Authors: Ayelet Waldman
“Well-plotted . . . Juliet is a wonderful invention, warm, loving and sympathetic to those in need, but unintimidated by the L.A. entertainment industry she must enter to search for clues . . . What a motive, what a resolution, and how clever of Juliet to figure it out.”
“The Mommy Track mysteries get progressively feistier and wittier . . . Murder Plays Houseis a well-thought-out mystery.”
—Midwest Book Review
“As always, Waldman uses humor to portray the Los Angeles scene while making some serious points about what is really important in life. This thoroughly modern cozy will be popular.”
“Witty Waldman is so endearingly pro-kid that you may run right out and get pregnant and so unsparing about Hollywood sylphs and pro-anorexia websites that you may never diet again.”
PRAISE FORDEATH GETS ATIME-OUT
“Juliet and her patient husband make an appealing couple—funny clever, and loving (but never mawkish). Waldman has an excellent ear for the snappy comeback, especially when delivered by a five-year-old.”
“Waldman is at her witty best when dealing with children, carpooling, and first-trimester woes, but is no slouch at explaining the pitfalls of False Memory Syndrome either.”
“ThinkChinatown, but with strollers and morning sickness. Arguably the best of Waldman’s mysteries.”
—Long Island Press
A PLAYDATE WITHDEATH
“Smoothly paced and smartly told.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Sparkling . . . Witty and well-constructed . . . those with a taste for lighter mystery fare are sure to relish the adventures of this contemporary, married, mother-of-two Nancy Drew.”
“[A] deft portrayal of Los Angeles’s upper crust and of the dilemma facing women who want it all.”
“Waldman treats the Los Angeles scene with humor, offers a revealing glimpse of Hasidic life, and provides a surprise ending . . . An entertaining mystery with a satirical tone.”
“Juliet Applebaum is smart, fearless, and completely candid about life as a full-time mom with a penchant for part-time detective work. Kinsey Millhone would approve.”
“[Juliet is] a lot like Elizabeth Peters’ warm and humorous Amelia Peabody—a brassy, funny, quick-witted protagonist.”
“A delightful debut filled with quirky, engaging characters, sharp wit, and vivid prose.”
—Judith Kelman, author ofAfter the Fall
“[Waldman] derives humorous mileage from Juliet’s ‘epicurean’ cravings, wardrobe dilemmas, night-owl husband and obvious delight in adventure.”
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
MURDER PLAYS HOUSE
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime hardcover edition / July 2004
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / July 2005
Copyright © 2004 by Ayelet Waldman.
Cover design by Steven Ferlauto.
Cover art by Lisa Desimini.
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BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME
Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.Acknowledgments
MYthanks to Sylvia Brownrigg, Peggy Orenstein, Micheline Marcom, and Susanne Pari, brilliant writers and fine editors all; to Natalee Rosenstein, Esther Strauss, and Rebecca Crowley for taking such good care of me; to Lisa Desimini for such delightful and original covers; to Jan Fogner for details of the real estate business (all errors are my own, of course); to Kathleen Caldwell for her unending support; to Mary Evans, not just a remarkable agent, but a good and loyal friend.
Sophie, Zeke, Ida-Rose and Abraham give me something to write about, and their father makes everything possible.
Berkley Prime Crime Books by Ayelet Waldman
THE BIG NAP
DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT
A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH
MURDER PLAYS HOUSE
THE CRADLE ROBBERS
To my girls,Sophie and Ida-RoseTable of Contents
ASI huddled in the six inches of bed that my three-and-a-half-year-old son allowed me, I comforted myself with the knowledge that at least I was marginally more comfortable than my husband, who had been reduced to camping out on the floor. We didn’t normally permit Isaac to evict us from our bed, but since he’d made his toddler bed uninhabitable with a particularly noxious attack of stomach flu, we’d been forced to let down the drawbridge and allow the barbarian through the gate.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep on the couch?” I whispered to Peter.
“Honey? Do you want to try the couch?”
“Yeah, right,” he muttered.
“It’s notthatwet,” I said defensively.
He groaned and rolled over.
It wasn’t my fault that the dryer broke down two loadsinto laundry day. Perhaps it was shortsighted of me to use the couch as an impromptu drying rack, but how could I have anticipated a night of vomiting and musical beds?
I jumped as Isaac jammed his foot into my stomach, and reached a protective hand around my bulging belly. I patted at the tiny elbow I felt poking up just north of my belly button and murmured to the little girl swimming in the warm dark inside of me. This was likely just the first of many beatings she would suffer at the hands of her older brother.
“Juliet?” Peter said softly.
“Is he asleep?”
“Like the dead.” I heaved myself over so I could see Peter’s shadowed form on the floor.
“You win,” he said.
“Good,” I replied. Then, “I win what?”
“You win. We buy a house. A big house. With lots of beds. At least two for each of us.”
I sat up in bed. “Really? Really? Oh sweetie, that is so great. You will not be sorry, I promise. I’ll start looking tomorrow. I’ll find something with enough room for all of us, and even a special place for your collection.”
The truth was, I’d started looking for a house months before, and Peter probably knew it. I had paid little or no attention to his insistence that our entire family could continue to fit comfortably into a two-bedroom apartment, even with the pending arrival of our surprise third child. Peter was just nervous about spending the money on a house. He preferred the flexibility of a month-to-month lease, comforting himself with the notion that if his screenplays ever stopped selling, we could just pack up our children and his twenty cubic feet of vintage action figures still in theoriginal blister packs and move into the trailer next to his mother’s. Yeah. Like that would ever happen. While it’s possible that there has been born a man both cruel and strong enough to force this particular Jewish American Princess into a double-wide in Cincinnati, Ohio, it is certainly not the sweet, sensitive, grey-eyed guy I married.
Anyway, I knew the moment I saw the double pink line of the pregnancy test that we were going to buy a house, and since then all of Peter’s protestations and carefully constructed arguments about mobility and low overhead had had about as much effect on me as flies buzzing around the ears of a hippopotamus. Sure, they were irritating, but did they prevent me from wallowing in the mud of the Los Angeles real estate market? As my six-year-old daughter would say, “I don’tthinkso.”
I drifted off to a sleep enchanted by dreams of second bathrooms and front-loading washers. Alas, it seemed as if I had only just managed to close my eyes when I was awakened by an insistent whine in my ear.
“Comeon, Mama. It’s seven fourteen! We’re going to be late for school.” As I had every morning since Ruby’s sixth birthday, I cursed my mother for buying my overly conscientious daughter thatLittle Mermaidalarm clock.
I hauled myself out of bed, scooping Isaac up with me, and prodded Peter with one toe. “Bed’s all yours, sweetie,” I said.
Peter leapt up off the floor and burrowed into the newly vacant bed. I sighed jealously and herded the children back to their room. My husband works at night; he finds the midnight hours most conducive to constructing the tales of mayhem and violence that characterize the particular style of horror movie for which he has become marginally well known. That leaves the morning shift to me, a system thatworks well, by and large, although on the mornings following nights punctuated by the cries of sleepless children, I sometimes wonder if I’m getting the short end of the stick. Before allowing myself to become awash in a sea of self-pity, I reminded myself that since I barely earn enough with my fledgling investigative practice even to pay a babysitter, it is in my interest to make it possible for my husband to get his work done.
I left Isaac wrapped in a blanket in front of the television set, a sippy cup of cool, sweet tea propped next to him, and a plate of dry toast balanced in his lap. He had strict instructions to wake his dad if he felt sick again. He had already started to nod off when his older sister and I walked out the door.
“Mama, what’s in my lunch?” Ruby said as we drove down the block to her school.
“Peanut butter on whole wheat, pretzels, half an apple, and a juice box, of course.” I always packed Ruby the identical lunch. She is a picky child, and I’m a lazy mother, and once we figure out something that suits both of us, we stick with it.
She sighed dramatically.
“What?” I said.
“Well, it’s just that that’s an awful lot of carbs.”
I nearly slammed into the car in front of me. “What did you say?”
“You know, carblehydrapes. Like bread and stuff. They make you fat.”
“First of all, it’s carbohydrates. Second of all, they donotmake you fat. Andthird of all, you don’t need to worry about that, for heaven’s sake. You’re only six years old!”
I could feel my daughter’s scowl burning into the back of my neck.
“Honey, really. Youdon’tneed to worry about your weight. You’re a perfect little girl.”
“Miss Lopez says I’m fat.”
Now I really did leap on the brakes. “Your teacher called you fat?” I was very nearly shouting.
“Not just me. All of us. She says there’s a eminemic of fatness.”
“Right. Epinemic. We’re all fat. The whole first grade.”
I pulled into the drop-off area of her school and turned to look at my child. Her red curls were tamed into two pigtails on either side of her narrow face. She was wearing a thick sweater and jeans, so it was impossible to see the shape of her body, but I knew it better than I knew my own. I knew those knobby knees, the narrow shoulders, the tiny rounded belly. I’d memorized that body the moment it came out of me, and had been watching it ever since. She wasn’t fat. On the contrary. She was lengthening out into a skinny grade-schooler who looked less and less like my baby every day.
“Sweetheart, there might be an epidemic of obesity—that means fatness—in thewhole country.But not you, or your friends. You guys are all perfectly shaped. You don’t need to worry about your weight. All you need to worry about is beinghealthy, okay?”
Ruby shook her head, sending her pigtails bobbing. “You worry. You worry all the time about being fat.”
“No I don’t,” I lied, feeling a vicious stab of guilt. I had obviously done exactly what I swore never to do. I had infected my lovely little girl with my own self-loathing. Despite all my promises to myself, I had handed down to her my sickening inability to see in the mirror anything other than my flaws. Was it too late? Was Ruby already doomed to a life of vertical stripes and fat-free chocolate chip cookies?
She unclipped her seatbelt and bounded out the door, dragging her Hello Kitty backpack behind her.
I rolled down my window and shouted, “Don’t forget to eat your lunch!”
She didn’t bother to reply.
ASI waited in traffic to get on the freeway, I called my partner, Al Hockey. Al and I had worked together at the Federal Public Defender’s office, in the days when I imagined that I’d spend the rest of my life representing drug dealers and bank robbers, cruising the streets of Los Angeles looking for witnesses who might have seen my clients anywhere but where the FBI claimed they had been. Back then, I’d been a fan of the leather miniskirt, and thought of child-bearing as little more than an excuse to buy cute maternity suits and garner a little extra sympathy from the female members of my juries. It had never occurred to me that once I had my kids I’d end up shoving all my suits into the back of my closet and spending my days in overalls and leggings, ferrying squealing bundles from Mommy and Me to the park, and back again.
Al had once told me that lawyers like me, the ones who seem to get off on squiring the lowlifes through the system and giving the prosecutors a run for their money, invariably end up growing old on the job. I remember that I felt a flush of pride at his words, but replied that I wasn’t getting off on it—rather, I loved being a public defender because I didjustice.Al had looked up from the evidence we were sifting through and held up a photograph of our client pointing a gun at a terrified bank teller. I’d muttered something about the Constitution protecting the guilty as well as the innocent, and had gone back to preparing my cross-examination.
I had surprised both Al and myself by deciding not only not to spend my life as a public defender, but also to quit work altogether to stay home with my kids. On my last day at the office, I swore to Al that I’d be back someday, but neither of us had imagined that the work I’d return to would be as his partner in a private investigation service run out of his garage in Westminster. Al and I specialize in criminal defense investigations, helping defense attorneys prepare their cases. We interview witnesses, track down alibis, take photos and video of the crime scenes, and do everything we can to help earn our clients the acquittals they may or may not be entitled to. As partnerships go, we have a good one. His years as a detective with the LAPD taught him top-notch investigative skills, as well as the delicate art of witness intimidation, and my criminal defense experience makes it easy for me to anticipate what an attorney will need when trial rolls around. Given the spotty quality of the private defense bar, sometimes I end up crafting the defense from start to finish, even going so far as to give the lawyer an outline for a closing argument.
We work well together, Al and I, even if ours is an unlikely match. I’m a diehard liberal, and Al’s, well, Al’s something else altogether. I pay my dues to the ACLU, and he pays his to his militia unit. He belongs to a unique band of gun-toting centralized-government-loathers. Although some of their rhetoric is a bit too close to that of the white supremacists seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, Al and his colleagues are an equal-opportunity bunch. They’d have to be. Traditional groups would have tossed Al out as a race-mixer, and despised his children as mongrels. Al’s wife, Jeanelle, is African-American. Al’s positions are purely political and entirely unracist. He feels that all of us, white, black, brown, and green, are being screwed over by a governmentconcerned with maximizing the wealth of the very few. The difference between Al and normal people who might at least sympathize with that opinion, especially come April 15, is that Al expresses his belief by amassing guns and marching around in the woods with a cabal of similarly committed loonies.
“What have we got going on today?” I asked Al, when he snarled into the phone. Not a morning person, my partner. That’s one of the few traits he shares with my husband, although Peter would take issue even with that. He hates to think he has anything in common with Al. Peter just doesn’t find the whole libertarian-militia-black-helicopter thing as charming as I do.
“Rats. Rats is what we’ve got going on,” Al said.
“Those rats pay our bills,” I reminded him. Al is a notorious despiser of lawyers, preferring to call my fellow members of the bar either “liars” or “scum,” and referring to every firm we do business with, somewhat tediously, as “Dewey, Cheetum & Howe.”
“Not your kind of rat,” he said. “Real rats. Big, fat tree rats, all over the office. My idiot neighbor took down his palm tree, and they’ve all migrated into my garage.”
I felt my stomach heave. “Al,” I groaned. My rat phobia probably stems back to the time my mother let me take my kindergarten class gerbil family home for Christmas vacation. I woke up on New Year’s Day to find that Penelope, the mother gerbil, had eaten her children. Also the head of Squeakers, her husband. I found her belching over the remains of Squeakers’s body. All these years and two children later—while there are certainly days when I sympathize with Penelope’s impulse—I still cannot abide rodents. Even rabbits are too whiskery and slithery for my taste. And rats are beyond the pale.
“I’m not coming to work today,” I said.
“I figured as much. Anyway, why should you even bother? It’s not like we’ve got any business.”
Al isn’t a guy inclined to self-pity, which made his woeful tone of voice all the more worrying. Our businesshadbeen limping along lately. We’d certainly experienced flush moments, but it had been far too long between well-paying gigs. Al’s optimism had been less and less apparent, and now I feared it had seeped entirely away.
“When is the exterminator due?” I asked.
“Today, but who knows if he’ll be able to do anything. They’re everywhere.”
“So what do you want to do today? Come up here and work out of my house?”
“No point. Nothing to do. I’m calling this day a loss and heading on over to the shooting range as soon as the rat guy shows up.”
“Good idea.” Firing a few rounds into a paper mugger was just what Al needed to improve his mood. By tomorrow he’d be chipper again. I hoped.
I decided to take advantage of my newly acquired day off and do some house hunting. I had already gone around with a realtor a few times, in a more or less desultory manner, just to see what was out there, and what our money could buy us. Not as much as I’d hoped, it turned out. Lately, I’d taken to cruising the nicer neighborhoods, more to torture myself with what I couldn’t afford than for any other reason. Although there was always the chance that I’d pass a house at the same time an ambulance pulled away, bearing its owner to his final rest, and setting in motion a probate sale.
I pulled into a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, bought myself a mocha freeze (promising the baby that this would be thelast jolt of caffeine I’d expose her to for at least a week), and pulled out my cell phone.
“Kat Lahidji,” my realtor murmured in her slightly breathy voice.
“Hey Kat, it’s Juliet.”
“Hi! Are you on your way to class?” Kat and I had met at a prenatal yoga class on Montana Boulevard. I liked her despite the fact that she, like every other pregnant woman in that part of greater Los Angeles, didn’t evenlookpregnant when seen from the rear. She was in perfect shape, still doing headstands in the sixth month of pregnancy. She had sapphire blue eyes and nearly black hair that she tamed with a collection of silver and turquoise pins and clips and wore swirled into a knot at the nape of her neck. Only her nose kept her from being exquisitely beautiful. It looked like something imagined by Picasso—a combination of a Persian princess’s delicate nostrils, and the craggy hook of a Levantine carpet merchant. Kat had once told me that her mother-in-law was on a tireless campaign to convince her to explore the wonders of rhinoplasty.
Kat and I had become friendly, meeting weekly for yoga, and even once or twice for lunch, although Kat never did much more than push her food around her plate. Despite the fact that her food phobia made me feel compelled to double my own consumption in order to compensate, we enjoyed each other’s company. We had the same slightly off-beat sense of humor, were plagued by similar insecurities about the state of our careers and the quality of our parenting, and shared a fondness for crappy chick flicks that disgusted our husbands to no end. I had been surprised to find out that Kat was a real estate agent—she seemed entirely too, well,real, for that dubious profession. She did have the car for it, though. She drove a gold Mercedes Benz with the embarrassing vanityplate, “XPTD OFR.” When she had caught me puzzling out the plate’s meaning, she had blushed a kind of burnt auburn under her golden skin, and told me that her husband had bought her the car, plates and all, as a present to celebrate her first year’s employment in his mother’s agency.
“You work for your mother-in-law?” I had asked, shocked.
“Yes,” Kat sighed.
“The nose-job lady?”
“The very same.”
I had wanted to ask my friend if she was out of her mind. But I had also wanted her to show me some houses, so the question didn’t seem particularly appropriate.
Kat responded to my invitation to join me on a morning of house-hunting with her usual professional excitement. “God, do you really want to bother?” she said. “I mean, what’s the point? There’s nothing but dumps out there.”
“There’s got to besomething.I finally got the official go-ahead from Peter; I’ve graduated from a looky-loo to a spendy-spend.”
She sighed heavily. “All right. I’ll see what I can scrape up to show you. At least it will get me out of here for a couple of hours.”
Kat was a truly dreadful real estate agent. Perhaps she kept her loathing for her job hidden from clients who didn’t know her personally, but I doubted it. She lacked the fundamental realtor ability to seem upbeat about even the most roach-infested slum. On the contrary. She had a knack for telling you as you pulled up in front of a house exactly what was wrong with it, why you were sure to hate it, and why she wouldn’t let you buy it even were you foolish enough to want it. Her standard comment about every house was, “Who would ever livehere?” Sometimes she just shuddered in horror and refused even to step out of her car, forcing meto explore on my own. It made for entertaining, if slightly unproductive, house-hunting.
I actually might have considered the first house Kat showed me that day. It was a crumbling Tudor whose prime was surely in the 1920s or 30s, but the kitchen and bathrooms still had the original art tiles, and the master bedroom had a killer view of the Hollywood Hills. It could have worked for us, except for the fact that in the gaggle of young men hanging out on the corner in front of the house I recognized one of my old clients. He’d weaseled his way out of a crack cocaine conviction by ratting out everyone both above and below him in the organization. Given that in the thirty seconds I was watching him, I saw him do two hand-offs of what looked suspiciously like glassine packets, I figured he had resumed his original profession. Either that or he was still working for the DEA, and was just pretending to deal.
“Nice neighborhood,” I said to Kat.
She laughed. “My mother-in-law calls it ‘transitional.’”
“Transitioning from what to what?”
“Slum to crime scene, apparently,” she said. That kept us giggling through the next couple of inappropriate dives.
“Okay, I’ve got one more house on my list, but there’s probably no point. It’s not even really on the market,” Kat said. We were attempting, with the assistance of another round of frozen coffee drinks, (no reason not to start breaking promises to this baby early—her childhood was most likely destined to be a series of failures on my part, and if Ruby and Isaac were anything to go by, caffeine exposure would surely be the least of her problems) to recover our senses of smell from assault by a 1920s Craftsman bungalow with four bedrooms and forty-two cats.
“I don’t think I can stand it, Kat,” I said.
“Itoldyou they all sucked.” She heaved her feet up on the dashboard and wriggled her toes with their violet nails. “My legs are killing me. Look at these veins.” She traced her fingers along the mottled blue lumps decorating her calves. Kat was only six months pregnant, a month or so behind me, but already she had a brutal case of varicose veins, the only flaw in her otherwise perfect pregnant persona. I had been spared that particular indignity, but had plenty of others to keep me occupied: ankles swollen to the size of Isaac’s Hippity Hop, most notably, and a belly mapped with stretch marks like a page out of the Thomas Guide to the city of Los Angeles. I was desperately hoping the lines would stop at the city limits, and not extend all the way out to the Valley.
“It’s kind of nice how your toenail polish matches the veins,” I said.
“I paid extra for that. Anyway. One more. I’m sure it’s no better than any of the others, but I haven’t seen it yet. My mother-in-law asked me to go check up on it for her. Apparently it belongs to the boyfriend of the son of her cousin. Or something. She wants to make sure they’ve got it in shape to show it. We could just pretend we went, and go catch a movie or something.”
My ears perked up. “Gay owner?”
Kat nodded, stirred her straw in her drink without sipping, and held out her hand for my empty cup. “Yup.”
“That’s terrific!” I said. Gay former owners are the Holy Grail of the West LA real estate market. Who else has the resources, energy, and taste to skillfully and painstakingly decorate every last inch of a house down to the doorknobs and crown moldings? Single women generally lack the first, straight men always suffer from a dire shortage of the third, and straight couples with children definitely have none of the second.
“Movie time?” Kat said, hopefully.
“No. Let’s go see the house.”
“But it’s not even on the market. And it’s bound to be hideous.”
“Comeon, Kat! Gay owners! Let’s go!”
I wasn’t disappointed. We pulled up in front of a large, stucco, Spanish-style house with wrought-iron miniature balconies at every front window, tumbling purple bougainvillea, and a small but impeccably maintained front garden. The house was only about ten or so blocks from our apartment in Hancock Park, in an even nicer neighborhood called Larchmont.
Even Kat looked strapped for something negative to say. Finally, she grumbled, “I’m sure it’s out of your price range.”
I jumped out of the car and raced up the short front walk. The house was a little close to the street, but the block seemed quiet, at least in the middle of the day. I was already imagining how the neat square of grass would look with Ruby’s bike overturned in the middle and Isaac’s plastic slide lodged in the flowerbeds.
The front door was of carved oak. In the middle of the broad, time-darkened planks was a knocker in the shape of a gargoyle’s head. I grabbed the lolling tongue and rapped once. Kat came up behind me.
“There’s a lock box,” she said. She reached into her purse, pulled out a keypad, and snapped it onto the box attached to the door handle. Then she punched a few numbers into the keypad, and a little metal door at the bottom of the box slid open. In the box was a security key that looked like it belonged in the ignition of the Space Shuttle rather than in the front door of my dream house. The house I planned to live in until I was an old lady. The house I intended for mychildren to call ‘home’ for the rest of their lives. My house. Mine.
“Open it, already,” I said.
Kat rolled her eyes at me. “Playing hard to get, are we?”
It was real estate love at first sight. The front door opened into a vaulted entryway with broad circular stairs leading up to the second floor. A heavy Arts and Crafts style chandelier hung from a long chain. It looked like the pictures of the Green & Green mansions I’d seen in books about early Los Angeles architecture.
The living room took up the entire right side of the house. At its center was an enormous fireplace tiled in pale green with a relief of William Morris roses. The walls were painted a honey yellow and glowed from the lights of the ornate wall sconces with hand-blown glass shades that were set at regular intervals around the room. There was a long, rectangular Chinese carpet in rich reds and golds.
“I wonder if they’ll leave me the carpet?” I said.
Kat shook her head. “Don’t get so excited.”
“What?” I said. “This is my house. It’s perfect. I’m buying it.”
“I’m sure there’s, like, a twenty-thousand-dollar pest report. And a brick foundation. Plus, Larchmont is known for car theft because it’s so close to Beverly Boulevard. It’s a car jacker’s fantasy—the lights are all perfectly linked. Anyway, you can’t afford it. Let’s go get some lunch.”
“You’re really good at this, you know?”
She just followed me across the hall to the dining room. There was another fireplace in this room, smaller but just as beautiful as the one in the living room. The walls were papered in what had to be vintage floral wallpaper, tangled ivy, and vines dotted with muted roses. I immediately began fantasizing about all the dinner parties we’d give in thisroom. The fact that we’d never actually given a dinner party, and that my culinary skills are limited to pouring skim milk over cold cereal, interfered not at all with this flight of the imagination.
“Oh my God,” Kat said, from behind the swinging doors she’d passed through. I followed her into the most beautiful kitchen I’d ever seen. The centerpiece was a restaurant stove as big as my station wagon. Across from the stove was a gargantuan, stainless steel Sub-Zero. The appliances were professionally sleek, the counters zinc, and there were more cabinets and drawers than in a Williams-Sonoma outlet. One half of the huge space was set up as a sitting room, with a deep, upholstered couch, and a wall unit that I just knew hid a television and stereo system.
I sighed, and turned to Kat. “There’s no way I can afford this place.”
She rifled through some papers. “There isn’t even an asking price yet.”
“It’s definitely going to be more than I can afford.”
“I told you. Should we even bother going upstairs?”
“Why not? I’m already depressed. A little more won’t kill me.”
There were three small but adorable bedrooms on the second floor, with a shared bath, and a master bedroom that nearly made me start to weep with longing. It was so large that the owner’s massive four-poster bed fit into one small corner. There was an entire wall of built-in bookcases, a fireplace, and not one, but two upholstered window seats. But it was the master bathroom that really got to me. It was Zelda Fitzgerald’s bathroom. Two oversized pedestal sinks, a built-in Art Deco vanity with dozens of tiny drawers and a three-panel mirror, black and white tiled floor and walls, and the largest claw-foot tub in the known universe. It wasso big it could easily fit a family of five. Or a single pregnant woman.
“I hate you,” I said to Kat. “Why would you show me this house? I can’t afford it, and nothing else will ever seem good enough after this.”
She sighed. “I know. It’s totally hopeless. Let’s go see the guesthouse.”
She began reading from the printout in her hand. “Two room guesthouse with full kitchen and bath, located in garden.”
“Guest house like office for Peter, and even office for Al and me so we can escape the rats in Westminster?”
But she was already headed down the stairs.
The guesthouse was as beautifully restored and decorated as the main house. We opened the door into a pretty living room with wainscoted walls and leaded glass windows. However, unlike the main house, which was immaculate to the point of looking almost uninhabited, the guesthouse was clearly lived in. There was a jumble of shoes next to the door—Jimmy Choo slingbacks, Ryka running shoes, and a pair of black clogs with worn soles. The tiny galley kitchen with miniature versions of the main house’s lavish appliances was filthy—there were dishes on nearly every surface, and a month’s worth of crumbs on the counters.
“Ick,” I said.
“Some people,” Kat said. “It would have killed the tenant to clean up? The place is probably infested with mice. Or rats. Definitely cockroaches.”
One corner of the living room was set up with a long wooden table scarred with rings from glasses and what looked to be cigarette burns. On the table was a brand new Mac with a screen larger than any I’d ever seen. There wasalso a huge, professional-quality scanner, a color laser printer, a printer designed specifically for digital photographs, and a thick stack of manuals and reference books. I lifted one up—“The Mac Genius’s Guide to Web Design.”
“Check this out,” I called. “I bet there’s like twenty thousand dollars worth of computer equipment here!”
“Hmm?” Kat said.
There were two large stacks of eight-by-ten photographs on the table. One showed a generic-looking blond woman, her hair teased into a halo around her head, and her lips shiny and bright with gloss. An illegible signature was scrawled across the bottom with black marker. The other stack was of a more peculiar photograph. It was clearly of the same woman, but showed her from the back, with her face turned away from the camera. Her arms were wrapped around her body, her fingers gripping either shoulder. The bones of her spine stuck out like a string of large, irregularly shaped beads along the center of her back. These photographs were also signed with the same indecipherable scribble.
A bulletin board hung crookedly on the wall, and I winced at the hole I was sure the nail had made in the thick, creamy plaster. The board was full of what appeared to be fan mail, much of it in the ornate curliques of young girls’ handwriting. I stood up on my tiptoes to read one of the letters, but Kat stopped me.
“Come on,” she said. “Don’t be so nosy.”
I flushed. That’s certainly one of my worst qualities. Or best, if you consider my job.
“She must be an actress,” I said.
“With a knack for self-promotion. And a really good website.”
Kat shrugged, not particularly interested, and led the waydown the small hallway next to the kitchen. We walked into a surprisingly large bedroom, with French doors opening to the garden. Dappled light shining through the windows illuminated the piles of clothes and gave the veneer of dust on every surface a golden luminescence.
“Pig,” Kat said.
“Yeah, but it’s a gorgeous room anyway, don’t you think?”
“Is that the shower running?” I asked, but Kat had already pulled open the door to the bathroom and begun to scream.Two
ALICIAFelix’s was not the first dead body I’d ever seen, but I think it would take years of experience in crime-scene investigation before one became inured to the sight of a naked woman slumped against the wall of her bathtub, her chest and belly defaced with a scrawl of stab wounds. I reached the bathroom door in time to catch Kat as she tottered backwards. I held my friend up with one arm as I stared at the grim scene in the small, white-tiled room. Kat sagged against me, her face buried in her hands, her chest heaving. I looked at the dead woman for only a moment, but what I saw seared itself into my memory. This was a hideously violent murder. The poor woman’s torso had been hacked and torn, nearly shredded. Her wide-open eyes had a milky quality, as though a haze had lowered over them as life seeped away. Her body looked rigid, almost like a grotesque statue, particularly around the neck and jaw. Her skin was mottled; above the flesh was white and waxy, but what Icould see of the bottom was purple, the color of a deep bruise. Postmortem lividity, the pooling and settling of the blood in response to gravity. The shower was still running, washing her body with a constant stream, and thus there was very little blood spilled anywhere at all. I could see only the smallest smudge just underneath the woman’s shoulders and neck, which were bent to one side by the protruding taps of the shower.
What made the starkest impression on me, however, was not so much what had been done to her, although that was certainly awful, it was rather theshapeof the woman’s body. She was, in a word, emaciated. Her legs were long and horribly thin, withered as if by a wasting disease. Her knees bulged larger than her thighs, contrasting starkly with her skin-draped femur and tibia bones. Her ribs and the gullies between them were clearly visible even despite the stab wounds. Her clavicles stood out from her neck, nearly framing her bony jaw. The only hint of fleshiness about her body was the one breast, the right, that had not been horrifically mutilated. It sat, perfectly round, obviously fake, in the brutalized expanse of her chest.
I slowly backed out of the doorway, pushing Kat behind me. I settled her on the edge of the bed, but then remembered that the room was a crime scene. The whole house was one, and Kat and I had wandered through it freely, stomping across the floors and carpets, handling everything, probably obliterating all signs of the murderer. I grasped Kat more firmly around the shoulders, heaved her off the bed, and together we stumbled out to the courtyard. I sat her down in one of the wrought-iron lounge chairs in the garden. She leaned her head back on the white muslin cushion, her eyes still closed. I don’t think she had opened them since she’d first seen the body. I reached into my purse, pulled outmy cell phone, and dialed 911. Then I called Al. He asked no questions, just took down the address and hung up the phone.
Kat and I sat in silence while we waited for the police to arrive. A gnarled and lush jasmine vine grew up a trellis nailed to the side of the guesthouse, and the air was redolent with the blossoms’ heady fragrance. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, relishing the smell, the steady beat of my heart, and the sun warming my flushed cheeks. It felt, for a moment, as if Kat and I were ensconced on a tiny island of sweet-smelling tranquility, the twittering of birds and the steady hum of our breath the only sound that disturbed the silence.
In a few minutes, however, I heard the faint shriek of police sirens, and got up to open the front door to the four uniformed officers that were the first of the hordes that soon invaded; their loud voices, heavy footsteps, and barking radios banishing every trace of that odd moment of serenity.
THEsupervising detective seemed a bit taken aback at the sight of two heavily pregnant women rolling around in the middle of his crime scene. In addition to asking us the same long series of questions about who we were, what we were doing there, and what we had seen, that we had already answered for the uniformed officers who arrived first on the scene, and again for the detectives who had shown up fifteen minutes later, he grilled us about how we knew each other, even going so far as to request a description of the prenatal yoga class in which we’d met. I watched him carefully jot down the name and address of the yoga studio, and did my best not to express frustration at the thoroughness of his inquisition. This was, after all, his job. He had no way of knowing at this stage of the investigation what clues, whatindividuals, would come to be important. Kat and I, as the discoverers of the body, were, of course, his first and so far only possible suspects.
I was in the middle of recounting, for the third time, what we had been doing in the house, when Al arrived.
My partner walked into the yard, flanked by police officers. One of them, a grizzled man who seemed too old to be a cop at all, let alone a uniformed officer, called out to the detective, “Hey, this is Al Hockey. He used to be on the job. He knows the redhead.”
I gave Al a relieved smile, and he winked at me. He extended his hand to the detective, whose brusque manner had already begun to dissipate.
“My partner giving you some trouble?” Al asked.
“Your partner?” the detective said.
“I’ve been doing some private security work since I retired. Juliet works with me.”
“Al left kicking and screaming,” the older officer said. “Bullet took him out, but he’d still be here if it weren’t for that.”
The detective nodded. “I’m about done with my questions,” he began. Just then, we were interrupted by a piercing shriek.
“What’s going on here? What are you all doing here?” A small woman with pitted olive skin meticulously covered by a smooth sheen of expensive make-up, was standing in the French doors, hands on her hips, her face twisted into an anxious scowl. “What happened?” she yelled.
The detective heaved himself laboriously to his feet and walked over to the woman. At the sound of her voice, Kat had finally roused herself from her stupor. She had not been able to answer the police officers’ questions with much more than whispered monosyllables, and I was worried that she wasin some kind of shock. Now, she glanced over at the woman and groaned, “Oh, God.”
“What? Who is that?”
Nahid Lahidji’s eyes were hidden behind a vast pair of Jackie O sunglasses, but she certainly didn’t seem old enough to be Kat’s husband’s mother. She had the clothes for it, though. She looked exactly like what she was, a fabulously successful Beverly Hills real estate agent. Her trim body was encased in a chartreuse Chanel suit with large gold buttons and matching stiletto pumps. Her black hair was sprayed into a bobbed helmet, and her diamond earrings flashed in the sun. Her thin wrists were heavy with bracelets and bangles, and her lipstick was fire-engine red.
Mrs. Lahidji blew by the detective as if she hadn’t even noticed his presence. “Katayoun! What’s happened here? Why are the police here? What have you done?”
“What?” I asked, dumbfounded at the absurd accusation. I turned back to Kat, expecting her to blow up at this tiny, designer-clad, green goblin, only to see her close her eyes once again.
“Katayoun! I’m talking to you!” the woman said sharply.
By now the detective had caught up with her. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.”
She spun on one elegantly appointed heel. “One minute. I’m talking to my daughter-in-law!”
“Mrs. Lahidji,” I interrupted. “I’m Juliet Applebaum, and Kat was showing me the house. I’m afraid we found a body in the guesthouse.”
“A body!” she shrieked. “The house isn’t even on the market yet!”
I was not quite sure what to make of that comment. Was it standard procedure to dump a body onlyafterthe house had an official MLS listing?
The detective finally managed to refocus Kat’s mother-in-law’s attention on him.
“Ma’am?” he said. “I’ll need to know your name.”
“Nahid Lahidji. And who might you be?”
The cop identified himself and asked her whether she knew the name of the deceased.
She replied, “A woman? Blond? Fake boobs?”
“Well, I, uh, I couldn’t make a definitive call about the breast implants,” he said, looking a little embarrassed. “But yes, a blond woman.”
“In the guesthouse?” Nahid barked.
“Then it must be the owner’s sister. God knows there wouldn’t be any reason for another woman to be on the property.”
“Do you know her name?”
“Of course I do. This is my listing!”
“Nahidjoon, please.” Kat whispered. Nahid paid not the slightest attention to her.
“Ma’am?” the detective asked softly, almost tentatively. Why, I wondered, did the man seem so utterly cowed by this miniature tyrant?
“Felix, like her brother. Her first name is Alicia. She’s an actress.”Three
Ifelt terrible leaving Kat in the clutches of her terrifying mother-in-law, but by the time the detectives released us I was desperate to get home. I’d called Peter and asked him to pick Ruby up from school, and had found out that Isaac’s stomach flu had returned with a vengeance. I hated the idea of Peter taking him out, even just to do a carpool run, but not even Al could convince the detective that I was needed at home. In fact, he didn’t intimidate the supervising detective anywhere near as much as the diminutive Nahid Lahidji did. It was Kat’s mother-in-law who got us sprung. After she had engaged in a conversation with the detective in which she’d asked as many questions as she’d answered, she turned to me.
“Business card,” she snapped.
“Excuse me?” I said. By then I’d become as silent as Kat.
“Give me your business card. And your driver’s license, too.”
I proffered the requested documents wordlessly.
“Katayoun!” she said. Kat roused herself, reached into her purse, and handed Nahid her wallet. The older woman rummaged through it,tsking at the jumble of cards and bills until she found Kat’s driver’s license. She then reached into her trim gold purse and pulled out a sparking card case. She snapped it open, removed a thick business card printed on creamy ochre paper, tapped all the cards into a neat pile, and handed them to the detective.
“Check the names against the licenses,” she said. “And then we’re leaving. My daughter-in-law and her friend need to get home. As you can see, they are both in a delicate physical condition.”
The detective leafed through the small stack of documents and then handed our driver’s licenses back to us. “We’ll be needing to talk to you again,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied.
“We’ll see,” Nahid said. She poked Kat and said, “Katayoun. Up. We’re going home.”
Kat struggled to her feet, and I reached out a hand to help her. She shook her head at me, rubbed her eyes once, and then stood up. “I’m okay. Nahidjoon, I’m fine.”
Nahid clucked her tongue. Then she turned back to the detective. “I assume when you’re done here you’ll clean up after yourself. I’m planning an open house for next week, and I can’t have you making a disgusting mess here.”
His jaw dropped, but by then the woman had spun on her heels and was halfway across the yard to the outside gate, dragging my friend along behind her.
I turned to Al, expecting him to escort me out, but he shook his head slightly. “I’m going to hang out here for a while,” he whispered to me. “See if I can’t get in to see the body. You go on.”
Kat and her mother-in-law had already driven away by the time I got out to the front of the house, and it was a moment before I remembered that I’d left my car in the parking lot at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Nahid had hustled Kat into her own car, and Kat’s Mercedes was still on the street in front of the house. I debated waiting for Al to drive me, but, it wasn’t more than a fifteen or twenty minute walk home. In the middle of the trek, I realized that while I’d routinely walked dozens of blocks when I lived in New York City, since Peter and I had transplanted ourselves to the City of Angels—and of SUVs—my walking had been pretty much limited to trips to and from various parking lots, and the odd, desperate perambulation with a stroller, trying to convince a crying baby to nod off. I’d certainly never attempted a mile or so in this late stage of pregnancy. But the walk, or should I say waddle, was good for me. By the time I got home, I had managed to calm myself down sufficiently to fool the kids, if not my husband. We spent what remained of the afternoon playing Chutes and Ladders. Peter seemed to understand that I wasn’t in any shape to be alone, so he hung out with me and the kids. He hadn’t cleaned up the bathroom after Isaac’s latest adventure in emesis, but only because we have always had an unofficial division of labor that makes disposing of the children’s various effluvia my purview. There are other household unpleasantnesses my husband assumes responsibility for, including dealing with the cars, plumbing problems, and his mother. Trust me, it’s an even trade.
It was only after we got the kids to bed that I could collapse on the couch and recount to my husband the horror that I’d witnessed.
“So the shower didn’t have any effect on the progress ofthe rigor?” Peter said, when I was done describing the state of the actress’s body.
“Peter!” I said.
“What? It might come in handy some day.”
I shook my head. You’d think after eight years of marriage I’d be used to my husband’s voracious appetite for the disgusting detail.
He suddenly seemed to remember that we were talking about a real person, and not one of his celluloid corpses. He reached an arm around me and snuggled me closer to him.
“It was pretty awful,” I said, leaning my head against his chest. “Mrs. Lahidji said the woman was an actress. Alicia Felix. I’ve never heard of her, have you?”
He shook his head. Then he reached under the couch and pulled out the laptop he’d stashed there when I’d walked in the door. I had pretended not to notice that he had been sitting on the couch playing on his computer while the kids wrestled on the carpet, and I didn’t comment now. He tapped on the computer for a while. Peter had set us up with an Airport, so we could get a wireless connection to the Internet from anywhere in the house.
“Here she is,” he said. “I found her on TV-Phile.”
I lifted my head and looked at the screen.
The headshot that decorated Alicia Felix’s page on TV-Phile.com, a website devoted to the minutiae of canceled television shows and former personalities, was the same one I had seen in her apartment. It showed a gamine-faced blond woman with a thick head of tousled hair and a pout that somehow managed to look both sexy and innocent at the same time.
Alicia had an impressive list of television credits. She had appeared in guest roles on almost every major sitcom and drama in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She had even had arecurring role in a short-lived drama that I remembered watching when I was in law school. It had featured a cast of stunningly attractive prosecuting attorneys, and a few of us had gathered weekly to watch the show in the student lounge. We weren’t fans; rather our purpose was to jeer with our newfound expertise at the glaring errors and misrepresentations in the cases on the television lawyers’ make-believe dockets. I couldn’t honestly remember this Alicia; there had been too many young blond females in the cast.
Beyond the early 1990s, there were fewer and fewer entries for Alicia. The last listing was in 1997: she had had nothing since.
“What happened after 1997?” I asked Peter.
“Maybe she moved into film.” He clicked over to the part of the site devoted to filmographies. Inputing Alicia Felix’s name resulted in no hits.
“Does that mean she didn’t do any movies? Do they have every single actor listed online? Or could she have had some small roles that don’t show up?” I asked.
Peter wrinkled his forehead. “I think the site is pretty thorough. I mean, I know that the casting agents on our movies use it to dredge up information even on the most unknown person who auditions for us. I think this has got to mean she never made a movie.”
“Huh.” I leaned back on the couch and heaved my legs into his lap, pushing aside the computer. “Will you rub my feet, sweetie? Is helps me think.”
Peter lifted my left foot. “It’s like a little, tiny sausage bursting out of its casing,” he said, poking the swollen skin. His finger left an indentation on my ankle.
“That’s nice, honey.” I jerked my foot away. “Way to make me feel good.”
“Oh stop it.” He took my foot back in his warm palmsand began rubbing. “You know I think you’re fat little feet are adorable.”
He tickled my toes and I giggled. “I do,” he said. “You’re the cutest pregnant woman around.”
I sighed. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew Kat. She’s gorgeous. She looks like a supermodel who happens to have swallowed a basketball. A very neat, petite little basketball.”
Peter reached his arms around my waist and heaved me on to his lap, grunting loudly. “I prefer women who look like basketballs, not women who look like they swallow them.”
I leaned against his chest, first checking to make sure that I wasn’t crushing the life out of him. Why am I one of those pregnant women who blows up to cosmic proportions? Why can’t I be like Kat, or like the other Santa Monica matrons at my yoga studio?
“How about a root beer float?” Peter asked.
Aha. The answer to my question. “Sure,” I said, rolling off his lap.
I followed my husband out to the kitchen, and while he scooped vanilla ice cream into the soda fountain glasses he’d bought me for our anniversary the year before, I mused aloud about Alicia Felix’s career.
“Maybe she stopped getting parts because she got too thin,” I said. “It was disgusting. She looked like an Auschwitz survivor.”
Peter popped the top off four different bottles of root beer. He was involved in a systematic and painstaking analysis of all commercial root beer brands, including ones available only over the Internet at shocking prices. There were literally two hundred single bottles and cans of rootbeer taking over our pantry. Every night we had to taste-test at least a few. And I wondered why I was so fat. He carefully poured root beer into the ice cream–filled glasses, careful not to the let any liquid foam over the top.
“I doubt that’s why she stopped getting cast,” he said. “There’s no such thing as too thin in Hollywood. You would not believe what some of those starlets look like in their bikinis.”
Peter’s most recent film,The Cannibal’s Vacation, was shot on an island in Indonesia. He was currently pretending to be hard at work on the prequel,Beach Blanket Bloodfest.
“Oh really? And just how careful an analysis did you make of these gorgeous women in their bathing suits?”
Actually, I was only pretending to be jealous. My husband is adorable, in that kind of thick glasses, mussy hair, skinny, and pale-skin way that seemed lately to have become so fashionable. He pretty much epitomizes nerd-chic. I’m okay-looking, for an average woman. Pretty even, when I’m not bloated with pregnancy. However, in Hollywood, pretty in a normal way just doesn’t cut it. Everyone here is beautiful, and if they aren’t naturally so, they pay top dollar to get that way. It’s enough to make anyone insecure.
“Oh, you know me,” Peter said. “Ogling all day and all night. Actually, if you want to know the truth, I did spend a lot of time looking at them. But it was more scientific curiosity. There’s something almost extraterrestrial about those skinny girls with the big boobs. They don’t lookhuman.”
I leaned over and kissed my husband on the lips. “Thanks, honey. You’re so loyal.”
He buried his head in my chest. “At least I know these are real.” He sat up and handed me a root beer float. “Taste this one.”
“This one any better?” He handed me the other glass.
“I guess so. But honestly, honey, they all taste more or less the same to me.”
He shook his head and sighed. “You have such a primitive palate.”
I took another long sip, and said, “Delicious. So, if the concentration camp look isn’t a deterrent, then why hasn’t Alicia Felix been able to get any work for the past five years?”
Peter lifted his head and got his own drink. “How old was she?”
“I don’t know.”
He went to the living room and retrieved his computer. He clicked back to the TV-Phile site.
“Says here that she was born in 1973.”
I wrinkled my brow. “So she’s thirty?”
“Maybe, but I doubt it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her first credit is as ‘Bereaved Young Mother’ onSt. Elsewherein 1983. Something tells me that by ‘young’ they didn’t mean ten years old. She’s got to have been at least twenty then. Or been able to play twenty. That makes her birthdate no later than 1963. Or 1964, if she could play old.”
I leaned forward and stared at the screen. “No way. She took ten years off her age?”
“It’s pretty common,” Peter said. “You wouldn’t believe who shows up when we put out a casting call for a high school student. Womenyourage walk in and try to fake seventeen!”
“That old and decrepit, huh?” I said.
“You know what I mean. You’re young and gorgeous, but, baby, I hate to break it to you, you ain’t seen twenty in a long, long time.”
“Fifteen years,” I said.
“Yeah, well, for an actress like Alicia Felix, thirty-five is old, and forty is the kiss of death. If she was that old, that explains why her career dried up.”
I sighed, slurping up the rest of my drink. “That just sucks,” I said.
“Why is it okay for some of these ancient actors to play virile young men well into their sixties and seventies, but a forty-year-old woman can’t get work?”
Peter opened his mouth, but I didn’t allow him to get a word in edgewise. I was on a roll. “I mean, do they really expect us to believe that some gorgeous thirty-year-old would ever be married to Sean Connery, or Michael Douglas? Those guys are like sixty years old!”
“Catherine Zeta-Jones. Married to Michael Douglas.”
“Oh. Right. Still . . .”
“It’s unfair,” Peter said. “But that’s Hollywood. Just be grateful you’re not in the business.”
“Poor Alicia. It doesn’t look like she was in the business anymore, either.”Four
“Iwant a hard-boiled egg. And a Tab,” Ruby said.
“And what?” I was pouring breakfast cereal into bowls, tying Isaac’s shoes, and carefully padding Ruby’s class project, a diorama of her grandfather on skis (long story), with wadded paper towels so that it wouldn’t get crushed in transit to school. All at the same time.
“A tab of what?” I asked, wondering if it was really possible that LSD had made it to the first grade set.
“A Tab of soda.”
“Ruby!” I said, more sharply than I should have. “Speak English.”
“I am!” she yowled in righteous indignation. “I do not want cereal! Cereal is yucky! I want a Tab soda and a hard-boiled egg!”
I dropped Isaac’s foot, carefully set the shoebox diorama down on the counter, and turned to my daughter, doing mybest not to yell. “Adiet soda?” I said through gritted teeth.
“Yes. Milk is sugary. And sugar makes you fat. And cereal is just stretch, and stretch makes you fat, too. I want an egg, and Tab.”
“First of all, it’s starch, not stretch, and second of all, how do you even know what Tab is?”
“It’s the best diet soda. Better thanDiet Coke.Madison says so. Madison’s mommy letsherhave it. She buys it at a special store. A store for skinny women.” She paused and looked at me critically. “I don’t think you’ve ever been there.”
I counted silently to ten, poured milk into the two cereal bowls, and set them in front of my children. Isaac picked up his spoon and began eating. Ruby scowled down at the little yellow balls bobbing in the milk.
“Eat,” I said.
She rolled her eyes at me.
“Whatever,” she said, and lifted her spoon to her lips.
I sat down at the table next to her. “Honey, what’s going on with you? Why are you thinking so much about diet stuff? Is it because of Madison? Did she say something to you?”
Ruby didn’t answer.
She picked up her bowl, drank her milk and cereal down in a few huge swallows, and clambered down out of her chair. As she walked to the sink to deposit her bowl and spoon, I looked at her sturdy legs, her bubble butt (something she inherited from her mother), and her waist, still untapered.
“Rubes, come here,” I said.
She came over to me, leaned against my legs, and put herhead on my belly. “Hi, baby,” she said, sounding a little glum.
“Tell me what’s going on, Ruby?”
She sighed and, without lifting her head of my stomach, said, “Madison, Chinasa, and Hannah are on diets. And I want to be on a diet, too.”
“Why, sweetie? Why would you want to go on a diet? You’re gorgeous. Your body is perfect! You’re strong and powerful. You’re not fat at all!”
“I know,” she said.
I lifted her face in my palms and forced her to look at me. “Well if you know that, why do you want to be on a diet?”
“Becauseeverybodyis on a diet. All the girls in first grade. Everybody wants to be like Madison’s mom. She’s really skinny. She can wear Madison’s pants!”
“Yeah, she can!”
It’s a measure of how sickIam that for a brief moment I felt admiration for a thirty-something-year-old woman who could fit into her six-year-old’s clothes. Then I came to my senses. “I don’t believe that. And if it’s true, then it’s just sick. Honey, normal women can’t wear their little girl’s clothes. Normal women just aren’t that small.”
“Madison’s mom isn’tnormal,” Ruby said, with disgust at the very idea. “Madison’s mom is amodel!”
“Well, that explains it. Models are insane. All of them. They have a grave mental illness. And I don’t want you listening to Madison anymore. Tab! Please. You’re a beautiful girl with a beautiful body. And that’s the end of it. Okay?”
Ruby shook herself free of my hands. “Okay,” she said, and wafted morosely out of the kitchen.
At that moment, as if to punctuate her exit, there was the sound of a huge crash, immediately followed by jackhammering. Our neighbors were beginning the demolitionof their house. We’d received notification a few months before that the young couple who had bought the duplex from the elderly brother and sister who had lived there for the previous sixty years planned to raze the place and build a McMansion on virtually the entire lot. We hadn’t paid much attention—after all, we were renters, and had little interest in the effects of the neighbors’ activities on property values. For some reason the sheervolumeof the construction project had not occurred to me. I wrapped my bathrobe around my waist and ran down the steps to our front door, hoping to catch the workers before they woke my husband.
“Excuse me!” I shouted at the hard-hat-clad young man wielding the jackhammer.
“Excuse me!” I shouted, again.
This time he raised his eyes, but pointed at his ears and shook his head. That’s when I noticed that he was wearing heavy plastic earphones. Lucky him. I waved my hands in the air, and he finally switched off the machine and took off his earphones.
“Yeah?” he said.
“Can you guys wait to do that? My husband works at night, and he sleeps in the morning. You’re going to wake him up.”
“Huh?” he said.
“My husband isn’t going to be able to sleep if you guys keep jackhammering!” I said.
“Lady, we’re working here.”
“I know that!” I said, exasperated. “But isn’t there some more quiet thing you could be doing? Couldn’t you leave the jackhammering until after lunch?”
He shook his head. “Lady, city ordinances allow us to begin construction at 8AM.”
“I’m not asking you to stop. I’m just asking if there isn’t something more quiet you could do in the mornings.”
He shook his head, put his earphones back on his head, and revved up his machine again.
Defeated, I walked back up the stairs to our apartment. I found Peter huddled at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.
“I went to bed at four,” he said.
“I know, honey. I’m really sorry. There’s nothing I can do. The city lets them start at eight.”
“How long is this going to go on?”
“I don’t know. Months, I imagine. Maybe even longer. I mean, they’re taking the thing down to the ground and rebuilding from scratch.”
“Juliet,” my exhausted husband whispered. “Please go find us a house. Any house. As long as it’s quiet.”
I thought of the bucolic garden in which Kat and I had waited for the police. The jasmine plants. The twittering birds. And the house! The giant tub. The Sub-Zero. The mangled corpse. I pushed that last image firmly from my mind and picked up the telephone.
“You don’t want that house!” Kat said, dumbfounded.
“Yeah, I do.”
“But someone was killed there! We found her body!”
“How could you live there after that?”
I looked over at my husband, drooping in misery over a cup of steaming coffee.
She let out an exasperated groan. “Anyway, you can’t afford it.”
“I couldn’t afford it two days ago, but I’m betting there’s some wiggle room in the price now, don’t you think?”
“Kat, just do me a favor. Find out what the asking price is. And help me make an offer. I want that house.”
“Oh, all right. But you know what?”
“You are asickperson. Really.”
I laughed. “I’m not sick. I’m justcheap.”Five
WITHPeter awake and able, more or less, to help me get the kids into gear, we were dressed and ready for school almost on time. Before I had kids I never had the problems with tardiness with which I’ve been plagued ever since. I used to blithely juggle court dates, visits to prisons, interviews of witnesses, and appearances before the appellate court with an aplomb that I thought came naturally to me. My first inkling that parenthood was going to have a drastic effect on my competence was the first time I showed up late for jury selection. I had actually made it to the courthouse in plenty of time. It was the twenty minutes I spent crouched in the ladies room, trying to haul my maternity pantyhose back up over my bloated thighs and mountainous belly, that made me late. My favorite moment wasn’t waddling into court, sweat streaming from my forehead, the crotch of my stockings hovering at about knee level. It wasn’t even reassuring my client that all was well while I tried surreptitiously tomake sure my skirt wasn’t tucked up into the waistband of my underwear. No, the crowning moment of my career was when the judge called me up to the sidebar and made me explain my tardiness. And forgot to cover the microphone with her hand.
My attempts to balance work and home kind of went downhill from there. Thus I found myself, six years later, working only a few hours a week, and paying more in late fines to my son’s preschool than the monthly tuition—they billed me ten bucks for every ten minutes I was late to pick the little guy up. Extortion, if you ask me.
Peter succumbed to the children’s entreaties and agreed to drive them to school. Actually, I think what got him out of the house wasn’t really a burst of paternal devotion, but rather the realization that it was Wednesday, and if he ran the morning carpool he could make it to Golden Apple as soon as it opened and be the first uber-geek in line to buy the brand new Promethea and Top Ten.
I took a more languid shower than usual—three minutes rather than thirty seconds—and called Al while I was getting dressed.
“So?” I said my voice slightly muffled by the oversized T-shirt I was pulling over my head.
“So what?” he answered.
“So did you see the body?”
“Typical sex crime. At least that’s what it looks like now.”
I shivered. “And what’s going on with the rats?”
“Are they still there?”
“And now it seems some of them are dead. At least it smells that way. We don’t know where they are, though. Maybe under the floor, or in the walls.”
I gagged, which made putting on lipstick something of a challenge. “No way I’m showing up, Al.”
“So what else is new?”
I felt a flash of defensive indignation, but the truth was, he was right. The days I actually made it in to work were dramatically outnumbered by the days I didn’t. Still, it wasn’t like I took any money out of his pocket. I billed the clients for the hours I worked. The very few hours I worked.
“Anyway, what have we got on today?”
Al sighed. “Barely more than nothing. Just that witness investigation out of Texas. The referral from that friend of yours from law school. I tracked down the address of the witness. He’s up by you. In Inglewood.”
One of my best friends from law school, Sandra Babcock, had become the terror of the Texas bar. She was an aggressive and talented defense lawyer, operating out of Houston. That made her something of an anomaly in a state where it often seems like most indigent defendants are represented by attorneys whose sole qualification for a career in criminal defense is their ability to catch a nap at counsel table. The appellate court for the Fifth District, perhaps because it understood that it would otherwise force two thirds of local counsel out of business, actually ruled that sleeping through trial does not qualify as ineffective assistance of counsel, a decision which has been a real boon for the hung over and narcoleptic members of the Texas bar, and something of an aggravation for Sandra, whose pro bono clients outnumber her paying ones three or four to one.
She had called a week before, asking for help on a case. One of her clients, a young woman, had been fingered by aDEA informant who claimed to have passed her three kilos of cocaine for processing into crack. The defendant, a twenty-one-year-old college student, had insisted that she was in Los Angeles visiting family at the time the deal was supposed to have gone down. Sandra had called and asked us to track down the family members with whom she was staying and get witness statements from them. She was hoping that the statements would help in her motion to dismiss the charges. Meanwhile, because it was Texas, the poor kid was rotting in jail, bail not being something the judge felt obligated to provide to an African-American in a drug case, no matter how patently false the charges.
“Why don’t I do it?” I said. “There’s no reason for you to schlep all the way up here, and, anyway, who knows when or if we’ll get paid for this case.” Sandra would bill the government for our time, but if she were to receive reimbursement at all, it wouldn’t be for a good long while.
“Okay,” Al said. “You’re better at chatting up regular folk, anyway.” That certainly is true. There’s no one like Al for getting the lowlifes to spill their guts, but somehow his skills often fail him when confronted with decent, law-abiding citizens. I think the truth is that after twenty-five years on the force, Al just has a hard time believing that there’s any such thing as an honest person. My years as a public defender certainly infected me with this cynicism, and it has been more than validated by my experiences sticking my nose into private investigations. I’ve seen some pretty straight-seeming people do some pretty awful things. Still, unlike my partner, my belief in the fundamental integrity of at least some members of the human race has not gasped its final breath. Who knows how long that will last?
Inglewood is one those strange Los Angeles neighborhoods whose benign, even charming, appearance belies itsfrightening crime statistics. Little cottages flanked by palm trees and jacaranda bushes nestle on small squares of lawn. There are bicycles leaning against porch steps, and kids playing hopscotch and basketball on the sidewalks. It’s only at second glance that you notice the metal bars on the windows and doors, and realize that there are few if any older people sitting out on their porches, even in the warmth of a Los Angeles winter morning. They are bolted and barred in their houses, too afraid of flying bullets and warring children to risk the sun-dappled streets. The young people are out, congregating on the corners, leaning against the broken streetlights and staring at the passing cars with eyes vacant of any expression other than vague menace.
In my years at the public defender’s office I’d represented many boys like these. And theywereboys, still in their teens, although they had lived through enough violence and fear for men twice their ages. It had taken me many hours to get through to these young men, to convince them that I, a white woman from a background so dissimilar to their own that it might have been another country, another era, another world, would represent them not just honestly, but passionately. I’m ashamed to say that many of them never believed me. The ones to whom I got through weren’t necessarily those who ended up being acquitted. Like most public defenders, I had relatively few of those—my clients were pretty much always guilty of the bank robberies and drug deals with which they’d been charged. Every so often, however, I made one of them understand that I cared about him, that I knew that underneath the tough hoodlum he presented to the world was a young boy with the same fears and dreams as any other boy, from any other neighborhood, including my own. Those guys stayed in touch with me, writing me long letters from prison, occasionally braggingof their successes in getting their GEDs, or maintaining contact with their girlfriends and children. Many if not most of them ended up back in prison after their releases, but every once in a while there was one who turned his life around. I wasn’t arrogant enough to believe I was the cause of the transformation, but I knew it didn’t hurt that somewhere in the system he had met someone who took the time to care about him.
I pulled up in front of a small pink house set back from the street. The owners had given up the fight against crab grass and LA drought, and had ripped up their lawn, laid down cement, and painted the whole thing an almost ironic shade of grass green. They’d done their best with window boxes of nasturtiums and geraniums, and there were a few bright blooms poking out from behind the wrought-iron bars covering the windows. An ancient and impeccably maintained Lincoln Continental hunkered down in the driveway, its fins casting sharp shadows across the flat, emerald pseudo-lawn.
I pulled into the driveway behind the Lincoln, careful not to get too close to the highly polished rear bumper. I flipped down my mirror, applied some modest, girly pink lipstick, and buttoned my white cardigan up to the neck. Different witnesses respond to different things, and I’m always careful to look the part—whatever that might be. Given the tidy house, window boxes, and thirty year old car, I was betting that the house contained an elderly couple who would be most likely to confide in a nicely but unassumingly turned out matron. And I was right.
The door was answered by a woman in her late seventies, wearing a flowered dress and a cotton sweater that was the twin of my own. Her sparse white hair was arranged carefully on her head, not quite concealing the mahogany sheen of herscalp, and she had an ironed pink handkerchief tucked into her sleeve. The only affront to the impeccably maintained order of her person was the puffy, veined ankles protruding from a pair of pale blue terrycloth slippers. She had crushed down the backs of the slippers, and her heels hung, cracked and swollen, over the edges. I wriggled my toes as best I could in my too-tight Joan and David navy blue pumps. At this stage of my pregnancy, my feet looked more like those of this old woman than I cared to contemplate.
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand. “My name is Juliet Applebaum, and I work for your niece, Lara.”
The woman shook my hand firmly and moved aside to let me in. “Yvette Kennedy. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. My sister told me that someone might be coming to talk about her poor child. You come on in.”
She led me into the front room, a small neat parlor with carpeting the precise color of the cement lawn. I perched on the edge of a pale pink sofa, marveling at how long it had been since I’d felt the sticky tug of clear vinyl slip-covers beneath my thighs. The only seat in the tidy room not thus protected was a taupe Barcalounger whose cracked pleather seemed not to warrant defense against assault by the human behind. Or, perhaps, it was simply that the recliner had never been empty long enough to allow it to be wrapped in protective sheeting. The old man ensconced in its depths appeared to have been there for the last two or three decades.
“Mr. Kennedy,” the old woman said, gently, waking the man from his slumber. He startled, and wiped the corner of his mouth with one large hand. His fingers were smooth and bloated, twisted with age and arthritis. Nothing could hide, however, the massive expanse of palm, and it was clear that this had once, a long, long time ago, been a very powerful man. “We have a visitor.”
He looked at me, and then at his wife. “Mrs. Kennedy?” he asked. His voice was deep and hoarse, but time and sleep had rendered it more of a purr than a growl.
“It’s about Etta Jean’s girl. You know.”
He grunted and pushed a bar on the side of his chair. The leg rest swung down, and the back moved upright. He put his hands on his knees and turned his attention to me. He rubbed his gnarled fist across his cinnamon-colored cheek and said, “A gross miscarriage of justice, is what that is.”
“I agree, sir,” I said.
“I marched with Dr. King in Selma,” he said, shaking his head. “You’d have told me then that forty years later we’d be looking at this kind of thing, I would have gone on home. Not bothered missing a day’s work.”
“Now you just stop, Mr. Kennedy,” his wife interrupted. “One has nothing to do with the other.”
He sighed loudly, and shook his head.
“Mr. Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy,” I said. “Your niece Lara claims she was here visiting you in August of this year. Is that true?”
“It surely is,” the old woman says.
“Are you positive about the date?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” her husband replied.
“Really?” I asked. Most people don’t remember dates and times with quite this certitude.
The woman nodded, her stiff hair bobbing with the vigorous motion of her head. “There’s no mistaking it. Mr. Kennedy is a deacon at our church, First African Methodist, over on Thirty-Seventh Avenue. Lara was with us during the summer baptisms. She came to the Lord, she did. Blessed be his name.”
“Amen,” her husband said, so loudly it made me jump.
This was about as good as I could ever have hoped. Better even. Nothing like a baptism for an alibi to turn a case around.
“Would you like to see the photographs?” Mrs. Kennedy asked.
I nodded, and to my delight soon found myself leafing through an envelope of pictures clearly stamped with the date and time. There was a series of photos of white-clad young people being dipped backwards into something that looked a lot like the birthing tubs I’d seen advertised for rent in the back ofMothering Magazine.Maybe those tubs doubled as baptismal fonts when they weren’t being used by natural-minded home-birthers.
“That’s Etta Jean’s girl, right there,” Mrs. Kennedy said, pointing a finger at a rail-thin girl whose robes hung loosely on her gaunt frame.
My complacent glee at the sureness of an acquittal ebbed. Lara had the telltale, hollow-cheeked, brittle-haired look of a crack addict. Her aunt must have noticed my dismay, because she clicked her tongue.
“She looks bad in this picture, I know,” she said.
I didn’t deny it.
“By the end of her time with us, she was much improved. Much. Isn’t that so, Mr. Kennedy?”
Her husband nodded vigorously. “Indeed. That is the truth. She got off that plane, I didn’t think she’d be able to walk to the car. Honestly I didn’t. But she got back on it a few months later with a spring in her step. Yes she did.”
“Was she . . .” I paused, not wanted to insult this sweet older couple. But there was no getting around it, Sandra had hired me to do a job, and do it I must. “Was she using drugs, do you think?”
“No! Of course not,” Mrs. Kennedy said sharply.
“Now Mrs. Kennedy, you calm down,” her husband said. “You can see why she would ask. Of course you can.” He turned to me. “It wasn’t the drugs got that girl. She was making her own self sick, no help from any drugs.”
“What do you mean?”
“My sister sent her to us because Lara had been making herself ill,” her aunt interrupted. “She’d put her finger down her throat, to make herself vomit.”
“She was bulimic?” I asked.
“Yes, she was,” Mr. Kennedy said. “And that Etta Jean was at the end of her rope. Never could control the girl. You know that’s true,” he admonished his wife, who had opened her mouth to object. “Never could do a thing with her. Well, we took that girl in, brought her to the Lord, and she kept her food down fine. Yes, she did.”
Mrs. Kennedy smiled. “We fattened her right up. Look here.” She pulled out another photograph. This girl in the picture was by no means fat, but she was a world away from what she’d looked like in the previous photograph. Her skin looked smoother, her hair was neatly ironed and turned under at the ends, and almost glossy. Her smile was broad. She looked happy. I felt a pang at the thought of what befell her once she’d returned home to Dallas. I was willing to bet all the money in my wallet that her bulimia had returned full force once she’d been thrown into jail.
I spoke to the Kennedys for a while longer, and then told them that I’d send typed witness statements for them to sign and return. I asked them if they’d mind if I took the photographs with me, promising that I’d be sure to have Sandra return them. I left confident that I’d helped Sandra win her case. The word of a deacon and his wife, and the timed, dated photographs, were surely all the alibi Lara would need to provide. Not even a Texas jury could ignorethat evidence. There was even a chance that the prosecutor would see his way to dismissing the case before trial. Although, given that this would mean acknowledging what everyone else knew to be true—that his informant was a liar whose interest lay not in convicting actual criminals, but in protecting himself and keeping money flowing into his pockets—perhaps a dismissal was too much to hope for. When I’d worked at the Federal Defender, I’d come across all too many of this particular breed of informant scum. The most galling part of it all is the amount of my tax dollars the government blithely hands over to them as reward for their dishonesty. I’d been involved in cases where the confidential informant had earned millions of dollars setting up drug deals. Now, some of these guys certainly pulled in some actual drug dealers. After all, they were themselves involved in the business, and had been recruited precisely because of whom they knew. A shocking number, however, set up first-time offenders with no history of participation in drug crimes. I’d represented all too many of these folks, people whose sole involvement in the drug trade was at the behest of the informant. They were invariably facing ten-to-twenty-year sentences for their minor roles in drug conspiracies. At first I couldn’t figure out why the informants would prey on this kind of person. Then it finally hit me; why turn state’s evidence against some gangland thug who is bound to have someone track you down and exact retribution, when the DEA will pay you the same amount of money to set up a first-time loser? It’s a simple question of personal safety, and your basic snitch is nothing if not wise in the ways of self-preservation.
On my way home from the Kennedys, I was overcome by an insurmountable urge. Right here, only ten or fifteen miles out of my way, was Beulah’s Fried Chicken ‘n’ Waffles.It really was too much to expect a pregnant woman to resist. On my way through the overwhelming LA traffic that was quite obviously conspiring with my obstetrician to keep me from my appointment with a platter of wings and thighs, I called Al.
“Where are you?” I asked him.
“Shooting range. Just leaving.”
“Good. You’re not too far. I’ll buy you lunch. Beulah’s.”
He didn’t even reply. He didn’t need to. My favorite thing about Al is his encyclopedic knowledge of the lunch counters of the Los Angeles basin. We share a devotion to greasy, budget cuisine. It’s what brought us together in the first place. When my first case was assigned to this gruff, sexist gun-toting ex-cop, I never imagined we’d end up friends. In fact, I vowed I’d never work with him again. I’m fairly confident he made the same promise to himself, when he saw me tripping through the office in a black leather miniskirt, acting like god’s gift to criminal defense. A week later, after a day spent interviewing a passel of good-natured Hell’s Angels, Al took me to Felipe’s for a French dip. My first bite of the sandwich served to seal Al in my affections, and I think I earned my place in his when I devoured, in two bites, the purple pickled egg he handed me.
I was dipping my fried chicken in maple syrup when he walked through the door.
“Couldn’t even wait?” he grumbled. But he grinned when a platter appeared before him as soon as his butt hit the chair. I’d gotten his order in at exactly the right moment.
While we gobbled our food, I told him about my success with the Texas case. When I was done recounting the tale, he waved a drumstick at me.
“Excellent luck. But will we getpaid?”
“Sandra will file a request for investigation fees. We’ll get something, I’m sure.”
He wiped a stream of grease from his chin. “Well, thank God for that. Because we’ve got nothing on the calendar for the next two weeks.”
“Nothing? Nothing at all?”
He shook his head. “Big goose egg. And I’ve got to pay for the rat problem.”
I made a gagging sound. “I’ll cover half.”
“Nope,” he sighed. “My house, my problem. Anyway, I hired a kid to help me out. Cheaper than the exterminator. Remember Julio Rodriguez? I’ve got him digging around under my house looking for the dead ones.”
“He’s out?” I asked. Julio was one of Al’s protégés. He was a young kid with a talent for computers, who had used his skills in slightly less than legitimate ways. Rumor had it that it had taken upwards of a million dollars to close the holes he exposed in the Social Security Administrations computer system, and I’m pretty sure they never caught up to all the immigrants who benefited from Julio’s early-amnesty green card program. The thing about Julio was that he never benefited, financially, from any of it. As far as any of us could tell, he did it all out of a kind of Robin Hood impulse, stealing legitimacy from the government to provide it to his family, friends, and neighbors. Money never changed hands at all.
“Yup. Supervised release, as of two months ago. Poor kid, damn probation won’t let him work in the only trade he’s got, so he’s got to hunt rats for me.” In hacker cases like Julio’s, one of the conditions of release is always that there be no further contact with computers. It always seems sort of harsh to me. I mean, how’s a guy supposed to get a job nowadays if he can’t get near a computer? No wonderJulio’s reduced to scraping rat corpses out from under Al’s garage.
Al patted his lips with a napkin and hunched forward in his chair. “We’re in trouble, Juliet.”
I nodded. I knew we were. “I’ve got five thousand dollars just sitting around in my separate checking account,” I told him. “That should hold us for a couple more months. We could pay your salary, and the phone bill at least.”
Al shook his head. “I’m not taking it from you.”
“That’s ridiculous. We’re partners, Al. You’ve sunk money into this. Now it’s my turn.”
He dipped a finger into his syrup and swirled it around. “No can do.”
“Al!” I said sharply. “I’m not willing to give up on us. We’re just in a slump. Things were going great. We got paid a ton of money for the Jupiter Jones case. We had those worker’s comp investigations. Sandra will get us paid. It’s building. Slowly, but it’s building.”
He shrugged, and then changed the subject. “You doing okay?”
“You mean because of the murder?”
He nodded. Then, in a gruff voice, as if uncomfortable with his own attempt at empathy, he said, “I know it can be hard, first time you see something like that.”
“Not as hard as being shot,” I said. I spoke from experience. Bullet wounds were one of the few things Al and I had in common.
“I don’t know. That’s different,” he said. At that moment, Al’s cell phone rang, and he sent an inquiring glance in my direction. I nodded, and he licked the syrup off his fingers and answered the phone. I could tell by his tone that he was talking to one of his talented and beautiful daughters, the younger of whom was an FBI agent in Phoenix. Hewas probably in for a long chat, so I decided to do some calling of my own. I dialed Kat’s number. She didn’t sound entirely glad to hear from me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Wrong? Nothing. I mean, nothing really. It’s just that I don’t think you’re going to get that house.”
“What do you mean?”
“My mother-in-law says they’re not sure about selling. I mean, they aren’t sure it’s the right time. Right after Felix’s sister’s murder and everything.”
I asked in frustration. “Why not? That’s ridiculous. Don’t theywantto get out of there? Isn’t the whole idea of living with such a horrible memory oppressive to them? I have to have it. We’re bursting at the seams in our apartment, and that’s even without the baby. Peter can’t get any work done because of the construction project on our block. We have got to move. And damn it, Kat. That’smyhouse.”
“You are so morbid, Juliet. Really you are. Why would youwantto live there?”
I didn’t grace that comment with a response. After all, she had seen the living room. What was a dead body compared to hand-blown wall sconces?
“Let me show you some other houses,” Kat said. I sighed. “Come on.”
“You yourself said that everything out there is crap.”
Now it was her turn to sigh. “Well, maybe something will turn up. I mean, this place did, right?”
I was just about to beg off another fruitless house-hunting expedition when I noticed Al trying to get my attention. “One second,” I said to Kat.
“Possible insurance investigation,” he said, holding his hand over the phone.
I looked at my watch. “I’ve got to pick up the kids soon.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take the meeting myself.”
I put my phone back to my ear. “Kat?” I said.
“So? Are you coming?”
“Sure. But is it okay if I bring the kids? I’ve got to pick them up from school in half an hour.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “I’ve got Ashkon with me today. He and Isaac can entertain each other.” Kat’s son was a year younger than Isaac, and nearly three inches taller. He also outweighed my kid by a good twenty pounds. Isaac would never admit it, but Ashkon scared the bejeezus out of him.
“That’ll be great,” I said.
Al was wiping his mouth with a carefully folded napkin when I got off the phone.
“Good case?” I said.
“Probably not. But it’s billable hours. And that’s what matters, right?”
I nodded. “Call me and let me know how it goes.”Six
KATand I crammed our three kids into my station wagon, shoving the car seats in on top of each other in a mountain of straps, buckles, and velcro. Despite Kat’s entreaties, I wasn’t willing to risk the buttery leather of her Mercedes. I’d bought Ruby and Isaac bags of sour gummy bears as a bribe to ensure good behavior on our real estate rounds, and I knew from experience that at least two or three of the sugar-encrusted globs were going to end up adhered to someone’s butt. Better that it should be my crud-mobile that suffered the consequences of my lousy parenting.
“Just a couple, Ashkon,” Kat said, staring in horror at her son’s beatific face as he jammed the candy into his mouth, licking his fingers and giggling maniacally. Given Kat’s various food phobias, I suppose it was entirely possible that this was her child’s first experience with sugar in his life. He had crammed two-thirds of his bag of candy into his mouth, and he sat in his booster seat with the blissed-outlook of someone who has just found the secret to eternal life.
“Sorry,” I said. “I probably should have asked you before I gave him those. It’s just that since Ruby and Isaac had them . . .” my voice trailed off.
“It’s fine, really,” she said, looking nauseated. Thank goodness my friend was too polite to yell at me. It probably didn’t hurt, I guess, that she was enough of a real estate agent to remember that she wanted to make a sale at some point.
“Okay, so. What do you have to show me?” I asked.
Kat reached into her bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “There isn’t much new on the market. We saw almost everything the other day. But I found one place we haven’t looked at yet.”
It took a good forty minutes to wind our way up to Mulholland Drive. The house, when we finally arrived, didn’t look too bad, if you happened to be a devotee of bad 1970s architecture. And who isn’t, really? I could barely bring myself to get out of the car, and it was only Isaac’s urgent need to get to a bathroom that convinced me to go inside.
The listing agent was waiting for us in the kitchen, and I was full of something akin to admiration when I saw the avocado green appliances and orange Formica cabinets. You’ve got to appreciate that kind of devotion to the palette of the period—and 1973 was such aninterestingyear for colors.
“It’s beautiful!” Ruby announced, her voice almost reverent.
“What?” I said, staring at her.
“This house. It’s just likeThe Brady Bunch!I want to live here, Mama. Please, can we live here?”
With Peter’s purchase of TiVo he and Ruby had lately become devotees of all the television shows we used to watch when we were kids. Ruby was absolutely obsessed with bothThe Brady BunchandThe Partridge Family, and wandered around singing, “I Think I Love You,” and howling ‘Oh my nose!’ at odd intervals.
“You’re right, little lady, this is a beautiful home! Let’s see if we can convince your Mommy to buy it for you!”
I shot the listing agent who had made this comment a baleful scowl. He smiled back. Unlike Kat, this realtor looked the part. His blond hair was sprayed and marceled into a high wave that perched on his head like a sparrow on a tree branch. He was impeccably turned out in a black linen jacket and matching pants. I’d never before seen linen so crisp and unwrinkled. A gold ring in the shape of a horseshoe flashed on one knuckle, and it was all I could do to keep from telling him that he had the thing upside down—all the luck would leak right out of it. Worst of all, I had never met anyone so perky, not even when I had tangled with a religious cult. He had greeted Kat with an effusive hug, and begun to rave about the house as soon as we walked in the door.
My frown at his comment to Ruby seemed to faze him not at all. “This place is a true gem,” he shrilled. “Honestly, I can’t even believe I’m letting you guys in! I should be saving it for my own clients.” He waggled a reproving finger at Kat, as if my friend had forced him to open the doors of this dump to us.
“Now just look at this carpeting,” he said, flinging open the double doors to the dining room. “It’s in perfect condition, but if you don’t like it, you can tear it right up. Who knows what’s underneath. Could be parquet!”
Kat winced, and I nearly laughed. The mauve shag carpeting probably concealed something, but it was more likely to be bare cement than anything else.
The real magic of the house, however, was that it seemed to have been designed by someone with homicidal feelings toward small children. I’d never before been somewhere quite so kid-unfriendly. The circular staircases had no railings and led down to cement floor. I kept Isaac’s hand tightly in mine, because I didn’t trust him to avoid the spiky wrought-iron sconces that were placed just at the level of his eyes.
We drifted aimlessly through one hideous room after another, the children amusing themselves by making faces in the mirrors that lined every wall and some of the ceilings. The master bedroom was nearly the death of Ruby, although it was hardly her fault. How could she have expected that the sliding glass doors would lead to a sheer twenty-foot drop to the asphalt below.
“They must be redoing the balcony!” the agent said, Ruby swinging from his hand. I couldn’t bring myself to thank him for grabbing her collar and saving her life.
Finally, once it had become obvious that unlike the listing agent, we were not the types whose cheerfulness could not be dimmed even by peeling bathroom fixtures and water-stained ceilings, he led us out to the garden.
“It’s perfect for children. Perfect. There’s even room for a play structure!”
I followed his pointed finger with my eyes. “Where?” I asked.
“In those sticker bushes?”
“It’s a xeriscape—a low-water garden. Very fashionable, and environmentally sensitive.”
I murmured something noncommittal, then found my attention distracted by the shrieks of a child. Little Ashkon had managed to impale himself on the thorns of one of those succulents.
“Oh no!” Kat screamed, tearing through the garden, tripping over the rusted patio furniture.
“Stay right here!” I ordered my children, sitting them down on the back step—the only area not overrun with child-eating thorn bushes. “Do not move!”
I ran over to help Kat. She was trying to yank Ashkon’s arm free of the barbs, but their gyrations served only to entangle him further.
“Wait!” I barked. I waded warily into the garden. Kat held her son still while I carefully disengaged him from his predator, thorn by thorn. Once he was free, Kat lifted him in her arms, and we trudged back to where my kids were sitting, quietly for once.
“Perfect for kids?” Kat snarled at the other agent, who had the grace to blush.
By the time we got back into the car, Ashkon had stopped crying, and had begun showing off his scratches to Isaac, who expressed very satisfactory awe at his friend’s bravery. I took off down the hill, as fast as I could.
“Fine,” Kat said.
“Fine, we’ll get you the Felix house.”
“Really?” I smiled at my friend. “Really?”
She had her arms crossed over her chest, and she looked grim. “I just warn you, it’s not going to be easy. Nahid is planning a full frontal attack for when the boys decide to put the house on the market. She’s lined up a psychic to do this insane ‘ghost-clearing’ ceremony, and she’s already booked a dresser for the open house.”
“You know, like a decorator.”
“But the house is beautifully decorated!”
Kat shook her head. “If there isn’t something gildedin every room, my mother-in-law doesn’t consider it done.”
“Ah. She mustloveyour place.”
Kat laughed bitterly. “Not a holiday goes by that she doesn’t try to foist some monstrosity off on me. You would not believe what she gave Reza for his birthday this year.”
“I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be. It hangs from the ceiling. It’s covered in gilt sparrows.”
“My sentiments exactly. It went right into his study, with every other present she’s ever given us. At this point that room looks like Ali Baba’s cave!”
“So what do we do? How do we get me my house?”
Kat shook her head. “I don’t know. I have to think about it. If we wait until it goes on the market, we’ll be screwed. Knowing my mother-in-law, she’ll jack the price up and get a bidding war going. I wouldn’t be surprised if she manages to convince people that a dead body is goodfeng shui.Our only hope is to get an accepted offerbeforeit goes on the market.”
“How do we do that? Isn’t the owner’s boyfriend Nahid’s cousin’s son or something? They’re not going to sell it to us, especially not if they know she can make them more money.”
Kat wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t know. But that’s our only hope.”
We rode in silence for a while. Then I said, “What if I went to talk to Felix? What if I offered to help with the investigation of this sister’s death? You know, in my capacity as an almost-licensed private investigator, and an experienced criminal defense attorney. I could act as his advocate with the police, that kind of thing.”
“You’re saying you want to ingratiate yourself with amurder victim’s brother, in order to buy his house on the cheap?” Kat said.
I glanced over at her. “Yeah.”
She heaved her feet on the dashboard and tapped her toes. She looked positively disgusted with me. Finally, she said, “That could work.”Seven
WHENwe got home I foisted the kids off on their father with instructions to give me an hour’s peace and quiet.
“And you know what would be great?” I said.
“What?” Peter asked, Isaac dangling upside down from his shoulder and Ruby wrapped tightly around his legs.
“An early dinner.”
My husband glanced ostentatiously at his watch. My generally constant level of pregnancy starvation had resulted in our evening meals creeping closer and closer to the daylight hours. I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t seem to make it past five. I suppose that wouldn’t have been so bad if I weren’t always hungry again by eight. Yes, all right, I’d been eating two full suppers since the first trimester of my pregnancy. Two breakfasts, too. Also two lunches. So sue me.
“How about if we make homemade pizza?” Peter asked.
“Mmm,” I said, wondering how I’d survive until the pies came out of the oven.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll make you an extra one for tonight. And have an apple if you’re hungry now.”
Thank God I’m married to an understanding man. So sympathetic was he, in fact, that he had taken, with each pregnancy, to matching me pound for pound. Alas for him he could not breastfeed the pounds away.
I waddled off to Peter’s office and logged on to his computer. In a short while I had gathered a very detailed picture of Alicia’s brother, Murray Felix. No surprise the man went by his last name only. The name Murray conjured up many things—abar mitzvahboy, a certified public accountant, a podiatrist with bad teeth. But Murray, the fashion designer, on the cutting edge of every trend? I don’t think so. So Felix it was. A name that was also a brand.
Felix had launched his label with a collection of old-school preppy clothes,a laRalph Lauren, but with a twist. The men’s suits were cut a little tight, with bright colored ties that would not have passed muster at the Harvard Club. The women’s gowns looked like fairly conservative classics, but in black and white only, with necks so high and hems so low that they were nearly demure. Except they were each characterized by a plunging back nearly to the buttocks, or a cut-away section that revealed an unexpected peek of the side of a breast. The fashionistas had raved about Felix’s quirky creativity, his lush fabrics, his unexpected vision. And the hordes had responded by buying, and buying big.
Within a few years, however, other quirky, unexpected, lush designers had come on the scene, and Felix’s star had begun to fade. Then, last year, the man had come up with the marketing coup of all time. He hired as a spokesman an eighteen-year-old rapper from Compton named 9 MM and launched the line that made his career. 9 MM had a brother serving a life-sentence for murder, a mother with three crackcocaine possession convictions on her record, and more street cred than any other gangsta rapper in the business. The clothing line was called Booty Rags and, from the pictures I saw on the Web, seemed to consist primarily of gigantic cargo pants, tight shirts in vaguely Indian patterns, and dresses of torn spandex that revealed significantly more than they covered. Booty Rags were all the rage—everyone from Hollywood starlets, to teenage nymphets, to the well-maintained and impeccably toned matrons of Beverly Hills was prancing through their days draped in the torn and bedraggled finery. For those, like me, whose bodies would not stand up to the rigors of micromini dresses and see-through tank tops, Felix sold T-shirts with ‘Booty Rags’ scrawled in a facsimile of graffiti tagging. No wonder Alicia’s brother was selling his house in Larchmont. He had moved way beyond that pleasant neighborhood, and well into the land of gated estates.
The aroma of baking pizza interrupted my Internet reverie. I followed my nose out to the kitchen and found my husband and son swathed in identical white aprons. Their hair and faces were dusted with flour, and they had rigged up a catapult system out of wooden spoons and elastic bands.
“What’s up, guys?” I asked, from what I thought was the relative safety of the doorway.
“Extra dough,” Peter said. Isaac leaned back and fired off a grayish clump. The T-shirt I was wearing had ridden up over my round belly, revealing a strip of midriff. The dough caught me right there.
“Ick,” I said, peeling off the cold clot. “Gross.”
“Yeah!” Isaac squealed. “Really gross. Like brains!”
I winced. “Ick,” I said again. “Where’s Ruby?”
“She didn’t feel like helping. She’s down on cooking for some reason. She’s in her room, playing computer games.”
I left my men to their battlefield, hoping vainly that one or the other of them would become inspired to clean up. I found Ruby hunched over the iMac she had inherited when her father upgraded his system.
“What’cha doing, kiddo?” I asked, sitting down on her bed and picking a bit of pizza dough off my stomach.
“Barbie dress up.”
Ruby’s favorite computer game was a particularly vacuous one in which she spent her time crafting outfits for Barbie to wear. Her current project looked like a bra and panties in a lime green, with fringes.
“Cool outfit,” I said, wondering if I shouldn’t hire her out to Felix. She seemed to have his style down pat.
She leaned back in her chair and gazed at her handiwork appraisingly. “It’s okay. Mom?”
“I need a belly button pierce.”
I lifted my eyes from my stomach and stared at my six-year-old, dumbfounded. “You needwhat?”
“I need a belly button pierce. Like Barbie.” She pointed at her design. It was only then that I noticed that she’d decorated the doll with a thick gold hoop where her belly button would be. The thing is, though, Barbie is not particularly anatomically correct, and Ruby’s ring sat on an empty expanse of virtual belly.
“You don’t need your navel pierced, kid.”
“Yes I do!” she said. “Barbie has one!” She poked the screen with one indignant finger.
“First of all, Barbie isn’t real. She’s a doll. And that’s just a picture of a doll thatyoumade. And anyway, if shewerereal, Barbie would be a lot older than you, Ruby.”
“But I’d look really good with a belly button pierce.” She lifted up her shirt and showed off her delicious roundedstomach. I scooped her up in my arms and kissed her exactly where she’d hoped to impale a bit of metal.
“Mom!” she objected.
“Sweetie, we’re not having this argument. You’re not getting your pupik pierced, and that’s that.”
“Pupik is not an English word, mama.”
“I know sweetie. It’s Yiddish. It’s what your Bubbe and Zayde call a belly button.”
She sat up in my lap and gazed at me, her expression carefully devoid of expression. “Okay, well. How about earrings?”
I stared back at her. Had this all been a ploy to get me to agree to pierce herears?Was my little girl capable of that kind of craftily sophisticated manipulation?
“When you’re twelve, Ruby. You know that.”
She groaned in frustration and heaved herself off my lap. “When I’mtwelve?I can’t wait that long! I might already be ugly when I’m twelve! I might be . . .” she paused for dramatic effect. “I mightbe fat!”She whispered the word, as though it were too horrible even to say out loud. I could have been imagining it, but I swear she shot a horrified glance at the stomach peeping out from underneath my too-small shirt.
I was saved from launching into a defense of my prenatal weight gain by the chirping of the telephone. Peter had reprogrammed all the ringers on our various phones so they did anything but ring. They beeped, they twittered, they squawked.
I left Ruby to her fashion design and went to answer the phone. Kat didn’t even bother to say hello.
“She says if I eventalkto them she’ll force me to manage rental units for the next thirty years.”
“What?” I asked, perplexed.
“Nahid. My mother-in-law. Myboss,” she snarled. “Shecaught me going through the computer looking for Felix’s phone number. She freaked. I mean, freaked.”
“Why? What did you tell her?”
“I didn’t tell her anything.” Kat paused. “Okay, I told her that we’d decided to approach Felix to see if he’d be interested in a quiet sale.”
“You what?” I’m ashamed to say I shouted. “Why? Why would you tell her?”
“You don’t understand the woman,” Kat shouted back. “She’s adjinn!I couldn’t help it. I had to tell her.”
Now, Peter’s mother and I weren’t friends. I had never managed to muster sufficient interest in her Hummel figurine and Beanie Baby collections even to feign a relationship. Did I think Peter’s mother was crazy? Sure. Did I find her irritating? Definitely. But even I had never thought of the woman who insisted on being called “Mother Wyeth” as being a demon capable of assuming both human and animal form. But then, perhaps I’d change my tune if I had to work for her.
“It’s okay,” I said to Kat.
“No it’s not,” she groaned. “You loved that house. We’ll never find you anything like it again.”
“Spoken like a true real estate agent.”
“Oh, shut up.”
We both sighed at the same time, and then giggled half-heartedly.
“I’m not giving up,” I said.
“Look, I’m not afraid of Nahid. She can’t hurtme, I’m not married to her son.”
“But I can’t get Felix’s number. And even if I could, I can’t give you any kind of introduction. She’d kill me.”
“There’s got to be another way to get to him. Once he hires me, what’s she going to do?”
“Sic the forces of evil on you. Curse you and all your progeny for a thousand years.” Kat didn’t exactly sound like she was kidding, but I laughed anyway.
“You, butt out, okay?” I said. “You’re no longer involved. The next thing you’re going to do is cash your commission check. Other than that, you’re an innocent bystander.”
She grunted. “Yeah, she’ll believethat.”
“She’ll have to. It’s the truth.”
I hung up the phone and peeked a head into the kitchen. “How long until dinner?” I asked. Peter and Isaac were lying on their backs on the kitchen floor, their faces covered with flattened pancakes of raw pizza dough.
“Like, ten minutes,” my husband said, his voice muffled.
“We’re monsters that don’t have any faces!” Isaac said, lifting up a corner of his mask. “Get it?”
“I do. You definitely scared me.”
“But you didn’t scream!”
I obliged with a howl of shock and fear, and went back out to the living room. After a minute, I dialed my friend Stacy, the one person I knew who was sure to have a way in to Felix.
Stacy and I have been friends since college, when our competitive natures and single-minded ambition forced us either to become enemies or intimates. We’d chosen the latter, and had spoken pretty much every day for the last seventeen years. We’d gone to graduate school together at Harvard—me to the law school and Stacy to the business school. She’d moved out to LA as soon as she’d graduated, taking a job at ICA, one of Hollywood’s top agencies. She’dsoared up through the ranks, swiftly becoming a star at the agency. Through the first years of our careers we were pretty evenly matched, Stacy and I, although she always made much more money than I did. Despite that financial disparity, we excelled at more or less the same pace. I won my first jury trial, Stacy signed her first major star. I appeared on NPR to discuss a Ninth Circuit appeal, she did an interview forEntertainment Tonightabout hot young women directors. Unlike me, however, Stacy had not let pregnancy and parenting derail her career. She’d limited herself to one child, Zachary, who was brilliant and accomplished enough for a whole pack of siblings. Zach had inherited his mother’s looks—he was sharp-faced and attractive, with the same thick head of dark brown hair growing low on his forehead that I vaguely remembered Stacy sporting before she’d begun dying it a succession of glittering tones. She had been a honey blond for years, and had lately taken to wearing her hair swept up in an artfully messy bun at the top of her head, clipped with one or two antique marcasite hair clasps.
It took a moment to convince Stacy’s new assistant that she should put me through to her boss. I’ve been known to keep a pair of pantyhose longer than Stacy keeps one of these poor young things. They never last more than a few months—she chews them up and spits them out, much the worse for wear. To my friend’s credit, however, her assistants invariably end up moving up the ranks of the ICA hierarchy, or into a better job at a studio or production company. The assistants might have a miserable few months in Stacy’s employ, but she prepares them for a career in Hollywood, and she champions them forever after. Los Angeles is full of her castoffs, and no matter how severe their nervous twitches, or how bad their cases of hives, once they move on to biggerand better things they remember her, if not fondly, then with respect and admiration.
“Jules!” Stacy shouted. “I just got back from the Manolo Blahnik trunk show at Neiman’s!”
“Lucky you,” I replied, wishing that I, too, could indulge in the purchase of a pair of three hundred and fifty dollar stiletto heels I’d have no opportunity to wear. I have, I’m afraid, something of a shoe problem. For a woman who spends her life in maternity smocks and overalls, I have a rather stunning collection of pumps and strappy sandals. As indulgences go, it’s not so bad, is it? And anyway, since I’d discovered eBay, my shoe fetish had come to be satisfied with bargain basement bidding.
Once I’d managed to divert my friend’s attentions from the delightful distraction of overpriced footwear, I said, “Felix. The designer. You know him?”
“Booty Rags? Of course. He’s a friend.” She paused. “Anyway, I’ve met him once or twice. On the phone. He dressed Fiona.” Fiona Rytler was one of Stacy’s latest mega stars, a waiflike blond with a classical Shakespearian education and a talent for comedy.
“He dressed her?”
“Yup. For the MTV Movie Awards. He had her in this amazing black dress, like a spider web. Didn’t you see it?”
“Right, right. What was I thinking? You don’t watch award shows.”
Peter and I had long ago made a vow that we wouldn’t watch the Oscars or any of the other of the multitude of award shows unless and until he was nominated for one. I had a feeling we’d be spending the Oscar nights of our golden years catching reruns ofThe Rockford Fileson TV Land.
“Anyway, we were on the phone for weeks working out the dress. He’s a sweetheart.”
“Can you call him for me?”
“Why?” she asked, suspiciously.
I explained about my investigation.
“Oh, Juliet. When are you going to give this nonsense up? I mean, you can’t possibly be making any money at it, can you?”
“We’re doing fine,” I said, barely managing to keep the annoyance out of my voice. I knew Stacy had my best interest at heart, but she didn’t approve of my burgeoning career as an investigator. She, like my mother, felt I should be working at what I was really good at: keeping criminals out of jail. She was convinced that I was wasting my time hanging out with the kids and playing at being a private eye. She was probably right, as I freely admitted to her. Still, I reassured myself that, unlike Zachary, my kids have never had to play a game of soccer with the nanny cheering from the sidelines, and no one else there to notice. In my more content moments I was confident that I didn’t want to exchange that for Stacy’s glittering career, no matter how bored and frustrated I found myself.
“Really? I mean, I can’t imagine there’s any money in the investigation business.”
“Of course there is!” I said, refraining from mentioning that Al and I weren’t earning any of it. “We bill out at more or less what an attorney charges. It’s a great part-time job.”
“But do you have any clients? I mean,payingclients?”
“Well, I might have one if you would just call Felix for me!”
“Is thatit?You mean you have no other clients at all?”
I gritted my teeth. “We’re doing fine, Stacy. I told you. We’re in a bit of dry spell now, but it will pass.”
She clucked her tongue sympathetically and I gripped the phone receiver to keep from smashing it down in its cradle.
“I’ll call Felix for you. But, Juliet?”
“I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be. We’re doing great, Al and I.” I was plenty worried about us, myself. I didn’t need her help.Eight
STACY’Sintervention inspired in me a sartorial crisis the likes of which I’d never experienced before. I must have tried on every piece of maternity clothing in my closet before flinging the last stretched-out smock to the ground in a fit of pique.
“Damn it!” I snarled.
“Mama!” Ruby said, pretending to be horrified at my language. I rolled my eyes at her. Unless her teacher was lying, she knew worse words than that one, and felt free to use them on the playground.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Peter said from under the covers, where he and Isaac were building a fort out of blankets.
The only time Felix could see me was on a Sunday morning. While the rest of my family was playing amidst the pillows and sprinkling bagel crumbs in the sheets, I was forced to confront the terrifying paucity of my wardrobe.
“I have nothing to wear!” I wailed.
“What are you talking about? You’ve got piles of clothes in there.”
I’d been wearing the same maternity and nursing clothes for the past six years, with ever-increasing dissatisfaction; and now that I’d been sucked into a more stylish orbit, it seemed I had an emergency on my hands. I threw a rolled-up sock at my husband’s head. “Felix is a fashion designer! I can’t wear your old Fantastic Four T-shirt to a meeting with a fashion designer!”
“So go buy something new,” he said, entirely unsympathetically. The few times in recent years that I’d had to buy clothes had been exercises more in humiliation than anything else. It was no fun to shop for my rapidly expanding and slowly deflating body, and I had decided just to wait until I was back to something approximating a normal size before I hit the boutiques again. I was obviously going to have to reevaluate that decision.
I was on my way out the door when the telephone rang.
“Please hold one minute for Mr. Brodsky.”
A few moments later a deep voice purred into the phone: “Ms. Applebaum. I received your name and number from a mutual friend, Stacy Holland. I’m with the firm of Brodsky, Brodsky & Shapiro. I imagine you’ve heard of us?”
I had. They were a fairly well-known entertainment law firm in the city, and were not infrequently cited in the trades. “Of course. What can I do for you?” I crossed every finger and toe, praying that he had a case for us.
“My firm has lately been exploring the possibility of engaging in a relationship with an investigative office that specializes in criminal defense. The idea would be to have someone on call when our clients find themselves inunexpected difficulties. Difficulties that require a different kind of expertise to resolve than we possess.”
I didn’t scream and shout in a combination of joy and relief, but that’s only because I clamped my lips shut.
“What kind of difficulties?” I said calmly.
He paused, and my stomach tightened. Had my question caused him to doubt me?
“Perhaps situations where claims are made against your clients, either in the press or simply as rumor?” I asked.
“That’s one kind of situation.”
“And I imagine there are the occasional brushes with the criminal justice system; situations where hiring a defense attorney might be premature, but where an investigation might prove useful.”
“I think we can certainly help you,” I said. “My partner is an ex-police officer, and thus has both connections and experience that is invaluable in all kinds of different situations. And I am a criminal defense attorney, although I no longer practice in the courtroom. I can make sure that any investigation would not endanger future criminal defenses.”
“That is what Ms. Holland led us to understand. She believes your firm would suit our needs nicely.”
I sent a wordless blessing to Stacy.
“Do you, perhaps, have any references?” Brodsky asked.
I gave him Sandra’s name, but I could tell he wanted someone, well, glitzier. I told him I’d need to consult my clients before handing out their names, but I was sure that I’d have something for him. Lilly would talk to him, I just knew she would. And then I made a terrible mistake. It was an understandable error, born as it was of my desperation to close the deal, of my concern for Al, and for my ownprofessional future, but I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips: “I’ve just taken on a rather high-profile case,” I said. “Of course I can’t go into detail, but it’s a murder investigation involving a number of well-known individuals.”
“A high-profile murder investigation? Going on right now?”
“The Felix case? The murder of the fashion designer’s sister? You’re investigating that? I know Felix quite well. We represented a company that sought to acquire his a few years ago.”
I gulped and said, “I’m so sorry; confidentiality prevents me from saying any more.”
“Of course, of course. Well, Ms. Applebaum, that certainly is impressive. My partners and I will be watching to see how that case turns out. Why don’t we plan on speaking once things are resolved? At that point we’ll all have a good idea if working together would be in our mutual best interests.”
It was all I could do to keep from strangling myself with the phone cord. Had I really all but told the man that I represented Felix? I had. And had he really made our hiring contingent on resolving Alicia’s murder? He had. Of course, Felix hadn’t even hired me yet, and even if he did, who knew if I was ever going to be able to solve the case? What a fool I was. What a complete and total fool.
In a terrible funk, I made my way to Liz Lange, a maternity clothing store that was so expensive I’d never done more than casually browse the window displays. A meeting with the founder of Booty Rags justified a more intensive scrutiny of their wares, and my misery was more than enough excuse for some retail therapy. Thirty minutes andover two hundred dollars later I flounced out of the store wearing a tight, black, long-sleeved T-shirt that showed off my belly, and a grey skirt that did much the same to my rather corpulent behind. The salesgirl had assured me that tight clothes were in for pregnant woman. The idea, I guess, is to celebrate the vastness, not disguise it. Since I was well aware that any attempts at concealment were at best fruitless and at worst pathetic, I was ready to jump on the celebratory bandwagon. Still, I was not quite willing to buy myself a pair of maternity thong underpants—every girl has her limits. A pair of high-heeled black boots that I’d brought with me completed the ensemble, and I felt great, panty lines and all.
The door to my dream house was answered by a small man with a thick shock of black hair and the largest brown eyes I’d ever seen in my life. His sooty lashes were so long they looked tangled, and his lips were full and red. He was beautiful, although certainly not traditionally handsome. He was far too petite for that. He looked like a miniature movie star, a fashion model writ two sizes smaller than normal.
“Hallo,” he said, in a vaguely European accent.
“I’m Juliet Applebaum,” I said, extending my hand.
“Farzad Bahari,” he said, taking it in his own. His grip was surprisingly firm, for such a delicate man.
He led me through the vaulted entry way and into the long living room. A cheery fire was burning in the green-tiled fireplace, and the many sconces were lit, despite the bright midmorning light shining through the leaded glass windows. I surreptitiously buried a covetous toe in the thick Chinese carpet, and determined to convince Felix and his pretty boyfriend not only to sell me their house, but also to toss in the rug.
“One moment. I’ll let Felix know you’re here. He’s in his room. Resting.”
“Of course,” I said. “This must be very difficult for him. Losing his sister.”
Farzad pursed his voluptuous lips for a moment, and then nodded, almost grudgingly. He left me alone in the room and ran quickly up the stairs. I took advantage of his absence to look once again around the room. When Kat and I had been through the house I’d been far too interested in the tiles, wood floors, moldings, and fixtures to look at the pictures on the walls. Now I could examine the black and white photos at my leisure. There was a long row of them, matted and framed behind museum glass. There were one or two that looked decidedly like Robert Mapplethorpes—few other photographers capture the male body with quite that erotic artistry. The others were dramatic, stylized fashion photographs, including two large prints of ethereal models wearing clothing that bore the unmistakable mark of Booty Rag ghetto-chic.
“Those are Avedons,” a voice said. I leapt back—I’d had my nose pressed altogether too close to the glass.
“Wow!” I said. “The real deal?” I turned to look at Alicia’s brother. He was a tall, thin man with fair hair cropped close to his scalp. His narrow face was dominated by a sharp beak of a nose, made all the more prominent by the diamond stud nestled in the crease above his nostril. He was wearing a black T-shirt in a soft clingy fabric that looked like silk. His narrow hips were having a hard time holding up his voluminous cargo pants, and a pair of black silk underwear peeped above the drooping waist.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said.
He nodded, and collapsed into an oversized wing chair, leaning his head back into the nubbly leather. “So you’re a friend of Stacy Holland’s,” he said.
At that moment Farzad came into the room carrying a tray with three small cups and a matching coffeepot. He put the tray down on a side table. Without asking me how I took mine, he spooned generous portions of sugar into each cup and handed them to his boyfriend and me. I took a tentative sip, and then smiled. The coffee was rich and sweet, but plain and strong, too. Much better than the milkshake-like concoctions I’d been drinking lately.
“Mm,” I said.
“Farzad makes a fabulous cup of coffee,” Felix said, smiling at the smaller man. Farzad sat down on the couch and tucked his legs up under him. He nodded graciously at the comment, clearly understanding that it was no more than his due.
I took another sip, and then warmed my hands around the small cup. “I’ve known Stacy forever,” I said. “Since college.”
“Oh?” Felix said, in a voice entirely devoid of interest.
“Did she explain to you why I wanted to meet you?” I asked.
“Sort of. But I’m not sure I really understand. She told me that you were the one who . . . who found Alicia.”
“Yes,” I said softly. I told him how Kat and I had come to be in the house that morning.
“I told Nahid that lock box was a dreadful idea!” Farzad interrupted. I looked over at him. His face was flushed and he looked angry. “She wouldn’t listen. She is just like my mother. Does what she wants.”
“You hadn’t asked her to put the box on?” I asked.
“Of course not!” he said. “It’s a ridiculous idea. Putting your key on the door so anyone can walk in! What’s the point of having a five thousand dollar alarm system if you leave the key for anyone to find?”
“Why did she want the lock box, do you know?”
Felix reached across to the couch and laid a calming hand on his boyfriend’s arm. “We were just about to put the house on the market,” he said to me. “Nahid wanted to be able to get in when she needed to, and to send other agents by to look at the place while we were out of town. She had one of her handymen come and install the box.”
“You were out of town?”
He nodded. “At our place in Palm Springs. We’d been there for a couple of months. That’s why we wanted to sell the house. To move down there, permanently.”
“You’d planned to leave LA?”
He nodded. “Farzad’s been dying to get out of the city. And we’ve fallen in love with Palm Springs. The desert has wonderful energy. So creatively inspiring. We were there working on the preliminary sketches for my autumn collection when we found out about Alicia. So much for the collection,” he said, waving his hand as if to bid it goodbye. “I’m not likely to get any of it done now.”
“Of course you will. You’ll be ready to go back to work in a week or two. It will be a good distraction for you,” Farzad said, managing to sound both tender and bossy.
Felix shook his head. “I don’t know. I doubt it. Maybe you’ll have to do it for me, sweetie.” He laughed humorlessly. “It’s not like anyone would know the difference.”
I gently brought them back to what we’d been talking about before. “So you were out of town when Alicia was killed?”
“Yes,” Felix said. He suddenly narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “I’m not sure I understand, Ms. Applebaum. Exactly why did you ask Stacy if you could meet me?”
I explained to Felix that I was an investigator, and that I was eager to help in any way that I could. “I guess you couldsay that finding her body makes me feel like I have a kind of personal stake in finding out who murdered your poor sister,” I finished, lamely.
Felix nodded, not looking entirely convinced. He said, “How can you help? The police are investigating her murder.”
“Well, in addition to being an investigator, I was a criminal defense attorney. I can act as your advocate with the police, help you navigate their questions, follow leads they might not be interested in pursuing. I’d be on your side, acting in your interests. You can’t necessarily rely on the police for that.” I thought of Harvey Brodsky and had a sudden inspiration. “My partner and I provide these kinds of services for people in situations like yours. High-profile individuals for whom relying on the good will of the police is simply not an option, but for whom engaging a criminal defense lawyer might not project the right image.”
Farzad nodded, although Felix still looked perplexed, and perhaps a little suspicious.
“Why would I need an advocate with the police?” Felix said.
“Because the police are bound to think you killed Alicia!” Farzad said. “They always blame the family.” He turned to me. “Don’t they? Don’t they always blame the family?”
“Well, statistically, murders are most often committed by someone the victim knows. So yes, they do look to the family.”
“But we were in Palm Springs!” Felix said.
I nodded. “And I’m sure the police will rule you out once they verify that.”
“No they won’t,” Farzad said. “They’ll just say we paid someone to kill her.”
I was surprised by his vehemence. Why was he so sure that he and his partner would become suspects in this grisly murder?
Felix once again patted his boyfriend’s arm. Then he smiled at me, uncomfortably. “Farzad was born in Iran. He doesn’t have exactly warm feelings toward the police.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Of course not.”
“He’s basically pathologically suspicious of authority,” Felix said.
“Have you done this kind of work before?” Farzad asked.
“Yes, I have. Of course my work is confidential, so I can’t give you references, but rest assured my partner and I are experienced in this area.” Lilly’s case qualified as experience, didn’t it? “This isn’t a service for everyone,” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t slipping into too oily a register. “Only individuals with a certain public profile can afford this level of protection, or even need it. Most people simply muddle through. Ours is a service appropriate only for the select few.” I was definitely going to need a shower when I was done with this interview.
I wasn’t wrong in my assessment of Felix’s vanity. I’ve found, in fact, that it’s very difficult to overestimate the narcissism of the average wealthy Los Angelino.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have someone on our side,” Felix said. “I do have a public profile I need to protect.” Then he narrowed his eyes. “But what do you get out of this?”
I was not willing to confess my hope to buy his house on the cheap, and I was getting more and more uncomfortable with my own ulterior motives.
“We pay her,” Farzad said. “That’s what she gets out of it.”
I nodded. “That, and the knowledge that I’ve done what I can to help find whoever did that to your sister. Findingher is not something I’m ever going to be able to forget.” I wasn’t lying. The image of Alicia’s violated body was there, in my memory, forever.
“How much, exactly, do we pay you?” Farzad asked.
I outlined Al’s and my rates. They were reasonable, considering how much money Felix obviously had.
After a moment, Felix nodded. “Okay. We can give it a try. See if it works out.”
I hoped my huge sigh of relief was not audible. I leaned forward. “You won’t be sorry,” I said. “Can I ask you a few questions about your sister? To give me some context for my investigation?”
Felix told me that he and Alicia had grown up in Miami. “My dad owns a Chevrolet dealership. The first thing I did when I got out of there was buy a European car.”
After a brief stint at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Felix had followed his sister out to Los Angeles. She’d gone to UCLA and majored in acting. By the time her brother joined her in Hollywood, it was clear to them both that her star was rising.
“She had auditions almost every day, and seemed to get a lot of the parts she tried out for. It was mostly commercials and little one-time roles on TV shows, but she was doing really well. And she was leading this total Hollywood lifestyle. She and her friends would spend every night at parties, or at clubs. She was dating guys you’d recognize from TV, even if you didn’t know their names. To a kid like me, it seemed like the coolest scene ever.” He shook his head ruefully. “Alicia was terrific. She put me up for almost a year—I slept on this stinky little pull-out futon in her living room. She introduced me to people, even set me up with guys she knew.”
“Hey!” Farzad said.
“That was all before you, baby.”
“Did the rest of your family know you were gay?” I asked. “Or just Alicia?”
Felix snapped his fingers in the air. “Oh honey, I’ve been out of the closet my whole life. My mother caught me with our Cuban gardener when I was about fourteen years old.”
He smiled, ruefully. “Let’s just say she wasnotsurprised. I’d been cutting up her dresses and restyling them for her since I was nine years old. Not many hetero boys can manage a straight seam in velvet.”
I thought of my husband and his wardrobe of jeans, khakis, and T-shirts.
“That’s certainly true,” I said.
“Anyway, I was lucky. My parents were fine with it. They just told me to keep my hands off the help.”
Farzad snorted into his coffee cup.
“So Alicia was getting a lot of parts,” I said.
“For a while,” Felix said. He then told me what I already knew about the downturn in her fortunes.
“That must have been difficult, coinciding as it did with your success.”
He shook his head. “It was awful. I mean, not that Alicia was necessarily jealous. She was glad for me.”
“She certainly liked having someone to borrow money from,” Farzad interjected.
“Farzad! You know full well how much I owe Alicia,” Felix said, raising his voice.
The younger man shrugged and made a zipping motion across his lips.
I paused for a minute, and then said, “Alicia borrowed money from you?”
Felix glared at his boyfriend. “Not exactly. I mean, I never expected her to pay me back.”
“And you gave her a place to live?”
He nodded. “She worked for that, though. She was our personal assistant.” He shot a warning glance at his boyfriend, and I wondered exactly what he was worried the indiscreet young man would tell me.
“What did she do for you?”
“She took care of the house while we were gone, for one. And she did errands and things.”
“What kind of errands?”
“You know. Picking up the dry cleaning. Doing the grocery shopping. Making dinner reservations, booking travel. That kind of stuff.”
I nodded, imagining what it would feel like to be one’s younger brother’s maid and errand girl. I don’t think I could have tolerated it for a minute, and I felt terribly sorry for Alicia. While my career might not be going anywhere fast, it certainly wasn’t sinking into the kind of oblivion that had forced her into this awkward and surely unpleasant situation with her brother.
“What was Alicia planning on doing once you moved to Palm Springs? Was she going to come with you?”
Felix shook his head. “No. She couldn’t have. Not if she wanted to keep auditioning and appearing with her comedy troupe. She’d have found some other work, I guess.”
“Was she upset at the prospect of your move?”
“She wasn’t thrilled. I mean, it meant a lot of changes for her. But Alicia was a flexible person. She would have been fine.” He heaved a huge sigh. “I don’t know what’s going to come of all that now.”
“All what?” I asked.
“Palm Springs. The move. Everything.”
“Don’t be silly, darling,” Farzad said. “There’s even less of a reason to stay here, now.”
Felix rubbed his eyes with his hand. “I can’t bear the idea of selling this house, of leaving, with everything so unresolved. I don’t know. I just don’t know.” His voice trailed off.
I felt my tenuous grasp on my dream house slipping away.
We sat in silence for a few moments, and then I changed the subject. I asked for the names of some of Alicia’s friends, and after a short pause Felix came up with one.
“Moira Sarsfield. She’s known Alicia for ages. They kind of rose and fell together, if you know what I mean.”
“Do you have her number?”
He shook his head. “No, but she works at Franklin’s, the restaurant in that Best Western, the one right before you get on the 101 in Hollywood. You can probably find her there.”
Before I left, I gave Felix and Farzad a printout that Al’s wife Jeanelle had made for us of our fee schedule and expense reimbursement policy. My embarrassment at taking the job solely to get my paws on that house kept me from asking for a retainer, and I mentally crossed my fingers, hoping that Al wouldn’t kill me when he found out.
Farzad saw me to the door.
“You have a beautiful home,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s right; you were looking at it with a real estate agent. So, had you planned to make an offer? Before all this, of course.”
I gazed at him for a moment, and then I said, “You know, Farzad, I’d still like to make an offer. That is if you still plan on selling the house. It would be perfect for me and my family.”
He waggled his head in something between a nod anda shrug. “Well, we’ll see how all this pans out. Perhaps you will figure out who murdered poor Alicia, and Felix will be so grateful that he’ll sell you the house!”
My plan exactly! “Perhaps,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”Nine
WHENI told Al about Harvey Brodsky’s call, and about the possibility of us receiving a lucrative contract from him, Al expressed a momentary excitement. I felt terrible when I was forced to explain that it all hinged on how we did with the Felix murder.
“It’s most likely a sex crime, Juliet! We aren’t qualified to investigate a murder like that.”
“You solve those crimes forensically!”
“With teams of detectives, crime scene experts, medical examiners!”
“Not two people operating out of a garage!”
I pulled over to the side of Melrose Avenue. This was nota conversation I could have while driving. “We don’t have to solve the crime,” I said. “Our job is to help Felix and Farzad navigate through the system. You know, be their representatives to the police. That kind of thing.”
He sighed again.
“That’s what Brodsky’s interested in! Not if we solve the murder or not. He can’t possibly expect that.”
“Let’s hope not,” he said.
“Hey, how’d that meeting with the insurance company go?”
“They offered me a job.”
“Great! A paying client!”
“No. They don’t want the agency. They want me to go work for them. To head up their investigation unit.”
“Oh.” My stomach sank. Was it all going to end like this? “Oh. Well, then this whole Brodsky thing isn’t really important, is it?”
“I turned them down.”
“You did what?”
“I turned them down. I don’t want to work in some office with some vice president breathing down my neck. I’ve had enough of that.”
“You’d rather work out of your rat-infested garage?”
“Damn right I would. What, do you want me to take the job? Are you trying to weasel out of our partnership?”
“No! No!” I said.
“Good. You’re stuck with me, lady.”
I smiled and merged back into traffic. After Al and I hung up, I called Peter. The first thing he did was fill me in on the state of the neighbor’s construction.
“Jackhammering. All day. I’m losing my mind.”
“I’m so sorry, honey. We’ll move. Soon. I promise.”
“God, I hope so. Anyway, we’re on our way to the Santa Monica pier to ride the carousel.”
I was free to continue my perambulations around the city. I’d been sure that my husband would not approve of my plan to investigate Alicia’s murder, but to my surprise he was remarkably easy going about my efforts. He merely wished me luck, and reminded me that my first priority was to find us a new house. I don’t think he thought much of my chances of parlaying an investigation into a house purchase. But he hadn’t been out in the real estate trenches like I had. He didn’t know just how little there was out there.
I took surface streets over to Franklin’s, hoping that I’d find Moira at work. I debated calling the restaurant first, but decided that the benefit of a surprise appearance outweighed any inconvenience of schlepping all the way to Hollywood. I was more likely to catch Alicia’s friend in a gregarious mood if I caught her unawares.
Franklin’s is one of those dives that for some reason periodically becomes fashionable among Hollywood’s almost-elite. The place certainly has a seedy charm to it, with the cracked vinyl booths and Formica counter. But the food isn’t much to speak of, and the listless snobbery of the wait staff has always made it and other restaurants of its ilk something of a turnoff to me. It’s not that I don’t feel sorry for the Juilliard and Royal Shakespeare Company graduates who are forced to earn their livings pouring ranch dressing onto iceberg lettuce salads and swabbing countertops with foul-smelling rags. I was a waitress myself, back in my pre-lawyer days. I have nothing but sympathy for food servers. It’s just that I’m never really able to understand why their professional despair need express itself in an ill-concealed disdain for my food choices, my clothes, and me as a person.
Moira was working, if you could call it that, and more than happy to pull herself a cup of coffee from the vast metal urn and sit with me while I ate my BLT.
“It’s such a nightmare,” she said, dragging the back of her hand roughly across her eyes. It hadn’t taken much to start her tears flowing. The mere mention of Alicia’s name was enough to jumpstart her grief.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again, patting her arm with one hand while the other balanced my leaking sandwich. I swabbed at the dripping mayonnaise with my tongue and put the sandwich down. “Had you seen Alicia recently?”
Moira nodded. “I see her all the time. Like every couple of days. She’s my best friend.” Her tears were flowing thick and fast, now. “God, Aziz, that’s the manager, he’s going to kill me. I’ve been crying pretty much constantly since I found out. The customers aren’t real excited about being waited on by some wailing hag.”
“You’re not a hag,” I said. “But maybe you should take a little time off. It’s got to be really hard trying to work while you’re feeling this way.”
“Yeah, that might be nice. But if I don’t work, I don’t eat and I don’t pay the rent, so it’s not like I’ve got a choice.”
I nodded sympathetically. “It’s not an easy life, acting.”
“You could say that. Although I’m not really sure I can consider myself an actor anymore. I mean, I haven’t gotten a single part in three years. I’m pretty sure that that makes me just a waitress.”
“That’s kind of what was going on with Alicia, wasn’t it?”
She nodded and tucked her stringy blond hair behind her ear. I noticed a fine, white scar extending along her crown and scalp. Had her hair been clean, and not dragged back on her skull, it would have been entirely covered. I’d seen scars like that once before—on Stacy’s mother when she wasrecuperating at Stacy’s house after one of her many facelifts. Mrs. Holland’s had been red and fiery, but they’d faded over time. Like Moira, she now looked a bit pressed and pulled, but not too bad. The only difference was that my friend’s mother was in her sixties, and Moira was surely not much older than I.
“It’s just really hard for women in Hollywood,” she said, sighing into her cup of coffee. “A guy is considered young and sexy until he’s, like, seventy. But once a girl hits thirty, things start getting really tough. And my God, don’t even talk to me about forty.” She laughed mirthlessly. “I’ll probably just shoot myself before I get there.”
It didn’t sound like she was kidding, and I patted her on the arm again. There was no comfort I could provide. She smiled wanly. “I’m okay,” she said. “You know the saddest part? Things were starting to turn around for Alicia.”
I leaned forward in my seat. “What do you mean?”
“Well, she had this new boyfriend, Charlie Hoynes. Have you heard of him?”
I shook my head.
“He’s a producer. Film and television. He’s pretty huge. He’s done lots of things, but what he’s most famous for are those vampire movies. TheBlood of Desireseries? They started on cable?”
I’m afraid my familiarity with horror movies borders on the encyclopedic, not a surprise given to whom I’m married. “Those adult ones? Basically soft-core porn?”
“Exactly. He’s done other features, but the vampire movies are his biggest. Now he’s putting together a one-hour adult drama based on those.”
“Based on the porn movies?”
“They aren’t really pornography. Just adult entertainment. I mean, there’s a difference, isn’t there?”
“I guess so.” Horror movies I can catalogue, but pornography is a bit out of my field.
She looked defensive. “I don’t think Alicia would have done porn. I mean, I know she wouldn’t have. It’s the fastest way to oblivion. Once you shoot a porno, there’s just no way to get back to mainstream film and TV. So the series must be tamer than the original cable movies were.”
“She was cast in it?”
Moira nodded. “All but. I mean, she met Charlie at an open call, and she pretty much started dating him right away. I’m sure he was going to give her a part. I mean, he kind of had to, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so,” I said, no more familiar with the ways of the casting couch than I was with contemporary pornographic cinema.
I wrote down Charlie Hoynes’s name in my little notebook. “Was that the only iron Alicia had in the fire, do you know?”
Moira nodded. “Well, I mean, except our improv group. Do you know about that?”
Suddenly, a dark man with a thick bushy mustache and matching eyebrows appeared at our table. “Moira!” he said. “You are only sitting with customer! You are not working, not at all!”
She glared at him. “Can’t you see I’m on a break? I’m not some Moroccan slave, Aziz. Here in America we havecoffee breaks.”She raised her mug at him and shook it slightly. Coffee slopped over the side and onto her hand. “Ow!” she squawked. “Now look what you made me do!”
“Oh no, so sorry,” the man said, dabbing at her hand with the damp and dirty dishcloth he held.
She shook him away and he slunk back in the direction of the kitchen.
“Sorry,” she said to me.
“No problem. But if you have to get back to work . . .” my voice trailed off.
“Oh, please. Like I care what Aziz wants me to do.”
I felt a pang of pity for the poor, beleaguered Aziz. I wanted to follow him into the back and reassure him that all Americans weren’t as spoiled and ill-mannered as his employees, but I had work to do, and alienating Moira surely wasn’t the best way to elicit information from her.
“You were telling me about your improv group?”
“Right. You’ve probably heard of us. The Left Coast Players, Spike Steven’s comedy troupe?”
I smiled noncommittally, and she chose to interpret it as a yes.
“We’ve been in the LCP for years, Alicia and I. It’s pretty much a feeder program forNew York Live.Kind of like Second City in Chicago.”
“Really?” It had been years since I’d watched the midnight comedy showNew York Live, but in college I’d been a devoted fan.
“Yeah, like half the casts of the first ten years or more ofNYLwere LCP alumnae. There are a couple of folks on the show right now. Jeff Finkelman. And, well, of course, Julia Brennan. No relation.” It was obvious from her tone thatthe other Ms. Brennanwasn’t one of Moira’s favorite people.
“Do you know them?”
“Who? Jeff and Julia? Sure. We’re really good friends. I mean, Julia’s a nightmare, and Alicia and I hate her, but we’ve been friends for years.”
Ah, Hollywood, the only place on earth where the definition of ‘friend’ includes someone you’ve hated for years.
“Why do you guys hate her?”
Moira opened her mouth to speak, and then snapped it shut. “Look, I can’t talk about it.”
“Talk about what?”
“Any of it. Julia, the whole thing. Alicia’s dead, and it doesn’t matter any more.NYLhas auditions all the time, and the last thing I need is Julia Brennan finding out I’ve been trashing her.”
“Moira, your best friend is dead. If we want to find out who did this to her, we’re going to have to ask some really hard questions. Like who might have had a grudge against her. I know you want to protect your chances of getting on the show, but what’s more important; that, or finding Alicia’s murderer?”
Moira stared into her coffee cup, and I had the sinking suspicion that the answer to that question was not as obvious to her as it was to me.
She sighed. “You know Julia Brennan’sNYLcharacter, Bingie McPurge?”
“No,” I said, vaguely horrified.
“Well, she does this whole bit. Bulimia jokes. Anorexia jokes. Anyway, that’s the character that got her the slot on the show. And it’s incredibly funny. There’s only one problem.”
“What? The tackiness factor?”
She smiled politely. “Okay, two problems. The big one, though, is that it’s not Julia’s character.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, she didn’t make it up. Alicia did. Bingie McPurge was Alicia’s character. I mean, that’s not what she called her. Alicia just called hers Mia, but she developed her in the improv group. She performed her in our workshops and on our open mike nights. She made it up, she wrote the jokes. Everything.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. Julia stole the character, and made it on toNYLwith it. And we just heard she’s got a movie deal with Fox. Alicia’s Mia is going to behuge, and she is never going to get any credit for it at all.”
“Was Alicia doing anything about it? Was she going to sue Julia?”
Moira nodded. “She wanted to. But it’s really hard to get a lawyer in Hollywood to take on a major studio like that. Everyone she talked to told her it was too hard a case to win. But Alicia wasn’t going to give up. She’d never give up. That’s just not the kind of person she was.”
Moira began crying again, and I gave her a minute. Then I asked, “Moira, was Alicia bulimic?”
“Oh God, no.”
“She’d never make herself throw up like that. Too gross. And you have to binge to purge. Alicia would never allow herself to eat that much.”
“Was she anorexic?”
Moira considered the question. “I don’tthinkso.”
“Could she have been?”
She shook her head, but not with any sense of certainty. “Maybe when she was a kid, or something. But not now. Not as an adult. I mean, she was really careful about what she ate—she never ate in front of people, because she thought that was just kind of gross, but she didn’t starve herself or anything.”
I thought of her emaciated corpse. “Are you sure, Moira? Is there any chance that she was anorexic, and just kept it a secret from you?”
Moira shook her head again, this time firmly. “No. No, I just don’t believe it. I mean, we were best friends. We knew everything about one another.”
I nodded. Then I said, “Moira, I hate to even ask this question, but you probably understand why I need to. And I’m sure the cops have asked you, or will ask you already.” I paused.
“Where was I when Alicia was murdered?”
“Right here,” Moira said. “Working with Aziz. Where I always am. Where I’m probably going to be for the rest of my life. In this grease pit with a boss who watches me every goddamn minute of every goddamn day.”
“You work nights?” I asked.
“I work all the time. Aziz lets me pull double shifts. It’s the only way I can afford to pay for my apartment, my car, and my answering service. Plus the more I work the more he feels like he owes me, so if I ever do get an audition again he won’t have any choice but to give me time off to take it.”
“The police will probably want a record of it.”
“I punch a time clock. They can look at that. And they can talk to old Aziz. He’ll tell them I didn’t do more than walk outside once or twice for a cigarette, if that.”
“Would you mind if I just checked the time clock? I trust you absolutely, but this way I can just cross you off the file, and make it look like I’m doing my job.” I used my best beleaguered-working-girl voice and topped it off with a ‘you know how it is’ shrug.
She called Aziz over, and the obviously good-natured manager supplied me both with Moira’s time card and his own firm recollection that she’d been working by his side all evening. He even let me use the office copy machine to make photocopy of the time card. I left the restaurant knowing a little more about Alicia Felix, and with at least one potential suspect firmly in the clear.Ten
Iwas still arguing with Stacy when I walked into my house.
“Whynot?You’re being totally unreasonable,” I said into my cell phone.
“Why not? Because Charlie Hoynes is a creepy little dope and I’m not going to allow my name to be raised in his presence.”
“I won’t mention you when Imeethim. Just on the phone to get him to take my call!”
“Not good enough. You just don’t understand how this works, Juliet.” She wasn’t exactly yelling, but I had to hold the phone a few inches away from my ear nonetheless.
“Sure I do,” I said. “If I use your name to get to Hoynes, then he’s doing you a favor by talking to me, and if he does you a favor, he’ll expect you to do one for him in return.”
“Precisely. And what he’ll ask for is that one of my clients agree to be in one of his sleaze-fests. And that’s just not going to happen.”
“So, you just say no! What’s so hard about that?”
“He’llcallme. And I’ll have to take his calls! That’s what’s so hard. Look, girlfriend. We’re done here. You can’t use my name, and that’s that. End of story.”
“But I don’t know anyone else who knows Charlie Hoynes,” I said, but she had hung up the phone.
“I know Charlie Hoynes,” Peter said pleasantly.
“What?” I snapped my head up. I was still standing in the entryway to our apartment, my cell phone in my hand. Through the arched doorway into the living room I could see Peter and the kids tumbled together on the couch. Isaac was asleep, his head resting on his father’s chest, and a string of drool connecting his pooched-out lower lip to the red plaid of Peter’s flannel shirt.
“How do you know Charlie Hoynes?” I whispered.
“You don’t need to whisper, he’s totally out,” Peter said.
“Yeah, Mama, watch this.” Ruby reached across Peter’s chest and smacked her brother in the head. He didn’t stir.
“Ruby!” I said.
She rolled her eyes at me and turned her attention back to the TV. They were watchingThumbtanic.Peter and Ruby had rentedThumb Wars(“If there were thumbs in space and they got mad at each other, those would beThumb Wars”) and watched it pretty much nonstop for two weeks. Now they were on to the all-thumb version of James Cameron’s romantic classic. Nothing cracked my daughter up like an ocean full of drowning thumbs.
“How do you know Charlie Hoynes?” I repeated.
“Remember those two producers who pitched me that idea for the abortion movie?”
I groaned. When Peter and I had first arrived in Hollywood, he had been hungry enough to take meetings withpretty much anyone who would see him, including a producing team that had an idea for a horror movie in which aborted fetuses came to life and attacked a city. It was supposed to be a comedy. Needless to say, Peter didn’t take that job.
“Please don’t tell me that that’s Charlie Hoynes,” I said.
“Indeed. Wait a second, it’s the ‘King of the World’ part.” He and Ruby poked each other and snickered.
“I’m the king of the world!” Peter said.
“I’m a dentist!” she replied.
Peter turned his attention back to me. “You want me to call him?”
“You don’t mind?” I asked.
“Why should I mind?”
“Well, he’ll have your number, and you’ll owe him a favor.”
“Please. Who cares? Go get me the phone.”
My generous spouse was somewhat less sanguine when Hoynes not only took his call, but insisted that we join him for dinner the following evening at Spago.
“Ick, Spago,” I said, when Peter hung up the phone.
“Don’t ick me. This is your fault.”
I sighed. “I’ll go call a babysitter.”
“Nobody old!” Ruby shouted. At her piercing howl, Isaac finally woke up, crying, as usual. Neither of my children has ever managed to arise from an afternoon nap without at least twenty minutes of hysterical tears. I used to wonder if the couple of hours of bliss while they slept was worth the drama of their rising, but then Ruby stopped napping and I quickly realized that an entire, uninterrupted thirteen-hour day with a child is significantly longer than your average human adult can tolerate. The break a nap provides is worth any amount of weeping.Eleven
THEnext day, after the usual Monday-morning horror—why am I constitutionally incapable of remembering to buy lunch-making materials when I’m at the grocery store?—I dropped the kids off at their respective schools and made my way to Silver Lake. I’d left a message for Spike Stevens, the director of the Left Coast Players. I hadn’t imagined that I’d reach him early on a Monday morning, but Moira had given me his home address, and I wanted at least to give him warning that I was on my way.
Spike lived near the “lake” for which his neighborhood is named, a reservoir strangely denuded of trees and surrounded by a high fence. His apartment building was a typical LAdingbat, an early-sixties multi-unit monstrosity, mostly carport, with an overhanging second floor and an outdoor staircase. Generally the only time people outside of our fair city see those buildings is in the wake of an earthquake, when the rubble of crushed cars and piles of cementis broadcast on the news. Al met me out in front of the building. He hadn’t thought much of my idea to interview Spike—he didn’t think much of any part of the case, frankly, but Brodsky was too important to us for Al just to ignore what was going on. And it wasn’t like he had anything else to do.
I rang Spike’s bell, to no avail. While I was writing a note to put in his mailbox, Al pushed open the wrought iron gate that passed for a security system. The lock was rusted open.
“Al!” I said, but he was already halfway up the stairs. Spike lived on the second floor, behind a steel door painted a noxious shade of ultramarine. I tried to avoid looking at it. I’d remained true to my promise that morning and had had no coffee. The combination of caffeine deprivation and the assault on my senses of that garish color was enough to rekindle my morning sickness.
After a few minutes of pounding, a middle-aged man attired solely in pajama bottoms answered the door. His skin was colored an unnatural orange, with streaks along the side of his bulging waist, and I recognized the inexpert application of tanning cream from my own ill-fated exploration of the product. His belly spilled over the waistband of his pants, despite his immediate effort to suck it in. His swift inhalation served only to expand his narrow chest and push his double chin to the fore.
“Can I help you?” he muttered, pushing his lank hair out of his eyes with one hand.
“Spike?” I asked.
“Yeah?” he said suspiciously, rubbing his eyes. He glanced at the flecks of sleep on his fingers and flicked them away. I flinched, trying not to leap out of the way of what Isaac and Ruby so accurately called “eye boogers.”
“I’m Juliet Applebaum. I left you a message?”
“This is my partner, Al Hockey. We’re investigators. We work for Alicia Felix’s family.”
“Oh, wow. Bummer. You guys want to come in?” He backed away from the door and held it open for me. I walked through the doorway, and for one, brief, nightmare-Sumo moment our bellies rubbed against each other. I blushed, and I think Spike might have too, but it was hard to tell, given the sickly orange hue of his skin.
The room was a small, white-painted box with pale grey indoor-outdoor carpeting and furniture straight out of the Ikea sale aisle. Al and I sat down on a pressed wood and canvas couch that was probably named something like the “Fjärk.” Spike settled into a “Snügens” sling-chair and leaned back with a groan.
“Sorry. Up late last night,” he said.
“I wish. Catering gig. Premiere at Fox.”
“Hell if I know. They don’t let the help into the screening room. We’re supposed to pass the hors d’oeuvres, pour the champagne, and disappear into the woodwork.” His tone was matter-of-fact; almost entirely devoid of bitterness.
I nodded sympathetically and said, “You’re the director of the Left Coast Players?”
“Have you been doing it long?”
He groaned. “Long enough. Twenty-two years.”
I stifled my own groan. How could he stand it? How could any of them? Struggling along on the fringes of Hollywood, waiting tables, acting in comedy troupes and televisioncommercials and desperately hoping for a break. It was enough to make a person crazy, or suicidal. Was it enough to drive someone to murder?
Al said, “What can you tell us about Bingie McPurge?”
“Julia Brennan’s character? FromNew York Live?”He asked, disingenuously.
“Our understanding is that Alicia Felix created the character,” I said.
“I’ve gotta have some coffee,” he said, leaping to his feet. “You guys want some?”
Twenty minutes later we were sitting at a table in the Starbucks on the corner of his block. Spike had tried to make us coffee, but had been out of filters, milk, and sugar. And coffee.
“Bingie McPurge,” I said, once he’d taken his first sip of the coffee he so clearly needed. “Was she Alicia’s creation? Did Julia steal her?”
He smacked his lips and moaned ostentatiously, “Ah, the royal bean. Nectar of the gods.”
“Spike,” Al said sharply.
“Oh, all right. Don’t get your panties in a twist. Yes, Alicia had a similar character as one of her Left Coast characters.”
“One of them?” I said.
“Okay, her only character. But as I see it, Julia has improved significantly on the idea. Really developed it.”
“But it was Alicia’s to begin with?”
He nodded. “Alicia inspired the character. Birthed her, if you will. But Julia has made Bingie her own.”
I took a gulp of coffee and exhaled with relief as thecaffeine rushed to my head and chased my headache away. “Alicia didn’t give Julia permission to ‘make Bingie her own,’ though, did she?”
He waved his hand. “Permission? Since when does an artist need permission? Art is about taking risks, about gobbling up life. The artist is a selfish being, in thrall to his own creative muse. Who can say from where inspiration will spring?”
I was surprised that Al managed to keep the coffee from spraying out of his nose; his snort of derision was that loud.
Poor Alicia. How frustrating, how miserable it must have been to create something, only to have someone steal it away; and not only that, but to become so successful with it.
“Alicia was planning on suing Julia, wasn’t she?”
Spike sighed heavily. “Poor Alicia. She just didn’t have a good understanding of the creative muse. She made herself quite unpleasant around this issue.”
“What do you mean?”
“Julia told me that Alicia tried to contact her a number of times. Called her. Wrote her letters. I finally had to step in.”
He nodded. “Julia asked me to. To, you know, see if I could calm Alicia down. Explain how things were. Let her know the steps Julia would have to take should she continue with her harassment.”
“Harassment? Alicia was harassing Julia?” Al said.
He winced. “No, that’s the wrong word. Forgive me. Julia just asked me to try to calm Alicia down.”
“And did you?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes, I think I did. Look, Alicia was never going to be happy about the whole Bingie McPurge thing. But even she came to recognize that there was nothing she could do about it.”
“She gave up her idea of suing Julia?”
He smiled with a certain self-satisfaction. “She seemed, after our conversation, to understand that it would be a bad idea.”
“I take it you and Julia are still close. It sounds like she relies on you.”
He nodded. “Of course. We’re all friends at the Left Coast Players. In fact,” he said modestly, “I’ll probably be joining Julia in New York soon. I just have to set things up here. You know, find someone who is willing to take over the troupe.”
“Oh really? Is Julia helping you get an audition atNew York Live?”
He shook his head. “She’s a doll, and I’m sure she’ll put a word in, but this has been in the works for quite some time.”
Sure. Sure it had. There was something in Spike’s eyes that let me know that he recognized my doubt full well, and, in fact, possessed plenty of his own. Still, I wasn’t likely to convince this man to say anything negative about the woman upon whom his future might or might not lie. I was going to have to do the legwork on my own.
“Do you happen to have a video tape of the Left Coast Players? One with Alicia on it?” Al asked.
Spike wrinkled his brow. “I don’t, but a few of the players did an appearance onTalking Picturesa few years ago. You might try them. They might keep tapes of old shows.”
“Talking Pictures?”I said.
“It’s a public access TV show out of the Valley. Hosted by Candy Gerard. You probably remember her, she used to have a series on CBS back in the mid-seventies,Mary Jane and Rodolpho in Space?”
I nodded my head. I vaguely remembered the series from my childhood. It had something to do with a love affairbetween a girl from the Bronx and an Italian space robot.
“Anyway, Alicia and some of the other players went on the show.”
“Was Julia Brennan there?”
“God no. Public Access? Julia was never that desperate. Neither was I, for that matter. Alicia did the show with a couple of the guys. You should call Candy. She might have a tape.”
I jotted the name of the show in my notebook, and then asked Spike, “Did Alicia’s death come as a surprise to you?”
He wrinkled his brow. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, were you shocked? Or weren’t you?”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. Don’t get me wrong, it never occurred to me that someone would kill her. But Alicia didn’t seem like someone who would live to a ripe old age.”
He sighed. “Did you ever meet her?”
I flashed on the image of Alicia’s brutalized body lying in her bathtub. “No,” I said. My voice came out a hollow croak, and I cleared my throat. Al glanced at me, and I smiled reassuringly.
He shook his head. “Well, let’s just say that a character with an eating disorder wasn’t too great a stretch for Alicia Felix. In all the years I knew the woman, I don’t think I ever saw her eat more than a single leaf of lettuce. She was so thin. I mean, they’re all thin, all the baby actresses, but she seemed thinner than most. Sometimes she looked positively cadaverous.”
I couldn’t help but remember, as clearly as if I was holding before me a coroner’s photograph, Alicia’s sharp ribs, concave belly, and the hollow cup of her pelvis. “She was anorexic,” I said.
He nodded. “Of course. I mean, she never said anything, but she had to be.”
Here finally was someone who was willing to say what everybody else surely knew. It struck me, without knowing him too well, that Spike was that kind of guy. For all his Hollywood shtick, he seemed like someone who called things like he saw them. Even his self-aggrandizing puffery had just a trace of self-mockery to it. It was as if he was wordlessly letting me know that he was fully aware how ridiculous it was for a man of his age still to be engaged in the miserable rat race that was the quest for stardom. I liked him, orange skin, bloated belly, and all.
“If you told me that Alicia had starved to death, I probably wouldn’t have keeled over in shock,” Spike said. He took a large gulp of coffee, and looked about to launch into another homily to the speedy brew.
I spoke before he could. “But were you surprised that she was murdered?”
He licked away the pale brown mustache the coffee had left on his upper lip. “That’s something else. I mean, who expects anybody to be murdered?”
Al interrupted. “Did she have any enemies?”
He laughed. “Enemies? Honey, this is LA. Everyone has enemies. Hell, your dry cleaner has enemies.”
I leaned back in my chair and put a hand to the small of my back where it had suddenly begun to ache. I wondered if other interrogators had to deal with these same indignities—backache, swollen ankles, stretch marks. I shifted in my seat and asked my follow-up question. “Do you know who some of her enemies might be? Would Julia Brennan be one of Alicia’s enemies?”
He rolled his eyes at me as if he’d never heard anythingso stupid. “Hardly. Now, if you were investigatingJulia’smurder, that would be a different story. Then it might have made sense to wonder about Alicia’s feelings toward her. But I promise you, Julia Brennan didn’t consider Alicia an enemy. In fact, I doubt she thought much about her at all.”
“And was there anyone else?”
Spike narrowed his eyes, and it was brought home to me, once again, that this was a man far more insightful and intelligent than he allowed himself to seem. “You want to know if I know anyone who would like to see Alicia dead?”
He leaned back in his chair, tented his fingers over his belly, and said, “Alicia was not a particularly nice woman. Don’t get me wrong. She could be very charming and friendly, when it suited her purpose. And she did have friends; Moira Sarsfield, for one. But Alicia was ambitious. She was more ambitious than she was talented, I think, but then that’s true of most of us. She wanted success, she wanted adoration, she wanted the kind of things stardom brings you. Again, we all want that to a certain degree, but Alicia’s desire was more . . . what? Palpable, I guess, than, say, mine. So did she make enemies? Sure. I’m sure she did. But I couldn’t tell you who, and it’s something of a mystery to me why someone would want to kill her.”
“Why? If she was so ambitious, doesn’t it stand to reason that she might have trampled on the wrong person?”
He leaned forward again, grabbing his cup of coffee and shaking his head at what he clearly considered my dense lack of understanding. “Alicia never attained any success to speak of. She couldn’t have inspired any real envy. That can’t be the reason for her murder. You’ll have to find the motive somewhere else, my dear.”
There was more than a kernel of truth to the man’s word. Alicia may have done more than her share of professional trampling, but it surely hadn’t resulted in much.
I couldn’t resist asking one final question. “Spike’s not your real name, is it?”
He pushed his coffee cup away and waggled a finger at me. “Trade secret, my girl.”
He winked. “Oh, what the hell. Larry Finkelman, at your service.” He extended his hand to me, and I shook it.
“Thanks for your help, Larry.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “And call me Spike.”Twelve
CANDYGerard’s talk show was filmed in a long, grey building in a strip mall out in Studio City. There was an Arab grocery store flying a large American flag and advertising Jordanian olives and Israeli newspapers on one side of the studio, and a Vietnamese nail salon on the other. I imagined for a minute soaking my feet in hot paraffin, having my nails painted vermillion, rather than looking for tapes of Alicia Felix. The indulgence of a pedicure was far more attractive, but I doubted that Harvey Brodsky would hire Al and me based on the loveliness of my toes. I had to figure out who killed Alicia Felix, and while I wasn’t sure I was going to get any closer to the solution to the crime by watching her appearances on public access TV, it wasn’t like I was exactly inundated with better ideas.
I dragged open the heavy metal door of the unmarked studio and walked in. Maybe it was the hypersensitivity of my pregnant nose, but the place stank to high heaven. Itsmelled like old socks and onions, with a whiff of cheap perfume. It smelled like a tenement just after the hookers and the smack-addicts had been rousted out, and just before the place was demolished. And it didn’t look any better. The walls were cement blocks, and exposed pipes trailing filthy streamers of shredded duct-tape sagged from the ceiling. Two young women in short skirts and high heels were lounging on a faded purple couch pushed up against the wall. One of the girls leaned against a broken armrest, her long legs draped across the other’s lap. The second girl was holding a tiny mirror and studiously popping the pimples on her forehead.
“Is this where they shootTalking Pictures?”I asked.
The long-legged girl, who had dyed black hair and severely cut bangs, pointed in the direction of a closed door marked “Do Not Enter When Light Is On.” There was a large red signal light above the door. She snapped her gum loudly, and the other girl, who had finished ravaging her forehead and was now carefully painting her collagen-enhanced lips a noxious shade of plum that contrasted strangely with her platinum-blond hair, giggled.
“Are you two on the show?”
This reduced both of them to heaps of intense laughter. The black-haired girl actually had to press one long-finger-nailed hand to her inflated chest to quell her hysterics.
“We work over there,” she said, finally, pointing to the far end of the hall. A large poster decorated with a silhouette of a naked woman and the words “Man-Eater Productions” marked a set of double doors. Another red signal light glowed over the top of the doors.
“Are you actresses?”
The blond smiled. “Actresses? Sure, that’s what we are. Right, Toni?”
“You’d better believe it,” her friend said, emphatically. “I’m acting every minute of every working day.”
“We’re fluffers,” the blond said, and winked.
Before I had a chance to inquire just what a fluffer might be, or even to decide if I really wanted to know, the light over the Man-Eater door went out, and a heavyset man wearing a beret and a Sundance Film Festival T-shirt stuck his head out. “Girls, time to get busy,” he said.
The two leapt to their feet, dragging their tiny skirts down over their rear ends, and tottered through the door on their impossibly high heels.
“Bye!” the blond called over her shoulder.
“Bye,” I replied, and watched them go through the door as I sat down on the couch to wait. I caught a glimpse of a sound stage, decorated with a large, round bed covered in a wrinkled, red velvet spread. There was a naked man kneeling in the middle of the bed, his back to me. Suddenly I had a pretty good idea what a fluffer was. When Toni and her friend had come out to Hollywood from Nebraska, or Alabama, or Anaheim, or whichever small town or city that regularly launched its naïve young women across the country to be chewed up and swallowed by the Hollywood machine, had they imagined that fantasies of stardom would result in jobs keeping male porn stars prepped and ready? Somehow, I doubted it. Like every other wanna-be starlet, like Alicia for that matter, those two girls had probably spent their years in high school playing Emily inOur Townor tap dancing throughBye Bye Birdie, dewy-skinned and starry-eyed Kim McAfees. They’d honed their Oscar acceptance speeches on the bus to LA, and spent their last two hundred dollars on the perfect set of head shots, designed to make them look like leading ladies, ingénues, comic geniuses. And perhaps it wasn’t yet all over for them. Perhapsthey weren’t permanently doomed to be nothing more than fluffers. Perhaps one or the other of them would become the serious actress she had surely imagined herself to be. But I doubted it. If these girls saw their dreams of stardom realized, it would most likely be in the seedy and depressing part of the industry that already employed them.
When theTalking Pictureslight blinked and went out, I heaved myself to my feet, using my hands to lift my belly. It was getting harder and harder to get myself out of a chair. Pretty soon I was going to need a hoist and a forklift.
I opened the door and looked inside. The studio was larger than I expected, and painted entirely black. Half was taken up with a darkened set that looked much like the one across the hall at Man-Eater Productions—not much more than a bed. Clearly another porn set. At the far end of the long room, lit with two heavy banks of lights, was a set with two easy chairs. A thin woman with a frozen helmet of orange hair, false eyelashes so long they were obvious even where I was standing a good thirty feet away, and a mouth painted in a shade that almost, but not quite, matched her hair, perched on the edge of her seat. Somewhere under the makeup and taut, surgically altered cheeks and eyes was the ghost of Mary Jane, the girl from the Bronx who’d fallen in love with a robot from Naples.
A young man, no older than twenty, huddled in the other chair. His hair was artfully mussed, and his lime-green polyester shirt was buttoned high on his skinny neck.
“You gotta make sure you put the graphic up, dude,” the young man was saying as I walked into the room. “They gotta see the graphic.”
“They’ll see it,” a voice muttered from behind the huge camera hunkered down in front of the set.
“Of course they’ll see it,” Candy said. Her voice wasroughened and harsh, as if she’d spent a lifetime smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
“All I’m saying is they gotta see that graphic. Plug the movie. That’s why I’m here.”
Candy rose to her feet. She unsnapped a small microphone from the ruffles of her low-cut blouse, and said to the young man, “Thank you so much for your time. It was a terrific interview. Just terrific, don’t you think?”
She stomped off toward me before he could answer her, and I swore I heard her mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, “Goddamn film school brats.” Then she noticed me. “Can I help you?” she snapped.
“I’m so sorry if I’m intruding,” I said.
She put her hands on her hips. “Can I help you?” she repeated. “This is a closed set.”
“I’m Juliet Applebaum. I called a little while ago? I think I talked to your producer. I’m looking for a tape of one of your shows.”
She called over her shoulder. “Spencer! Did you speak to someone about a tape?”
The man behind the camera raised his head. I immediately recognized the thick Cockney accent that had answered my call when I’d telephoned after leaving Spike at the café. “Yeah. She’s looking for that comedy group. The one we had on a few years ago, remember?”
Candy turned back to me and gave me the once-over with a suspicious eye. “Are you in the industry?”
I shook my head. “I’m not.”
She shook her head and began to walk away from me. “My husband’s a screenwriter,” I said hurriedly. She turned back around, one eyebrow raised. “I’m an investigator,” I continued, and then began to explain about Alicia Felix. Candy held up her hand.
“Your husband. Do I know his work?”
Maybe. “He wrote theFlesh Eaterseries. The most recent one is calledThe Cannibal’s Vacation.He’s working onBeach Blanket Bloodbathnow.”
Her whole demeanor suddenly changed. “How fabulous!” she cooed. “I’m a huge fan. Huge. Come on over to my office. Wemusttalk!”
Her office was down the hall from Man-Eater Productions and consisted of a room about the size of a storage closet. One wall was entirely taken up with shelves full of plastic videotape boxes marked with dates and names in thick black marker. Candy perched on the edge of a card table and motioned for me to take the single seat, a rickety metal folding chair that I was sure would not be able to carry my weight. I sat down carefully, wincing at the creak of the seat under my behind.
“So, your husband writes those wonderful films,” she said. “They’re so unusual. So exceptional for the genre. I really consider them to be almost like art films, don’t you?”
I blinked. I wasn’t quite sure what the technical definition of art cinema was, but I had a feeling it couldn’t encompass both Truffaut’sThe 400 Blowsand Peter’s homage to the undead.
“I’d love to have him on the show!” Candy said. “Give him the exposure he so clearly deserves.”
I smiled politely, imaging what my husband would say if I told him he had to drive out to the Valley to appear on public access television with a washed-up 70s sitcom queen. “I’d be happy to pass that along to him.”
“Just have his agent give me a call.” She reached across the table and riffled through a pile of papers. She pulled acrumpled business card out of the stack and handed it to me. “We’re, uh, in between bookers right now, so he should just talk to Spencer, or to me.”
“Great,” I said, pocketing the card. “So, I’m really hoping to get a copy of the Left Coast Players’ appearance on your show.”
Candy smiled and waved at the wall of videocassettes. “We’ve got a complete archive, as you can see. They were on, what, two, three years ago?”
“I think so,” I said.
Within no more than two minutes, Candy had pulled out a videocassette in a plastic box marked L.C. Players. “Here it is,” she announced. She tried to blow the thick layer of dust off the case, and when that didn’t work she rubbed it against her skintight black leather pants. The case left a grey smear of dust along her thigh.
“Thanks so much,” I said. “Do you think I can get a copy?”
She smiled. “Do you think your husband will do the show?”
I paused, and she blinked her long eyelashes benignly.
“I’m sure he will,” I said.
She smiled again. “Excellent. Come with me.”
She led me out the door of her office and to the Man-Eater studio. The light over the door was off, and she pushed the door open, motioning me to follow her.
“Fred!” she called out as we walked into the studio. The man in the beret was sitting in a director’s chair, talking to two other burly men. They were the only fully dressed people in the room. A few women wrapped in bathrobes were standing around a long table full of picked-over boxes of donuts and half-empty bottles of diet soda. I looked over at the bed, and froze. Toni was there, hunched over a naked man, probably the same guy I saw from the back. This time it washerback I saw, and the realization of what she was doing crept over me slowly. I felt the heat of my blush burning my cheeks, and I was all the more self-conscious because I was the only person who seemed at all shocked by what was going on. I turned my back on the scene, and gulped nervously.
“Can you dub this for me, hon?” Candy said to the beret-wearing man. She handed him the video.
“Sure, Candy,” he said.
She turned to me. “Juliet? You don’t mind if he does it on a high speed, do you? He can do higher resolution, but it’ll take longer.”
“That’s fine,” I said, looking down at my shoes. For some reason I just wasn’t capable of looking anyone in the face. Not with Toni and the unidentified man over on the bed.
Candy seemed to notice my embarrassment for the first time, and she laughed. “Never been on an adult film set?”
I shook my head.
Candy nodded in the direction of Toni’s busily bobbing head. “The fluffer’s got to keep the guys in working order.”
“Right,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to appear nonchalant. “Of course.”
“You know, there’s some cutting-edge work going on in the adult-film arena. A lot of studio directors are finding inspiration in adult film directors’ creative risk taking. Aren’t they Fred?”
“Give me ten, fifteen minutes, and I’ll have this dubbed,” Fred said, ignoring her question. He tossed the tape to one of the other men.
“Thanks, hon,” Candy said. “Juliet, would you prefer to wait in my office?”
“God, yes,” I said. They all burst out laughing, and she led me back out the door.Thirteen
“YOUknow what I love about you the most?” I asked Peter as we were driving to Spago.
“My rock-hard buns and washboard stomach?”
“Those, too. But I was really thinking of how supportive you are. How eager you are to help me succeed in this wild new path my career has taken.”
He glanced over at me and narrowed his eyes.
“What, darling?” I smiled innocently.
“What did you get me into, now?”
“Nothing. I’m just talking about this dinner.”
He turned back to the road, just in time to avoid hitting a bright yellow Humvee that had shot out of a blind driveway directly into our path. He swore under his breath.
“Wow! Great job avoiding that monster truck! You are such aterrificdriver, sweetie.”
“Okay, that’s it!” he shouted, and screeched the carover, right in the middle of Little Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Peter! What are you doing?”
“What?What?You tellmewhat. What is going on?”
I leaned over and patted his arm. “Nothing. Really. Let’s just get to the restaurant.”
He pulled back out into traffic. Within a few moments he was handing the car over to the valet parker with his usual elaborate instructions. The young valet parker just nodded, clearly not understanding a word my husband was saying. Peter has never made peace with that fact that vintage orange BMW 2002s with wood trim, velour seats, delayed wash wipe, and the rarest of Alpina Butterfly throttle injection systems just aren’t the valued commodity in the rest of the world that they are around the Applebaum/Wyeth household. The valet took off with a squeal of wheels, and Peter swore again. I wrapped my arm around his waist and leaned my head against his upper arm, the closest to his shoulder that I could reach while we were standing up. He hugged me back, and we walked into the restaurant.
As we were heading over to the table where Hoynes and his guest were already waiting for us, I said, “Oh, Peter. I forgot to tell you. You’re booked onto this talk show.Talking Pictures?You’re shooting next week. Wednesday.”
He turned to me, his mouth open, but we’d arrived at the table.
“Hi!” I said brightly. “I’m Juliet Applebaum. And you know my husband, Peter Wyeth, of course.”
It was a thing of beauty—by the time the hand shaking was completed, my husband’s stunned expression had been replaced by one of resignation.
Alicia Felix’s boyfriend, Charlie Hoynes, was a fat man. Not obese, necessarily, but bloated somehow, with animmense abdomen that appeared to begin right under his neck, and continued down, to the tops of his thighs. His thinning hair was cut short, almost buzzed, and a single gold hoop dangled from one bulbous earlobe. His nose was squashed flat, and redder than the rest of his face. It looked like it had been palpated, squeezed, and pressed deep into the flesh between his cheeks. His grip was firm, and somehow sticky, and it was all I could do to resist wiping my palm on my leg when he finally released my hand.
It was impossible to imagine him in any kind of intimate situation with his date, a rail-thin blond with oversized breasts, improbably named Dakota Swain. How could her delicate frame survive contact with his bulk? Dakota had sharp, mouse-like features, and narrow lips outlined heavily in bright red lipstick. She looked incredibly familiar to me, and for the first few minutes of dinner I was distracted by trying to place her. This always happens to me in Los Angeles. During our first few years in the city, I would constantly greet people, sure I’d met them before. I even asked, on more than one occasion, if the possessor of that familiar face was someone who had gone to college with me. I was invariably shut down with a glare, and the comment that the person had just had a guest spot onSeinfeld.
But I did know Dakota. I was sure of it. Finally, I just asked her. “Dakota, do we know each other? I swear I know you.”
She smiled. “I’m an actress. You’ve probably seen my work.”
I smiled back, doubtfully. “What have you been in?”
“Oh God, what haven’t I been in! Sitcoms, commercials. You name it.”
Charlie patted her talon-like hand with his broad, dampone. “And now Dakota is going to be in the latest Hoynes Production,The Vampire Evenings.We’re shooting the pilot and eight episodes over the next few months.”
That’s when I figured out why I felt like I knew Dakota Swain. I hadn’t caught any one of her various TV or movie appearances, at least not that I could remember. She looked familiar because she looked like Alicia Felix. Like Alicia, Dakota was a skinny blond with fake breasts, approaching forty, and desperately trying to look a dozen years younger. Hoynes clearly had a type.
I smiled noncommittally, and then complimented Dakota on the black spandex midriff-baring top she was wearing. There were two tears in the fabric, carefully placed just barely to avoid exposing her nipples. “Booty Rags?” I asked.
She nodded. “I bought it at Fred Segal. They have the best selection in the city.”
I nodded, wondering if she really thought that information would be useful to a woman at the end of her pregnancy.
Through the appetizers, Hoynes grilled Peter on his career, what films he’d written, what projects he’d been up for but hadn’t got, what he’d turned down. At one point, his chin glistening with melted butter, and his mouth full of Clams Casino, the producer pointed a finger at my long-suffering husband and bellowed, “So what’s your quote, kid? What are you getting now? Two, three hundred K a picture? More? Less?”
Peter smiled sickly and pinched me under the table. I hadn’t been paying much attention to what Hoynes was saying; I found myself unable to keep my eyes off Dakota. She was carefully slicing and dicing every item on her plate. She had reduced her smoked salmon to tiny pink shreds, and her blini to a pile of mashed dough. So far I hadn’t seen her raiseher fork to her lips even once. I dragged my eyes away from her plate and interrupted Hoynes’s flow of words.
“So, Charlie, what can you tell me about Alicia Felix?” Awkward, I know, but that’s what we were there for, and the guy had been torturing my husband long enough.
He banged his hand down on the table. “Call me Tracker!” he announced in a voice uncomfortably close to a bellow. Diners at neighboring tables looked over at us, and one fastidious-looking man in a black suit jacket and muted grey tie winced.
“Tracker?” Peter said. “Since when are you known as Tracker?”
“Since last year. I had it legally changed.”
Peter and I exchanged a look. “Er, Tracker,” I said. “What can you tell me about Alicia?”
“What do you want to know?” he asked. At that moment a busboy swooped down on our table and cleared our plates. Dakota pushed her plate away with one hand, and putting the other over her chest, filled her cheeks to indicate how full she was. Of air, I assume, since she hadn’t actually consumed a single morsel of her first course.
“Were you two . . . er . . .” I looked over at his date.
He laughed again. “An item? We were; we were indeed. Dakota here knows all about Alicia. I don’t keep secrets from my girls, do I, babe? It’s all out in the open with the Tracker-Man. You see what you get, and you get what you see!” He reached his fork over to the butter dish, speared a ball of butter, and popped it into his mouth. He smiled at my astonished expression and said, “Atkins diet, babe.”
I discreetly refrained from mentioning the breadcrumbs that had been baked onto his appetizer. Dakota looked nauseated at the sight of him eating butter, or maybe by the very idea of butter itself. Or perhaps it was simply old Trackerwho made her ill. I was willing to bet that was it. I thought I was detecting a resurgence of my own morning sickness.
“So how long were you seeing Alicia?” I asked.
He wrinkled his brow. “Let’s see. Six, nine months maybe? Dakota, you’d know. I met you both at the vampire auditions. When was that?”
“Closer to nine months ago.”
I felt decidedly awkward asking him these questions in front of her. How desperate was Alicia, how desperate was Dakota, that the two of them had forced themselves to be intimate with this grotesque man? Because desperation could be the only reason for their choices. Nothing else made sense. As little as I wanted to, I needed to know more. I decided to take Tracker at his word that he was a man who brooked no secrets. “Were you and Alicia serious?”
“Serious? I don’t know. I liked her, sure. Just like I like Dakota here.” He reached one hefty arm around his girlfriend and squished her close, placing a kiss on her cheek with a loud smack. She furtively wiped the grease left from his lips with a napkin.
“How often did you see each other?”
“Two, maybe three times a week. She was a good kid. She helped me out with my daughter. Dakota’s not a big one for kids, are you babe?”
Dakota curled her lip and shook her head.
“Alicia always stayed over on Halley’s night with me. I’ve got the kid every, what is it. . .?” He looked at his girlfriend.
“Tuesday,” she murmured.
“Right. Halley’s at my house on Tuesdays. So Alicia always came over that night. I’ll tell you, I miss her one hell of a lot.” He paused, wiping carefully at his dry eyes with his napkin. “Especially on Tuesdays.” He sighed at thewearying thought of Tuesdays. “Halley loved Alicia. She really did. And that girl doesn’t take to just anyone. For instance,” he dropped his napkin and chuckled. “She sure as hell can’t stand Dakota, can she?”
“The feeling’s mutual,” Dakota said, taking a gulp of wine.
Two waiters arrived at our table and lay our laden plates down with a flourish. I was momentarily distracted by the pile of fluffy mashed potatoes sitting next to my lamb chop. I always order according to the side dish. Steak, stew, fish, I like them all. But what really catches my attention is a nice butter-laden gratin, or a mound of pureed squash. I gobbled up a few bites, blissing out at the creamy texture, the buttery flavor. Food always tastes so good to me when I’m pregnant. I looked up just in time to catch Dakota’s disgusted expression. I imagined that to a woman who took finicky eating to such an extreme that it nearly qualified as performance art, Hoynes and I were one and the same—overweight, greasy-cheeked gluttons. I felt a spark of sympathy for Tracker. Sure, he’d made his own bed, but how could he stand to share it with such a judgmental twig?
I swallowed the fond in my mouth and continued with my questioning.
“Had you cast Alicia in your vampire series?”
He spread his hands wide. “Hey, nothing’s final until the show’s on the air, you know? Sure, I was considering using her. I probably would have, you know? But I hadn’t made any final decision. I still haven’t.”
Dakota’s head snapped upward. She’d been staring at her plate, busily performing an autopsy on her halibut fillet. “What the hell does that mean, Charlie?” She seemed suddenly to have forgotten his new name.
He patted her hand and chuckled. “It means what italways means. Nothing’s final until it’s in the can.” He turned back to me. “I got lots of parts for girls in this series. We’ll suck ’em dry every week, if you get my meaning.” He bellowed with laughter, making the diners at the neighboring table jump in their seats. “Alicia wanted the part of Empress of the Night. Just like Dakota does.”
“Did Alicia think she would get that part?”
“She might have. But she knew it was still up in the air. That’s just how I work, isn’t it Dakota?”
“Tracker, you promisedmethat role. Months ago.” Dakota’s face was pale, and the hand she had wrapped around her wine glass was trembling, making the liquid slosh in the glass. “You did!”
He sighed and looked at me. “A producer’s life—it ain’t easy, let me tell you.”
“Goddamn you, Charlie Hoynes. Goddamn you!” Dakota shouted. She leapt to her feet and rushed out of the restaurant. Peter and I stared after her. I turned back to Hoynes. It took me a moment to realize that he was not in the least upset. His shoulders were shaking only because he was laughing.
“That is one feisty girl, let me tell you. She’ll make a damn fine Empress.”
“Don’t you want to go after her?” I asked.
He shook his head and placed a huge bite of steak in his mouth. Then, with his mouth still full of food, he said, “She’ll find her way back to my house. Or not. Don’t worry about it. Dakota’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”
I didn’t want to spend another minute at the table with that vulgar, greasy-mouthed pig. But I had no choice. Whatevershehad meant tohim, Alicia had considered Charlie Hoynes her boyfriend, and as depressing and sad as that was, I needed information from him. I also wondered just howmuch a role in a soft-core porn TV series meant to Dakota Swain. Enough to run out of Spago and make her own way home, sure. But how about enough to commit murder?
“I take it Dakota and Alicia didn’t get along,” I said.
He laughed, and I could see a clot of pink meat on his tongue. “I’m honest with my girls. It’s all out in the open with me.”
“Did they spend much time together?”
“I doubt it. They didn’t have much in common, those two. Oil and water.”
That certainly rang false. They seemed to have absolutely everything in common, except an affection for Hoynes’s daughter.
“Your daughter, Halley, how old is she?”
He took a large swallow of wine and wrinkled his brow. “Let’s see . . . sixteen? No, wait a minute. She was born in 1986. That’ll make her seventeen. Or was it ’87? No, ’86, I’m sure of it.”
By now my husband had pinched me under the table so many times that I was sure I had a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my thigh.
“And she and Alicia were friends?”
Hoynes nodded, his mouth once again full of food. “Alicia helped her out. Halley’s a little bit anorexic. Won’t eat. It’s just a teenage phase, but Alicia’d been through that when she was a kid, so she knew what was going on with Halley. She got where the kid was coming from, which is more than I can say for Halley’s hag of a mother.”
Could that really be true? Had Alicia confided in Hoynes that she had been anorexic, when she hadn’t even admitted it to her best friend, Moira?
“She told you she used to have anorexia?”
He shook his head. “She didn’t tell me anything. She toldHalley. And Halley told her mother. And her goddamn mother called up my lawyer screaming her head off, lunatic that she is.”
“I don’t understand. Why would that upset your wife?” I said.
“Hell if I know. My lawyer is always getting hysterical phone calls from my ex. Seems the kid went home and told her mother that she hated her—and who can blame her?—and that she wanted to move in with me and Alicia.” He laughed, genuinely tickled by the idea. “Like that would have happened. Anyway, Halley said only Alicia understood her, because she knew firsthand what it was like to have this crazy anorexia thing. Barbara freaked out—so what else is new. And when Ms. Barbara Hoynes freaks, she calls her lawyers.”
Hoynes scraped his fork against his empty plate, gathering up the last of the juices. “You’d think she would have been glad Halley had found someone to talk to about her problem, wouldn’t you? I mean, the goddamn girl didn’t talk toanybody, not even the shrinks they’ve got me paying through the nose for. But Barbara’s a jealous woman. She just couldn’t stand to see Halley close to anyone but her. And especially not one of my girls.”
I could sort of understand that. But one might imagine that Halley’s well-being would override her mother’s vindictiveness or sense of competition. For that matter, one might have imagined that the ex–Mrs. Hoynes would consider herself well rid of her vile ex-husband.
“Did Alicia keep seeing Halley after that?”
“Sure she did. You think I’m going to let Barbara say who I can and can’t have in my house? She threatened to take me back to court, but I’d like to have seen her try. Lunatic.”
“What would her grounds have been to take you to court?”
“Grounds? You think that woman needsgrounds?Who knows. She wanted Alicia away from the kid. She thought she was a bad influence, and she told me she’d go to court to keep her out of Halley’s life.” He belched softly, covering his mouth with a curled fist. “She didn’t need to in the end, though, did she?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, someone took care of that for her, didn’t they?”
“Do you think your ex-wife could have had something to do with the murder?”
“Nah, I mean, she’s a nut-case, but not a murderer. Anyway, she’s got all she can handle with Halley. Girl’s back in the hospital.”
“She’s in the hospital?”
Hoynes sat back, letting out a sigh of contentment and patting himself on the stomach. “Halley’s in and out every few months. Whenever her weight drops below eighty pounds, her mother checks her back in. Thank God I’ve got health insurance through the Guild, that’s all I can say. Hey, you know what I just thought of? I should sell my own damn story. Beloved girlfriend brutally murdered. Killers at large. Disease-of-the-week daughter. Make a great TV movie, don’t you think?”
Hoynes laughed and said, “Hell, maybe I should option it myself! How about that? Give myself a hundred grand for the rights.”Fourteen
“YOUowe me big time,” Peter said. We were lying in bed, doing our best to recover from our evening with the charming Tracker Hoynes. The man had actually imagined that we’d go out “clubbing” with him after dinner. Was he out of his mind? Had he not noticed that I was the size and shape of a dirigible? Even if I hadn’t been pregnant, I would never have gone out dancing with him. First of all, I hadn’t been out to a bar since I met Peter and was finally relieved of the obligation to spend my weekends searching for a man. More importantly, however, I knew that if I spent another minute in Hoynes’s presence I would end up grabbing a chair and whacking him over the head with it.
“How should I pay you back for tonight?” I asked.
“Find us somewhere to live.”
I groaned. “Anything I can do in the interim?” Despite the advanced stage of my pregnancy, I did the best I could to compensate my husband both for our terrible eveningand for my lack of real estate progress. Afterward, I put the videotape of Alicia’s appearance onTalking Pictureson the VCR in our bedroom. The production values were every bit as dreadful as I had expected, given the company with whom the show shared studio space. The tinny music started up, and the camera swooped in on Candy’s face. She was harshly lit, the glare coming from above her head and casting the lower half of her face in shadow. She presented a decidedly cadaverous appearance to the camera.
“Hallo, I’m Candy Gerard. Welcome toTalking Pictures,”she said, staring steamily into the camera. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I could swear she was doing a Marlene Dietrich imitation.
Peter turned to me.“Talking Pictures?”he said.
I smiled wanly.
“This is the showI’mbooked on?”
“Who booked me on it?”
“Um, I did.”
“You do realize you’ll have to pay me back for that, too.”
“No. I’ll take a rain check.”
“Sure, honey. Now be quiet, here’s Alicia.”
The Left Coast Players troupe consisted of two men dressed as high school nerds and Alicia wearing a miniskirt, a tube-top, and a ponytail high on her head. One of the men went off screen and returned dressed as a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, complete with huge, pink cardboard box and sprinkles. Alicia and the donuts engaged in a dance that looked more like simulated sex than Balanchine, and then she started miming eating the donuts. Once she’d faked consuming what appeared to be at least a dozen, she began to stick her fingers down her throat. At that moment, shetripped over the dancing donuts and got her hands stuck in the box. The shtick proceeded for another few minutes, with Alicia trying to get her fingers down her throat to make herself throw up, and something interfering at the last second. The bulimic who couldn’t purge. Ha ha ha. Ho ho ho.
“Is it me, or is this really not funny?” I said.
“It’s not you.”
Finally, the sketch was over, and Candy interviewed the players. Alicia didn’t say much, other than to drop the name and contact number of her agent. The discussion was dominated by the donut box, who spoke at great length about the historical and cultural antecedents of urban comedy. Peter was nearly asleep when the half hour was up.
“I can’t wait to be on that show,” he said when I poked him awake. “Really.”
“You should be.” He leaned over and kissed me on the lips. “You’re lucky you’re so damn cute, otherwise I’d be really upset. And honey?”
“The San Diego Comic Con is next weekend. And I amsogoing.”
“Does Felix know you’re only representing him to get a hold of his house?”
I sat up. “That’s not the only reason I’m investigating this case!”
“But it’s the main reason. Don’t get me wrong. I want to move as badly as you do. I haven’t gotten a minute’s work done since that damn construction project started. But it just seems . . . I don’t know.”
“It isn’t. Really. Farzad and I even talked about how much I want the house.” I felt a little knot in my stomach. What had been unethical was implying to Harvey Brodsky that Felix was my client even before he’d hired me. But all that was okay now. I’d been hired. And I’d find the killer. And Brodsky would hire us, and Al and I wouldn’t have to shut down the agency. I hoped.
I snuggled closer to Peter. “I wish I could see Julia Brennan’s Bingie McPurge. I wonder if she’s any funnier than Alicia was.”
“Wait a sec,” Peter said, and took the remote out of my hand. He clicked over to his new toy, TiVo. Within minutes he had an episode ofNew York Liveplaying on the television set.
“You recorded this?” I said.
He shook his head. “No, but the software thinks I like it, so it keeps recording it for me, I think because I have it catchingMonty Python.I haven’t bothered to correct it yet, so you’re in luck.”
Julia Brennan didn’t dance with a box of donuts, andNew York Livehad a slicker set and better costumes to lend that much-needed air of verisimilitude. Bingie McPurge’s attempts at emesis were thwarted by elaborate casts on her arms, by catching her thumbs in a pair of mouse-traps, by a toilet seat that was stuck shut, by a pair of Chinese finger cuffs. But it was the same gimmick exactly. The bulimic binges, and then cannot purge. And it was just as humorless in its more professional incarnation.
“Well, that’s pretty clear,” Peter said when the skit was over and Julia had gagged her way off screen.
“She stole the character from Alicia.”
He nodded. “Definitely. Although it does raise one really important question.”
He pounded on his pillow with his fist and lay back down in the bed, drawing the down comforter up to his chin. “Why in God’s name did she bother?”
I laughed. “It’s just unbelievably awful, isn’t it?”
“Wanna hear something really horrible?” I turned off the light and curled up around him.
“What?” he murmured, already half asleep.
“They’re making it into a movie.”
“What?” He sat bolt upright.
“You heard me.”
“Oh my God!” He collapsed back onto the pillow. “Sometimes I really hate this business.”Fifteen
THEnext morning, right as I was walking out the door to drive the kids to school, my phone rang. It was Farzad.
“There is a detective from the LA police department here. He wants to talk to Felix.”
“Damn,” I muttered, looking at my watch. Peter was sound asleep, and the kids needed to be at school in ten minutes. “Where is he?”
“Waiting in the living room.”
“And where’s Felix?”
“In the shower.”
“Okay, here’s what I want you to do. Give the detective a cup of coffee, and tell Felix to take his time getting dressed. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Good,” he said.
“Oh, and Farzad?”
“Don’t say anything to the cop, okay?”
He grimaced. “What do you take me for, Juliet? I’m not some stupid American who confesses everything to the secret police.”
“Good,” I said, and hung up the phone, wondering if I should have pointed out to him that while the LAPD was far from perfect, their powers did not yet include hauling people from their homes in the middle of the night and making them disappear. At least, I didn’t think they did. I called Al and told him to meet me there, luckily catching him on his cell phone in the Ikea parking lot. He was only too happy to leave Jeanelle to shop on her own. It wasn’t until I was speeding down Beverly Boulevard to dump the kids and get to Felix’s house that it occurred to me to wonder what exactly it was that Farzad wasn’t dumb enough to confess to the police.
I managed to dump each of my children off in front of their respective schools. I gave Ruby to a mother with whom I’d once shared field trip carpool duties, and Isaac to the nanny of his best friend. I crossed my fingers that both women would sign the kids in correctly and make sure their lunches made it into their cubbies, and tore over to Felix’s house. For once, I actually made it in significantly less time than I’d promised.
Farzad answered the door and nodded his head in the direction of the living room.
“Where’s Felix?” I asked in a low voice.
He pointed up the stairs.
“Come with me,” I said.
We found Felix in his bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, his forearms resting on his knees, and his head bent low.
“Hey,” I said.
He raised his head at the sound of my voice, and I could see the tracks of tears down his cheeks.
“Thanks for coming over,” he said.
“Hey, that’s what you pay me for,” I replied. “Felix, do you have an attorney?”
He nodded. “Of course. I mean, the business does.”
A corporate lawyer adept at contract negotiations and employee disputes was not going to do Felix much good under these particular circumstances.
I sat down next to him and gave him the speech I gave every client about to be questioned by the authorities. Most of the people I’d represented had faced examination by the FBI or DEA, both agencies that tended to employ agents significantly more professional and educated than the average LAPD cop. I hadn’t often supervised an interview with a regular police officer, but I was confident in my ability to do so. While federal agents tend at least to simulate a respect for the strictures of the Constitution, they are also generally wilier and more skilled in the art of interrogation. The most important thing he was to remember, I told Felix, was to pause after hearing each question and before replying, both to make sure he understood the question and knew the answer, and to give me time to indicate to him not to reply if I felt that doing so would not be in his best interest.
“Why don’t I just tell the cops I won’t talk to them?” he said.
“You can do that. It’s up to you.”
“Will that make them think I had something to do with Alicia’s death?”
“It might. But then, they might think that already. It’s not what they’re suspicious of that matters. It’s what they can prove.”
He groaned. “I had nothing to do with it, you know that, don’t you?”
“Absolutely,” I said, although of course I knew nothing of the kind.
“I want to help them find her killer. I really do.”
“I’ll talk to him,” he said, finally.
“Are you sure?”
“Okay then, let’s go. Don’t worry, I’ll stop the questioning if I think it’s going somewhere it shouldn’t.”
Before we were halfway down the stairs, the doorbell rang. I introduced Al to our clients,sotto voce, and together we went into the living room, where we discovered the detective peering at the photographs on the walls.
“Mapplethorpe,” he said, smiling.
“He’s one of my favorites.”
Felix and Farzad looked at each other quickly, and then back at the detective. I joined them in their appraisal, and agreed silently with what I knew was their conclusion. I looked over at Al, who was rocking back and forth on his heels, his eyes nearly bugging out of his head at the photographs. My partner is, like many aggressively masculine men, not particularly comfortable with gay people. To his credit, though, his political commitment to the libertarian cause makes him a live-and-let-live kind of guy.
“Detective Antoine Goodenough,” the cop said, extending a large hand with tapered fingers.
Felix’s hand disappeared into Detective Goodenough’s proffered mitt, and he very nearly smiled a greeting.
I stepped forward and introduced myself. “I’m Juliet Applebaum, and this is Al Hockey.”
The detective raised one, arched eyebrow.
“I’m an attorney, and a friend of Felix and Farzad’s. I hope you don’t mind if we sit in on the conversation.”
He paused, and looked for a moment like he was goingto object. Then he smiled pleasantly. “Where were you on the job?” he asked Al.
“Hollywood,” Al said. “Been retired nearly ten years now.”
The detective nodded. Then he turned to me and said, “You’re the woman who found the body, correct?”
He’d recognized my name from the report. “Yes,” I said.
Detective Goodenough was a tall man, with broad shoulders and a slim waist. His skin was the color of cinnamon, and a glint of russet was just visible in his shorn brown hair. His lips were thin, and he wore a narrow line of moustache as if to enhance, or deflect, attention from them. His eyes were almond-shaped, lending his face a faintly Asian cast. He looked like a Tartar, I decided. A very handsome, African-American Genghis Khan.
He reached a hand into his pocket and removed a silver card case. Unlike the one floating around in the bottom of my purse, his was untarnished, and had no lint-furred sucking candies stuck to its surface. He flipped it open with an elegant finger, removed four business cards, and handed one to each of us.
“I’m new to your sister’s case,” he said to Felix. “I wanted to come by to tell you how very sorry I am for your loss.”
Felix bent his head. “Thank you,” he murmured.
“I’ve read the reports prepared by the detectives who first arrived on the scene, as well as the crime scene and forensic files.”
“Detective Goodenough,” I interjected. “Is the case now yours?” Had the LAPD reassigned the case because they were either biased enough or savvy enough to assume that Detective Goodenough would be more adept at eliciting information from Alicia’s brother than a heterosexual officer?
“Please, sit down,” he said, welcoming Felix and Farzadto their own living room. We followed his bidding. “This crime is a very high priority for my department. I want you to know that we’re devoting as much of our resources to it as possible. I’m now the lead detective on the case, but the entire department is working hard to find Alicia’s murderer.”
For what felt like hours, Detective Goodenough asked question after question about Alicia’s life, her childhood, her career. Al took his usual careful notes, and I listened closely.
“Did Alicia have any problems growing up? Was she, say, involved with drugs?” Goodenough asked.
Felix shook his head. “No, not at all.”
“Not at all,” Goodenough said, with a smile.
Felix smiled back. “Well, no more than was normal. You know, she smoked pot a little. Maybe even did some cocaine. Hell . . . we . . .”
I interrupted him quickly. “Felix,” I said.
He turned to me. “What?”
“I think the detective just wants to know if Alicia had any kind of a drug problem.” I stressed his sister’s name.
He nodded, and turned back to the detective. “She didn’t have a drug problem. At all.”
“Did she have any other problems?”
Felix nodded. “She had an eating disorder when she was a teenager.”
Goodenough made a note, and asked, “Any other issues?”
Felix shook his head.
I wanted to know more, however. “She was anorexic as a child, wasn’t she?” I asked.
He nodded again. “Enough to be hospitalized a couple of times. She made it through, though. She went to thisinpatient facility back home in Florida for the whole summer before her senior year of high school. That cured her.”
But had it? I thought of her emaciated corpse with the pang of horror complicated by pity that struck me every time that image entered my mind. “Are you sure the problem hadn’t recurred?” I asked.
Felix shook his head. “Look, I’m a fashion designer. I can tell you—all women have an eating disorder. Alicia was no worse in the end than any one of the women who model my clothes.”
I thought this wasn’t saying very much.
“Was she everdangerouslythin? I mean, after that time she had to go to inpatient treatment?” I asked.
Felix shook his head, but Farzad said, “She was always too thin. Always.”
“Farzad!” Felix snapped.
“You spend too much of your time with models,” Farzad said. “Alicianeverate enough, and she wasalwaystoo skinny.”
Felix shook his head and turned to the detective. “You’ll have to excuse my partner. He’s Iranian, and he’s gay. He has no idea what a normal-sized woman looks like.”
Al shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Thank goodness none of the other three men seemed to notice.
“That is ridiculous!” Farzad said. “Iranian women arebeautiful, and stylish. And for your information they are not fat! They are very thin. Too thin, in fact, like your models. A woman should look like a woman! Not like a little boy. A woman should look like her!” He pointed to me, and all of them turned and fixed appraising gazes on my body. I could tell that Felix thought I was anything but normal-sized, and I blushed furiously.
“Except not so pregnant,” Farzad said.
“My sister was thin, but not abnormally so,” Felix said.
Detective Goodenough seemed to decide that we’d covered this topic in far more detail than necessary, and he reassumed control of the interview. He was, in the end, more thorough than I would have expected, and I was both impressed and made a bit anxious by his attention to detail. He jotted down a long list of every one of Alicia’s friends, family, members of her comedy troupe, people she came in contact with through her work as Felix’s assistant. He asked about boyfriends, and Farzad told him about Charlie Hoynes. I was glad not to have had to provide that information myself. It was surely something he needed to know, but I have a very hard time, both because of my training and because of my temperament, cooperating with the police, even when I know I should. A useless, even counterproductive holdover from my public defender days.
When the detective asked about people with whom Alicia had had conflicts, Farzad brought up Julia Brennan.
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic,” Felix said at his boyfriend’s characterization of Alicia’s feelings toward the successful actress. “Alicia didn’t hate Julia. She was just a little jealous. Who wouldn’t be?”
Farzad pursed his lips. “She was planning on suing the woman. And what about the letter?” he said.
“Farzad!” Felix nearly shouted.
“What letter?” the detective asked.
“Julia Brennan had her lawyers send Alicia a letter.”
“A threatening letter?” Al asked.
Farzad glanced over at Felix. “I would say so,” the Iranian man said. “The lawyers told Alicia that if she continued to claim the character was hers, they would sueher.”
“But the characterwashers!” I said.
“Since when does that make any difference?” Farzad replied.
“What was Alicia’s response?” I said.
Felix spoke. “She didn’t have time to respond. At least, I don’t think she did. She got the letter just a little while before . . . before . . .” his voice trailed away.