We were halfway through our second after-dinner game of tag-team Parcheesi, stuffing our faces with Henri’s petits fours, when we heard the screaming. It was a muted, faraway sound, more animal than human, too interjected with static to be decipherable, possibly a recorded scream, such was its obvious inauthenticity, so at first everybody ignored it. We were, after all, in the greenhouse of the financier Jed Sprawn’s sprawling country estate, a gargantuan oceanside manse that was said to be haunted, which would account for the random noises, the stray whisperings and the muted screechings. Built in 1787, the main house was ramshackle, with floor boards that squeaked and doors that, when opened, squealed. To make matters worse, a nor’easter, forecasted for early the next morning, was already here. Gale-force winds off the Atlantic rattled the panes of the greenhouse. In the distance, thunder crackled. Seconds later, lightning struck, splitting a tree in half. Then the rain started, drumming the greenhouse glass and, if only temporarily, drowning out the sound of the screaming.
By the time the screaming started back up again, the actress/environmentalist/ installation artist Monet Miller had returned from wherever she’d wandered off to, the wine cellar in the basement or, more likely, her studio, a renovated corn crib at the edge of the property, her de facto home away from home—that is, so long as her estranged husband wasn’t around. Because although she had invited us all out for the weekend, Monet Miller wasn’t a hands-on hostess. She was far too restless, too scatterbrained, too impulsive, too all-over-the-place to attend to her guests. During dinner, she’d bolt up from her seat and disappear for unspecified amounts of time. The first time (she was gone for no more than five minutes), she returned with a daguerreotype of her paternal grandmother, which she enthusiastically passed around the table. The next time (thirty-five minutes: Clinton Henry clocked it), she returned wearing overalls, her face smeared with DayGlo acrylic and red-earth clay—a noticeable change from the couture cocktail slip she was wearing beforehand. None of this surprised any of us, however. This was simply how Monet Miller was, especially of late. Since her mom was institutionalized. Seven months ago, mid-February, Mrs. Alice Christianson Miller—Monet’s birth mom—was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. It was a shock to everyone, Monet most of all. They hadn’t spoken in years, and Monet hadn’t seen her birth mom since she was twelve, but still, the news—delivered by a nurse in a short, dispassionate phone call—hit her hard. For weeks she didn’t leave her TriBeCa penthouse apartment, ordering take-out and ignoring the doorbell when her friends (and on an hourly basis at first, her publicist, Devondra) stopped by, bearing quiches or knishes, homemade fat-free scones, expensive flower arrangements. And when she finally did reconnect with her friends, me included, she was changed. Before her mom was institutionalized, she was a highly organized, methodical person. Distant. Removed. All-business, all-the-time. But after her mom’s institutionalization she became more of a free spirit, more random, spontaneous. Also, more flighty. So it was no surprise when she returned, that last time, carrying a duffel bag filled with beach towels.
“Let’s go skinny-dipping!”
Right then, in the ocean? During the storm? With the lightning? The idea was classic Monet Miller. Spontaneous. Dangerous. Of course, everyone was into it. Clinton Henry literally leaped up, knees popping, from the oblong white shag carpet our hostess had laid out earlier, before Parcheesi, for everyone to sit on. Once he’d regained his balance—Clinton was a tall, lopsided man—he offered the celebrity chef Mackenzie Phillmont a hand, but the stubborn Phillmont batted it away as he then tried, without success, to hoist himself from the shag. After two more unsuccessful tries, Phillmont relented and accepted Clinton Henry’s helping hand with a grunt. Even the wheelchair-bound gossip columnist Kaari Sharmini expressed interest in the impromptu midnight excursion (through the woods, down a steep set of stairs) to the beach. Only Bob Waters scoffed at Monet’s suggestion. Normally, he’d be the first to strip down to his skivvies and bolt for the beach. Instead, since well before the Parcheesi game began, he wanted Mackenzie Phillmont to try the tokaji azu, a Hungarian desert wine, he brought back after a two-month backpacking trip of Eastern Europe. Knowing Bob, he probably had struck a (no doubt shady) deal with a (again, no doubt shady) Hungarian winemaker and wanted Phillmont to carry the label in one of his seven city restaurants. Phillmont—a cheap-beer man by temperament, contrary to his rep—had a sociable first sip. Despite his polite rebuffs, Bob kept pestering him with meandering, whimsical tales from his recent travels, each of which culminated with Waters asking, “More tokaji azu?” Over time, Phillmont became annoyed. Then he became exasperated. Finally, he became infuriated and it certainly looked as if Phillmont was about to throttle Bob Waters by the neck when, in an attempt to flip the duffel bag inside out, Monet Miller lost her balance and fell, face first, into the koi pond. Before anyone could rush to her aid, she did an reverse back flip, pirouetting mid-air before landing upright. It was, of course, a maneuver we’d all seen before—her last big-budget Hollywood role, as the Black Widow in The Black Widow, required her to do back-to-back-to-back reverse back flips in the penultimate fight sequence. Clinton Henry and Mackenzie Phillmont both offered her the same towel, but Monet waved them away. She looked puzzled. She looked confused. Something was wrong.
Ryszard Essex, the interior designer. Nobody knew where he was or when or even if he’d excused himself or whether he’d just disappeared without an explanation at some point during dinner. Kaari Sharmini remembered his cell phone ringing as the salad—blueberries, goat cheese, arugula, with a watermelon vinaigrette—was being served. Bob Waters thought he’d left to use the facilities sometime after the third course, a cider-brined skate over garlic-rosemary polenta. Mackenzie Phillmont claimed Essex had complained about a case of heartburn after two bites of filet mignon and rushed off, presumably to the washroom. Clinton Henry reported that Essex had been at the table when he took a piss but was gone upon his return. Personally, I hadn’t seen Ryszard Essex since my arrival, mere moments after the filet mignons were served.
Not that any of this mattered. Monet Miller already had a plan.
Not a very good plan, as it turned out. More of a chaotic, improvisational attempt at a plan. But still, Monet Miller was Monet Miller, and when she called out “Follow me,” we all promptly followed her, scurrying around looking for Essex, checking each room one by one. It was an inefficient, inept plan, but within half an hour someone (I forget whom) muttered under his or her breath, “Poor guy,” and somehow the word spread and next thing anyone knew we had all gathered in a back bedroom overlooking the yard, huddled around a bloated, and very deceased, corpse.