THE receptionist was hardly out of her teens. Hispanic, with dark hair and hot-pink lips, she was filing her moon-and-stars fingernail design when we approached her desk.
“Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois to see Mr. Randall Knox,” Matt’s mother declared with the aplomb of Queen Elizabeth.
From her doe-eyed expression, I could tell the elaborate name had bewildered the poor girl.
Madame cleared her throat. “Simply inform your boss that Matt Allegro’s mother is here to dish dirt on mutual foe, Breanne Summour.”
While the receptionist dialed her boss, I looked around. The Journal’s run-down digs were a far cry from Trend’s ultramodern headquarters. There was no Columbus Circle view here, no ready access to Central Park, either. The Journal’s offices were on a dingy stretch of Eighth Avenue, a few blocks south of Penn Station, and the building’s other occupants weren’t Time Warner Inc., CNN, and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, but Manny Kinn Enterprises, a “manufacturer of vinyl outerwear,” and the Circle Jay Group, publishers of Wag and Live Nude Girls.
“Mr. Knox will see you now,” the girl said, waving a tiny night sky on her long fingernails. “Down that hall, make a right. You’ll find Mr. Knox in the corner office.”
The hallway’s avocado walls were dingy, the beige carpet threadbare, and a fluorescent light fixture buzzed somewhere above our heads. The short hall ended in a large room divided into cramped cubicles and offices along the wall. As we approached the corner office, a man stepped forward and extended his hand.
“I’m Randall Knox. Come in, please.”
Most of the view in Knox’s office was of another building’s brick wall. The wooden desk was small and the steel shelves cluttered with magazines, file folders, and back issues of the Journal. Knox himself stood in sharp contrast to his shabby office. Pressed and polished, the slight, bald gossip columnist wore a London-tailored suit of blue pinstripes with a silk tie of bright scarlet.
He gestured to two battered wooden chairs opposite his desk then moved to occupy his own worn leather chair. While he silently regarded us through little, round Joseph Goebbels-style glasses, I read the large plaque hanging off one shelf:
PUBLIC OPINION IS A SHIP ADRIFT. OUR JOB IS TO TAKE THE HELM!
Reading that, I suspected Knox’s resemblance to the Nazi propaganda minister wasn’t limited to his eyewear.
“Mr. Knox,” Madame began, “my name is-”
“No need for introductions, you’re the mother of Matteo Allegro, costar in the wedding of the week.”
Randall Knox leaned across his desk and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “I also know you’re not particularly happy that your son is marrying Breanne Summour. By the way, that heart attack you staged was masterful. My kudos. We had a nice photo of Matt partying at Le Shellac, and we were all set to go with the headline ‘Boy Toy Clubs While Mom Has Coronary,’ but our reporter found out you were faking it.”
Madame looked down her nose at the gossipmonger. “And how in the world did he accomplish that?”
“I don’t usually give up a source, Madame, so I’ll just say it was a hospital aide who clued us in. You see, I have feelers everywhere.” He smiled. It wasn’t warm.
“Not everywhere,” Madame said. “Surely, you exaggerate.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. I know many things about many people in this town-the sort of things one thinks are completely private. For instance, I know that you covered the travel and hotel costs for many of your son’s Third World chums so they could attend his wedding. Despite some valuable assets-your Fifth Avenue penthouse, the West Village town house, an impressive collection of jewelry, and a museum-quality wardrobe of vintage designer clothes-you are not a very wealthy woman when it comes to liquidity. Your expenses are covered by your late husband’s annuity, so to come up with that quick chunk of change for your son’s celebration, you sold off a valuable painting in the collection Pierre Dubois left you-”
“That shows how little you do know, Mr. Knox. Portrait of a Vintner by Marcel Brule was not valuable. It was only marketable because the descendants of the vintner who was the subject of the painting coveted the work, hence my agent at Visser Gallery was able to secure a premium price.”
“And your agent was Otto Visser, your current beau.” He smiled again. “Still, Madame, to part with a cherished objet d’art-”
“Not cherished, Mr. Knox. My late husband, Pierre, was fond of old masters-style portraiture. My tastes are more modern.”
“The luncheon earlier today was also hosted by you, and you footed the bill, too, I understand.”
Madame pursed her lips, clearly annoyed by the man’s relentless one-upmanship game. “I’ve been humoring my son,” she admitted. “The lunch was a pleasure-apart from the wedding. There were many old friends I wanted to see.”
“I’m sure,” Knox said. “But it seems to me these are not the actions of a woman who really wants to sabotage her future daughter-in-law’s wedding plans, which is why I sincerely doubt you’re here to ‘dish dirt’ on Breanne Summour, despite the story you gave my receptionist.”
Madame narrowed her eyes on the gossip king. “I just want my son to be happy.”
“And if Breanne Summour makes him happy?” he said. “What then?”
Madame stared speechless at the man. He’d painted her into a rhetorical corner.
This guy was a whole lot smarter than Stuart Winslow (or maybe he just seemed that way because he wasn’t blasted out on pills). Either way, I could see I had my work cut out for me. He’d already stunned Madame into silence. Now it was my turn to step up.
“Excuse me, Mr. Knox, but I have a question for you.” I leaned forward in my chair. “I’d like to know why you sent Ben Tower to Machu Picchu today.”
Knox shifted his gaze. “Ah, Ms. Cosi. I was wondering when you were actually going to speak-”
Bite me, gossip boy.
“It was rude of you not to introduce yourself as Matteo Allegro’s ex-wife.”
“Actually, I didn’t introduce myself at all, but what does it matter? You seem to know everything already.”
Knox simply stared at me. Apparently, I’d rendered him as speechless as he’d rendered Madame.
Score one for the Chihuahua.
“I asked you a question, Mr. Knox. Why did you send Ben Tower to the restaurant? A fortunate coincidence for a gossipmonger, wouldn’t you say? There’s your photographer, all ready to snap pictures moments after Breanne is brutally attacked. It’s almost as if you knew something was going to happen. Maybe something you engineered.”
Knox chuckled hollowly. “Sorry, Mrs. Allegro-”
“It’s Ms. Cosi, which you already know.”
“Look, I don’t need to have Breanne Summour mugged to take her down. Truthfully, I just heard the news of the attempted robbery a few minutes before you arrived- Ben Tower phoned me-which means this must be one of your sleuthing adventures. Am I right?”
Now I felt my lips pursing in annoyance. Okay, score another one for gossip boy.
“And what do you know, Mr. Knox, or think you know?”
Knox’s pale-blue eyes gleamed behind his little round glasses. “Let’s see, where to begin… how about last fall? When your daughter was briefly held for the murder of Tommy Keitel, you were the one who cleared that case, not New York ’s finest. Before that, you were mixed up with a most unfortunate international incident near the UN, at the Beekman Tower. Then there was that shooting at David Mintzer’s East Hampton beach house.” Knox shook his head in mock wonderment. “Yes, Ms. Cosi, it seems wherever you go, trouble follows. Or is it the other way round?”
I studied the small man’s smirking face, thought of something Matt had mentioned to me right before his bachelor party. “I know things, too, Mr. Knox. My ex-husband told me that your animosity toward his fianc'ee reaches back years. Is that true?”
Knox glanced away. “Breanne Summour is just another flighty celebrity. More fodder for my gossip page-”
“That’s crap, and you know it. You have some kind of history with her. So what was it? Were the two of you lovers once upon a time?”
“Lovers? Me and Breanne?” Knox snorted. “I could hardly stand the woman, even back then.”
“Then I’m betting Breanne undermined your career.”
Knox raised an eyebrow. “You’re guessing.”
I was, but I figured-given Monica Purcell’s sleazy office tactics-career sabotage had to be it. After all, Breanne Summour had been Monica’s first boss. Who better to teach the girl techniques for undermining colleagues? Even Roman had called her Breanne 2.0.
“What else could it be?” I said. “That’s it, isn’t it? Breanne ruined your career.”
“She certainly gave it her best shot.”
Bingo! Got his motive. But I still need more. I need specifics…
“I never heard that particular story, Mr. Knox. Of course, Breanne would never tell me something like that, because it wouldn’t make her look good. And you and I know that Breanne likes to look good.”
Knox smiled-a little warmer this time. “You know, Ms. Cosi, you’re very good at this. What you do for free you could do for me at a handsome profit.”
“I’m sure you have stories to tell.” He leaned toward me, lowered his voice. “You know, secrets. Things you’ve uncovered while you were hanging around with the likes of Chef Keitel, David Mintzer, and his society cronies. Even Ms. Summour. The Journal is willing to pay for the smut you dig up. We have a number of people, just like you, all over this town.”
I decided Knox was worse than Hitler’s propaganda minister, he was more like the head of the Gestapo, with secret agents ensconced all over the city. I had no intention of becoming one of Randall Knox’s goose-stepping stool pigeons, but pretending I might take the offer would certainly get me farther with him.
“What you’re proposing is… intriguing,” I finally replied.
“So you’ll consider it?”
“Yes, Mr. Knox, I will consider it-”
“Clare! How could you?!” Madame turned on me, looking appropriately outraged, but I could tell from the sparkle in her eye that she was in on it, too.
“Don’t worry, Madame,” I said, patting her arm. “I’d never, ever reveal a thing about you or our family.”
“Oh, well, I guess it will be all right then. There are a few people in my social circles I wouldn’t mind seeing taken down a peg or two.”
Knox laughed-genuinely this time. “Sounds like I’m getting two, two muck diggers for the price of one!”
I pretended to laugh and elbowed Madame to chuckle right along with him.
“But, first, Mr. Knox, I’d really like to know more about the woman marrying my child’s father. You understand? Why don’t you tell me about New York Trends. Breanne’s ex-husband mentioned that she started out there. And she also saw to it that the magazine was closed down. Is that true?”
“Not only is it true, you may be surprised to know that I gave Breanne Summour her first big break when I put her on the staff of my magazine.”
“Aha! Something else you don’t know. Yes, New York Trends was mine. I started it. I built my own staff up from scratch. It took ten hard years.”
Knox slid his bottom drawer open and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He splashed a shot into an empty paper coffee cup. Held the bottle up as an offering. Madame and I both shook it off.
“For a while Breanne worked out fine. Then one day she asked for a short leave of absence. ‘Just a few weeks to get my head together,’ she said. I gave her the time off.”
Knox lifted the cup to his lips, paused. “The next thing I knew, Breanne had started Trend by stealing most of my staff out from under me.” He knocked back the whiskey. “Breanne became a raving success, the talk of the town. I was not so fortunate. New York Trends tanked soon after she pillaged my staff.”
“You must have been enraged.” Maybe even homicidal.
“I was pissed, all right, Ms. Cosi. And I was out of work. I wrote freelance for a long time, spent some time working in Florida, and then I landed this very glamorous position.” He smirked. “The digs are sleazy, I grant you, but the pay is sweet. And you know what’s even sweeter? I’ll bet you can guess.”
“Yes, Mr. Knox, I can guess: the chance to have a little revenge.”
“Just look at it from my point of view. Breanne humiliated me, and now it’s her turn.”
“See, now you’re making me wonder…” I leaned forward. “Is that why you hired her look-alike to strip for you at your birthday party? To humiliate Breanne, if only by proxy?”
Knox shifted in his desk chair. “Honestly, Ms. Cosi. I don’t know if you’re serious about working for me, but you should be. It can be quite lucrative. As I said, I have feelers everywhere-”
“Monica Purcell was one of your feelers, wasn’t she? What do you know about her death?”
“Nothing.” Knox met my eyes. “It was a tragedy what happened. But I certainly can’t shed any light on that matter.”
“But you were paying her-to give you dirt on Breanne?”
“My arrangement with the late Monica Purcell is a private matter. Just as our arrangement would be, should you decide to work for me.”
“Tell me about the stripper then, because she ended up dead, too.”
“Hazel Boggs wasn’t the only celebrity look-alike at my birthday party-although I have to admit she was certainly the most interesting. She was also willing to learn a thing or two from me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I gave her a few pointers for her act, that’s all, ways to improve her impression of the grand dame of New York fashion. After all, I’d known Breanne for years. Ms. Boggs was quite sharp, a quick study.”
Randall Knox’s obsession with Breanne had to be partly sexual, I decided. The whole stripper scenario only underlined that, and it made me wonder something else.
“So, how well did you get to know Ms. Boggs?”
“Very well. I treated her to a few shots of some very good scotch, and I discovered that the late exotic dancer and the fashionista actually shared more than a physical resemblance.”
The man met my eyes, his eyebrow arching suggestively, and I thought immediately about my philandering ex-husband.
Oh, God, Matt… what did you do?
My mind raced back to that night on Hudson Street. I never got the impression that he and Hazel had met before, but then she was a professional, and Matt was well-practiced in denial where one-night stands were concerned.
I stood up, placed my hands on his desk. “I’m getting tired of this game, Mr. Knox. What exactly are you trying to say? Put your cards on the table.”
“I intend to-in Monday’s edition of the Journal. Two days after Breanne’s society wedding, you’ll have all the answers you like in headlines, photos, and newsprint. Until then, this file stays closed.”
“Hardly. And feel free to pass that on to Ms. Summour. Tell that designer-draped python that a near-fatal mugging is a walk in the park compared to what I have in store for her.” Knox stood, too, held my eyes. “I promise you, Ms. Cosi, when the Journal goes to press in the wee hours of Monday morning, Breanne Summour will wish she were dead.”
The intercom buzzed, cutting the tension in the room. Knox punched the button. “Yes!”
“Your five o’clock appointment’s arrived.”
Knox straightened his bright-red tie, and I blanched, thinking of the fresh blood I’d seen dripping down Breanne’s ivory shoulder.
“Duty calls,” Knox said. “You can find your own way out.”
Dismissed, we left the man’s office. But the visit wasn’t over yet. As we walked toward the reception area, I noticed a heavyset, middle-aged woman approaching from the opposite direction. She had a rosy complexion, wore attractive auburn highlights in her short cocoa-brown hair, and was stylishly dressed in a loose black pantsuit.
Her mood seemed buoyant, but when she spied Madame, her face fell. As the two women passed each other, they nodded a curt greeting. Then the heavier woman hastily moved on.
“Madame, do you know that woman?” I whispered. “Because she sure seems to know you.”
Madame nodded. “That’s Miriam Perry of Perry Realty.”
“Chef Neville Perry’s mother? The woman who lost a small fortune when Breanne published an expos'e on Neville’s restaurant?”
“Okay, spill. How do you know her?”
“Miriam set her sights on the Blend a few years ago. She was trying to broker a deal in the name of a corporate giant who coveted our Hudson Street address.”
“She was trying to buy the Blend out from under you?”
Madame nodded. “She wanted to turn my beloved coffeehouse into a fast-food franchise.”
“Funky Town Fried Chicken.” Madame shuddered. “I rebuffed her, of course, told Mrs. Perry that she was destroying the character of the neighborhood with her real estate deals. I told her that I wasn’t going to stand by and let her turn Greenwich Village into a pale facsimile of the Mall of America.”
I blew out air, my gaze returning to the heavyset Mrs. Perry. She walked right to the corner office where Randall Knox stood waiting for her. They greeted each other like old friends.
“Thank you, Randy, for everything,” Miriam Perry gushed, air kissing the diminutive Knox.
“The pleasure’s mine.” Knox led the woman into his den.
While Mrs. Perry settled in, they talked and laughed. Then the two lifted paper cups-presumably filled with whiskey shots.
“I’ll drink to that,” Mrs. Perry said before Knox moved to close his office door.
I turned to Madame. “Don’t you find it suspicious that Mrs. Perry and her buddy Randy are toasting each other the same afternoon Breanne was attacked and nearly killed?”
“I do, indeed, my dear.”
We took the elevator down to Eighth Avenue. The sidewalks were jammed with commuters, traffic was snarled, car horns were honking. The sun had disappeared, taking the day’s brightness with it, and above the skyscrapers, storm clouds were painting my city the color of cemetery stone.
Madame flagged down a cab, and we climbed into the backseat. As the driver took off, she turned to me.
“It seems there’s much more to this case than one angry ex-husband.”
I nodded. “Neville Perry and his mother, Randall Knox and his vendetta, Monica Purcell and her deal to dish dirt on her own boss. And who knows what else is out there…”
“Lots of threads,” Madame said.
“And they’re tangled together worse than the Gordian knot.”
“Maybe there’s a single strand you can pull that will unravel the whole thing.”
“Maybe,” I said, channeling Mike Quinn. “But maybe isn’t going to solve this case.”