Humor Mystery

Muscle

By Matt Hughes
Jul 1, 2019 · 12,362 words · 45 minutes


From the author: This story that ran in Alfred Hitchcock’s, fifteen years ago. “Muscle” is, in my biased opinion, pretty cute. I think it would make a good movie, with Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Joan Cusack in the cast – and Emma Thompson, if they could get her to play the lead.


MUSCLE

by Matt Hughes

 

Cynthia Maidstone had never before seen a man writhing on the floor, clutching his testicles with both hands and moaning inarticulate syllables of rage and pain.  Over her fifty-two years, she was fairly sure she'd encountered it in movies and television, and she was vaguely aware that it was a staple of those repetitious home video programs, whose studio audiences automatically greeted the accidental occurrence of such injury with barks of laughter.

She doubted that Gerald Mallanger was finding anything to laugh about, curled fetally on the carpet of the Fairlawn Country Club's smaller board room.  Cynthia almost felt sympathy for the man, but the sentiment merely glided by without pausing to touch down.  She set her still firm jaw, drew a long breath through her well turned nose, put her fists on hips that also remained nicely proportioned, and waited for her best friend's estranged husband to cease making such an unmitigated fuss.  After all, the pain couldn't be much compared to childbirth, and it was certainly a lot briefer.

Dodi Mallanger, a plump woman who had come through more than five decades wearing a perpetual expression of mild surprise at whatever life contrived to do to her, was now registering pure astonishment.  She gazed down at her spouse, and her eyes and mouth made three circles of the exact same size.  Their twenty-eight years of marriage had presented Gerald to her in many positions and aspects that Cynthia had mercifully been spared, but clearly this was a new one.

The fourth person in the room, Marion Caouette, whose broad knee had done the damage, stood with beefy arms folded across an overstuffed chest and regarded the squirming man with equanimity.  She nodded, as if he had confirmed some opinion which she had long held and which he had finally brought to an empirical test.

Gerald now let go of his injured parts and made it to his knees.  His overfed face was almost crimson, the clipped white moustache standing out like a noncom's stripe on a red serge mess jacket.  There was a bruise on his right cheek bone, and a slight trickle of blood from his lip, where Cynthia had punched him twice before Marion had stepped in with her conclusive blow.

He looked up at the three women and collectively called them a four-letter word which Cynthia had read in Lady Chatterly's Lover, but which she had never actually heard spoken aloud.

"I'll kill you!" he ground out, his voice pitched low, to keep the sound from carrying beyond the closed door where it might be heard over the buzz of conversation and the clink of ice against glass, out in the Club's main salon.  It was the height of the season, and the upper reaches of Oakleigh Park's social order were simultaneously smiling into each other's faces and slipping daggers of gossip into any exposed back.

"I rather think not," said Cynthia.  "Instead, you'll write Dodi a check for what she's entitled to."

"The hell I will!"

Marion unfolded her arms and took a step forward.  Gerald began to struggle to his feet, fists balled and lower lip stuck out like a schoolboy.  That's what Cynthia thought he'd probably been the last time he'd hit anybody who was likely to hit him back -- which, of course, did not include Dodi.

"Enough!" Cynthia said, putting out a hand to stay Marion.  "Time you started thinking, Gerald!"

He made a noise that originated somewhere between his chest and his mouth.  Dodi took an involuntary step back, but Cynthia bored straight in.

"On the other side of that door is everybody whose opinion matters to you, Gerald Mallanger.  And if you don't write that check, Dodi and Marion and I are going to walk out into their midst and tell them exactly what we've just done to you.  You can kiss a fond fare-thee-well to any hope of becoming the chair of the membership committee."

Now Gerald was making a different noise.  Cynthia wouldn't have thought that the color in his face could have deepened, but a decidedly dangerous shade of purple now crept beneath the crimson.  He craved the chairmanship with a hunger that would not have disgraced a great white shark. 

"If you think you can avoid writing the check by having a stroke instead, we'll still tell them.  Then you'll have to sit there, propped up in a hospital bed, while they trail through your room to express their condolences and giggle in the hallway."

She stepped closer, almost nose to nose now, and dropped her voice to the soft purr that she used when coaxing a nervous thoroughbred through its first baby-sized jumps.  "But if you do right by Dodi, then what happened here will never leave this room.  Isn't that so, ladies?"

She said it without looking around, knowing that Dodi would be nodding her head like one of the little plastic dogs that some people, somehow, find to be just the perfect touch for the rear window of a car, and that Marion would be twisting her mouth into a wry shape that signified her concurrence.

"I'll get you for this," Gerald whispered.  His back was against the door.  His breath carried a mingled reek of good whiskey and sour bile.

"Write the check, Gerald," Cynthia said.  "It's by far the smartest thing you can do."

And he did.  Then he straightened his clothing, wiped his lip with a silk handkerchief, and ran manicured fingers through his silver mane -- "A weave," Dodi had long ago confided to Cynthia.  Without a backward glance, he opened the door and became one with the crowd. 

The check lay on the polished maplewood table that dominated the board room.  Dodi picked it up with both hands, and her eyes grew even wider.  "My God," she said.  "We did it."

Of course, they hadn't meant it to happen that way.

Dodi had only been looking for moral support when she'd driven up to Cynthia's acreage in the canyons, where Marion's teenage daughter, Misty, was practicing for her first regional show jumping competition.  Three decades before, Cynthia had been a candidate for the national team, and might have made it if her horse had had as much presence of mind as she did.

She dropped jumping after she married Victor Maidstone and the boys had come along.   Now Vic was five years in the ground.  Her sons were young men, pursuing their own lives in other places, with other people.  A year after the funeral, she sold the townhouse, bought a nicely sited riding stable close to the better suburbs, and began to teach others who wanted to go further than she had.

Misty's horse, Philemon, a deep chested seven-year-old gray gelding, was boarding at Cynthia's stable while she tried to make a jumper out of him.  Lately, with Cynthia on his back, it had finally begun to sink into his equine brain that jumping too soon would mean crashing into the second or third fence of the triple oxer. 

Cynthia had already taken him around the course laid out in the south field once this afternoon.  Now she and Marion watched the teenager canter the horse into position and prepare to dig in her heels.

"Looking better," Marion said.

"I don't know," said Cynthia.  "I never saw a horse more likely to bolt."  It was not quite true, but Cynthia didn't like to think about long-since-dead Pescator, the four-legged scatterbrain that had ruined her one big chance.  She signaled the girl to go, then quietly held her breath as Philemon rollicked up to and over the three fences.  The rails were set low at this stage, when timing was all that counted, and Cynthia had to admit, the girl's timing was not so bad. 

She heard the rattle of tires on gravel behind her, but didn't take her eyes off the horse until it was safely over the last bar.  Then she turned to find Dodi, distraught and almost disheveled, getting out of her green Cherokee, a piece of paper in her hand.

"Oh, Cyn, he's...," Dodi said, struggling to get it out, "he's just... screwing me!  That's what he's doing, screwing me, like some competitor he was beating out of a deal."  She tried to hand the paper to Cynthia, but her friend declined to take it.

"Wait until Misty's finished," she said, and they did, Dodi fretting almost audibly, as the girl turned the gray and took it once more, a little more smoothly this time, over the triple jump.  When Misty trotted the animal over and dismounted, a broad smile brought a glow to her usually low-wattage features.

Cynthia put down a tiny surge of envy and gave the girl an encouraging smile.  "Put him away," she said, and turned to take the paper from Dodi. 

It was a report from Dodi's lawyers -- Cynthia's, originally -- to whom the plump woman had gone, bewildered, the month before.  Gerald had summarily announced that he wanted a divorce so he could marry the younger, slimmer, altogether more stylish woman he'd apparently been seeing on the side for more than a year.  The lawyers were reporting that the Mallanger family assets had been very skillfully slid from view over the past few months, and were now hidden behind impenetrable barriers of Channel Island trusts and offshore bank accounts.  It looked as if Dodi might have to settle for the relative pittance her soon-to-be-former husband had flung in her direction.

Cynthia finished reading and handed the letter to Marion, who scanned it quickly, then made a face that left no doubts as to her opinion of Dodi's husband.

"What am I going to do?" Dodi wailed.  Her continued brushing had worked her back to where the other two women stood, Marion holding the piece of paper between them like something stillborn.

"Talk to him directly," Cynthia said.  "Threaten to make a stink at the Club."

"I did.  He just laughed.  He said most of them had already done what he was doing.  Dumping the old bag for a trophy wife is apparently all the rage."

She started to cry.  Cynthia put an arm around her shoulders.  "Now, now," she said, "maybe what he says and what he'll do if he's pressed are two different things.  Vic used to say Gerald was always ready to bluff on a weak hand."

Marion said, "We'll go with you, back you up."

They'd all been planning to be at the Fairlawn Club that night, anyway.  The main salon was the venue for the Cowper Foundation's scholarship presentations, an annual exercise in noblesse oblige whereby the tip of Oakleigh's social pyramid dispensed tokens of grace and favor to a few young but deserving denizens of its lower tiers. 

Cynthia was on the Foundation's selection committee.  Marion's husband, Gil, was a benefactor, although education had played no part in his rise to wealth:  he had sold the family sawmills back east at a time when their timber holdings were at a premium, then used the proceeds to get into and out of sunbelt real estate at precisely the right times.  The impetus to back the scholarship fund came from Marion.  Three generations of her family had been hands in Caouette mills, and her father had scraped to send her to college, so she would not end up working for a wage.

Dodi had planned to attend the reception -- "Just to show the flag," was how she put it -- but the letter from the lawyers had undercut her confidence.  "I don't think I could bear it," she now told Cynthia and Marion, "everybody speaking to me in careful tones, as if I were crystal that might suddenly shatter."

"Or a bomb that might suddenly explode," Marion said.

"I'm sure Gerald can be brought to see reason," Cynthia said.  "All this," -- she indicated the letter -- "may be just male menopausal bravado."

"Will you come with me?" Dodi said.

"Of course I will," said Cynthia.

"Me too," said Marion.

 Although, strictly speaking, Dodi hadn't included her in the invitation, she was glad to think of her standing close by when she called Gerald's bluff.  She found Marion Caouette somehow quietly reassuring, like a well laid floor.

The three arrived at the gala when the salon was already full and the noise was approaching that level where individual conversations dissolve into a general blare.  Dodi and Marion went into the small board room, while Cynthia crossed to a corner where Gerald Mallanger stood with his fellow silverbacks, each accoutered with whiskey and cigar, and all centered around the Club's president, Taylor Finshaw.

Finshaw was, as always, delivering one of his interminable golf stories.  And, as ever, the tale reflected the maximum credit on their teller, while placing some absent golfing partner in a less than favorable light.  Acknowledged as the wealthiest and most influential man in Oakleigh, Finshaw had inherited a fortune in his twenties, which he had since quadrupled, by dint of a moderately cunning brain, abetted by an entirely ruthless character. 

Somewhere in the room, surrounded by her own clique of hangers-on, would be Taylor's wife, Carmen Finshaw.  Although less thin than an Italian stiletto, she was just as polished and easily more dangerous.

Once, and briefly, Cynthia had tried to teach the rudiments of horsewomanship to the Finshaws' teenage daughter, a vicious little bundle of pouts and sneers named Frisia.  The one and only lesson had apparently marked the girl's first experience of not being allowed to do whatsoever she pleased.  Frisia had also not enjoyed being told that the next time she struck one of Cynthia's horse, she would learn first-hand how it felt to have a braided leather quirt -- the one Taylor Finshaw had given her for her birthday -- applied to her backside.

Since then, the Finshaws had not deigned to notice Cynthia's existence.  The continuing snub did not, however, prevent the male half of Oakleigh's social pinnacle from sliding his eyes over her, from ankles to neck, as she approached and took Dodi's husband's arm.

"Gerald, I wonder if I might have a word," she said, "in private?"

He allowed himself to be led away, with one wink over his shoulder to encourage the raised eyebrows and nudging elbows with which the others were marking his being cut from the herd by the Maidstone woman, who was to many of them an arrangement of female flesh still worth considering.

Gerald's smirk sagged into a frown the moment Cynthia led him through the door and into an encounter with his estranged wife.

Dodi began badly, stumbling over the words she had prepared to say.  Cynthia stepped in and picked up the fumbled ball.  "It won't do, Gerald.  You can't treat your wife this way.  People won't stand for it."

But it turned out that Gerald thought he could treat Dodi any way he chose.  He drained his whiskey and set the glass on the maplewood, then proceeded to give them a cigar-enhanced display of egotism that made Cynthia blink.  With the Havana Churchill clamped between his square incisors, he sneered and shrugged, dared Dodi to do the worst her lawyers could come up with, and ended by inviting them all to kiss a part of him that Cynthia, by now, would have enjoyed kicking.

He stubbed out the cigar in the whiskey glass in cold contempt, and strode to the door.  Dodi, stammering, tears darkly streaking her cheeks, reached for his arm to pull him around.  Gerald spun, covered her face with one fleshy hand, and pushed her backward so that the broadest part of her crashed painfully against the big table.

Cynthia thought she was about to say something dreadful, something ruinously cutting, to this contemptible man.  It took her by surprise, therefore, to find that she was instead stepping toward him and that her right fist was delivering two quick blows to his sneer.  She struck him the way she would have struck a horse that was trying the sly stable trick of pushing her up against the side of a stall, short hard impacts that drove his head back and drew blood from his lip.

Gerald slid out the tip of his pale tongue to taste the blood.  "You bitch!" he said, and drew back his own larger and more experienced fist.

It was then that Marion Caouette drove the heel of her pump into his left shin and brought up the hard knee that ended matters.

"Arrogant bastard," Marion said, when Gerald had left the room.

"Oh my God," Dodi repeated.

"Never mind," said Cynthia, still wondering from what unknown part of her had come the impulse to strike the man.  "It's all done and best forgotten.  But not a word to anyone."  She had no doubt that what she had seen in Gerald Mallanger's eyes as he had knelt in pain and humiliation was murderous rage, barely controlled.  "This didn't happen, and we'll never speak of it again."

Cynthia did speak of it to herself, though.  She was accustomed to pursue her thoughts through the medium of internal conversations, dividing her psyche into two sides of a debate, the better to mull things over.  She came to the conclusion that what she had done to Gerald was what her Vic, or any other right-thinking man, would have done under the circumstances.  He was a bully who deserved to have his tail lowered, especially if it served the purpose of seeing her friend properly provided for.

"But the fact was, we committed a crime," one side of her said.  "Assault, possibly aggravated assault, compounded by extortion.  And yet we fully expect to get away with it."

"People of our circle," countered her other side -- though she winced at the superiority implicit in the phrase -- "often commit crimes and get away with them.  Perhaps not murder and mayhem,"  -- although she remembered some celebrated trials that sometimes had her believing that a sufficiently well paid battery of lawyers could blunt any prosecution -- "but certainly many malfeasances go unpunished.  One of our men can get away with financial skullduggery in the millions, and be admired for it by his peers.  Yet if some bookkeeper in an off-the-rack suit did much the same thing for five thousand, he'd be jailed for fraud."

In the end she came to the conclusion that she'd done wrong in a right cause.  But the truth she dared not admit to herself was that the few seconds of physical conflict had brought her back to a quality of experience she had thought to have abandoned in some turn of the road behind her, left with her youth. 

It had been wonderful to hit Gerald Mallanger, to surrender completely to sudden rage.  She had not felt so much alive, not since the last time she had set a spirited horse at an eight foot high wall, with glory or ignominy on the other side, feeling the animal's hind quarters bunch and its front hooves leave the turf, the leap begun and nothing to do but ride it to the end.

In the weeks that followed, she would think of Gerald's preposterous face looming like a harvest moon tethered to the horizon, and her fist flashing toward it, and she would sigh.

She didn't speak of it to anyone else, and as far as she knew, neither did the other two women.  But somehow it became known, as these things do, that Dodi had won a better settlement from Gerald than had first been offered, and that her friends Cynthia Maidstone and Marion Caouette -- with whom both Cynthia and Dodi now found themselves spending more time than before -- had had a hand in it.

So Cynthia might have expected, might even -- without admitting it -- have quietly hoped, that eventually some other friend or acquaintance would sidle up to her and shyly broach the subject.  But she wouldn't have thought the shy sidler would be Madelaine Shaftebury, whose skeletal thinness and social rank almost rivaled that of her closest crony, Carmen Finshaw.

"It's my babies," Madelaine said, her long, narrow face as full of despair as a Münch portrait.  She brushed past Cynthia's attempted denials.  "He's taking my babies."

So, of course, Cynthia had to agree to hear her out, standing at the buffet line between the curried shrimp and the vegan quiche, while pent-up demand began to build in the other members of the Oakleigh Women's Literacy Movement queued up behind them.

"There's a table in the far corner," Cynthia said.  She caught Dodi's and Marion's collective eye across the room, and gestured them to join her and Madelaine there.

The "he" in question was, as Cynthia had expected, Pemberton Shaftebury, to whom Madelaine had been wed the summer after she -- and the Edsel -- had come out.  The marriage had lasted longer than the auto, but without engendering an equivalent ardor.  Now it was reaching its climactic, courtesy of Pem's suddenly renewed interest in firm female flesh, of which his skeletal wife had little remaining.  She was as thin and tall as a woman could safely be without invoking thoughts of carnival sideshows.  Her features fell sharply back from the blade-like prominence of her nose, around which, Cynthia suspected, her countersunk eyes must have had trouble focusing on anything that loomed too close.

"Your babies?" Cynthia said, when the four women were seated at the table, heads leaning toward each other in a group pose that recreated the lines of the once space-age terminal building at Los Angeles International Airport.  She could recall no second generation of Shafteburys.  "What babies?" she asked.

"I've collected them since I was a girl," Madelaine said.  "I couldn't part with a single one, and now Pem says he's taking half of them.  That's the law, he says.  I could kill him."

Dodi caught it then.  Gerald, in his hunger for social advancement, had once gotten the Mallangers invited to a Shaftebury dinner party.  "You mean your glass!" Dodi said.

"My babies," Madelaine nodded.  "My poor babies."

Cynthia remembered now that the woman had accumulated an uncommon collection of glassware -- bowls, vases, knickknacks, sculpture -- over more than five decades.  Some were pieces of great price, Lalique or antique Venetian;  others were of only sentimental value, but that value was monumental to Madelaine Shaftebury.

Her departing husband, whose powers of imagination were in inverse proportion to the size of his inherited fortune, had seized, with an unshakeable grip that pitbulls might envy, upon the notion of an equal division of property.  He was resolved to apportion everything fifty-fifty, including his wife's glass collection.  And nothing, neither tears, nor logic, nor lawyers' letters, would sway him from his aim.

"The Shafteburys are known for their single-mindedness," Madelaine said.

Comes from having only one brain cell between them, Cynthia said to herself, while aloud she said, "But what do you think we can do about it?"

Madelaine shrugged and looked away.  "Just come with me while I try to reason with him one last time."

"You just want us there for moral support?" Dodi put in.

"Well...," said Madelaine, examining the design on the club's cutlery.

The main part of Cynthia was hoping that Marion would say no.  That would end the discussion, the way her knee had ended the confrontation with Gerald.  Instead, her newfound friend quirked her eyebrows and moved her mouth in a sideways twist that said, "What the hell?"

"I suppose it would be the right thing to do," Cynthia said.  She did not want to look inward at that moment, because she would have seen the recently rediscovered part of her, a small but rapidly growing part, rising up and putting a fist into the air.

They drove to the Shaftebury house after eight in Dodi's Jeep.  Madelaine let them in herself, explaining that she had given the housekeeper an unexpected evening off.  "I thought that would be best," she said.  "Pem's right through here."

She led them into the library, where Pemberton Shaftebury sat primly erect in a wing chair, unruffled in muted tones and gentle fabrics, pursuing his customary after-dinner enjoyment of the newspaper crossword.  He prided himself on knowing his way around an acrostic.

"Don't get up," Cynthia was about to say, before realizing that the man's habit of ignoring his wife now extended to her guests.

Madelaine stood in front of her husband's chair, and waved the three visitors to range themselves behind her.

"Pemberton," she said, quietly but firmly, "I want all of my babies."

He looked up, blinked rapidly a few times, then refocused his gaze on the puzzle.  A slight smile crossed his lips as he filled in a couple of vacant squares.

"I said," Madelaine repeated, in exactly the same tone, "I want all of my babies."

There was no answer.  They all waited in a silence broken only by the scratch of Pemberton Shaftebury's pen across the newsprint.  Then Madelaine smoothly stooped and seized the front legs of the wing chair.  Lifting with her legs, and not her back, she just as smoothly but quite suddenly stood up, so that the chair tipped over backwards, taking her husband with it.

Pemberton emitted a squawk that might have been the precursor of a full sentence, but before any more sounds came out of him, Madelaine stalked around the chair, knelt beside him, and began an endless rain of blows on his upturned face, her long, thin arms rising and falling like the parts of some antiquated machine.  Each impact was accompanied by one of the syllables from her chanting, mantra-like, "All of them, all of them, all of them..." in the same restrained but steadfast tone.

It was only seconds before Cynthia and Marion moved to pull the woman away.  Dodi, again, merely watched with wide eyes and parted lips.

Pemberton, his face blotchy red from his wife's attentions, a slight rivulet of blood running from his swelling nose and across his upper lip, lay looking up at them, breathing hard.

Finally, he swallowed and said, "Madelaine, you've gone quite mad."

"Not quite," she answered, still calm.  "But if you don't give up your ridiculous claim to my babies, I will go into whatever territory lies beyond mad.  And then we will all do to you exactly what was done to Gerald Mallanger."

She made as if to pull free of the other women's hands and commit further outrages.  Pemberton raised his hands to shield his face, making a noise like a duck with a sore throat.  "All right!" he said.  "The glass is yours!"

They left him there, still tipped over, one knuckle nudging gently at his bleeding nostril, and went into what Madelaine called "the parlor."  Cynthia had been in houses that were scarcely larger than this one vast room.  The far wall was done in shelves of polished dark wood, on which the "babies" glistened and shone under carefully arranged lighting.  Madelaine walked to the end of the room, raised her arms to the shelves like Nixon waving his final goodbye, and let go a grand sigh.

"Madelaine," said Cynthia, "what on earth did you mean about doing to Pemberton 'what was done to Gerald Mallanger?'"

The woman turned and came back to them.  She narrowed her eyes, somehow making her face even thinner and sharper than its usual axe-edge proportions.  "Women like you," she said, her eyes moving to take in Dodi and Marion as well, "women like you, who go to university and run businesses, you think that women like me are a lot of empty-headed ninnies."

Cynthia was about to make the obligatory denial -- although the description was not wholly inaccurate -- but Madelaine shushed her with a wave of an attenuated hand, and went on, "Just because we went to finishing school and learned which fork to use and how to say chacun à son goût, does not mean that we put away our brains with our trousseaux the moment we were tied to some man.  Women like me were running great houses and great families, even great countries, before women like you were ever invented."

"I assure you..." Cynthia began, but Madelaine raised an imperious finger.

"I saw Gerald follow you into a room, and I saw him come out not three minutes later.  I saw how he looked going in, and I saw how he walked coming out.  And I drew the appropriate conclusions.  So did quite a few of the people who were there, I'm sure."

"We promised we wouldn't tell," said Dodi.

"And you haven't.  Because you needn't."

"But Gerald might not realize that," Cynthia said.  "There could be a problem if he thinks we did."

Madelaine sniffed.  "Leave Gerald Mallanger to me.  The silly little man positively drools to be membership chairman.  If he has that, it will be enough to keep him happy.  I'll have Pem say a word to Ollie and Porter, and all will be well in the garden."  She let her eyes drift to her babies.  "I suppose it's the least I can do, after using you in such a calculating manner."

"Do you think your husband will cooperate?" Cynthia asked her.  "I mean, after..."

"He'll be delighted."

"Next time someone asks whatever happened to Lucrezia Borgia, I'll know the answer," said Cynthia, as they pulled out of the long drive that led to the Shaftebury house.

"I need a drink," Marion said.

"That's what we pay dues for," said Dodi, swinging the wheel.  Ten minutes later, they were at a corner table in the lounge that had been, in the original arrangement of the Fairlawn, the "Ladies' Retreat," and which somehow still seemed to offer a more hospitable ambience for female members than any other room at the Club.

The steward knew their tastes, and responded to Marion's wave by bringing them two gins-and-tonics and a bourbon on ice.  The reached for the drinks the moment they touched the table, and each took more than a sip.  Marion put the whisky glass to her forehead, closed her eyes, and said, "My babies."  Then she had to bite her lip.

The other two women both spoke at once.

"What have we got ourselves into?" Cynthia said.

"My God, wasn't that just the best thing ever?" said Dodi, and giggled.

Marion stared at Dodi, her usually loquacious features held rigid.  But then, piece by piece, the rigor broke down -- first around the eyes, then at the corners of the mouth, then spreading to her whole stocky torso, which began to shake with silent laughter.

"Did you see him lying there?" she spluttered, two red spots rising on her cheeks.  "His little feet, up and down like a tantrum.  And all the time, Madelaine's beating the other end like a tin drum."

"Wait a minute," Cynthia began.

"Hey, Pem, what's a five-letter word for whup-your-ass?" Dodi said, her voice breaking on the last syllable.

"Guys," Cynthia tried again.  "Come on."

"You've gone quite mad, my dear," Marion mimicked, then her fists beat a rapid tattoo on the table top.  She and Dodi collapsed into fits of giggles and snorts, covering their mouths with their hands, tears squeezing from the corners of their eyes.

"It's not funny," Cynthia managed to get out, but then the contagion caught her.  She put her palms flat on the table top and lowered her forehead to her knuckles, while her sides shook and long, rolling peals of laughter bubbled up from some subbasement she'd forgotten was ever there.

"This is getting out of hand," Cynthia said, when she could breathe again.

"My side hurts," Dodi said.

Marion drummed on the table, which set them off again.

"Ow," said Dodi, one hand holding her ribs.

"No, really," said Cynthia.  "This is not good."

"Worried?" said Marion.

"No," said Cynthia, then corrected herself.  "Well, maybe a little.  You know, we were just accessories to an assault.  Pemberton would have the law on his side."

"He was more concerned about having Madelaine all over his noggin," Dodi said, then had to hold her side again.

"I'm just afraid we're getting into something we can't control.  I mean, what do we think we're doing?"

"Having fun," said Dodi, "for a change."

"And doing a little good," Marion put in.

"Well, that's true," Cynthia had to agree.  "But although the ends are right, the means are out of line."

"So what?" said Marion.  "Look, this Club is full of men who think they can do whatever the hell they want.  They've got money and power, most of it handed down to them by their daddies, and they use them both any old way they choose.  We're just giving the worst of them a taste of their own medicine."

"Besides," said Dodi, "we haven't robbed them or anything.  And we didn't do it for money, so it's not like we're hired muscle."

"Hired muscle?" Cynthia said.  "You've been reading too many mysteries."

Dodi stuck out her tongue, and for a moment Cynthia remembered the girl her friend had been, way back when the world was made of simpler shapes painted in brighter colors.

"Admit it, Cyn," Marion said.  "You liked it, too.  They had it coming and it was fun being the good guys."

Cynthia hung her head just a little.  "All right, I admit it.  We're the Three Musketeers.  We're Robin Hood's merry sisters, righting wrongs and raising hell in a genteel way.  Just let's not go looking for trouble."

"I don't think we'll have to," said Marion, inclining her head toward the imposing woman in a designer original who had just appeared in the lounge's doorway.

"Isn't that Allison Moberley?" said Dodi, "the woman who owns the Exotique chain?"

"And a prime member of Madelaine Shaftebury's clique," said Cynthia, her insides suddenly bubbling with a mix of excitement and apprehension.  "I have a feeling that in Madelaine's definition of keeping a secret, telling your friends doesn't count."

"That's our definition, too," said Dodi.

"Here she comes," said Marion, folding her arms across her chest.

Teddy Shankhill saw the plump woman in the pale silk suit bending over the engine compartment of the green Grand Cherokee as soon as he got off the elevator in the second-to-top floor of the downtown parking garage.  He couldn't have missed her, since the Jeep was parked in the space next to his J-series Jag.

When she heard his footsteps, she withdrew her head from under the raised hood and say, "Could you please help me?  I don't know anything about cars."

He was about to walk by, leaving only a flippant remark, but something about the woman's vulnerability nudged the avarice that was never dormant in him.  Female helplessness, in Teddy's experience, was a reliable starting point for an increase in his net worth.  He gave her a quick but expert appraisal as he approached, totting up the combined worth of the Dior suit, the double strand of pearls and the wink of diamonds from the wedding set on her left hand, and decided his afternoon massage could wait while he explored her potential for his gain.

He gave her his boyish smile, and saw it smooth most of the anxiety from her once pretty face.  "What seems to be the trouble?"

"I think there's a loose wire," the woman said.

He glanced at the engine, about which he knew little more than she did.  "Where?" he said.

"Down there in the back."  She pointed at a piece of curved plastic.  "Behind that round black thing.  But I can't reach it."

Teddy stooped over the Jeep's innards.

"I don't see..." he said, but the rest of his response was superseded by the thump of the Cherokee's hood against the crown of his head.  The sheet of steel was propelled downward by Marion and Cynthia, who had been waiting, crouched behind the car, for Dodi to signal that the mouse was in the trap.

"The handcuffs!" said Cynthia.

"Oh, yes, sorry!" said Dodi, reaching into the pocket of her jacket for the restraints.  Cynthia pulled the dazed man's arms together behind his back and Dodi slipped the cuffs on.  Marion knelt and cinched his ankles together with a broad leather belt.  Then, just as they had practiced it, they lifted the hood, caught Teddy as he sagged toward the floor, and stood him more or less upright.  His eyes were unfocused.  Dodi slapped a strip of duct tape across his mouth and put a pillowcase over his head.  A minute later, he was under a blanket in the Cherokee's rear compartment, and they were rolling out the exit ramp.

Teddy regained full consciousness before they made it back to the woods above the stables, a spot chosen for its isolation and rarity of passersby.  He began to push his knees into the back of the rear seat, causing Dodi some discomfort.

"Don't fuss, dear," she said.  "We don't want to have to hit you on the head again."

Teddy settled down.

They parked in a small stand of maples and rolled the man out of the vehicle.  "Who's got the scissors?" Cynthia said, at which Teddy curled up into a ball and began to make muffled noises under the pillowcase.

"We're just going to cut your clothes off," Dodi said.  "We need you naked, you see, and we can't risk untying you."

Teddy twitched once or twice, when the steel touched his skin, but it wasn't long before the tattered pieces of his Versacce suit and Alfred Sung shirt were scattered around.

"Shoes off or on?" Marion asked.

"Off, I think," Cynthia said.  "He looks silly wearing just socks and shoes."

"Thought that was the point."

"Off," Cynthia repeated.

When he was stretched on the ground, naked except for the restraints and the pillowcase, Cynthia bent over him.  "I suppose you're wondering why we've done this?" she asked.

The pillowcase nodded vigorously.

"I should think you'd be more interested in knowing what we're going to do next."  She clicked the scissors so he could hear the noise they made.

Teddy froze.

"Well," said Cynthia, "we thought that first we'd give you an injection of a rather strong animal tranquilizer, then we'd paint your private parts some interesting colors, and finally we'd release you naked outside that oyster bar which seems to be your favorite place to meet friends."

"What about the daffodil?" Dodi said.

"Oh, yes," Cynthia said.  "One of us wants to stick a daffodil... well, I'm sure you get the picture."

"Worth a try," said Marion.

"Can't hurt," said Dodi.  Then she giggled.  "At least, it can't hurt us."

By now, Teddy was moving again.  Marion put a foot on his chest, and he stopped.

Cynthia said, "But let's get back to your original question:  why are we doing this?"

The pillowcase now seemed very alert for a pillowcase.

"You have some photographs," Cynthia went on.  "We'd like to have them, and the negatives."

Teddy began to thrash again.  "Tell him about the Crazy Glue," Dodi said.

Teddy lay still.

"Oh, yes.  One of my friends thinks that glue is better than paint.  We're having trouble making up our minds.  Perhaps you have an opinion."

Muffled sounds came from under the pillowcase.  Cynthia reached in and stripped away the tape without uncovering the man's eyes.

"Which photos did you want?" said Teddy.

"You mean there's more than one set?  That hadn't occurred to us," Cynthia said.  She thought for a moment, then said, "We'd better have them all."

Teddy said some things that none of them wanted to take personally.

"You know," said Dodi, "the daffodil would probably stay put if we used the Crazy Glue on it."

"That's true," said Cynthia.

"All right," said Teddy.  "How do we do this?"

They had that all worked out as well.  Within an hour, they had retrieved the photos and negatives from the cache Teddy had created beneath the floorboards of his beach front condo.  They left him handcuffed under the blanket in a disused gravel pit several miles away.  Nearby, they piled some jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of flip-flop thongs that would probably fit, along with the handcuff key.  By the time Teddy got the pillowcase off, the Cherokee was long gone. 

For a while afterwards, he told himself that wished he had memorized the license plate.  But eventually, he could admit to himself that he would just as soon never run into those terrifying women again.

Cynthia, Dodi and Marion found some of Teddy's photo collection surprising, but most of them were only sad.  They gave Allison Moberley the ones that he had used to blackmail her with, declining her offer to pick anything they wanted from her stores.  The rest of the pictures they burned in Cynthia's fireplace.

"Well, that was fun," said Dodi, watching the flames.  "So what's next?"

"Nothing, for God's sake!" Cynthia said.  "We've got to stop it before we get into trouble.  Suppose that man had had a gun?"

"We'd have glued it to him," Marion said.

"No," said Cynthia.  "No more.  It's been fun.  It's been exciting.  But I can't help thinking we've been dancing blindfolded on the edge of a cliff.  Let's just get back to normal, before somebody gets hurt."

The Fairlawn's annual election of officers was held on an autumn Saturday.  The occasion marked the first visit the three friends had made to the club in some weeks, they having thought it wise to let time build up some insulation between them and their newfound notoriety.  Cynthia and Dodi came together, choosing seats in a rear row of the ranked chairs where they were less likely to be noticed and where they could catch Marion's attention when she arrived a little later, after dropping Misty off somewhere in town. 

But they had scarcely sat down before they realized that the smiles and beckoning gestures coming from Madelaine Shaftebury and Allison Moberley, in the places at the front of the room to which their rank entitled them, were directed at them.

"So much for back to normal," said Cynthia.

"Oh, my God," whispered Dodi, as they made their way forward.  All around them, she saw eyebrows rise, heads incline together and the beginnings of whispered conversations throughout the room. 

"We'd prefer not to draw attention to ourselves, Madelaine," Cynthia said when they arrived at the front of the room.

"Nonsense," was the reply.  "Let them look.  Let them prattle.  One is who one is."

A few moments later, with the meeting about to begin, Marion Caouette arrived.  It was an event which should have been noted by few.  Instead, it drew the eyes and comments of all, because in the crook of Marion's arm rested the whip thin limb of Carmen Finshaw.

The queen of Oakleigh society ignored the murmurs and stares, sweeping Marion to the elite clique in the first row.  She declared that she had encountered the mill worker's daughter in the parking lot and "begged her to lead me to the other two musketeers."  Dodi smothered a laugh.  Cynthia drew her lips into a tight line and said nothing.

"It's all right, dear," Carmen went on, "I know what you've been doing, and I heartily approve." 

Those close enough to hear Carmen's public blessing passed it in murmurs and whispers through the rest of the seated crowd.  Clearly, everyone else in the room knew what they'd been up to.

Madelaine Shaftebury was looking languidly about, rather like a long-necked wading bird seeking a frog to spear.  "Is Taylor not to be with us?" she said.

Carmen Finshaw's frosted head moved briefly on the svelte cords of her neck.  "He said something, a meeting of one of his boards, I gathered."  

"Not like him to miss the election of officers," Allison said.  "He is president, after all."

"He'll arrive eventually, I'm sure," said Carmen and changed the subject.

As vice president, Pemberton Shaftebury rapped his gavel on the felt covered head table to open the meeting in Taylor Finshaw's absence.  Officers read their reports, then the meeting proceeded to elections.  Gerald Mallanger's name was placed in unopposed nomination for chairman of the membership committee, and he was duly voted in.  He advanced to the head table and made some remarks, his hands gripping the small podium as if it contained the keys to heaven, and his dull eyes brushing over the membership like a prince taking obligatory note of his courtiers. 

Dodi dropped her eyes, but Cynthia nodded cordially as her gaze met Gerald's.  She was rewarded with a sudden flash of the same lethal rage that had leaped at her as he had kneeled in the small boardroom.  It was quickly suppressed, and his eyes moved on, but the flare of murderous hate had been as clear as the flash from a lighthouse across a dark channel.  An involuntary shiver raced up her spine and shook itself free from her shoulders.

"I'm sorry," she said to Carmen Finshaw.  The woman had just said something.  "I was listening to Gerald."

"Can't think why," was the response.  "Such a curious mixture of fawning gratitude and preening egotism.  But I was saying that I'm sure our Frisia could benefit from a return to your tutelage.  Would Thursday afternoon be convenient?"

Cynthia knew there was no point in starting something that would not be finished.  "She would need to be more... receptive to my suggestions," she said.  "The last time..."

Carmen cut her off.  "I wouldn't worry about that, my dear.  I've already spoken to her.  She knows you are not a woman to be trifled with."  She looked to the rear of the room.  "Ah, there's Taylor now."

The man who occupied Oakleigh's social pinnacle made his usual sedate progress to the head table, as Gerald Mallanger was taking his long-sought seat.  Finshaw paused to nod -- it was almost a bow -- to his wife and her companions in the first row of seats.  It was only then that he noticed Cynthia and her two friends.

Cynthia looked up to see a series of expressions pass in rapid succession across his self-satisfied face.  First came his usual blank indifference to all others, a product of inborn arrogance.  There followed a sudden flash of recognition, which immediately gave way to a pale wash of fear behind his eyes, before being just as quickly buried beneath a conscious redrawing of his habitual uninterested stare.  He rounded the table and stepped to the podium, and took charge of the rest of the meeting.

In the little more than a second that it had taken Taylor Finshaw to react to finding her and her friends in the company of his wife, Cynthia had grasped exactly why the three off them had been so precipitously promoted to the social vanguard.  They were to be cocked and aimed at a new target. 

Less than half an hour later, the members having discussed and voted on the Fairlawn's plans for the year, the annual general meeting wound down to Taylor's final gaveling of the felt covered table.  Club staff opened the room-high doors to the adjacent reception room.  The members rose and waited for the Finshaws to lead them to the refreshments.  Despite imperiously summoning looks from Madelaine Shaftebury and Allison Moberley, who fell in with their husbands in the second rank, Cynthia held Dodi and Marion back.

"I'm leaving," she said.  "You should too."

"What?" said Marion, at the same time as Dodi said, "Why?"

"Carmen wants us to do something to Taylor."

Dodi's eyes expanded.  "Did she tell you that?"

"No," Cynthia said, "he did.  He was trying not to, but it was written on his face."

"Wow," said Dodi, while Marion frowned in a way that somehow caused the cords in her neck to pop out.

"We don't need this," Cynthia said, and her friends agreed.

"Guys like Pem and Gerald are one thing," Marion said.  "When we say they act like they can get away with murder, that's just talk.  Taylor Finshaw's the kind who might just give it a try."

"I wouldn't be surprised if he already has," Dodi said, and shuddered.

"I don't know what he's done to Carmen, or what she thinks we're going to do for her," Cynthia said, "and I don't care.  I'm out of the hired muscle business."

"Me too."

"Oh, my God."

"We'd better make sure Taylor knows that," Cynthia said.  "Wait here."

She went into the reception room, where the Fairlawn's various cliques had already sorted themselves into nodes and satellites, with uniformed waiters whisking trays of champagne and delicacies through the intervening spaces.  She spotted Taylor in the power center of the room, Gerald and Pemberton at his elbows, while other silverbacks clustered close, leaning in as if E.F. Hutton, the Wall Street brokerage made famous in an old advertising campaign, was about to say the sooth.

Cynthia felt the crowd's attention swing toward her as she crossed the floor, inserted herself into the group and touched Taylor's elbow.  "Taylor," she said, "I wonder if I might have a word?"

There was an instant hush, the constant clink of glasses borne on elevated trays now sounding as loud as an advancing panzer division.  Every eye in the room was fixed upon Cynthia Maidstone and Taylor Finshaw  --  every eye except the six owned by his wife and her two cronies, who were studiously examining the brocade of the cloth covering the buffet table, which they had seen and ignored a hundred times before.

Taylor looked first at Cynthia's fingertips where they touched his sleeve, then at her serious face, then over at Dodi and Marion, visible through the open doors that connected to the meeting room.  A jovial expression remained painted on his countenance, but the skin that was its canvas paled noticeably.  He took a breath and said, "Perhaps later."

Oh my, thought Cynthia, that was the wrong approach.  Aloud, pitching her voice to carry throughout the hushed room, she said, "There has been a mistake, Taylor.  Whatever Carmen has told you, it's not going to happen.  Nothing's going to happen."

Taylor raised his glass and sipped champagne.  Cynthia had to admire the lack of tremor in his hand.  "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said.

"Fine," she answered.  "Let's leave it like that."

She turned on her heel, collected Dodi and Marion, and the three friends went out into the autumn air.  The muted rumble and buzz of voices from the reception room followed their footsteps until the front doors swung closed behind them.

"I've had enough of this place," Marion said.  "Whatta you say we start our own club?"

The clock radio's LED read 2:40 a.m., more than three hours before its alarm would tell Cynthia to get up and get the day started.  She focused sleepy eyes on the red digits, separated by a flashing colon.  She'd been having the dream about riding Pescator again, on that awful day, her knees urging him up to the water barrier, feeling the tension building in him, knowing that he was going to balk, just as he always balked whenever she had the dream.  If she didn't wake up, she'd be tossed over his head, and he'd be running off around the course, kicking his heels, while the commentators made sympathetic noises, and all her dreams faded to black.

But it hadn't been the dream that woke her -- she knew that somehow.  She rolled onto her back and wondered what was wrong.  That was when she heard the horses screaming. 

She threw back the covers and was at the window in a second, yanking the curtains out of the way to look down into the stable yard.  Nothing.  Doors closed, lights on, no lurking figures.  Yet she could hear Philemon and Packy and Buck, the terrible, shrill scream of panicked horses, the metal-shod hooves crashing against the floorboards and the sides of their stalls.

She flung herself downstairs, wrapping her robe around her.  Out the side door and across the stone flags to the stables, grab the steel handle of the big door.  Now she could smell the smoke, sweet and sharp, the acrid bite of burning hay.

She prepared to slam the door sideways, knowing that pulling it might be the last thing she ever did.  If the hay was smoldering, throwing open the door would let in a sudden gush of flame-feeding oxygen.  Then she would be hit by a blast of superheated air that would cook the inside of her lungs while it tossed her across the yard like a puppet with its strings cut.  But she couldn't stand there and listen to the animals scream.

She took a deep breath, then yanked the door aside.  There was no explosion.  Her eyes went first to the hay bales stacked at the rear of the stable, but she saw no flames, no tell-tale glow of embers.  There was smoke in the air, quite a lot of it, but she couldn't see where it was coming from.  Then she realized that all of the inside lights were off.

Electrical? she asked herself.  But it was burning hay she was smelling, she was sure of that.  And the outside lights were working, though they were all on the same circuit.

"What the hell?" Cynthia said, took a deep breath, and went into the stable.  She'd get the horses out and wait to find out what was going on.

Two steps inside, the smoke stung her eyes and she could feel heat on her face.  There was a fire, and it was close.  She moved forward, gingerly, eyes streaming, hands extended.  She felt her way to it through the smoky darkness, her palms guiding her as if they were playing a real-life version of the old "hot-and-cold" game she'd played with her boys when they were children.

Fifteen feet into the smoky blackness, she found the source of the heat.  Through streaming eyes, she saw red beneath the pall of smoke, down low.  She nudged a toe forward, and connected with the old steel wash tub that should have been hanging on the wall near the cupboard that held farrier's tools.  Instead, here it was in the middle of the wide central aisle between the stalls.  What the hell is this doing here? she wondered.  And why is it full of burning hay?

She'd leave the questions till later.  If that was all the fire amounted to, she'd douse it now, before it could spread, then get the horses into the fresh air.

"If this is somebody's idea of a joke," she said aloud, groping toward the fire extinguisher that should be hanging on a post between two empty stalls.  Talking was a mistake.  The biting fumes rasped the lining of her airway, and she coughed.  Clamping her lips closed, trying to ignore the unbearable tickle in her chest, she finally found the upright timber, then the metal cylinder.  She pulled it free from its steel bracket, and turned back to the burning hay.

The need to cough became overwhelming, triggering a spasm that almost doubled her over.  Stooped, she felt a rush of air as something passed through the space where her head had just been and smashed into the post. 

Cynthia spun around and flung the extinguisher at the smoky darkness.  She heard it hit something softer than the wall.  There was a whining, guttural growl, oddly muffled, and she knew that all she had done was to make her assailant even more angry.

She threw herself backwards, but not quite quickly enough.  Whatever had been swung at her before now came back for a second blow.  Something hard and heavy, a club with a sharp edge was the image that popped into her mind, grazed the muscle between her left shoulder and neck.

Even the glancing blow, softened by the thick fabric of her robe, was enough to numb her left arm.  If that hits me in the head, I'm done for, said a part of her that had coolly detached itself from the fear and confusion, while she backpedaled through the choking blackness of the stable.

The smoke was getting thicker, but she could sense more than see a grayness to her left -- the door to the light-filled stable yard.  She needed to get out there, away from whoever was stalking her, whoever had set the fire as bait to draw her into this trap.

Gerald? inquired her internal commentator.  Taylor Finshaw?  Maybe even that Teddy, if he found out...  The thought ended in another fit of coughing.  She wiped her eyes and headed for the open door, close enough now to see it as a dim oblong.

Then she saw the shape pass between her and the gray light, too indistinct to identify.  That's where he'll be waiting.  Coughing, she backed away.

There was another door, human sized, beyond the hay store.  But whoever had trapped her would have blocked it, she was sure.  Time to think, before you suffocate.

She crouched to the floor.  The smoke was thinner here.  She could see all the way to the door, to the pair of legs between her and the light.

The horses were still shrieking.  Misty's high-strung Philemon was making a lot of the noise, but her own buckskin quarter horse, appropriately named Buck, was adding plenty to the din.  Big Packy -- short for pachyderm because she walked as slowly as an elephant -- was rumbling and whickering, like an outraged dowager demanding an explanation.

That's it, half of Cynthia's mind told the other.  Cavalry charge.  She scrambled on hands and knees to Packy's stall, stood upright and felt her way along a wall to the head of the enclosure where, the oversized horse's halter was tethered to an iron ring.  She slipped the rope loose, talking and patting and stroking, and backed the big mare out of the stall.

That brought Packy's nose closer to the source of the smoke, and she stamped and pulled toward the doorway.

"No, wait, there's a baby, good girl," Cynthia whispered, as she snugged the lead rope through an iron bracket bolted to the post where the fire extinguisher had been.  "Let me get Buck."

She crawled to the quarter horse's stall.  The buckskin calmed a little when she ran a hand over his nose and let him smell her, all the time talking in his ear to soothe and gentle him out of panic. 

She got him out of the stall and tried to pull him over to where she had left Packy.  Her plan was to position herself between the two horses, holding on to their halters -- she'd seen it in a movie, somewhere -- then charge out of the stable hanging between them.  It would take a lot more than a lurker armed with a club to stop their progress, once they got going.

 But Buck had had enough of smoke and darkness.  He wanted out.  When Cynthia tried to pull him sideways toward Packy, the gelding tossed his head so hard and sudden that she was almost jerked off her feet.  The coarse sisal rope burned her palm and she involuntarily released it.  Buck's hooves thumped on the floorboards, and he was gone.

Damn horses, said the cool part of her.  Always let you down when you need them.  But she could still do it with Packy.  She crawled to the big horse, stood up to untie her from the post, then took a good grip on the halter strap.  "Okay," she said, "let's go!"

But now there was nowhere to go.  The gray oblong was shrinking.  She heard the rumbling sound of the big door closing.  The attacker was shutting them in.

Cynthia swore again, the same word Vic would use when he hit his thumb with a hammer.  She got down on her hands and knees again, breathing the cooler, cleaner air on the floor. 

Now what? she asked herself, but this time the answer didn't come from the calm, rational corner of her inner household.  This time, the response rattled up from the part of her that had stepped forward and punched Gerald Mallanger, the angry part of her that she had kept hidden, even from herself, like a dangerously deranged auntie locked in the basement for too many years. 

A welling, rising, towering rage roared straight up out of the core of Cynthia Maidstone, filling her with a cold, crackling energy so intense she felt that she could point her fingers and chill lighting would coruscate from their tips.

A part of her was asking, Where did this come from? but all of her knew the answer:  it came from the damned horse that balked at the water jump in the national try-outs;  from the damned sweet husband who'd died and left her with all this life yet to live;  from her damned sweet sons who'd wandered off into the world with scarcely a backward glance;  from the talentless teenagers she had to teach;  from rubbing up against the Mallangers and Finshaws and all the other well fed barracudas that continually circled the Fairlawn Country Club, ready to tear into any tiny wound that leaked a smell of weakness into the social pond.

She should have recognized the signs when she'd popped Gerald in the nose, or when she'd gone along with playing at being hired muscle.  Somewhere down inside her, sealed away, was one hell of a sense of grievance.  She'd been standing on its head for a long, long time, and now it wanted out, just the way Buck had wanted out of the stable.  It wanted someone to take it all out on, someone to hit back at, someone who could be made to pay for what life had done to Cynthia Maidstone.

And somewhere in this dark, stinking stable, armed with a mere club, was the son of a bitch who had volunteered for the position.

"All right, then," she whispered, already crawling to the empty stall where she'd thrown the fire extinguisher.  She felt around and found the cylinder, then dragged it back to the wash tub.  A few seconds of chilled carbon dioxide, and the fire was out, though the smoke was just as dense.

She crawled to Philemon's stall, a plan putting itself together as she moved.  The part of her that reflected on her thoughts commented on the iciness of her rage, but the rest of her was too busy to discuss it.

The attacker had been in the thick of the smoke before Cynthia arrived, yet she hadn't heard a cough.  Gas mask, she thought.  That means I can't find him by listening, the way he can find me, so I'll have to bring him to me.

She felt her way along the trembling length of Philemon.  The thoroughbred was making less noise now -- not because he was calmer, but because he had entered the stock-still, quivering-all-over stage of horse panic, his entire weight hauling backwards against the rope and the iron ring that tied him to the wall.

He wasn't going to calm down soon, Cynthia knew.  That was all right.  She didn't want him calm.

She took hold of the end of the tethering rope.  It hung loose from the ring, tied in a quick-release knot that would come open if she yanked down suddenly.  She squatted down in a corner of the stall and listened.  She heard only the stamping of Packy's giant hooves on the floorboards by the big door and the snuffling of her breathing.  The big mare must have found a gap between the door and the jamb, and was sucking fresh air through the opening.

Cynthia could hear no sound from the attacker, but she knew he was there, waiting for her to move to one of the doors.  Or for a cough that would tell him where she was hiding.

The smoke was thinner now.  There were vents in the roof peaks that would let it dissipate.  If it got any thinner, the attacker could find her just by turning the lights back on and looking around.  It was time to act.

Squatting in the corner, Cynthia spoke firmly into the darkness.  "Police," she said, then counted five seconds before she continued, "This is Cynthia Maidstone, 1204 Argyle Road.  There's a man trying to kill me and burn down my stable.  Send the fire department, too."

She waited another couple of seconds then called out, "I've called 911.  The police are on their way.  If you're going to run, now's the time to do it."

But the observer part of her knew she didn't want the attacker to run, didn't care whether or not he believed she had a cellular phone.  She wanted him to follow the sound of her voice, to come sneaking through the blackness.

"I'm not kidding," she said, and listened.  And heard what she'd been listening for.  The sound was faint, a tiny creak that was almost smothered by Packy's snorts and the air whistling through Philemon's distended nostrils.  But she heard it again, a shrilly complaining floorboard, in just the right place.

She yanked down sharply down on the gelding's tether and immediately let go.  The rope unknotted from around the iron ring, and the tall thoroughbred stumbled backwards into the aisle between the stalls.

Cynthia heard a gasp and a whine as Misty Caouette's high-strung jumper blundered around in the darkness, desperate for a way out.  But those were not horse noises.  They came from the person who had been standing immediately behind Philemon when Cynthia loosed the terrified animal like a bolt from a catapult, the person who was now down on the floor getting a thorough acquaintance with the gelding's hooves.

Cynthia didn't wait to assess the damage.  Ducking low, she scuttled to the big door, worked the handle and threw it wide, then got out of the way as Packy and Philemon made their clattering exit.  The horses ran to join Buck in the south field, while the woman took only twelve strides to reach the door of the house.

She slammed it closed behind her, grabbed the portable phone from beside the kitchen door and locked herself in the downstairs bathroom.  There, crouched in the bath tub, the shower curtain drawn, she dialed 911 and repeated to the police operator who answered what she had said to the darkness of the stable.

One of the advantages of living on the right side of town was the rapid response time of the Oakleigh police department.  In less than five minutes, Cynthia saw blue light strobing through the bathroom window.  She made her way to the side door and looked out to see two police cars in the yard, and four uniformed officers with guns drawn edging toward the stable door.

A gray Mercedes came up the driveway.  Cynthia saw two of the cops turn and put their guns on its driver.  Taylor Finshaw got out with both hands raised, his face contriving an expression of jovial disbelief at the idea that anyone could think him a criminal.

He gave his name and said, "I live nearby.  I was on my way home and saw the commotion.  Everything all right with Cynthia?"

"Just fine," said Cynthia, stepping onto the porch, in a voice that sounded steadier than she felt.  She watched him react, then saw him cover up that first reaction.  She knew that his arrival was no coincidence.  Whoever was in the barn had been sent by Taylor Finshaw.  Unable to resist a chance to gloat, he had come to see Cynthia carried off to the hospital, perhaps to the morgue. 

But now he didn't know how this was going to turn out at all, and from the way he clenched his fists behind his back, she knew that there was a growing worry behind the facade of neighborly concern.

The police returned their attention to the stable.  One of them shouted into the smoky darkness, "Come on out of there!  Hands where we can see them!"

The response from inside was muffled.  Cynthia couldn't make out words, but the pain and panic in the voice were real.  She saw Taylor swallow, and now there was sweat on his forehead, even in the coolness of a September night.

Two police officers went into the stable.  Seconds, later, one of them came out with his gun holstered.  "We're clear," he said.  "You two help get the perp outta there.  I'm calling the paramedics."

In his hand he held a two foot length of wood, a two-by-four roughly whittled at one end to make a hand grip.  Into the other end was nailed a steel horse shoe.  He set it on the passenger seat of one of the police cars, and leaned into the open door for the radio mike.

Now the pieces were falling into place for Cynthia.  It was not hard to see how this was supposed to have gone:  the club was intended to make her look like a stable owner who had been kicked and trampled unconscious while rescuing horses from a fire.  And maybe she'd have been left to burn.

She crossed the yard to where Finshaw still stood, tying to see into the stable.  "You bastard," she said.

"I didn't know anything," he answered, not taking his eyes off the darkened doorway.  Then he swallowed and said, "It was all her own idea."

His last words stopped the tirade that had been lining up in Cynthia's speech center.  "Her idea?" she said.  She followed his gaze.  Limping into the stable yard, borne between two police officers the way Cynthia had meant to hang between her horses, was a slim figure in jeans and a leather jacket, head bowed in pain.  The third policeman came behind, carrying a military surplus gas mask.

"Looks like just a busted leg and maybe a couple ribs," said the policeman who had radioed for an ambulance.  He got out his notebook and approached Taylor Finshaw.  "Are you acquainted with the suspect?" he asked.

"She's my daughter, Frisia."

"My God," said Cynthia.  "You would use your own daughter?  She could have been killed!  How do people like you manage to live with themselves?"

The officer looked at her, but spoke to Finshaw, "When you say, 'It was all her own idea,' does that mean you were aware of her intentions in coming here tonight?"

Taylor Finshaw pulled at least some of his customary poise back into position.  "That's ridiculous," he declared.

The policeman had an undeveloped sense of the ridiculous.  He took a small card from his breast pocket and began to read from it, "You have the right to remain silent."

Frisia Finshaw told the judge it was all her own idea.  She said it several times, elaborating on how she hadn't wanted to take riding lessons from Cynthia, who'd once threatened her with violence.  She'd only wanted to scare her, she said, and now she was so very sorry things had got out of hand. 

She pled guilty to assault and mischief, and was put on probation.

A few days later, it was her father's turn.  The prosecutor drew what Cynthia found to be a convincing picture of a nasty, frightened man who enlisted his own daughter to commit serious crimes.  But by the time the rich-voiced silverback from the Finshaw family's law firm was finished, Taylor had metamorphosed into a deeply concerned parent who, worried that his excitable, horse-shy daughter might be about to do something rash, had come looking for her at Cynthia's place -- regrettably arriving just a little too late to prevent the girl from acting out her teenage fantasies.

"My God," whispered Dodi Mallanger at the back of the courtroom, when the judge dismissed the charges on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  "He let his own daughter take the fall."

"Take the fall?" said Cynthia.  "You're still reading too many mysteries, Dode."

Marion Caouette moved her lips into an arrangement that made a silent but eloquent commentary on the blindness of justice.  Misty had already reported that, as soon as the cast came off, Frisia would be departing on a six-month tour of Europe, her parents having recently reversed a long-standing refusal to let the girl roam the Old World unattended.

"They really could get away with murder," Dodi said.

"Come on," said Cynthia.  They went out into the hallway, accompanied by four other members of the new club that the three friends had organized since leaving the Fairlawn.  In total, there were now more than two dozen women in MUSCL the Mutual Support Club.  None had been chosen for her social prominence, but all had been selected for their robust constitutions and for favoring a direct approach to resolving some of life's inequalities.

The seven women walked a few yards to a small room where lawyers could meet privately with their clients.  They already knew it was soundproofed and could be locked from the inside.

"Someone lower the blinds," Cynthia said, when they had entered and made sure the room was still free.  She turned to Dodi.  "Do you have the daffodil?"

"And the glue," her best friend confirmed.

Marion held up a Polaroid camera and smiled.

"Here he comes," said one of the new recruits, who had been keeping an eye on the hallway.

Cynthia took a deep breath, reached into that once hidden part of herself that she was now increasingly more comfortable with, and said, "All right, ladies.  One, two, three -- just the way we practiced it."

Together, they stepped into the hallway.  Finshaw blinked as they smoothly surrounded him and diverted his course. 

"Taylor," Cynthia said, as they hustled him out of sight, "I wonder if I might have a word."

This story originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.


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Matt Hughes

I'm an award-winning crime writer.