporous. What a foolish way to die, and how horrible … burned alive, my god. Nobody deserved to go like that, and certainly not Raymond Decker.

The venture capital firm of Decker
and Kurland
, the paper said. So Rob had finally made partner; lord knows he'd wanted it long enough. I wondered what had made Raymond change his mind; the Deckers didn't share the wealth lightly, but of course Rob had married a Decker.

And of course none of them had bothered to notify me.

I pulled open the bottom drawer of a file cabinet and rummaged through an assortment of papers and doodads I could never decide what to do with. There it was: an old address book I'd been on the verge of throwing out for years. I'd kept my life separate from that of the Deckers ever since Stuart died, but I could never bring myself to sever the connection irrevocably. I looked up Connie Decker's number in Boston.

But once I had the number, I hesitated. Of all the Decker clan, Connie was the one I'd known least well. I remembered her mainly as the accommodating wife, thoroughly overshadowed by all the strong personalities around her. Whenever I'd talked to her, she'd merely smiled and nodded at whatever I said. Not unreachable, exactly, but vague and distant—her defense system, when she didn't know how to respond to people. Just thinking about talking to her again made me a little uneasy. But then I was ashamed of myself; the woman had lost her husband, for god's sake. Make the call.

Was she at home? It was more than likely Connie would be staying with some other member of the family. She could even be at Martha's Vineyard; the paper didn't say whether the fire had destroyed the house or not. But no, she wouldn't be on the island; not so soon after Raymond had died there. There was only one way to find out; I tapped out her Boston number.

An unfamiliar female voice answered and asked my name when I said I wanted to talk to Connie. “I'll have to ask her,” the unidentified woman said. “Connie hasn't been taking many calls.”
Connie
, she said—a friend or neighbor, then, not a servant. After a moment, whoever she was came back and announced, “Connie says she doesn't know any Gillian Clifford.”

My mouth turned dry; I should have expected that. “Tell her Gillian Clifford Decker.”

In a matter of seconds Connie was on the phone. “Gillian? Is that you?”

“It's me, Connie. How—”

“Oh, my goodness,
Gillian
!” Her voice was high and she spoke in a rush, running her words together. “It's been so long … I, I didn't recognize your last name, I'm sorry, I'm in a bit of a muddle right now. I should have known, even ‘Gillian' should have told me, I mean, how many Gillians do I know, you're the only one, Raymond said it was appropriately theatrical—oh, Gillian, I'm so glad you called!” Her laugh was skitterish and artificial. “You're just the—I mean, I want to, ah, well, I don't even know where you're living now!”

“Chicago. Connie, are you all right? You don't sound so good. You sound …”

“Crazy?” The artificial laugh again. “That's what Rob told me. Well, not in so many words, but you know Rob, you know how he can say a thing by talking around it, you know?” I could hear her taking a deep breath. “Slow down, Connie,” she told herself. “Gillian. Can you come to Boston? Please?”

I hadn't expected
that
. “Ah … when's the funeral?”

“Not for the funeral—oh, it's tomorrow, yes, come for the funeral, do.” As if it were a tea party. “But, but … I need to talk to somebody who knows the family as well as you do but who isn't, well, caught up in it, if you know what I mean. Everybody here, they just say I'm in shock and time will help and all the other things people say to you when they want you to shut up. They just don't
listen
! Nobody listens.”

This wasn't like Connie; she never talked this much, or in quite this way. “They don't listen to what?”

There was a pause. “Do you know how Raymond died?”

“The paper said he was smoking in bed and set fire to the house.”

“That's such a convenient answer, isn't it?” Her voice was bitter. “Raymond had stopped smoking, months ago.”

Oh dear. “I stopped smoking four times myself,” I said as gently as I could.

“Meaning he backslid? But even if he did, he wouldn't have been smoking in bed. Gillian, Raymond didn't even smoke in the bed
room
. Never. He was always very considerate about that.”

“But if you weren't there—”

“It wouldn't have made any difference. He still wouldn't smoke in the bedroom—he never did. You know how smoke lingers, gets in the drapes and the furniture. He just never smoked there.”

“Well, then, the police made a mistake. Something else caused the fire.”

“Some
body
else caused it.”

It took me a few seconds to understand what she was saying. “Connie! You can't mean that!”

“Well, what else am I supposed to think?” She sounded close to tears. “First Theo … when the kidnappers, they …” Then suddenly she
was
crying. “And Bobby was next and then Ike and then it was Lynn, and now it's Raymond's turn, and—”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute—what about Bobby and Ike and Lynn?”

She made a keening sound. “You didn't know? You really didn't know? They're dead, Gillian! All three of them! And they all died this year!”

I was shocked speechless. Two nephews and a niece, none of them out of their teens … all dead within the past few months? When I could speak again, my voice came out almost as high and as strained as Connie's. “But how? Were they together? Did they—”

“Will you come?” she blurted.

“Yes, of course I'll come—I'll get a plane tonight. Do you have someone to stay with you? Who answered the phone?”

“That was Marcie—she says she'll stay as long as I need her.”

Good for Marcie, whoever she was. “I'll call you back when I've made a plane reservation. I'll be there as soon as I can possibly manage it. Connie … hang on.”

“Yes.” She sounded exhausted.

Before I could think better of it, I told my secretary to book me on an evening flight to Boston. Then I called in my assistant and told him he'd be running the museum for the next few days. Then I shut everybody out of my office and let it all sink in.

Bobby. Ike. Lynn. Three bright and outgoing kids, with the whole world before them, their futures full of promise. Bobby and Lynn would have been starting college this fall, if my arithmetic was right; Ike was … a year younger? About that. What could have happened to them? With Theo dead at the hands of his kidnappers four years earlier, almost the entire younger generation of the Decker family had been wiped out. Only Joel Kurland was left, Bobby's younger brother. Fourteen or fifteen by now. My god. What happens to a family when all its young people die? Only young Joel was left to keep the family viable.

And it was my family, in a way. I had been a Decker for just a little over two years. At that time Theo, Raymond and Connie's only child, had still been alive and was clearly emerging as the leader of his generation of Deckers. That seemed only fitting, since his father had been the leader of his. Raymond was a good man, dynamic and likable if a trifle restricted in his view of the world, but with the head for business his younger brother so clearly lacked. Stuart, overflowing with charm and energy and self-confidence, wanted to be an actor.

He was the first Decker ever to show any interest in the professional theater, probably because the rest of them had enough high drama in their daily lives to keep them satisfied. No one in the family had tried to discourage him, as far as I could tell; I got the impression they were all amused by Stuart's yearning for something more exotic than high finance and sincerely wished him well. I first met Stuart when I cast him in a play I was directing in a Broome Street church basement, in one of those Manhattan neighborhoods it's generally best to avoid. The play was a pretentious piece of nonsense, but we didn't know that at the time; we were all still young enough that we hadn't lost our eagerness or our idealism, and we thought we could do anything. Stuart had wonderful stage presence; he wasn't so great on discipline, but he knew how to reach an audience. He just might have made it, if he'd lived long enough.

BOOK: In-Laws and Outlaws
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