Nora Blackbird, society columnist and down-and-almost-out former debutante, reclaims her place within Philadelphia's elite when she stumbles upon the murdered body of a millionaire art collector.
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September 30, 2002
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Excerpt from How to Murder a Millionaire by Nancy Martin
Chapter OneTo squander the last dollar left in the Blackbird family fortune, my parents threw a lawn party that would have made Jay Gatsby proud. My father wore a moth-eaten dinner jacket and poured champagne while Mama offered marijuana cigarettes to the ne'er do wells of Philadelphia high society who'd come to see how far the mighty had fallen. At the party's climax, my parents shot off fireworks and presented the Blackbird family art collection to my sister Emma. The Blackbird furniture went to my sister Libby. Perhaps under the impression that I was the most responsible member of the family--which only means I'm the one who never entered a wet T-shirt contest-Mama and Daddy gave me the Bucks County farm. Then they blew the country for a sunny resort that catered to American tax evaders, leaving stardust in their wake and me with a delinquent property tax bill for two million dollars. That winter I gave up my Rittenhouse Square condo and moved back to the decaying splendor of our family homestead. I sold my symphony subscription seats, got a partial refund on a weekend trip to Paris and terminated my charge account at Neiman Marcus, which was probably good for my soul anyway. I tried to get used to poverty. I really did. But by spring I was down to my last Lean Cuisine, and the tax man had my number on his speed dial. Which is why I, Nora Blackbird, former socialite who never really held a job in all my thirty-one years unless you count being secretary of the Junior League, found myself in dire need of a paycheck. "How's the job hunt?" my sister Emma asked me over our monthly lunch at the Rusty Sabre, the white tablecloth inn in New Hope. She lit up a cigarette after she'd been served her spinach salad and sat back to consider her next move on the food. "Find anybody who wants to hire an expert at organizing charity balls?" "I do have other skills, you know." "You're really good at seating charts," said our older sister Libby, buttering a roll and showing none of Emma's reluctance to chow down. Libby wore her excess pounds to sexy perfection. "A successful seating chart is a work of art. In fact, I'm hoping you'll help us with the wedding, Nora." Her stepson was getting married soon. Half of Philadelphia knew the details thanks to frequent bulletins in the papers that documented the union of two old families---the Treese clan of Main Line and Libby's new in-laws, the Kintswells of Society Hill. Bored with the endless wedding discussion, Emma ignored Libby's gambit to hash it over again. To me, she said, "Maybe the White House needs someone new." Libby stopped buttering and said quite seriously, "That's not a bad idea." Emma winked at me. "You do beautiful calligraphy." "And I can polish silver." "But seating charts are your gift, really," Libby said. Emma and I exchanged grins. The three of us began having our sisterly lunches about eighteen months ago, shortly after Emma and I lost our husbands. Libby had been a widow for several years and remarried, but when Emma's husband Jake died in a car crash that nearly killed her, too, and a few weeks later my Todd was shot in a South Philly parking lot, Libby assembled the sisterhood. We took turns being the designated basket case, and to our collective surprise, our lunches were therapeutic. For the first time since our teenaged years, we were close again. We shared our frustration with Mama and Daddy, argued over how best to cope with being poor-Libby, the oldest and most free-spirited, advocated complete denial and Emma, the youngest and wired tighter than a piano string, never spent a nickel anyway--and we howled over the things that only sisters can find hilarious, like Aunt Rosemary's shoplifting tendencies and our family inability to cook a decent meal. We were not without conflict, of course. Libby had appeared for our May lunch wearing one o