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Natural Suspect

Sunday afternoon. A time when families all across the country
spend quality time together --- breaking bread, acknowledging how
important they are to one another, sharing secrets. And the
Hightower family, one of the richest broods on Long Island, was no

"Who made the martinis?"; Marilyn said as she sipped the drink she
had just poured out of the tumbler.

'mummy,"; Morgan replied, not looking up from his magazine. "Why do
you ask?";

"Because as far as I can tell, it's straight gin.";

Morgan nodded. 'that's our Mummy."; Morgan and Marilyn were brother
and sister. Morgan was six feet tall, underweight, and carried
himself with an air of determined dissipation. Marilyn was almost
as tall and was often described as having 'steely good looks,";
which meant both that she was uncommonly attractive and that her
beauty was encased in a titanium shell no one had yet managed to
penetrate. Morgan was a year older; they were both well into their

Marilyn poured her drink into the sink, took a tall glass, and
reached for a Coke bottle. 'that was a bit strong for the first
drink of the day.";

'mummy's first drink of the day came shortly after breakfast. What
you sampled would be the --- oh, I don't know --- third or fourth
batch of the day. Which might explain why she didn't detect any
subtle variations in flavor.";

'toodle-doo, Morgan. Can I come in?"; The voice in the hallway came
from Cecilia, better known as Sissy, Morgan's well-proportioned
wife. She was not generally considered nuclearscientist material,
but what she had downstairs compensated Morgan for what she didn't
have upstairs, or so everyone assumed, anyway.

Sissy snuggled up beside Morgan, who wrapped his arm around her.
"What's my little Morgy doing?";

Morgan had the look of supreme boredom down cold. "Reading,

She pressed against him. "Could I interest Morgy in doing something
a little more . . . athletic?";

"I'm reading, dear.";

She brushed her lips against his cheek. "I can think of something
more fun than reading.";

A pained expression crossed Morgan's face. "Not now, dear. My
sinuses are acting up.";

"Please?"; She traced a line up his neck with her finger, ending at
his mouth. "I'll make it worth Morgy-Worgy's time.";

'morgan,"; Marilyn said sternly. "Be a dear and take your nymphet
bride to your bedroom. If I have to listen to any more of this, I'm
going to vomit.";

"Oh, all right."; He laid his magazine down and sighed heavily.
"Back to the salt mines.";

Before he could move, however, he heard galumphing footsteps
signaling that his father was on his way. And that he wasn't in a
good mood.

"Has anyone seen Julia?"; Morgan and Marilyn's father, Arthur
Hightower, was an overweight bear of a man. He was blunt, gruff,
and willfully unvarnished. He"d made a fortune in the oil business
while the boom was on and managed to keep it when the boom was
over. "How long must a man go on searching for his own wife?"; He
throttled up the volume. "Julia!";

The blanket on the sofa beside Sissy moved. Sissy let out a short,
high-pitched cry.

Morgan attempted concern. "What's wrong, dearest?";

'the blanket moved!";

The blanket did move. And then it moved again. And a few moments
later, a head peered out over the top. "Did someone call

It was Julia, Morgan and Marilyn's mother. Her hair was mussed, and
what they could see of her clothes looked as if she"d been wearing
them for days.

'mummy!"; Morgan said. "How long have you been there?";

She took a long time before answering. "What time is it?";

"Almost seven.";

Her head bobbed slowly. "Where did the afternoon go?";

Morgan crouched beside the sofa and helped her sit upright. "Are
you all right, Mummy? It's nearly time for dinner.";

"Forget dinner."; Her voice was harsh and raspy. "Where's my

Morgan rushed to the wet bar to fix it.

"Well, I'm glad I've found you all gathered together in one
place,"; Hightower said. "I've got something on my mind and I want
you all to hear it.";

"Could it possibly wait, Daddy?"; Marilyn asked. "It's time for
dinner. And I'm famished.";

Hightower made a hmmphing noise. "And I suppose we"ll be having the
usual twelve-course meal. You children don't know how lucky you
are. There were no big face feeds when I was a boy, that's for

Morgan's eyelids drooped. "Here we go . . .";

"When I was growing up on that hardscrabble farm in Omega County in
a family of nine, we were poor, and I'm not afraid to admit it.
Poor, that's the only word for it. Dirt poor, if you don't mind my
saying so. We never had enough to eat. Most nights, I went to bed

"You've certainly compensated for it in the intervening years,";
his wife observed.

He didn't hear her, or at any rate, didn't let it check his
monologue. "We only had meat once a week. Can you imagine? Only
once a week --- if we were lucky. For Sunday dinner, my poor mother
would fix a chicken. One scrawny little chicken. To be split by the
nine of us. You know what piece I always got?";

Marilyn's long lashes fluttered. "Would that perhaps be . . . the

'that's right,"; Hightower said. 'the feet. I'll bet you didn't
even know the feet were edible.";

"Only since I was two.";

'there's not much meat on the feet, I don't mind telling you. Not
much meat at all. But I didn't complain. No, sir. I was glad to get

"I've heard that in Paris,"; Marilyn said, just to be evil,
"chicken feet are all the rage. They"re considered quite a

Hightower repeated his hmmphing. "Perhaps in Paris, where they"ll
eat anything if it has enough sauce poured on top of it. But not in
Omega County. No, sir. Not a bit of it.";

"I've never had chicken's feet,"; Sissy said, giggling. "But I had
frog's legs once. And they tasted like chicken.";

Marilyn bit down on her lower lip, struggling to maintain

"You children don't appreciate how privileged you are. Never
learned the value of money, that's what it is. You"re spoiled.
Spoiled rotten. I don't know how it happened, but that's what it
amounts to. Spoiled.";

Marilyn decided the time had come to add some rum to her Coke. "I
think that's a bit harsh, Daddykins.";

'maybe it is, but I'm just a poor boy from a hardscrabble farm in
Omega County, and I never learned to put on airs or mince words. I
call "em like I see "em. And when my children are spoiled, I'm not
afraid to say so. Not a one of you has ever worked a day in your

"Now, Father,"; Morgan said, 'that's not true. I take my work very

Marilyn snorted into her glass. "Your work? Puh-leese.";

The bridge of Morgan's nose crinkled. 'marilyn, you know I've
always been very dedicated to my art.";

"Art? Goopy watercolors of sunrises are not art.";

Morgan's chin rose. 'there are certain critics who would differ
with you. May I remind you that my art has had a private showing in
an important gallery?";

"Yes, a gallery that Daddy owns. When was the last time you
completed a painting, anyway? The Carter administration?";

"Every great artist goes through a difficult period.";

'more like a difficult decade.";

"Enough,"; Hightower proclaimed. "If this bickering is supposed to
impress me, it doesn't."; "Daddy,"; Marilyn said, "I'm just trying
to bring Morgan around to reality.";

"You"re just trying to be nasty, Marilyn. You were a nasty baby and
you haven't improved much in the last thirty years.";


"It's painful for a man like me to admit it, but the fact is you"re
all a worthless, heartless pack of wretched refuse, and the thought
that I've worked so hard all my life to create a gigantic fortune
to be passed on to the likes of you just makes me sick.";


"Don't think I don't intend to do something about it, either. I'm
leaving tonight for an important business trip in Washington, but
I'll be back by Thanksgiving, and as soon as I am, I'm having a
long talk with my lawyer. I'm not going to let my fortune be
squandered on watercolors and trips to Paris for . . . fancy
chicken's feet!";

This last bit definitely attracted Marilyn and Morgan's attention.

"All right, Arthur,"; Julia chimed in, 'that's about enough."; The
latest martini was sinking in. She was too expert a drinker to slur
her words, but the effect was still noticeable in her watery eyes
and extravagant gestures. "You've had your fun. I know how you love
to play the bogeyman and instill fear in their hearts. Haven't you
terrorized them enough?";

"No, damn you, I've hardly begun. And don't think you"re going to
escape my notice, you drunken waste of time.";

"Daddy!"; Morgan said. 'that's Mummy you"re talking about.";

"As if I didn't know. Be quiet, you trust-fund troglodyte. Julia,
you were a good woman once, but I don't know what's happened to

Her voice was deep and throaty. "You happened to me, Arthur,

'typical. Blame your failings on someone else.";

"You haven't exactly been the most attentive husband.";

"I've built a successful business out of nothing, if that's what
you mean. I've dedicated myself to making a huge pile of money
you've been more than happy to squander.";

"Oh, yes. Money. Well, that's certainly made us all happy, hasn't

"All I ever asked in return was your affection and fidelity. But
did I get it? No, sir. Not even that.";

"You haven't got many brownie points in the fidelity department
yourself, dear.";

Hightower drew himself up like a hot-air balloon. "I never claimed
to be flawless. No one who grew up the way I did ever could."; He
leaned forward, over-pronouncing every word. "But at least I've
never carried on with the gardener!";

Marilyn let out a little shriek. 'mother! No!";

"Oh, don't act so self-righteous, Marilyn,"; Hightower bellowed.
"You've slept with every man you've been alone with for more than
five minutes since you were fourteen. Not to mention the entire
Springdale High class of "91.";


"But I damn sure never expected to find my wife dancing the
hokey-pokey in my own bedroom with the gardener!";

Julia's face flushed bright red, and not from the alcohol, either.
"Arthur, please. The children.";

'the children. What about the children? For all I know, they've
slept with the gardener, too.";

Sissy giggled. "Who's the gardener? I didn't know we had a

Excerpted from NATURAL SUSPECT © Copyright 2001 devised by
William Bernhardt. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine, an
imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.

Natural Suspect
by by William Bernhardt

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Mass Market Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345437691
  • ISBN-13: 9780345437693