“How odd, my dear, how very odd,” Missy said with a polite scrape of her voice. “Why, only last night-“
“You were thinking of me?”
“We must talk.”
“Yes, we must.” He leaned like a wax mannequin in his chair. “No rush. But if I do you in, or if you do me in (it matters not which), let’s protect each other, yes? Oh, don’t look at me in amaze, my dear. I was perfectly aware of your little gallup last night on my ribs, fumbling with my esophagus, feeling the tumblers click, or whatever.”
“Dear me.” Blood rose in Missy’s powdery cheeks. “Were you awake all during? I’m mortified. I think I shall have to go lie down.”
“Nonsense.” Joshua stopped her. “If I die, you should be shielded so no one’ll accuse you. Same with me, if you die. Why go to all the trouble of trying to-eliminate-each other if it just means a gallows-drop or a french fry.”
“Logical enough,” she agreed.
“I suggest a-a series of mash notes to each other. Umm, lavish displays of sentiment before friends, gifts, et cetera. I’ll run up bills for flowers, diamond bracelets. You purchase fine leather wallets and gold-ferruled canes for me.”
“You have a head for things, I must say,” she admitted.
“It will help allay suspicion if we appear madly, anciently in love.”
“You know,” she said tiredly, “it doesn’t matter, Joshua, which of us dies first, except that I’m very old and would like to do one thing right in my life. I’ve always been such a dilettante. I’ve never liked you. Loved you, yes, but that’s ten million years back. You never were a friend. If it weren’t for the children-“
“Motives are bilge,” he said. “We are two querulous old pots with nothing to do but kick off, and make a circus of that. But how much better the dying game if we write a few rules, act it neatly, with no one the wiser. How long has this assassination plot of yours been active?”
She beamed. “Remember the opera last week? You slipped from the curb? That car almost nailed you?”
“Good Lord.” He laughed. “I thought someone shoved both of us!” He leaned forward, chuckling. “Okay. When you fell in the bath last month? I greased the tub!”
Unthinkingly, she gasped, drank part of her Dubonnet, then froze.
Reading her mind, he stared at his own drink.
“This isn’t poisoned, by any chance?” He sniffed his glass. “Don’t be silly,” she replied, touching her Dubonnet with a lizard’s doubtful tongue. “They’d find the residue in what’s left of your stomach. Just be sure you double-check your shower tonight. I have kited the temperature, which might bring on a seizure.”
“You didn’t!” he scoffed.
“I’ve thought about it,” she confessed.
The front-door chimes rang, but not with their usual joy, sounding more funereal. Nonsense! Joshua thought. Bosh! thought Missy, then brightened:
“We have forgotten our luncheon guest! That’s the Gowrys! He’s a bore, but be nice! Fix your collar.”
“It’s damned tight. Too much starch. One more plot to strangle me?”
“I wish I had thought of that. Double time, now!”
And they marched, arm in arm, with idiot laughter, off to meet the half-forgotten Gowrys.
Cocktails were served. The old relics sat side by side, hands laced like school chums, laughing with weak heartiness at Gowry’s dire jokes. They leaned forward to show him their porcelain smiles, saying, “Oh, that’s a good one!” loudly, and, softly, sotto voce; to each other: “Thought of anything new?”
“Electric razor in your bath?”
“Not bad, not bad!”
“And then Pat said to Mike!” cried Mr. Gowry.
From the corner of his mouth Joshua whispered to Missy, “You know, I dislike you with something approaching the colossal proportions of first love. You have taught me mayhem. How?”
“When the teacher is ready, the pupil will arrive,” whispered Missy.
Laughter rose in tumbling, whirling waves. The room was giddy, airy, light. “So Pat says to Mike, do it yourself!” boomed Gowry.
“Oh, ho!” everyone exploded.
“Now, dear.” Missy waved at her ancient husband. “Tell one of your jokes. Oh, but first,” she remembered cleverly, “trot down-cellar, darling, and fetch the brandy.”