Authors: Cynthia Baxter
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery Fiction, #Murder, #Private Investigators, #Women Veterinarians, #Long Island (N.Y.), #Horses
“You might mention that to Mr. Mac when you go up to the house to settle.” He spoke without looking me in the eye. “He doesn’t like bad news, and he won’t be happy about Molly being out of commission.”
I had a feeling that Andrew MacKinnon was depressed about a lot more than a polo pony or two being out of commission for a few days. But I wasn’t looking forward to giving him something else to worry about.
As I headed toward the house, I happened to glance to the right. I noticed someone at the edge of the flat, grassy field that stretched far into the distance, sprawling across several acres dotted with colorful wildflowers and edged with a simple wooden post-and-rail fence. It was Callie, I realized, sitting with her back against a tall oak tree.
I was actually pleased to have a distraction that would delay going inside the house. As I drew near, I saw she was leaning over a large sketch pad, her dark blond tousled hair falling over her face and hiding it from view. I didn’t want to startle her, so as I approached, I called, “Callie?”
She jerked her head up—and immediately looked guilty. As she peered up at me, she covered the white page of the pad with both arms.
“Oh, you, again. Dr. Popper, right?”
“You remembered,” I said cheerfully. Gesturing toward the drawing pad she was working so hard to conceal, I commented, “That looks like a relaxing way to spend a Saturday morning.”
“I’m not supposed to be—what did my mother call it? Oh, that’s right, ‘Sitting around on your butt all day, scribbling those pictures of yours.’ I’m
to be getting some exercise.”
“Can I see what you’re working on?”
She hesitated, then said, “I’m just playing around. I mean, it’s not finished or anything.”
“I’m still curious. I’m not much of an artist myself, so I’m in awe of anybody who can draw.”
“Whatever.” She moved her arms away, but I noticed that her cheeks became flushed.
Glancing down, I saw that she was making a charcoal drawing, putting the finishing touches on a lovely rendering of the meadow that stretched out in front of her. She’d captured it all: the rolling fields covered with soft grass, the clusters of wildflowers, the backdrop of lush red maples.
“Why, Callie, that’s beautiful!” I exclaimed.
“You sound surprised that I’m a decent artist,” she replied curtly. “You know, no matter what the rest of my family thinks, I’m not a total loser. If you ask me, I’m the only one in my family who’s got any talent at all. Except for my dad, of course. He’s great at business. But my sister and my mother are good at being thin, and that’s about it. Aside from that, they’re a bunch of self-centered—”
“Callie, this is a difficult time for everybody,” I reminded her gently, completely taken aback by her outburst. “With Eduardo’s sudden death—”
“Hmph,” she snorted, picking up her charcoal and focusing on her drawing again. “Like anybody really cares about that egomaniac.”
Her reaction startled me. “You sound as if you didn’t like Eduardo very much.”
“I hated him,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Because he was just like the rest of them. Self-centered, totally clueless. . . . He was convinced the entire world revolved around him.”
“It sounds as if a lot of people treated him like a celebrity,” I observed, “and not without good reason.” In part, I was thinking out loud. But I was also watching her, trying to understand her strange reaction. “From what I understand, Eduardo Garcia was one of the best polo players in the world. And while I never actually met him, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say a bad word about him. Instead, everyone’s been talking about how charming he was. From the photographs I’ve seen, he was also incredibly good-looking.”
She shrugged. “Everybody sure acts like he was this . . . this star, but I never thought so. He was simply one of those people who was so full of himself that everybody else assumed he deserved it. As far as I’m concerned, Eduardo just went around tricking people into thinking he was great even though there really wasn’t much to him at all.”
“I see.” I decided not to pry anymore. “Are you taking drawing lessons?” I asked, changing the subject.
Callie shook her head. “I’d like to, but I haven’t been able to find anybody I want to study with. At least, not around here.”
“You might look into the Art Students League in Manhattan. I understand they have evening classes with some really great artists. You’d probably enjoy going into the city once or twice a week to study. You’d meet a lot of other people with the same interests as you, too.”
“I’ve think I’ve heard of it,” she said. “Maybe I’ll check it out.” Somewhat begrudgingly, she added, “Thanks for the tip.”
Even though she was doing an excellent job of containing her enthusiasm, I got the feeling I’d made at least a ding in the barricade she’d built around herself. She reminded me of a dog or cat who’d been abused and as a result was slow to trust—kind of like Lou. “Who’s your favorite painter?” I asked.
“Van Gogh. No contest. I love the way he swirls color. He was someone who was really troubled, you know? But somehow he managed to take all that inner turmoil and put it into his work, whether he was painting something beautiful like flowers or a landscape in the South of France or something as ordinary as a chair.”
“Van Gogh is definitely at the top of my list,” I agreed. “I also love Matisse.”
“Me, too! He used such amazing colors!”
“Do you like his later work?” Calling upon what I’d learned in my Modern Art course in college, I added, “You know, he became arthritic later in life and couldn’t paint anymore. That’s when he started making those wonderful paper cuts. It was the only way he could express himself.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said.
Something I hadn’t known was also coming to light: Callie could be quite likable. Once she let down her guard, she was just a sweet fourteen-year-old girl who was extremely talented and who sincerely loved art—attributes that probably got lost among the oversized egos of the rest of her family.
“You know, I’d love to go to one of the museums in the city with you some time,” I told her. “The Guggenheim or the Metropolitan . . . maybe even the Museum of Modern Art. It would be really fun to look at paintings with you.”
The wall instantly went back up. “You’re just saying that,” she said coldly. “You know as well as I do that it’ll never happen.” I was surprised at how quickly the other Callie had returned, the surly, childish one with a chip the size of the Louvre on her shoulder.
“My invitation stands,” I insisted, handing her one of my business cards. “Call me when you’ve picked a date.” Glancing toward the house, I told her, “Well, guess I’d better get going. I’ll let you get back to your drawing.”
“Whatever.” With a shrug, she jammed my card in her pocket, grabbed her charcoal, and bent her head down over her drawing pad once again.
As I walked away, I felt unsettled by how quickly she changed. The girl had certainly mastered the art of defensiveness.
One thing was sure: Callie hadn’t liked Eduardo Garcia very much. But as I left her behind, the question that continued to nag at me was Why not?
“Is Mr. MacKinnon home?” I asked Luisa when the MacKinnons’ older housekeeper answered the door.
“Meester Mac is not here. But Meesus MacKinnon—”
“Is that you, Dr. Popper?” Jillian MacKinnon asked as she emerged from the front parlor. For a change, she didn’t have a glass in her hand.
In fact, she looked much more relaxed than the last time I’d seen her. She also looked even more sophisticated. Her smooth black hair was pulled into a tight chignon, and she was dressed in crisp white capris and a pale pink linen blouse, an outfit that flattered her willowy frame. “He had an emergency meeting in the city—some
that had to be solved immediately, he claimed. But he told me to look out for you. His exact words were that I should ‘be sure to take care of you.’ To him, that means giving someone money.” She stretched her mouth into a cynical smile, instantly obliterating all traces of prettiness.
“But please, come in and sit down. You must be dying from this heat. Would you like a cold drink? Luisa, could you—?”
“I’m fine,” I assured her. “In fact, I should probably be on my way.”
“We don’t get much company,” Jillian went on, ignoring my last comment and sweeping into the parlor. “Aside from the horse crowd, of course. But they don’t really count. At least not in my book.”
I followed, hoping we were moving toward the location in which she kept her checkbook. Chatting with Jillian MacKinnon wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time, and I was anxious to get going.
As soon as we entered the parlor, however, Jillian sank onto a couch. “Please, sit down.”
“Just for a moment.” Dutifully I perched on a gold brocade chair that looked like it had once belonged to an emperor. An emperor who liked expensive fabrics and hard cushions. I glanced around self-consciously, hoping I hadn’t tracked anything from the stable into this elegantly appointed space.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything?”
“No, really. It’s getting late, and—”
“You’re right, it’s after eleven,” Jillian drawled, glancing at her watch. “Good. Time to start drinking.” She jumped up, retrieving a bottle of red wine and a twelve-ounce tumbler from a table in the corner. Casting me a sly smile, she added, “Only alcoholics drink before eleven.”
I watched her fill the glass almost to the top. She took a few generous gulps, then closed her eyes as if savoring the effect.
When she opened her eyes, she fixed them on me in a way I found disquieting. “So you’re a veterinarian,” she said.
“How astonishing. Since you’re a woman, I mean.”
“Actually, veterinary medicine has become a predominantly female profession,” I explained. “Since the 1980’s, more than half the students in vet schools have been women.”
“I meant it’s astonishing that you have a job. I’m impressed that early on, you figured out it would be a good idea to have a life.” She sat down and settled back in the cushions of the couch and helped herself to a few more healthy swallows of wine. From what I could see, it was already taking effect. Her shoulders were slumping downward, the corners of her mouth were headed in the same direction, and her eyes, the same startling blue as Callie’s, were starting to look cloudy. “It took some of us decades to get to that point—and by then it was too late.”
I glanced around at the opulent surroundings: the silk wallpaper, the thick velvet drapes, the end tables and cabinets hand-painted with lush flowers and succulent fruit. Choosing my words carefully, I observed, “If you don’t mind me saying so, it doesn’t look like you have too bad a life.”
Jillian looked pensive for a few moments. “I don’t mind you saying that at all. And you’re absolutely right; that probably
how it looks on the outside. To someone who doesn’t know any better, I mean.”
“I suppose no one’s life is perfect,” I said, hoping my vague statement about the human condition would put an end to this “poor little me” discussion.
“I suppose it would help if I had a husband who showed at least a little interest in me.” Jillian’s voice had become slurred, and she was staring off into space as if she were talking to herself, rather than to me. Hardly surprising, since she’d downed more than half her tumbler of wine in an impressively short amount of time. “It’s funny, I know plenty of women who worry about their husbands falling for another woman. But I don’t know a single one whose husband has fallen for another man.”
I blinked, trying to comprehend what she was saying.
“Not that Andrew and Eduardo were lovers,” she went on. “Nothing like that. At least that would be something I could understand. Instead, since the time Eduardo first came into our lives, it was like Andrew had this strange . . . fascination with the man. An obsession, almost.” She paused to gulp down more wine. “Sometimes, I felt like I was invisible. I’m sure Callie felt the same way, even though she’d never admit that her father—or anybody else, for that matter—was capable of hurting her. Peyton, of course . . . well, that’s another story. She and her father have been thick as thieves since the day she was born. Still, you’d think the man would have had
left over for the rest of us.”
I was about to interject some well-meaning comment about how charismatic Eduardo Garcia seemed to have been when Jillian suddenly sprang from the couch with much more energy than I ever would have thought possible. “Time for a refill!” she cried.
And time for my departure.
“I really must get going,” I said forcefully. “If we could just settle up . . .”
“Of course. You don’t want to hear my life story. You want to get paid.” Jillian grabbed the wine bottle and refilled her glass almost to the brim. She paused to take another few sips before staggering over to the ornately painted desk in the corner. Pulling a checkbook out of a drawer, she muttered, “How mush?”
Check in hand, I hightailed it out of there, thinking,
If this is Jillian MacKinnon at eleven-fifteen, what’s
Jillian MacKinnon like by the time cocktail hour rolls
The image I conjured up was chilling.
But even more chilling was my discovery that Jillian MacKinnon had actually been jealous of Eduardo Garcia. And given the fact that Eduardo had been murdered, maybe the possibility that jealousy had been his killer’s motive wasn’t that far-fetched.
A little voice inside my head warned that I was getting carried away.
Jillian is probably just a disgruntled
I mused as I made a beeline for my van,
worse off than a golf widow or a fishing widow.
Lots of women find it frustrating to put up with their husbands’ passion for one sport or another. That doesn’t mean they’re driven to murder.
Then again, I thought, the more I saw of the MacKinnon household, the less I found surprising.