In the City of Brotherly Love, nobody knows a thing about Emmie Cade, a young widow who “appeared from nowhere,” and in the blink of an eye was engaged to Leo Fairchild, a middle-aged bachelor with a fortune. However, as her marriage date approaches, Emmie's mother-in-law to be, the ailing, autocratic Claire Fairchild, receives anonymous letters. They suggest, none too subtly, that there's a great deal to learn about the mysterious young woman, none of it good, and much of it involving the violent deaths of the men in her life.
Enter Amanda Pepper who, after completing her day of teaching English at Philly Prep, now moonlights as a P.I. along with C.K. Mackenzie, former homicide detective, current graduate student at Penn. The two of them are hired by Mrs. Fairchild to find out who the charming but evasive Emmie Cade really is. At thirty-two, the young woman has changed her address and name more often than some women change nail polish—and deliberately or not, she's provided no clues or access to her past.
For Amanda, becoming C.K. Mackenzie's investigative partner is an exhilarating change from the politics and problems of the new school term, and a welcome distraction from the ordeal of meeting her own prospective in-laws. She's determined to prove herself an able investigator by ferreting out Emmie Cade's secrets, but almost immediately, instead of looking at events of the past, she's forced to deal with the here and now—including murder.
“OKAY,” I finally said, pulling on my invisible private-eye cloak that would make me tough and strong-jawed. “What’s up? Why am I here?”
Mrs. Fairchild raised her eyebrows.
“I’m not asking you a metaphysical question.”
She grinned. In another setting, at another time, she probably could be fun. But now, the grin flattened, and vertical creases—canyons, really, they were so deep—appeared between her eyebrows. Frowning was not a recently acquired or unfamiliar expression. “I need to know who she is.” She leaned forward in her chair, examining me as best as she could, and avoided the point yet again. “You look too young for this kind of work.”
It was a statement, not a question, so I let it ride. Besides, I wasn’t all that young. Thirty-two is old enough to have this job. Any kind of job, in fact, except president of the U.S. But given that Mrs. Fairchild was treating her fortysomething son as if he were a helpless, innocent boy-child, it followed that she probably thought of me as being in the late fetal stage. “A first question, then. What’s Emmie’s full name?”
She raised her eyebrows this time. “When I introduced—didn’t I say?”
“She introduced herself, and only said ‘Emmie.’”
“Well, then. That’s part of the problem. You see?”
I did not. I tried to imagine how the nickname and/or the omitted last name could so offend this woman that she’d call in private investigators, especially since Leo had also been introduced with only a first name. Since the only theories I could envision involved more bigotry than I could manage, I stopped imagining.
“Cade,” she finally said. She looked as if she was waiting for a reaction so she could spring. “Calls herself Cade.”
Calls herself? As I called myself Pepper, and she, Fairchild? I ignored the slur and moved on. “I know she said Emmie, but is that officially Emma?”
She shrugged and simultaneously shook her head. A halfhearted body language “who knows anything at all?”
But we were discussing a first name, not something generally subject to interpretation and misconstruction. “Ms. Cade’s name seems to distress you,” I said. “Why is that?” I could have recited amazing names I have seen on the Philly Prep list of students, names that would highlight Emmie Cade’s ordinariness. Offhand, I remembered students named for geographical sites including Morocco, Paris, and Verona, semiprecious gems (I was particularly fond of Lapis Lazuli O’Brien), climactic conditions including a Hurricane Waters, and Sirocco something or other; and one name that was not only odd but included punctuation: X-tra Stein. I always wanted to know the story behind the poor girl’s naming, and I had to believe that despite the fancy spelling and having a dash of her own, the Steins were not overconcerned with X-tra’s self-esteem.
Mrs. Fairchild would have appreciated the names, but I wanted her to keep believing that my story of a day job teaching was a clever ruse and, in real life, I was her full-time investigator. She appeared to be a woman who would not be happy with someone who was not only female, but who had to stop sleuthing in order to grade spelling exams.
I cut to the chase. “What troubles you about her? What do you want us to look for?”
She lifted both hands, palms out, as if to defend herself. “Who is she? That’s the trouble.” She seemed eager to make herself clear no matter how many sentences and pauses it took. “That’s what you have to find out. She’s sweet. Friendly. Fine first impression.”
Did I have to point out that I needed a problem, and she was giving me an endorsement?
Then, after another long pause: “But—out of nowhere.”
And we were back to the starting line. I drained my coffee cup on that one because otherwise, I’d have had too much to say. The “nowhere” business grated on my nerves. Where was someone supposed to appear out of? Was it necessary to send trumpeters and heralds in advance? Courtiers to inform the court of where you’ve been, so it won’t be labeled nowhere?
“Do you mean she’s a recent newcomer to Philadelphia?” I finally asked.
“A year. Less.”
That was the sin. Of course. An outlander. An alien. I could see the movie marquee now: She Came from Somewhere Else! Thousands of tiny Claire Fairchilds fleeing in horror.
“Rented a house in Villanova. Joined the cricket club. Charitable groups. Right circles right away. Met Leo at a party. Moved here, into this building. Engaged to my son.”
“She lives here?”
She pointed her index finger upward. “Upstairs.” She lifted her eyebrows. “She said the suburbs were no place to be single and childless.”
Moving to Leo’s mother’s building, lovely and unique a place as it was, did seem a rather obvious positioning of the troops for the major assault.
Nonetheless, she was right about living as a single in the suburbs. And even if she moved to the city so as to be more visible to Leo, so what? All’s fair, they say, and so far, this newcomer sounded pleasantly—dully—ordinary. Maybe a little tawdry—a gold digger. But Claire Fairchild had said this wasn’t about money. And in any case, while it might be more interesting for her to have put her energy into ending world hunger, if her goal was marriage to a wealthy man, then she’d demonstrated expertise and wisdom, and had been out front and honest about it. My mother would have revered her, wished she’d been her daughter, and before I had attached myself to my significantly unwealthy man—would have wanted me to make Emmie Cade my guru and life guide. Maybe I didn’t want her as my new best friend, but, so far, she sounded as unworthy of investigation as it was possible to be.