Authors: Tamar Myers
he burly guard didn't even ask to see my invitation. He merely put his hand on Rob's arm and mumbled a few words.
“What did he say?” I shouted as we stepped through the gates.
Rob did a good job of pretending not to hear me, so I repeated the question several times as we climbed the white marble steps up to the portico. He finally answered, just as we stepped over the threshold and into the throng of well-connected somebodies.
“He said he gets off at midnight, and to meet him at the back gate.”
“Noânot that it's really your business.”
“But you and Bob are both among my closest friends. What am I talking about? You
my closest friends.”
“Then you should respect our privacy.”
My face stung with shame, and it was probably scarlet as well. No doubt Rob, being the dear friend that he was, could read me like a book: a very small diary, to be sure.
“Hey,” he shouted, “enough seriousness for tonight. Have you ever seen a reception hall this large?”
Looking around me didn't do much good, but I allowed my gaze to travel upward to admire a pair of six-foot alabaster vases mounted on black marble pedestals. Above these exquisite white containers rode a crest of red Oriental poppies; this added another six feet of height. It was a simple arrangement, but all the more breathtaking for its simplicity.
Another ten feet above the flowers soared a stamped tin ceiling that was said to be original to the house, which was built in 1817. The great hall was rectangular and three stories high, the rooms all arranged around the reception area. Some of the earliest guests had already given themselves over to gay abandonment (those were Rob's words, by the way, not mine).
Leaning over the mahogany balustrades, champagne glasses in hand, they called merry greetings down to us.
The invitation read that there was a receiving line in Parlor One. Although Charlestonians are a genteel lot, nonetheless, I could detect a decidedly strong current heading toward the far left corner of the reception hall. All I had to do was lift up my feet and let it carry me along. Suddenly, the river of well-heeled humanity came to an abrupt halt as women (who had no business doing so) tried their hand curtsying, while their husbands whispered business proposals in a bored duke's ear (as if they foolishly expected something would actually come of this).
Suddenly Kitty Bohring's meaty hands grabbed mine and she swung me high up into in the air, bring
ing me in for an uncertain landing directly in front of the duchess. “Your Graces,” she intoned, “this is my very dear friend, Her Royal Highness, Princess Abigail Strugendorf of Weisbladderbadden.”
At some point during the day I must have eaten fish, a.k.a. the brain food, because it took me just two seconds to figure out what she was up to. I flashed her a look, telling Kitty that it would cost her, but of course I was more than willing to play along.
The first move was not to move. As a royal princess, I was a couple of notches above a nonroyal duke and duchess, so I most certainly would not curtsy. Of course I would shake handsâif one was offered. But only then.
“Ah, one of the
royals,” the Duchess of Malberry said. She made the C word sound as distasteful as cod liver oil.
Thank heavens I'd been raised on
. A bad German accent is exactly what we speak in Weisbladderbadden.
“Ya, my family tree, she goes back to Charlemagne. Und yours? No? I didn't tink so; I tink mebbe you are recent marriage into zee nobililty.”
“Whatever makes you think that?”
“Because a longtime duchess, ya, she vould know dat eet eez alvays coostamary to make curtsy to zee direct descendents of Charlemagne.”
The duchess glanced at her husband, who was still being hypnotized by a hopeful businessman. Then, much to my continued amazement, she dropped a quick curtsy.
“I have much to learn from you, Princess Strugen
dorf.” Then she spotted Rob, and was halfway through her next curtsy when the meaty hand of Kitty yanked her back to parade position.
“This man is of no account,” Kitty said. “He's only the princess's bodyguard.”
The duchess frowned, but managed to wrest her husband away from the overzealous entrepreneur. She whispered something in his ear, whereupon he snatched up my hand, kissed it with lips as dry as packaged figs, all the while bowing deeply from the waist.
“I am honored, Your Royal Highness,” he rasped in a smoker's voice.
“Und eet eez a playzure to meet you, sir,” I said.
“Don't bother about the man with her,” the duchess said. “He's just her bodyguard.”
“But a very good one, ya?” I said. “Last veek der vas an attempt on my lifeâsurely you read about eet in dee interpalace circular. Anyvay, Freddy here literally caught zee grenade weez his ties.” I pointed to my thighs for clarity. “Fortunately eet vas a dud.”
“Or I would be singing soprano,” Freddy said. “If at all.”
Their graces chuckled agreeably, but I silenced them by shooting Freddy a stern look. “Really, Freddy, how many times must I tell you to shpeak only vhen shpoken to?”
“Dat vas a rhetorical question,” I snapped. I flashed their royal highnesses my trademark smile, which has graced the front page of newspapers as well as gossip rags around the world. “Vell, I shall move along now,
but I hope dat next time you are anyvhere near Weisbladderbadden, you vill shtop in at zee castle. Hans is eager to go shnicklehobblezeeben mitt you again. He says there is room for one more shnicklehobble over zee fireplace in zee north tower. Men!”
We all laughed.
I winked at the duchess. “Und vile zee men point der big bad guns at zee vilde gammenhuben, vee vill strumenabben our dingleberries in zee pies mitt glee. Ya?”
“It sounds absolutely lovely, dear.” She gave me a peck on both cheeks before curtsying again.
“What the hell was that all about?” Rob demanded.
“Please, dear, watch your language. You're speaking to a royal princess.”
“Princess, my assâ”
“Phalt.” I managed to pull Rob into a nook behind a statue of a Greek with very small genitals. “Kitty smells a rat.”
“She suspects that their graces are not who they say they are, and she's asked me to perform background checks on them.”
“Oh, come on, Abby, don't give me that crap. I was standing right behind you, remember? Kitty didn't even speak to you. Instead, she handed you over to the duchess like you were the pawn in some private game. I was amazed that you actually played along.”
My sigh was so hard and prolonged that it must have ruffled the sails of boats in the harbor. “Think about it, Rob. There were other people listening to
Kitty's introductionâwhich, by the way, she made with a straight face. For a social climber, that's serious stuff.”
“Yes, but nobody believed her.”
“Her guests of honor did. Did you see the duchess's face when I told her that I outranked her?”
“Okay, so the duchess did look like she'd eaten some bad shrimp. But if Kitty Bohring suspected she had some bogus nobility mooching off her, it would have been pretty easy to check that out before now. With the Internet being at everyone's disposal, private investigators are a dime a dozen these days. And heck, all Kitty had to do was google them.”
“For all we know, Kitty has been watched for every second of the day for the past couple of weeks. This party could be one big scam, like, say, a jewelry heist. Or not. Maybe on some level Kitty suspected there was something fishy going on with those two, but something happened in the receiving line tonight that made her
sure that she risked public humiliation to act on her hunch. What you saw as a game, I saw as a desperate plea for help. And just so you don't get all bent out of shape, the only reason she picked me, and not you, is because I'm married to a real-life detective. She probably thinks some of it rubbed off on me.”
“You sure have an active imagination, Abby, I'll give you that. You ever think of writing mysteries?”
“I never even read fiction, Rob, you know that. I mean, what's the point? It's all made up.”
“Ha ha, not funny. So now what do you plan to do?”
“Find someplace to google, just like you said.”
“I suppose it wouldn't hurt.”
“Famous last words.”
Holding hands, so as not to lose each other, Rob and I snaked through the thickening crowd until we found a room on the third floor that appeared to be an office. It was, however, quite occupied. The fainting couch, in particular, appeared to be taken.
“Get out!” It was the woman occupant who saw us first, and pushed her unsuspecting lover to the floor.
“Dang it, Mrs. Knopfsky,” the boy said. “You don't have to be so rude.”
Rob cleared his throat. “Never mind us. We just want to use the computer.”
“You young people and your computer games,” the woman railed, shaking a liver-spotted fist at us.
The boy turned his head. “Dang it again! I had no idea that Mrs. Knopfsky was so old.”
“Just like I'm sure she had no idea that you're so young. By the way, just how young are you?” Rob said.
“And I'm forty-six,” Mrs. Knopfsky said.
Rob snorted. “Is that so, Mrs. Robinson?”
“I age poorlyâit's the Charleston sun. That and the fact that I'm a heavy smoker. Besides, we wouldn't even be having this conversation if I was a forty-six-year-old man and he was a twenty-three-year-old woman.”
“Except that if you were the forty-six-year-old man,” I said, “you'd really be a
year-old man, given
that you belong to my mother's parlor game club. âClueless,' I believe it's called.”
The boy's clothes were across the room, but he'd been tryingâsomewhat unsuccessfullyâto cover himself with his hands. Suddenly that became unnecessary because he had less to hide, comparatively speaking, than even the Greek statute.
“DudeâI mean, Mrs. Knopfskyâyou used to be a man?”
“He's not the brightest of lads, is he?” Rob said.
“Look, not-so-lady and not-so-gentleman,” I said, “were it not for the fact that you, Mrs. K, are a widow with certain healthy needs, and you, young man, yada yada yadaâwell, it's like this: we'll be back in two minutes. By then you'll have your clothes back on,
The boy waved his arm furiously. “Is that like spinach pie?”
“Yes, and you'll eat it with a smile on your face.”
“But I don't like spinach.”
“Tough cookies,” I said.
“Now where was I? Oh yes, then we come inside, and you wait out there and stand guard. If anyone tries to come in, stop them. Don't even let them come close.”
“So you two are gonna do it, huh?”
Rob answered him with a neat clip to the left jaw.
t took us less than a minute to google the Duke and Duchess of Malberry; there were no listings. We did searches on both the royal and noble houses of Europe, but found no trace of them. Of course there were other avenues to explore, but the odds were that Kitty's hunch was a sound one.
“Now what?” Rob said. “You say âI told you so'?”
“No. I say âa hunch from a woman is worth two facts from a man.'”
“Stop gloating. When do we call the police?”
“We don't. We cause a major distraction of some sort, and then drag Kitty's butt out of there. Then we ask her what tipped her off.”
“I suppose I get to do the dragging because I'm the man.”
“No. You get to do it because you've always been quite good at dragging.”
“That's good enough for me; I'll take compliments whenever I can get them.”
We logged off the Internet, but we didn't even get as far as the door when the sound of raised voicesâone
of them far too familiar for comfortâannounced that a roadblock had been thrown up in our way. I glanced desperately around for places to hide; there were none.
. As it was the third floor, a small trapdoor in the ceiling gave access to electrical and cable wires, but it was doubtful Rob could squeeze through the opening. And even though it was pleasant outside, we would be so close to the roof that we'd undoubtedly steam to our deaths within a few minutes. If not literally, we would at least look as if we had been steamed, which for some of us is just as bad.
My heart skipped
beats as the door opened just enough to allow Mrs. Knopfsky to slip in. “It's your mama, Abby. She swears she saw you go in here. She was on the other side of the atrium and couldn't get here any faster. I told her I'd just come out of this room and it was empty, and she accused me of calling her a liar. She's going to barge in here at any second. What shall I do?”
“Give me ten more of those seconds and your tryst with Oliver Twist is historyâassuming he really
“He is. I know his parents; his daddy is my pastor. You're welcome to check him out.”
“Okay, I believe you.”
The hard part was getting Rob to believe he could fit through the access hole. I finally got him to imagine it as a rabbit hole in reverse, and me as Alice, but not with a second to spare.
“Abby, I know you're up there!” Mama shouted, “There's no place else you could be. Big Larry,” she said to her gentle giant, “if you scoot that chair overâ¦”
She let her voice trail off, not needing to waste words on a fait accompli.
But they weren't destined to breach our defenses quite so easily. Rob passed me up through the trapdoor first. Upon entering the hot dark space, I bonked my head on a lightbulb so small it would have gone unnoticed on a Christmas wreath. There was just enough illumination for me to spot a loose plank, which we set about jamming under the eave, over the door, and under a bowed area on the nearest truss. A team of gentle giants wasn't going budge that door up even a fraction of an inch.
“Mozella,” Big Larry said between pants, “I think it's nailed shut.”
“Fiddlesticks,” Mama said. “Didn't you think I can recognize my own daughter?”
“I didn't say that. But you know how it is.”
“I'm afraid I don't; how
“At a certain ageâI mean at the end of the dayâone's eyes can play tricks on them.”
The steam from Mama's nostrils was making the torrid little space even more unbearable. “I'll have you know that I am
that certain age! And even if I was mistaken about Abby, what are the odds I'd be mistaken about Rob too?”
“That handsome fellow she was with?”
“He's not that handsome, by the way; he just thinks he is.”
Rob needlessly gasped, and I went light-headed from lack of oxygen. The next thing I know, he was prodding me with his not so handsome index finger.
“It's your turn, Abby.”
“Turn to do what?”
“You have to name your favorite male vocalist?”
“Isn't that taking a risk?” I whispered. “They might hear us and never leave.”
“Geez, you really are getting loopy. They've already left. We decided to wait an extra ten minutes to make sure it's not a trap. Now hurry up before I pass out as well.”
“How about Josh Groban?”
“Yeah, him too.”
“Best female vocalist?”
“I'm still going with Barbra Streisand.”
“Are you sure that you're not a gay man in a woman's body?”
“I'm fairly certain. Would you like to check to make sure?”
“No. We did that when you were between husbands, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. During the ice storm when we lost power for three days.”
“Then we both ran from the house screaming, but at least I knew I'd taken the right path at age fourteen.”
“And I learned that the old saying, âIf you've seen one, you've seen them all,' is simply not true.”
“I choose to take that as a compliment.”
We waited a few minutes longer, and then I waited a lifetime longer than that while Rob struggled to dislodge the plank he'd jammed into place. At last it popped free, sending my buddy sprawling backward into a pile of insulation. Once we were down, Rob insisted on being the one who scoped the hallway for
lurking mamas. I was beginning to feel like a cat with only six full lifetimes remaining by the time he gave the all clear.
“Stick right by my side,” he said.
you contrary one. I'm the one with the distraction plan, remember?” I kicked him in the shins and zipped ahead.
Much to my relief, the reception line was still going strong. The only thing that had changed was Kitty's complexion. Instead of an expensive man-made “peaches and cream,” it was the lackluster grit gray that can only come from excessive perspiration coupled with fear. Her face glowed feebly, and only for a second, when she saw us. Their Gracious Frauds were occupied deceiving someone else at the moment, so I winked broadly.
Gathering my wits and my skirts about me, I strode up to the duke and slapped him hard across the left cheek. Unfortunately, I had to jump to reach his face, so I didn't connect nearly as hard as I would have liked.
“You bashtard!” Before anyone had a chance to react, I whirled and faced any would-be judgers. “Dis man eez a fraud und I can prove eet!”
“I don't know what's she's talking about,” the duke said. He actually had the gall to sound calm.
“Your Royal Highness,” the duchess said, “please, can we talk about this in private.”
? Ha! Dis eez vhere eet happenâeen private.” I rubbed my belly, which was extended as far as it could go. “Dis man impregernate me und now he vant dat I should haf an abortion.”
Her grace turned ricotta white. “Bruiser, is this true?”
? Now we were getting somewhere!
“Babe, it's all lies, I swear.”
“Dis man he lies all right. Before he ask me to have abortion, I ask him to marry me.” Despite hundreds of gasps, I plunged ahead. “I do dis because he say dis voman, dis so-called duchess, is really not his wife. He call her strumpet. I tell him that by marry me, he can become a royal princeâPrince Christian Frederick Alfred von Strugendorf of Weisbladderbadden. Is not such an easy ting, you know, because the voman's title does not automatically transfer to her consort, but I have so much moneys, I can buy anytingâeven a title, ha ha. But no need to buy title, because I am legitimate descendant of Charlemagne, ya? Is most powerful kind of royal in dee vorld. I tell him I have so much moneys I can never spend it all. For his love I could buy him a hundred Lamborghinisâvhatever he vants. But vhat does he say? He say no!”
The duke, obviously given to drama, threw himself down on one knee. Unfortunately, his thoughts took a while to catch up with him. Either that or he was waiting for a prompt from off stage.
“I did not refuse to marry you,” he finally cried. “You never asked. I would have said yes. Ask! Ask me now!”
Suddenly the duchess was all over me like white on rice. “You little bitch! I should wipe the floor with you. Don't think you can get away with this just because you're a real princess. I'm going to sue your Stroganoff-Wise-Bladder-Bag-Ass until you don't have a euro left.”
“Whatever,” I said. That word, by the way, has been voted by POST NASAL DRIPS (Parents of Snotty Teens Needing Assistance Since Adolescence Leads to Divorce Rapidly in Parenting Studies) as
single most irritating word in the English language.
“Wait,” a woman in the crowd shouted. There was some buzz and a bit of mayhem among the onlookers, but the amazing thing is that the bogus duke and duchess actually did just stand there like characters in a high school play who'd forgotten their cues. Even Kitty Bohring appeared under a spell of some sort. Then again, stress can distort timeâso can hunger, and I had been fasting all day in order to stuff myself with the inevitable goodies available at a Charleston gala of this magnitude.
Time started moving again when I realized that the woman who had stopped it was none other than Mama. Of course, that made perfect sense. According to Aunt Marilyn, my mother was in labor with me for eight hours (the time it took Aunt Marilyn to drive from Savannah to Rock Hill before there were interstate highways). Over the years, the woman who endured the pain has tripled that time, halved it, and once even quadrupled itâdepending on the audience and her mood on the day she tells the story.
“You can't sue this princess,” Mama said, shaking a dainty and well-manicured finger at Yours Truly, “because she isn't one; in fact, she's just as common as the next woman.”
“Thanks, MamaâI think.”
“Abby, where have you been? I've been looking all over.”
“Not now, Mama.”
“Don't you tell me when to be quiet, dear. I suffered forty-eight hours of excruciating labor to bring you into this world. I've earned the right to speak whenever I want.”
There was a smattering of applause, most of it from Mama's behemoth of a sidekick, who was just now catching up. “You should always respect your mama,” he echoed.
“You stay out of this,” Her Bogus Graciousness said before turning to Kitty. “I can't believe you're putting up with this. Send these people home.”
Kitty, who was no small woman to begin with, expanded her chest like a puffer fish. “It's
who should leave,” she snapped.
The dummy duchess reared back in surprise. “
“Certainly. Now out you go.”
The crowd, which was just now catching on, murmured their appreciation for a first-rate drama.
The so-called Malberrys, however, were not amused.
“We're not budging,” the dastardly duke said. “We are the guests of honor, and as such, we intend to stay until the bitter end.”
the end,” Kitty said. She clapped her hands. “Attention please. May I have your attention?”
The woman meant well, but she was clearly not quite in touch with reality. The odds of a woman in her sixties (with a quavering voice) garnering the attention of two hundred people scattered about on three floors were about as good as being able to sit
through a feature-length movie and not have the person behind you kick your seatânot even
I cupped my hands to my mouth. “People! Listen up. Your hostess has something to say.”
Mama's new beau didn't cotton to folks giving ladies the deaf ear treatment.
“Give them your attention, dang it all!”
Suddenly it was so quiet in the great hall that you could have heard a June bug hatch. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Kitty said as she added extra syllables to each word in a pitiful attempt to make them sound Southern, “although it has been a pleasureâ”
“You might want to speed things up,” I whispered. “It's like holding back a leak in the dam.”
“The party is now over.”
Instantly the dam sprung myriad leaks. “What do you mean it's over” was the most common refrain.
“Shut yer pie holes fer a minute and she'll tell ya!”
Although Big Larry's voice came dangerously close to stripping the mansion of its wallpaper, the second time around seemed to do the charm. The great house fell silent, and remained so, as the dispirited citizens of Charleston filed out.
When the only ones remaining were three fake heads of European nations I'd never heard of until a week before, one sheepish social climber, a woman with a fifties fetish, a mysterious giant with quite flexible grammar styles, and a handsome antiques dealer from “off,” I decided it was high time to get down to business.