The overhead announcements broke her reverie, and refreshed after her tussles with Jean-Luc and the French clerk, it was now time to assess the situation. Of course Mark wasn’t dead – it was just a language mix-up with the foreign police in Mexico. Why couldn’t they all speak proper American English? He was more likely off having a dirty week-end with that slut and ignoring the phone.
However, the whole incident called for damage control. Mark’s disappearance rather put a spanner into the works, for it was bound to get out that he wasn’t in Paris during their anniversary, you know how people talked. And Keith would talk, he’d flap to his wife, who would spread the word. While Diana had few illusions about her life (not counting of course, those about herself) she fully intended to keep up the facade of their perfect life. She found herself rehearsing what she would say to her friends when she got back home.
’He was called away on a business emergency, looking after your money,’ she would say firmly to the inquiring minds to explain his absence from Paris. That would stop the tongues from wagging for they liked how he grew their bank accounts. There was even room for her to play the aggrieved, long-suffering wife, a role she thought she might enjoy.
Once upon a time, Diana had dreamed of being an actress. Modelling, the easier route to money and fame, hadn’t worked out despite her height and looks, for her athletic build and large bust could never carry off the waif look that was so popular at the time. But on her way to the bright lights, Mark had happened, then the twins came, and he insisted she stay at home and be kept in the manner she quickly became accustomed to. She had channelled her acting abilities very successfully in other ways.
But his supposed death – until there was a body, she refused to believe. And no body, so no funeral yet, which was a relief for she had far too much on her plate right now. That being said, she would have to mark the occasion somehow, just in case it turned out to be true.
‘A subdued tea for our closest friends and clients,’ she said aloud. ‘We can open up the two drawing rooms to fit everyone in.’ This would be the most appropriate, she felt.
Time to get the plans in action.
First, contact Mrs. Hastings, the longsuffering Scottish housekeeper.
Will be arriving at La Guardia at 4pm. Have the driver meet me.
The driver’s name was Samuel, and he’d worked for the Quentons for the past five years. He had aspirations of being a novelist, and his wife had given birth last year, but Diana knew nothing about this. Samuel had no sex appeal for her so she’d never bothered to seduce him, which might be why he’d lasted so long in her employ.
The stewardess hovered over her shoulder like a bloody school marm.
‘Excuse me, ma’am, I must ask you to put away your device during take-off.’
‘Of course,’ Diana said. ‘Silly me.’ She made a show of placing the phone in her purse until the stewardess had moved on. Then out it came again.
The next text was to Susie.
Returning early. Come round at 9am tomorrow.
After a moment’s consideration, she added:
All is well. Don’t panic.
Because she would get her knickers in a knot, the silly cow. Diana wished she could have a second-in-command with more backbone and guts, but Susie was the only one in the group who really listened to her, who she could trust to carry out her demands without slacking off or showing attitude. It was just too bad that the woman couldn’t be more of an independent thinker.
Diana felt the stewardess breathing behind her and shoved the phone away again before she had a chance to get indignant. She was finished with it anyway so she lay back in the chair and feigned to sleep to avoid the lecture.
If Mark were dead... There would be an upside to his death of course. She looked fabulous in black (everyone told her how well she carried it off) and there would be the comfort of all that lovely money. And best of all, she would no longer have to pretend to be happily married.
However, until they had a body as proof, she would go ahead with the plans for the Animal Gala. Diana Quenton had been called many things over the years, and many people strongly disliked her forceful personality but no-one could ever fault her generosity for four-legged furry creatures.
The thought of a single animal cold and hungry, lost or lonely, was more than her otherwise egotistic heart could bear. Diana knew what it was like to feel lost and unloved, and no animal would experience this if she could help it. Growing up, she’d never been allowed to have a pet as her single mother-of-five had flatly refused to allow another body in the trailer, stating she had more than enough mouths to feed, with the unspoken assumption that her mother didn’t really want the mouths she already had. Not that she was an abusive mother aside from the drinking and the boyfriends, for she fed and clothed as she was able, but the arc of her mothering was worn down by poverty and broken dreams, and there was no space to express the tenderness she might otherwise have felt for her offspring.
So Debbie Sears (as Diana was known before she escaped the trailer park and changed her name) grew up starved for affection but found comfort in taming the kittens of the feral cat living in a derelict barn. She fed them and thus wormed her way into their circle. From an early age she cobbled together the funds from her babysitting and other odd jobs enough to care for them and as her fundraising talents grew, the family grew into a colony.
Of course, these days she preferred the company of her dogs because they let her boss them round. You couldn’t pull that shit with the cats, but she loved them anyway.
And so the Quentons became the founders and main supporters of the Baserville Animal Hospital and Adoption Sanctuary, and the Gala fundraiser was the finest social occasion of the year. A lot of money was required for the upkeep of the large building and grounds, the full-time veterinarian, three nurses, and receptionist, not to mention the night staff and social worker in charge of the carefully vetted adoptions. Everyone who was anyone was expected to attend the Gala, as they were also expected to adopt a quota of pets. With the Gala looming closely, Diana was far too busy to hold a funeral for her husband.
The drive to Baserville occurred without incident, and the dour Scottish housekeeper Mrs. Hastings had all in order back at the mansion. Entering the wrought iron gates after a trip abroad always comforted Diana, the sense that she was returning to safety from the vagaries and small cruelties of the outside world. Here, she was queen, and all was as she needed it to be. She kept her cellphone turned on, but purposefully ignored all calls until she had a chance to regroup.
The dogs were the first to greet her, ecstatic to see their mistress return. Mrs. Hastings the housekeeper, not so much.
‘So you came back.’
‘Mark is missing.’
‘I heard.’ An unaccustomed tendril of pity threaded through her voice. ‘No news then?’
Diana lifted her head from the lashings of doggy kisses being bestowed on her. The two dogs were a mix of Irish wolfhound and other indistinct large varieties. Mrs. Hastings had named them Cerberus and Outhros after the twin dogs of hell from Greek mythology, and no matter Diana’s attempts to change the names, this is what they answered to. So Cerberus and Outhros it was.
‘Nothing.’ She flicked her blonde hair out of her eyes. ‘A tempest in a teapot, I dare say. He’ll show up. I’m not worrying.’
‘Amaryllis is on her way back,’ Mrs. Hastings observed in a casual voice, as if gauging the effect on her employer. ‘Without him.’
Diana’s back stiffened. This news was the first real indication that something might truly be amiss. Amaryllis would never leave the comfort of Mark’s wallet.
‘She said she wants to see you as soon as she lands.’
‘I don’t want to see her. Don’t let her in,’ Diana said, shaking her head. ’If something has happened to Mark, really happened, then she’s out of a job and has no business here. I will not have that whore in my house.’
Mrs. Hastings silently waited with a stack of messages in her hand. Dianna dropped her coat and gloves on a chair and flicked through the pink slips. Keith, Susie, Keith, Rev. Pimm (offering condolences no doubt while salivating at the prospect of a bang-up funeral), police (that would be about Mark no doubt), Securities Commission (they really should phone the office), Amaryllis (little tart – ha!), Keith again. She brushed them all aside. They would wait.
Her favorite dinner was served (carb-laden macaroni and cheese) and the soft cotton sheets turned down on her bed. A fire was lit in her sitting room, its warm glow dancing over the golden velvet shadows of the curtains. The dogs lay before the fire, the cats strewn across the sofas. It was good to be Diana Quenton that night.
She would deal with the Mark situation tomorrow. Right now, she drowsed with the animals in the comfort of her domain, and her mind wandered back to a time when they’d been happy. Yes, their honeymoon on that small Caribbean island all those years ago. This was before the wealth, they could barely afford the flights but even then Mark had stressed the importance of the appearance of success. It wasn’t a splashy resort with a poolside bar, just a little hut on the beach. But it was all theirs and, being the off-season, no loud tourist voices cutting into their reveries, no nude Germans strutting along the shore.
Mark with his boasting and his dreams – how she’d loved his energy. They lay on the sand, he with his whiskey sours and she happy enough with the local rum. He spoke of his ambitions, firing her up with his passion, and he told her his plans for the future.
‘Baserville will be ours.’ She had believed him. ‘All those snobs who won’t give you the time of day? They’ll be eating out of your hand. And the Larkhall mansion, the biggest one in town? We’ll live there, and buy a cottage on the lake, too. This beach here? We’ll own it someday... Ah why stop there? I’ll buy that whole island out there!’ He gestured with his glass at a tiny islet, away far off on the distant horizon. ‘You’re going to be a queen, just you wait and see.’
She believed him, and that was the best sex they’d ever had, that night.
Mrs. Hastings served breakfast in the morning room, that sunny south facing room in the old Larkhall mansion which had been totally refurbished by Diana. It was full of light, a room where one couldn’t help but be filled with anticipation for the day to come, and the smell of fresh toast and coffee filled the air. Diana, still dressed in her lacy baby dolls and silk peignoir and hair unbrushed, lingered over her first coffee although Susie was expected in fifteen minutes. But Susie didn’t mind waiting.
‘There’s cars coming up the drive, Mrs. Quenton,’ Mrs. Hastings informed her, her gray head bobbing. She poked her long nose between the sheers to better inspect the goings on outside.
‘That’ll be Susie,’ Diana said absently as she flicked through the latest issue of Vogue and sipped her coffee. ‘I told her nine o’clock.’
‘No,’ Mrs. Hastings said decisively. ‘That’s not Susie. It’s men. They don’t look happy.’
‘Deliveries for the Gala already?’
‘Nah, they’re not delivery men. They look more like...’
Loud and long bangs at the front door interrupted her. The two women looked in amazement at each other that the peaceful sanctuary of Diana’s palace could be so rudely invaded.
‘FBI,’ Mrs. Hasting faltered.
Di rolled her eyes. The sensible housekeeper had many failings, one of which was a devotion to police dramas which she watched every night. It had quite warped her imagination.
‘Go answer the door, for God’s sake and find out what they want. They probably have the wrong address. Send them on their way.’
She heard the shouts as the front door opened.
‘FBI! Don’t move!’
Mrs. Hastings gave a little shriek, and the sounds of heavy booted feet thundered across the parquet hall floor.
‘Diana Quenton, where is she?’
The lady in question had already risen and presented herself at the door to the morning room. ‘I am she,’ she informed them in her grandest voice. ‘Gentlemen, if this is about my husband, I would think you could have more mannerly ways of expressing condolences. If that is why you are here,’ she added, just a tad uncertainly. Had they found his body? Could the unthinkable have happened? Could Mark really be...
One man who rose head and shoulders over the others detached himself from the group and stood firmly before her.
‘Mrs. Diana Quenton.’ He stated this as a fact, with recognition and a certain satisfaction in his tone. His voice resonated from deep within. She found herself looking up at him and her neck muscles thrilled to this unaccustomed stretch. He stood at least six foot four, which was five whole inches taller than herself and a full eight inches taller than Mark. Dusky skinned of indeterminate racial background, he wore his hair in an old fashioned brush cut – not the all over shaved look so popular with men with early balding patterns, but the full military treatment that told a woman she would know where she stood with him. His temples were lightly touched with gray.
Diana felt a strange looseness deep within her, an unaccustomed warmth spreading through her normally well behaved innards. His eyes strayed down to the silk robe wrapped tightly around her not inconsiderable breasts which were threatening to heave like a romance heroine’s. She was having a hard time finding her breath.
‘What can I do for you, officer?’ She was struggling not to sound like Mae West, but it was difficult in the circumstances as her voice had taken on a sudden huskiness. If Mark really were dead, those were arms she could find solace in.
He wrenched his eyes back up to her face and a steeliness grew within them. He flipped an ID badge briefly at her face.
‘I am Special Agent Flanagan of Special Operations Branch of the FBI, ma’am,’ he barked. ‘This house and all the possessions herein are now seized under order of the Chief Magistrate of the United States of America. I have a warrant for the arrest of Mark Aloysius Quenton and Diana Sears Quenton. You are to be detained under suspicion of mass fraud and theft.’ He began listing off her rights and her wrongs, relentlessly going on and on in his hard voice.
‘But Mark is dead,’ she said, unable to wrap her mind around anything else the man was saying. ‘You can’t arrest him if he’s not here.’
He ended his recitation and looked at her with that same satisfaction she’d first noticed. ‘Well I guess that leaves you holding the bag.’ He reached out and snapped cuffs onto both her wrists. ‘Ma’am.’
‘Wait... wait,’ she said, looking at the handcuffs attaching her hands together, not comprehending what they meant. A slight movement out of the corner of her eye caused her to turn and there was little Susie standing at the open door, right on time as ordered. Her face was blanched white, a horror-filled mask, framed by her blonde bob. She skittered out of the way as Officer Flanagan thrust Diana ahead of him and down the marble steps outside.
‘Phone Keith!’ Diana shouted her instructions at Susie before turning to the brute who held her helpless as he hustled her to the waiting car. ‘I demand to see my lawyer! You can’t just take me away. What are you...’ Her last words were swallowed up as the car door slammed behind her. Diana twisted her head to make sure Susie understood her orders. Her friend was standing in the entrance, a look of wonder on her face at what she had just witnessed. As Di continued her protest, she watched incredulously as a slow smile spread across her friend’s face, then Di was whisked away through the very gates which had spelled security for her all these years.
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