The police have closed the case of arson that killed wealthy semi-invalid Helena Skane at the Skane family compound outside Washington; they're holding Maria Rivas, the restaurateur Joseph Skane hired to look after his wife. Maria, hysterically mute ever since the fire, can't make bail, but she has a mysterious savior: the elusive ``Mr. Smith,'' who hires investigator Anna Peters (A Safe Place to Die, 1993, etc.) to gather evidence in her defense. Even though the compound is crawling with suspects--Joe Skane's long-engaged son, Tony; his big-spending daughter, Sabrina Bach; her husband; and of course the cook, the butler, the gardener, the chauffeur--there's nothing but Maria's fierce, handwritten denials to cast doubt on her motive (the affair Joe maintains they were having) or to implicate any of the other well-heeled Skanes or their underlings. Unless, that is, Joe turns out to be financing the expansion of his restaurant chain with Colombian drug money--a development that opens up a fertile new field of suspects even as it sends Maria, precipitately freed on bail, into hiding from some truly nasty guys (``He likes killing....And he likes doing it himself''). Hardworking Anna asks nonstop questions but makes no impression whatever. Nor does the rest of the cast of this easy-to- take page-turner, compounded equally of tabloid headlines and fairy dust.