How many people take an hour to get dressed? From what I can tell, about fifty-two percent of the world’s population, also known as women. I don’t know about other women, but I average an hour, not due to my technique for applying makeup or picking out the perfect outfit. My hour consists of stupid things. For instance one evening not so long ago, I climbed from my shower, did the eyeliner and mascara bit and then I was left with the hair. I pulled my hair into a bun while doing makeup, and I stared at the scraggly grey hair sticking straight up in the air, a traitorous rebel surrendering to the onslaught of age. I didn’t want to pull the bugger because I’ve heard that three more will take its place. Who knows if it is really true, but why risk it? So I started to comb the grey, and that’s when I saw it.
I knew I should have used the Head-n-Shoulders, but the fruity stuff smells so nice. A woman can never smell too fruity. So now the crisis: should I ignore the dry flakey scalp and forgo the awesome black dress for something else or rewash my hair?
My husband, Neil, pounded on the bathroom door. “Are you almost ready?”
I looked in the mirror. The grey hair and the dandruff had joined forces and were out on a full fledge campaign to ruin my youthful appearance.
“I’ll be done when I’m done.” I announced through the door.
“Come on Maggie, we’re gonna be late.”
Big shocker there. Neil and I were always late. Being the parents of two young boys, we blamed our tardiness on the kids, but the truth was I was usually at fault.
I poked my head around the corner. “Go check on the boys.”
“Yikes.” Neil said as he scanned the horror that was his wife. “Take your time.”
Neil is a retired Navy SEAL. It takes some effort to scare him.
I turned back to the mirror. “What I need is a game plan.” I told my reflection. I grabbed a pair of cuticle scissors from my vanity table and cut the grey hair as short as possible. This was not as simple as it sounds. I tried to cut just the grey, but I had to move my hand in the opposite direction from what it seemed to be in the mirror and a few of the dark brown strands were sacrificed for the greater good. I turned on the shower and shucked my bathrobe before climbing under the spray. I lathered my hair with the Head-n-Shoulders, rinsed and repeated. Then I used the fruity shampoo and conditioner. I ran out of hot water during the final rinse and stepped shivering from the glassed in shower. I used the towel to swipe the steam from the mirror and stifled the urge to scream. My waterproof mascara was streaming down my face, giving me that Bride o’ Frankenstein effect.
I washed my face with cold water and scrubbed like crazy to remove the black streaks. After five minutes my face was bright pink from exertion and scrubbing, and the hideous black lines were significantly lighter. I broke out the foundation and covered the mess as best I could, redid my eyes and blew my hair dry. Once I was sure the grey hair and dandruff were properly subdued, I donned my robe and marched out of the bathroom.
I found Neil spread eagle on our queen size bed while my sons Josh and Matt bounced on the mattress around him. Neil’s eyes were closed.
“It’s safe.” I informed him.
“Mommy, Josh didn’t brush his teeth.” Matt told me mid bounce.
“Matt didn’t either.” Josh re-tattled on his brother.
“What am I going to say?” I asked them.
“Go brush our teeth.” Matt and Josh chorused. They gave one final bounce and scurried off to their bathroom. Neil rolled to his side and looked up at me.
“Better?” I asked him.
“Except for the Ru Paul make-up.”
“I had some issues.”
“Maggie, you always have issues.”
“But you love me?” I flashed him my hundred watt smile.
“I love you but I think I need a beer.”
Neil and I purchased a fourteen hundred square foot ranch style house in Hudson, Massachusetts about six months earlier. We live in a small suburban neighborhood where the average household income is around the eighty thousand mark. Since Neil and I are significantly below that line we are always looking for ways to stretch a dime. Our house is furnished in classic hand-me-down style. The sofa and loveseat were new once upon a time, but after ten years of constant kiddie torment, not to mention a six foot almost 200 pound man flopping down on them on a regular basis, they fall into the category of “seen better days.” The end tables were rejects from Neil’s parents, the corporate lawyers, and the entertainment center was a find of mine during a garage sale hop. I love garage sales. Where else can you find almost new stuff at an unbelievable bargain? Neil and the boys hate garage sales, or more aptly, they hate going to garage sales with me, since I pick through everything until I find a bargain. It’s my Scotch blood and the driving need to be frugal. Neil just calls me Uncle Scrooge, but he usually doesn’t complain since my thriftiness afforded him the big screen TV and DVR.
Neil was on his second beer, watching football when I sashayed down the hall in my black dress. I stood in front of the TV and twirled in a circle, always a sure fire was to get a man’s attention.
“Whatcha think?” I asked him.
“Nice.” Neil said as he craned his neck around me to see the score.
“Aren’t you recording this game?”
“Yes, but I figured I could catch a few plays while you finished getting ready.”
“Well I’m ready.”
Neil stood and stretched before clicking off the set. He actually looked at me this time and smiled.
“You know we’re already late…”
I glared at him as I recognized his let’s fool around tone. Honestly, I love that Neil always wants to fool around with me, but I had spent way too much time in get ready mode to forgo the public appearance.
He shrugged and gave me a quick kiss. “Worth a shot.”
Neil corralled the boys into their jackets while I retrieved the bottle of wine from the refrigerator and my purse from the half moon table in the hall. We’d been invited to a soirée (seriously, the invitation actually said soirée,) at the home of our new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Douglass J. Kline. The Kline’s house was one of the larger ones in our development, standing sentinel at the top of the cul-de-sac on almost half an acre. It was also one of the newest. Neil and I had been on nodding terms with the previous owners, but we’d never been inside the vast estate.
The November night was cool and the air was crisp with the smell of fallen leaves. Matt and Josh ran ahead of us along the sidewalk, announcing our impending arrival with the thunder of little boy feet and shouts of “Eat dirt Scumbag!”
“Boys, simmer down!” I called out while Neil wore his proud papa expression. Neil never worried about making a good impression. Why should he? His perpetual tan and intelligent hazel eyes, not to mention a sculpted physique, Neil surpasses classically handsome. He’s a former Navy SEAL and well respected in the community as an employee of Intel. I, on the other hand, always fretted over making a good impression. I’m five foot six in heels and have a build that Neil calls statuesque and I call fat. I’m a domestic engineer, also known as a stay at home mom. My family and my house are my career. I’m sure in some areas of the country this is perfectly acceptable, but in tax-a-chusetts, dual income is the norm.
Every light was blazing in the downstairs portion of the house and we could hear soft music through the din of voices. Cars lined the circular drive and a few distinguished looking men had staked out the front porch, seated comfortably in Hampton Bay wicker. I waved as I recognized Sam Cavanaugh from next door and got a nod of acknowledgement in return. Sam was a podiatrist in his early fifties and drove a metallic blue BMW from the golf course to the office. Sam liked to pretend he was James Bond when in truth he was more like Lyle Lovett with love handles. I guess whatever got you through another day of looking at people’s feet.
The boys were waiting at the bottom of the stairs for us, eyes wide, mouths gaping open. Neil shook hands with Sam and the other two men and introductions were made. The tall, lanky man in his late thirties introduced himself as Jason Macgregor, attorney at law and a friend of Doug’s. The shorter, heavyset man with the bald spot was roughly the same age and looked vaguely familiar, but when he said his name was Kevin Bartley, I drew a blank. I guess he had one of those faces.
“I was wondering when you’d get here.”
I turned around to see my friend and next door neighbor Sylvia Wright had joined the congregation on the front porch. A knockout in her early forties, Sylvia looked ten years younger. Her strawberry blond hair was done up in an elegant twist and she had on a sea green dress which fit her like a second skin and made me wish I had bypassed seconds on the lasagna at dinner. She was a yoga instructor and personal health consultant at the local gym, but I liked her anyway.
“Hey Sylvie, what’s shaken?”
“Not much. Did you just get here?”
I waved my hand in a vague gesture. “You know, the kids.”
“Have you met our hosts yet?”
I shook my head and Sylvia linked her arm through mine and led me into the house. I cast a glance over my shoulder at Neil who was in a deep discussion with the porch squatters over the game they were missing. I suspected Neil wasn’t the only one with the DVR running.
“Someone should tell our hosts that they should have elected another night than Monday for their soirée.” I whispered to Sylvia.
“They’ll learn soon enough, especially with New England in a top position this season.” She whispered back. “The only reason there’s such a good turn out this time is because everyone was curious.”
I looked around the crowded foyer and agreed with Sylvia’s assessment. The place was packed and more than half of the faces were new to me. We entered the drawing room on the right and I noted the tasteful furniture, high end bric-a-brac and a quality Oriental rug on the floor. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be running into Mrs. Kline during my garage sale scavenger hunts.
Sylvia stopped to get her bearings and looked around. Since she had a good two inches on me, even with heels, I was hopelessly lost.
A tall blonde man approached us. “What brings two fine looking women like you to a shindig like this?”
Sylvia swatted him playfully on the arm. “Knock it off George. Do you see our hosts?”
George grinned down at his wife. The two of them together reminded me of a bride and groom on a Norwegian wedding cake. Tall, fair and perfectly sculpted.
“I haven’t seen them recently, but I thought they were giving a tour to a group of newcomers.”
“Oh perfect! We can snoop with the excuse that we’re trying to catch up with the tour.”
I shook my head at Sylvia’s enthusiasm but inside I was just as excited at the prospect. It wasn’t every day I had the chance to explore a mansion.
We peeped into three of the upstairs rooms and found a den, a room filled with boxes and the master suite, tastefully done in earth tones with the adjoining bathroom complete with heated marble floor, and towel warming racks. The tub was larger than my kitchen.
“Would you look at this?” Sylvia said as she scanned the bathroom. “There’s a chandelier in the bathroom for crying out loud!”
I looked at the fixture in question and silently admitted it seemed a bit excessive. But what else could be expected from people who hosted a Monday night soirée?
We peered in the medicine cabinets, (Hey if you’re going to snoop, you might as well go whole hog) but found nothing of interest. Just your typical concoction of makeup, cough syrup, band aids and antibacterial ointment. We shut the bathroom door and exited the master suite. Still no sign of the tour group.
“Well what do you think?” I asked Sylvia.
“I’m glad I don’t have to clean this place.” Sylvia said. She walked to the next door and tried to turn the knob.
“It’s locked.” She informed me. “I bet all the good stuff is in here.”
“Just what is the good stuff Sylvie?”
“You know, whips, chains, dismembered body parts. Haven’t you ever read a mystery novel?”
I had, but I didn’t think we’d find any of that in the Kline residence. More accurately I hoped we wouldn’t, because I had no idea what I would do in case of such a discovery. There are certain things you just don’t want to know about the people in your neighborhood, Mr. Rogers aside.
“What are they like Sylvie?” I asked, hoping for something to refute the American psycho images stampeding thru my mind.
“Old money, definitely old money.”
“What makes you say that?”
Sylvia tapped her finger against her cheek. “It’s just a vibe I get. The wife seems pleasant enough, even if her nose is perpetually up in the air. But the husband, well I only had a glimpse of him. They just have that ‘I’m better than you are’ aura, you know?”
I really didn’t. Sylvia was an expert when it came to things like aura and cosmic vibrations, but I was a little too firmly planted in reality, worrying about making credit card payments and such.
Sylvia gave the door handle one last jiggle and grunted in frustration. “I guess we aren’t destined to discover what’s behind door number four.”
“You could just ask me to unlock it.” A deep male tenor said, making us both jump.
“Oh, Mr. Kline!” Sylvia smiled as she composed herself while I tried to get my heart to start up again. Our host was average height with thick salt and pepper hair and a push broom grey mustache. His extremely pale blue eyes danced in amusement, set in a deeply tanned face which would put George Hamilton to shame. “We had heard mention of a tour and we were looking for you and your wife…”
Mr. Kline raised a hand and smirked at Sylvia. “No need for explanations, my dear. Curiosity is very natural. Speaking of which…” He gave a pointed glance in my direction.
“Oh, forgive me Mr. Kline.” Sylvia said waving a hand in my direction. “This is my friend and neighbor, Maggie Phillips. Maggie, this is Mr. Kline.”
Mr. Kline extended a hand to me and I shook it. “Please, I insisted you call me Doug. Maggie Phillips you say? Any relation to Ralph and Marie Phillips?”
“They’re my in-laws.” I told him.
“Ah well, you have my sympathies my dear.” He smiled at what must have been a bemused expression on my face. “I had the misfortune of crossing your father-in-law in court a few years back and well, let’s just say his reputation is well deserved.”
Ralph Phillips was rumored to be a barracuda in piranha’s clothing. He had put several large companies out of business in the seven years I had been married to Neil and he loved to regale us with just what a large chunk he took out of each adversary. I figured Mr. Kline was fortunate he hadn’t met up with my mother-in-law instead. At least this way he still had both his testes.
“I guess we should make an effort to find the rest of the tour.” Sylvia said.
Mr. Kline, Doug as he insisted we call him, smiled and extracted a ring of keys from his pocket. “You ladies wouldn’t want to run off before you satisfy your curiosity.” His smile was pure predator and I gulped as I remembered the old adage of curiosity killing the cat.
“Really, it’s fine.” I said but he was already opening the door and my feet propelled me forward, with Sylvia a beat behind me. Apparently the cats were too dumb to live.
Sylvia stepped through the doorway first, her waist length blonde hair shimmering in the artificial light from a few bright wall sconces. A large oak desk stood sentinel before an enormous bay window, where moonlight poured in and cast eerie shadows over the stone flooring. That’s where normality ended.
The room would have been perfectly set in a feudal castle, complete with a giant stone fireplace and a bearskin rug draped before it. I heard Sylvia gulp when she noted the head was still attached. Sylvia is a vegan as well as an animal rights activist and I was sure it was taking a great deal of self restraint to hold back the tirade on cruelty to animals which she had perfected over the years. I was mesmerized by cruelty of another sort.
“Is that an Iron Maiden?” I wasn’t referring to a member of the notorious British metal band.
Doug stepped toward the object in question and opened one of the wardrobe-like doors, allowing us to see the lethal metal spikes on the inside.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” He reached out and lovingly stroked the lifeless face.
The closest I had ever come to seeing one of these things was at Bruce Wayne’s house as a secrete entrance to his bat cave. I had studied some medieval history and found it disturbingly ironic that a hero like batman hid his lair beneath a trap door originally designed to efficiently dispose of torture victims.
“What is an Iron Maiden?” Sylvia’s gaze was still fixed on the snarling bear head.
I looked to our host, hoping he would field that one. My throat was completely dry and I was sweating like an old Chris Farley skit.
Doug snapped his fingers and Sylvia’s eyes darted from the rug to him. “That is an Iron Maiden. To be precise, that is a replica of the Iron Maiden from Nuremberg castle which was destroyed in WWII during the air raids.”
Doug locked eyes with me. “It is said the condemned criminals in Nuremburg had to pass through seven rooms with seven doors before confronting this anthropomorphic death chamber.” He giggled. “It’s actually quite brilliant as far as psychological maneuvering. You confront the face of serenity before entering the wardrobe and having the knives skewer your eyes, shoulders, arms, chest, belly, bladder, buttocks and legs. No wonder more than a few prisoners confessed when confronted with her form.”
My hand roamed subconsciously over all of the body parts he’d mentioned.
“Would you like to go inside?” Vincent Price’s long lost brother asked me.
“Um, I’ll pass on that. Thanks.” I took a step back out of self preservation, cravenly putting Sylvia between myself and the madman.
Doug Kline’s full throated chortle wrapped around me like a python and I winced as a shaft of moonlight caught the serene expression on the face of the Madonna.
“It’s just a mock up, my dear.” Kline reached forward and flicked one of the spikes and to my surprise, it wobbled. “You see, the spikes are made of rubber. The only affliction one would suffer in here would be a severe case of claustrophobia.” He laughed again, like it was perfectly normal to enjoy something which had induced so much terror and pain.
I looked around, hoping to see something, anything, which would take my mind off of the disturbing fascination our host showed with horrific death. The alcoves in the wall held an assortment of other metal, wood and leather contraptions, which I had previously only seen in textbook sketches of the inquisition. No reprieve there.
Doug closed the wardrobe door and bypassed Sylvia to stand next to me. “You must think me strange, surrounding myself with implements of torture.”
Oddly enough, strange hadn’t even entered my head. Psychotic, unbalanced, on a holiday from Bedlam on the other hand…
“The purpose of this room is to constantly remind me of the duality of human nature. Think of all the pure genius it took to create all this. The hours spent designing each item until it could inflict the ultimate amount of pain and fear. Now think of what could have been achieved centuries earlier if these minds had been put to a more constructive use. Man may have had automobiles in the eighteenth century, and today we could have molecular transporters like on Star Trek. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?”
Well I was boggled, sure as shootin’. Doug Kline stared at me, the deep charcoal ring around his pale blue eyes held me hypnotized. He’s a vampire! My mind screamed. Run before he has you in his power!
“There you are!” I turned to find Neil and a painfully slim woman in a crimson wrap dress standing in the doorway. Her head was wrapped in a gold turban, so there was no hint of hair color. Her face was wrinkle free, but her eyes were ancient. I estimated her age somewhere between thirty five and ninety.
“Showing off your hobby room again Douglass?” The woman wrinkled her nose at the room. She didn’t seem horrified, just condescending. I wondered if her ‘hobby’ involved skinning Dalmatians for fur coats.
What a pair.
Doug cleared his throat. “Ladies, allow me to present Alessandra Kline, my wife.”
“We’ve met.” Sylvia stepped forward. “Mrs. Kline, this is my friend Maggie Phillips.”
Mrs. Kline quirked an eyebrow at Neil. “Your wife?” she asked him in a disbelieving tone.
I sighed. This was a very common reaction, and I had ceased being offended years ago. Really I had.
Neil smiled and placed a protective arm around my shoulder. “My better half.”
I resisted the urge to elbow him in the side, even though he was laying it on a bit thick. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance Mrs. Kline. You have a lovely home.” If you didn’t count the den.
Alessandra Kline waved off the compliment. “You should have seen our house on Martha’s Vineyard. It was truly something to behold.” She sighed wistfully. “This place will be passable as soon as I find a reliable cleaning service.”
I wondered at her comment. The house was immaculate and I have very high standards. I was raised in a home where cleanliness was next to holiness and the state of the Kline’s house was piety incarnate.
“Shall we head back to the gathering?” Doug asked, crowding his wife, Neil and I at the doorway. It was apparent his jubilation at his little den o’ horrors had evaporated as soon as Neil and Mrs. Kline had entered the scene and he quickly ushered us all out before relocking the seventh circle of hell.
“Who does your cleaning now, Mrs. Kline?” Sylvia asked.
“Oh some dreadful woman from an agency was sent in. She overlooked the grout in the bathroom tiles and I swear I can see bacteria forming in the kitchen sink.”
I guess Mrs. Kline had never heard of Lysol.
“You know Maggie is fastidious about cleaning. Her house puts me to shame every time I visit and she has two growing boys living there.” Sylvia chirped.
I shot her a death glare behind the Klines’ backs as we descended to the first floor. I really didn’t like her tone.
“Is that right?” Mrs. Kline couldn’t have been less interested if Sylvia had told her NASCAR was coming to town.
“You’ve been talking about going back to work, haven’t you Maggie?” Sylvia sent me a pointed glance.
“Yes, but I really haven’t had time for…”
“I think we could kill two birds with one stone here.” Sylvia interrupted.
“I’m going to get us some drinks.” Neil retreated to safer ground. I would never accuse him of running away, but my husband is no fool. He probably didn’t want to get Sylvia’s blood spattered across his new suit.
I opened my mouth to respond but my boys chose that moment to tear through a crowd of people who cursed and spilled their drinks.
“Mom!” Josh squealed as he bee-lined to me. “She’s chasing us!”
“Who?” I asked him as Matt collided into Josh.
“Her!” The boys pointed through the crowd as a beautiful redhead in a classy turquoise silk pants suit raced through the drawing room after my monsters. Her feet were bare and she carried sling back shoes in one perfectly manicured hand. She slowed as she approached us and she seemed oblivious to the stares of the entire gathering, the men’s were laced with appreciation while the women’s were murderous with envy.
“Francesca!” Mrs. Kline snapped at the newcomer. “What do you think you are doing?”
The redhead, Francesca apparently, flipped a scarlet tress off her glistening forehead. “Having fun Sandra. You should try it some time.” She turned her back on Mrs. Kline and smiled at me.
“Francesca Carmichael, but please call me Franie.” She extended the hand which wasn’t clutching her shoes.
“Maggie Phillips. I’m pleased to meet you Franie.”
“Phillips?” Are you related to the beefcake with the stellar glutes?
That would be Neil and his butt. I nodded. “He’s my husband.”
Franie didn’t look surprised in the slightest, which soothed my battered pride.
“Your boys are adorable. I could eat them up.” She looked at me more closely. “They seem to take after your husband.”
How right she was. “They are his children from his first marriage.” Don’t ask me why I felt the need to clarify this, I had raised Matt from infancy and in every way that counted, those boys were mine.
Her smile was genuine and made here even more striking.
Here’s the thing about beautiful people. You can easily separate them into two categories. The nice ones, who will mingle with us mere mortals without condescension, or the others who look at the general population as beneath his or her own perfection. Neil and Sylvia both fall into the first category and Francesca seemed agreeable as well. Of course, she had complimented my boys, so I guess you could call me biased.
“Francesca is my sister.” Mrs. Kline sounded less than pleased by this fact.
Sylvia didn’t miss a beat. “Well then, Francesca, you can talk your sister into hiring Maggie here to be her new cleaning service.”
“What!” I tried not to let that come out as a shriek, but several drinks were spilled in our vicinity.
“Actually, I think that is a terrific idea.” Francesca said as if she hadn’t heard me. For all I know my outrage had hit that pitch reserved for dog whistles so perhaps she hadn’t.
Mrs. Kline eyeballed me with that same expression Neil had when picking out major appliances; concern for efficiency overridden by boredom.
“Sylvie, could I speak to you for a moment, over there?” I muttered while jerking my head toward an unoccupied corner. It was a good thing she hadn’t started this when we were in Mr. Kline’s office because I was feeling the need for a torture device or two.
“Come on Maggie, this place needs a little livening up.” Franie tossed back her head and gave Mrs. Kline a knowing look. “Sandra, you know you will never be satisfied with that cleaning service because they can’t get here until after ten and they won’t work weekends. Maggie here is perfect. She could be, like, on call for you.”
I sputtered at the indignity. An on call cleaning lady? What the hell was that? A maid? I was a freaking business major and these people wanted me to scrub their toilets?
“Francesca, you should really settle your own affairs before nosing into mine.” Mrs. Kline said a little too sweetly.
“Truly Sandra, I have no interest in your affairs.” The double entendre hung in the air, punctuated by Franie’s arched eyebrow. We were in a seriously hot passive-aggressive kill zone, and I looked frantically around for Neil and the kids, hoping to make my excuses and leave this mental institution before someone showed up with the straight jackets and decided I fit right in.
Mrs. Kline had taken over my irate sputtering and I wondered if I had a vein throb between my eyes when I did that. Her anger overruled her Botox treatments.
“My dear, is something wrong?” Doug Kline put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and she snapped her mouth closed. Her eyes shot Scud missiles at Franie before turning to me.
“Be here Thursday at nine sharp.”