PROLOGUE >>Open as a PDF
Penelope Cameron May had more money than God, which may have explained her need to play the deity from time to time. This impulse took on even greater urgency once Penelope’s daughters were born. Thus it was that a codicil was added to her will, appointing her stepsister and three best friends from college to make certain that in the event of Penelope’s untimely death, her husband didn’t marry the wrong woman.
Joey had initially laughed at his wife’s legal device, calling it a “post-mortem remote control.” Penelope said she preferred to think of it as a safety belt.
You could tender all kinds of explanations for Penelope’s codicil, but the most obvious was the fact that after her mother died of ovarian cancer, her grief-maddened father had married a deep-fried southern bimbo, big of breast and small of soul. The marriage hadn’t lasted very long, but on the other hand, two years can seem an eternity to a six-year-old reeling from her mother’s death. When the second wife ran off with another man, leaving behind her own birth daughter to be raised by Penelope’s daddy, Penelope’s protective mindset was only reinforced. This was an imprint that all the happiness of her own marriage could not erase.
In Penelope’s estimation, romantic attraction endangered a parent’s ability to make sound judgments, its effects somewhere between the false exhilaration induced by crack cocaine and the hallucinatory optimism of Ecstasy.
It didn’t help that her husband, Joey Adorno, was the quintessential catch. Smart, funny and true to his word, the man also happened to look like he’d just walked off an underwear ad shoot, or maybe a renaissance painting. Add to this the small fortune he would inherit and it wasn’t hard to reinvent the stepmothers from Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella setting up shop in their small beach town and waiting patiently for the ripe fruit to fall from the tree.
It wasn’t that Joey was stupid, but then again, Penelope would have told you, neither was her own father. Marcus had loved his daughter like nobody’s business but still had gone off the deep-end and married the worst possible substitute for her mother. When it came to women, men could easily be deceived. End of story. This was a post-modern, politically-incorrect and nevertheless profoundly obvious truth. It wasn’t just Penelope’s childhood trauma that taught her this. No. There was something else, a closely-held secret, a cause for shame. Unlike her other character flaws, which Penelope would dissect to great effect at the drop of a hat, there existed a galling, awful, stupid thing she’d done that wasn’t once trotted out with port and cheese at the end of a marvelous meal. That mistake was something Penelope had tried to bury just as deep as she could, not only for herself, but for the benefit of everyone she loved, or so she felt at the time.
For now, lest we complicate an already intricate tale, let’s just say that Penelope had several reasons for making sure her family would be alright if she died. As for Joey, he never really believed the document he’d signed along with Lucy and the others would ever be anything more than a sop to his wife’s overactive imagination.
After all, everyone knew Penelope was a little histrionic when it came to those things she couldn’t control. She cultivated a sense of doom you could not help but laugh with her about. She knew just how hilarious she was, poor little rich girl haunted by her neurotic imagination, dangling sarcomas and car wrecks where sugar plum fairies and Swiss boarding schools should have been.
It was just part of her shtick, as her best friend Lucy Vargas called it, this wink and a nod towards a premature death. They’d all laughed it off, her husband, her friends, ganging up on her delusions of doom until she’d worn them down, one suitably dark and liquid evening when they’d finally agreed to sign the codicil. After all, that particular year had been a spectacularly bad one for Penelope. Not only had her father had died of a heart attack at sixty years old, but a plane she’d been on a few weeks later had come very close to crashing when its landing gear wouldn’t descend.
Later, when everything began to fall apart, even Joey would have to admit that he’d surrendered first. Something had overcome him, a momentary weakness. Or was it instead a strength of imagination? However silly it was, this ridiculous fear, surely it wasn’t worth keeping his wife awake at night. She must have known he was humoring her, signing off on that ridiculous contract. At the time, however, it just seemed like a kindness.
By the time Joey and her friends each trooped into the second lawyer’s office to sign the official documents, Joey had already taken to calling his wife’s committee the Gang of Four. This was a name he’d originally handed Penelope and her dorm suitemates back in college, when China’s notorious political junta had been all over the news and so many of the decisions Penelope delivered appeared to have been vetted by her three best friends but not her lovesick boyfriend.
“I hope you’ll let me know when you decide we’re getting married,” he’d remarked in their fourth year of college, after she’d submitted his senior thesis for the university prize without asking. “I might want to get myself a suit.”
“Don’t worry, I know your size,” Penelope had laughed.
The year they’d met, she’d replaced most of his clothes with catalog items that looked pretty identical to what he’d worn before except for the tell-tale softness of the cloth and the labels he’d only seen in magazines. If he’d been the only recipient of her generosity, he might have taken offense but she’d done the same for her girlfriends and even some of her favorite teaching assistants. Joey knew it was just Penelope’s way.
After they’d graduated, it was only a matter of time before Penelope would manage to tempt each and every member of the Gang of Four to move south with her to Omega, Florida, the town where she’d grown up. With its charming central square, sea breezes and low-country architecture, Omega was within spitting distance of the Atlantic Ocean and the Georgia border. Unlike so many benighted beach towns, this one hadn’t been overrun with tourists or paved within an inch of its life. No, Omega’s fortunes relied on the cleanest industry of all, philanthropy, otherwise known as The Cameron Foundation. The area’s picturesque qualities had been preserved by generations of Foundation lawyers who took their charity’s environmental and economic mission a mite seriously. Best of all, the village was a haven for artists, with its reasonable cost of living and a series of grants restricted to local creative talent. “Hell, it’s so cheap to live here, you can’t afford not to,” Penelope had laughed. In Lucy’s case, as the recipient of several years of Resident Artist grants, this was true enough, though Lucy hadn’t needed much inducement. After all, Omega was close to Charleston, where she’d grown up. Penelope’s presence there was certainly icing on the cake, a confection that only grew sweeter with the addition of Susannah and Martha to the Cameron Foundation’s staff.
Jealous onlookers might have argued with Penelope’s hiring of her own husband and dear friends, but it was also true that all her job candidates brought with them certain attributes that met the Foundation’s particular needs. Joey had graduated with a double major in political science and sociology, Susannah would take top honors in finance and accounting, and Martha, the last recruit, had made Law Review at UVA. No one could argue with their qualifications, quibble as they might over the suspicion that each applicant had been groomed by Penelope for the work of running a major international foundation from the time they’d all met in college.
Certainly her friends weren’t balking. Who in their right minds would have passed up a chance to work for the legendary Cameron Foundation? Getting paid to give away money? To any number of worthwhile causes? Jetting across the world to witness first-hand the effects of projects on the poor, the sick, the weary? It was another form of playing God except this time, it came with benefits.
Lucy was the only exception to this mass hiring campaign, exempted by her artistic talent, which would have been wasted at the Foundation. Instead, Penelope had made it her business to grow Lucy’s artistic career, connecting her with galleries, museum curators and other useful contacts. When Lucy had finally exhausted the Foundation’s quota of one year grants, Penelope had presented her with a large bed-and-breakfast that had been in her father’s family for generations. “You need a reliable source of income,” Penelope had explained off-handedly. She made it seem like the gift she’d given Lucy was a small but functional item, a coffee maker or alarm clock, not the sort of present that took legal counsel, batches of paperwork and weeks of persuasion to execute.
Lucy had been embarrassed by the offer, even as she knew how well it would suit her needs. “No way. I’d feel like a kept woman or something.”
“Oh hush, Lucy. You know I’ve got more than I can spend in twenty lifetimes. Why can’t I support your art?”
For Penelope, such largesse wasn’t exactly noblesse oblige, more like easy come, easy go, though as fate would have it, such a turn of phrase would one day come to have the most unfortunate ring of truth.
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