“She poses.” Brady Huffman bared his teeth in a tight grin. “She performs the same posture for an hour every Saturday morning.”
Slamming the door, Malcolm slumped down and lit a cigarette. “It’s got something to do with her grandfather’s bequest, right?”
“She’s forced to maintain weekly public appearances or forfeit her inheritance.” Brady tilted his head at the expanse of plate glass fronting the minuscule shop. A hand-painted sign above the bifurcated door read Slipper’s Folly.
“For a stack of cash, I’d perform a lot of stuff in front of the unwashed masses.” Malcolm waggled thick eyebrows.
Brady laughed at his former college roommate. “Two decades ago you’d agree to pretty much anything for a six-pack.” His gaze traced up and down the female. “She’s a looker.”
Malcolm exhaled smoke. “How’d she take the news of her last remaining relative’s demise?”
Brady recalled the conversation. “She sounded serene on the phone.”
“They weren’t close?”
“No.” Brady watched the woman through the window as she removed the costume pieces. “He lived in Phoenix since before she was born. Chicago’s a long way from the desert.” He straightened and shoved away from the fender of the car. “She’s finished.”
Brady crossed the sidewalk and paused to look. The mannequin was back in position; eerily similar in appearance. The fur stole draped off one smooth shoulder, the mink luxurious and elegant, and a scandalously unfashionable garment in today’s world. The gilded masquerade mask flared outward from the temples into feathered wings. Champagne sequins caught light and reflected a scattering of golden droplets across the fencing helmet. Lipstick colored the figure’s mouth in the exact shade of red she wore.
“Who inherited?” Malcolm dropped the Pall Mall butt to the stained pavement and crushed the smoldering ember.
“The old man left his son a cool ten million.” Brady’s attention focused on the sway of narrow hips exiting the room.
Malcolm grunted. “That’d pay for some air conditioning.”
“Arizona must have set new heat records because bank statements show almost no money remains.” Brady stepped forward and repositioned the handle of the briefcase. He hesitated in the shallow portico, noted the rippled panels in the door. “Apparently the uncle liked to gamble.”
“I thought this was a romantic story?” Malcolm muttered.
Brady coughed to cover an inappropriate laugh. “No, it’s definitely a tragedy.”
“I’m tired of bearing bad tidings.”
“Liar.” Brady tossed the word across his shoulder. “Reporters thrive on misery.”
“I’ll concede the point.” Malcolm grinned. “So what happened?”
“Her mother and father died in a plane crash. To everyone’s surprise the grandfather asserted his rights as next-of-kin, stepped forward and claimed the child. He established a private household with nanny and tutors, spared no expense on her education, and denied her nothing.” Brady half-turned, faced his companion. “The girl was eight years old at the time. When he died fifteen years later, a stipulation in his will demanded public humiliation as atonement for the sins of the parents.”
Malcolm grimaced. “Sick bastard.”
“The plan backfired. The granddaughter paid for a full-page ad in the society column and invited the elite to attend the grand opening of her ongoing performance. She proclaimed it the visual celebration of her parent’s infamous love affair. It had steady attendance for the first year.”
“Not as bizarre as the fact that in the three years since the old man’s demise, she’s collected absolutely zip besides the monthly rents on this crumbling structure. After five years of metropolitan penance, the deed will revert to her name. It’s the only thing he left her.”
“Slipper sounds like a real jackass to raise her with certain expectations and then punish her for the faults of her father. What befell the rest of the estate?”
“Death and taxes consumed most of the assets, but the liquidation of his landholdings net huge proceeds. His factory buildings squatted on the uptown side of the river and because he didn’t designate a beneficiary, after probate is complete, she’ll be declared his heir anyways.”
Malcolm whistled his appreciation.
“The uncle, terror of rehab nurses and high stakes poker tables everywhere, turns out to have gifted his niece a tidy sum in a well-concealed investment account. We’d have missed it altogether if his attorney hadn’t been puzzled by an unusual codicil in his living trust.”
“Weirder than the old man’s?”
Brady nodded. “In order to collect the balance, she has to unravel a mystery.” He tapped the satchel. “The clues are here. She must complete the task by the end of the year. That’s the deadline to produce results.”
As his hand reached to grasp the brass sphere, the doorknob turned. He swiveled his eyes upward as the portal swung open. A striking woman with auburn hair and deep brown eyes, a flawless complexion and ruby red lips stood in front of him. A tiny smile curved her mouth. His stomach muscles clenched.
“Mr. Huffman?” Her husky voice intonated the words were a question. “I’ve been expecting you.”
A shiver flickered along Brady’s spine. Reptilian coldness in her eyes flashed and was gone, replaced with warmth and sincerity. She looked at Malcolm with expectant inquiry.
Brady made introductions.
“Please come inside.” Meredith Slipper appraised both men. “I assume you brought my legacy?” She perused the men with curiosity, took in Brady’s sharp nod of agreement. “Excellent. Your services are appreciated. I will have need of a solicitor and a reporter. Within your case is information I believe will identify the guilty party.”
Malcolm snapped out the question. “Guilty of what?”
Fluttering long fingers for them to follow, she pivoted, glanced around once with her face in profile and a small cold smirk evident. “I suspect there is a confession detailing how my uncle murdered my parents to please his father.”
Brady’s snicker was genuine. He entertained identical suspicions.