Apr 11 2017 10:00am
Devil’s Breath: New Excerpt
Devil's Breath by G. M. Malliet is the 6th book in the Max Tudor series (available April 11, 2017).
The body of glamorous film star Margot Browne has washed ashore from a luxury yacht and Max’s former colleague Patrice Logan wants his help to find the murderer.
It’s a perfect “closed circle” murder since victim Margot must have been killed by one of the actors, stylists, screenwriters, or second-tier royalty aboard. Patrice suspects the yacht’s owner, a playboy film director she’s been keeping tabs on for smuggling, but Max isn’t so sure. Max and DCI Cotton interview the suspects as they loll about one of the luxury hotels dotting the waterfront. The investigation into Margot’s lurid past uncovers a host of motives—it seems she was not the only person on board with a secret they’d kill to keep.
AN ACTOR’S LIFE
The yacht, which could be seen from the tidy beaches and coves of Monkslip-super-Mare, had all the villagers talking. Even in an area accustomed to having luxury yachts from around the world moor offshore, this yacht, the Calypso Facto, was something special. The fact that it was owned by a famous film director just added to the thrill of it all. Young people, learning of the ship’s approach, spent extra time applying their hair products and wielding their curling irons, or perfecting the art of outlining their eyes with little wings at the outer corners to achieve that year’s desirable cat’s eye effect. For it was a known fact that directors often cast their latest films by spotting bright new stars just walking down the street, going about their own business, or perhaps eating grilled sardines or a crab sandwich at the Seaside Café. That was probably the very reason Romero Farnier had sailed to such an obscure place as Monkslip-super-Mare, they told one another: he was on a talent spotting expedition. And where better to look for raw, hidden talent than Monkslip-super-Mare?
Wealthy residents observing the yacht from one of the refurbished mansions or monasteries on the hills ringing the harbor, and hikers looking down from atop the site of the Iron Age hill fort, were awestruck by the evident wealth floating below them, in particular by the pool and the hot tub sparkling like cut diamonds on the yacht’s sunny deck. Tiny tanned figures could be seen wearing teeny strips of colorful spandex as they lounged by the pool. And many a night, fishermen at the local pub speculated over the size of the staterooms and the crew required for the upkeep of such a floating mansion. For surely anyone working on such a vessel was living the good life.
If this were the opening scene of a film, the camera might zoom in on one of those glamorous staterooms, giving the audience a voyeur’s view through the porthole, and allowing a glimpse of the famous Margot Browne preparing for dinner on her last night aboard the Calypso Facto. A second camera might pick up where the first left off, offering a close-up on Margot’s face as she lined her eyes and lips and powdered her famous nose, expertly creating an illusion of youth where youth had long since fled.
The scriptwriter might then allow us into the thoughts of the celebrated actress, in a musing sort of voice-over, and what might be overheard would be a woman’s voice, in a deep, thrilling contralto, telling the audience as she prepared for the evening ahead: “Life is so unfair.” Also, “I think the sodding cleaners have shrunk my clothes again.”
* * *
It seemed to Margot Browne as if you were handed a certain amount of luck at birth. Sometimes, it was a huge lump sum, up-front payment. You got all the money, all the looks, all the luck, and then, because you didn’t have the sense to appreciate it, to know it was not an endlessly renewable resource, it all ran out. Down the drain like bathtub water. For some people—for the really lucky—the luck got spooned out in periodic doses, like an annuity. Just enough, just in time to save you from disaster, just enough to lift you to the next level. Over and up, and ending in a big splashy funeral with the world’s luminaries attending. Grace Kelly had had that sort of luck—apart from the car accident, of course. But even then, she had died driving a British Rover to her palace in Monaco: glamour had clung to her to the very end. It was the same with Gwyneth Paltrow. Even with a magazine named goop, her luck seemed endless.
But everybody in the world got the same amount of luck. No exceptions, no overages or overruns allowed.
This was the sort of somber reflection running through the mind of Margot Browne, actress, aged fifty-eight years, give or take; red of hair and blue of eye, and still a rare beauty, even if she did say so herself. We catch Margot on the evening before her death in an uncommon moment of philosophical reflection, because generally her thoughts ran to her more immediate needs.
Her thoughts this evening on the unfairness of life may have sprung from the fact she would soon have to wrestle her spandex body shaper in what had become a daily face-off. This might in turn make her late for the party aboard the Calypso Facto, as the shaper seemed to be shrinking along with the rest of her wardrobe. Her new dress, the one she had been holding in reserve to blow the socks off Romero Farnier, was never going to fit over her hips without some artificial assistance from the evil masterminds at Spanx.
It didn’t seem fair that just as you needed it most your metabolism slowed to a crawl. She hadn’t weighed this much since her twenties, when she had seemed to carry half her weight in her chest, anyway. Her movie stills from the time were making a comeback as dorm room posters, so she had heard, in much the way Farrah Fawcett’s had taken colleges by storm. They had become collectibles “in an ironic sort of way,” according to her publicist, whatever that meant.
She emitted a yelp more of exasperation than pain as she lost her grip on the body shaper and felt the stinging snap of elastic against her waist. She surveyed herself in the tiny mirror over the bathroom sink and literally growled her frustration: She saw in the unflattering overhead row of lights that her face was shiny and her carefully applied mascara smudged from the exertion. Furthermore, one false eyelash was clinging only precariously to her left eye. Damn it.
She thought of calling on Maurice two cabins down—dear Maurice; he’d been her stylist for years, and he was a genius—but something like pride prevented it. She had been as unblemished and wrinkle-free as a baby when last the renowned Maurice Brandon had been her official stylist. She had been a Superstar—that’s Superstar with a capital S—back then. Before the word had even been invented, before it had become cheapened and degraded, she, Margot Browne, had been a SUPERSTAR. She even had her palm prints on the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, right next to Marilyn’s. Well, very near to Marilyn’s. Practically right on top of Marilyn’s surprisingly small prints. Her own prints were larger, as she expected her legacy would be, as well.
So she really didn’t want Maurice or anyone to see the extra magic that went into pulling Margot Browne together these days.
Sometimes she wondered if poor Marilyn had had the right idea. She was immortal now, frozen for all time in her heart-stopping beauty.
Quickly Margot shook her head, as if literally to shake out the nonsense. Too morbid. That sort of gloomy thinking went against her Kansas grain, for her difficult upbringing, if nothing else, had instilled a survivor’s spunky, can-do attitude into her mental makeup. She would do a lot of things and she had already done more than could be dreamt of, but she was basically an optimist, and checking out before her time was up was not gonna happen to little Margot-from-Kansas.
By the same token, not a lot of realism had been allowed to seep into the cracks in her psyche, for she had never stopped wondering why the directors and studio heads refused to see she was still able to play the part of a thirty-year-old. Their stubbornness on this score was just beyond her. Well, maybe thirty-five years, but still. It just took a little magic with the lighting and makeup, and magic was their job, after all. A little extra effort on their part was all that was required, the lazy bastards. All she was asking for was a chance to show what she could still do.
She did her bit, that much was certain. The neck-and-face exercises, the yoga, the small-weight lifting, the barre classes, the hair coloring with expert highlighting, the Botox, the waxing, the surgery, the veneers, the—actually, it exhausted her just thinking about it. She had been at this game so long, this game of chasing after youth, she began to wonder how much of the original little Margot-from-Kansas was left. The young woman who had left “home”—meaning, the place where she had been raised to adulthood, and having no other place, that word would have to do—left “home” to seek her fortune, knowing it meant a final cutting of family ties. But that cutting was a relief. She was ridding herself of people who had never loved her, people who had actively harmed her, people who had turned against her. She, Margot Browne, had taken herself off to safety, with only the meager savings from her part-time, after-school job to sustain her as she went after the fame she knew was out there, waiting for her. She still regarded it as one of the major acts of bravery in her life. For like many actresses, she was massively insecure, and to fling herself out into the world to be judged, weighed, and measured had taken every ounce of courage she had ever had. Maybe that was where she had used up too much of her luck, she thought now.
Her stride impeded by the body shaper, she delicately toed it over to look out the room’s small porthole. Hers was one of the cabins that didn’t have even a suggestion of a balcony, and she had spent much of the sea journey in the iron grip of claustrophobia, when she was not busy fighting down seasickness. She could see the lights of the seaside resort of Monkslip-super-Mare starting to twinkle out of the distant gloaming. The beacon of a lighthouse on the end tip of land swept back and forth monotonously. Thank God they’d dropped anchor for the night—she’d had enough of the high seas, thanks very much, and she was looking forward to solid meals on solid land again.
She turned at the sound of a door opening—Jake returning from his “little stroll around the deck.” Quickly, she hid the glass of bourbon from which she had been sipping as she did her makeup, tucking it behind a photo of herself as she had appeared in Circus Girl. She could still recite word-for-word one of her better reviews for that one: “Margot Browne, playing for some reason a trapeze artist, struggles valiantly to keep this turkey aloft through the sheer force of her beauty. She almost succeeds.”
Jake seemed to need a stroll more often than the average person, she thought, and considering the low evening temperatures, his sudden passion for fresh air was hard to understand. She had suggested one night he should get a dog if he liked walking so much. No response to that, except for the little Brad Pitt smirk he went in for, the smirk that really only worked on Brad Pitt.
She wondered not for the first time if Jake had not found a female interest on board. Well, good for him, if so. She couldn’t be all things to all men, after all. He was a youngish man, slightly younger than she, and frankly he was becoming a bit of a burden. He looked the part as she needed the part played—fit and darkly handsome, well-mannered, but with a devilish twinkle in his eye. Arm candy for the mature woman. Still, it might be time to shove junior out of the nest—time to make room for Mr. Right, who Margot still believed, in her heart of hearts, was out there somewhere, waiting for her, in the same way fame had waited for her. According to AARP magazine (which she would rather die than be caught reading in public, but she had smuggled out a copy from her plastic surgeon’s office), it was not only possible but probable that people would find their true match later in life. Once the children and other sources of worry and strife were gone, and gasoline poured on the early marriages, and the hopeless liaisons laid to rest—that was when the knight in shining armor was most likely to appear. He might be a bit wobbly in the saddle and he might have to sling his holster a little further down his hips to accommodate his belly, but still.
“Margot, are you about ready? Romero said to be there at seven for some announcement or other. Remember?”
“Of course I remember,” she snapped. “I’m not senile.” One of Jake’s little games was to highlight the difference in their ages by pretending her memory was faulty. Her memory was perfect. Years of memorizing lines of dialogue had seen to that. “Besides,” she added, “Romero can wait. It’ll do him good.” Like Elizabeth Taylor, Margot made a point of being late whenever she thought she could get away with it, and even when she couldn’t. It built anticipation. It made people understand you were somebody. These new stars just didn’t get how it worked. Well, apart from Lindsay Lohan and a few others.
Margot repaired to the bathroom to renew her struggles with the spandex and the eyelashes. She emerged victorious ten minutes later, flinging wide the little door, ready to take her rightful place at the center of attention.
Even Jake, who liked to pretend he was impressed by no one and nothing, emitted a satisfying wolf whistle.
“You look great,” he said.
“Better than Delphine?” she asked, before she could stop herself. Delphine was the yacht’s “stewardess” or cruise director or whatever it was she called herself. Margot had seen her flirting with Jake that morning by the pool.
But Jake wasn’t taking the bait.
Again with the Brad Pitt smirk.
“You look great,” he repeated. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Copyright © 2017 G. M. Malliet.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
G. M. Malliet won the Agatha Award for best first novel for Death of a Cozy Writer, which initially won the Malice Domestic Grant, was nominated for both a Macavity and an Anthony Award, and was chosen as one of the Best Books of 2008 by Kirkus Reviews. All of the books in the Max Tudor series—Wicked Autumn, Fatal Winter, Pagan Spring, and A Demon Summer—have been nominated for the Agatha Award as well. She and her husband live in the mid-Atlantic U.S. and travel frequently to the U.K, the setting for her novels.