Passion, Betrayal and Killer Highlights (9 page)

As I watched Anatoly put his helmet on and drive away, I was overcome with relief. Fear had clouded my judgment, but now I was thinking clearly and I knew Leah was innocent. All I had to do was prove it.

I let myself in and was just opening the apartment door when my phone started ringing. I looked down at Mr. Katz, who was watching me expectantly. “I’ll feed you right after I get this,” I assured him before grabbing the phone. “Y’ello?”

“It’s me.”

There was no mistaking the husky voice of my closest and most abrasive friend. “Hey, Dena, what’s up?”

“What’s up? How about the murder of your brother-in-law?”

“Oh, yeah, that.” I went to the kitchen and poured Mr. Katz some kibble then took the phone back into the bedroom with me.

“Jesus, just when I thought things were getting back to normal.”

“Tell me about it.” I sat on the edge of my bed and pulled my boots off and threw them in the general direction of my closet. “At least Leah’s okay.”

“Is she? Did she ever find out if he was screwing around on her?”

When I didn’t answer, Dena groaned. “Shit, do the police know about the affair?”

“Nope.” Mr. Katz wandered into my room and glared at me. Undoubtedly he had seen the bottom of his food bowl.

“Thank God for small favors. Look, I’m with Mary Ann, can we stop by?”

“Sure, I’m not doing anything.”

“Perfect, we’re in the car and about a block from your place, so with any luck we’ll be able to find a parking spot within the next fifteen minutes.”

It would be so nice if Dena was being sarcastic, but fifteen minutes to find parking in my neighborhood was a pretty realistic estimate—assuming she didn’t mind parking four or more city blocks away.

By the time Dena and Mary Ann arrived I had brewed a pot of coffee and was midway through my second cup.

The minute she walked in the door Mary Ann pulled me into a hug. “Sophie, I’m so sorry your family has to go through this.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled into her chestnut-brown curls. I pulled back slowly, careful not to spill the coffee I still held on to her white three-quarter-length sleeve wrap top. It was slightly cropped and exposed a little over an inch of perfectly flat abs.

Dena’s hug was briefer and a little less emotionally charged, but then again, Dena wasn’t exactly the touchy-feely type. She walked over to the covered mirror and knitted her thick Sicilian eyebrows. “What’s up with the new wall hangings?”

I grinned and stepped into the kitchen to pour them both a cup of caffeine. “It’s Jewish tradition to cover the mirrors after a family member dies.”

“With sarongs decorated with rainbow-colored salmon?” Dena asked. “Oh, wait, I get it! Lox! The salmon are there to remind us that some things are more enjoyable dead.”

“Dena, that is not funny!” Mary Ann said. But even she couldn’t keep a straight face as Dena and I collapsed into giggles.

“My God, we’re horrible human beings.” I handed a cup of black coffee to Dena and a cup half filled with cream and a few tablespoons’ worth of sugar to Mary Ann.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Dena sat down on my couch and propped her feet up on my coffee table so that the thick heels of her boots stuck out like phallic symbols. “Seriously, though, how could anyone find Bob interesting enough to kill? There’s no way that little bean counter could inspire that kind of passion.”

“Mmm, I don’t know about that.” I sat down opposite her on my love seat and Mary Ann quickly took her place by my side. “When Leah told me he was leaving her and Jack for his mistress, who just happens to be twenty-one years old, I entertained some pretty violent thoughts.”

“Yeah, but you’re always entertaining violent thoughts. You write murder mysteries, for Christ sake.”

“That’s not fair,” Mary Ann said. “You don’t have to be a violent person to write about murder. I work at the Lancôme counter and I don’t think about makeup all the time. I’m not even wearing any now.”

I looked at her flawless porcelain complexion and tried to suppress my jealously.

“And I doubt Marcus thinks about hair all the time,” Mary Ann continued, “and you work…” Her voice trailed off.

Dena was the sole proprietor of Guilty Pleasures, an establishment she affectionately referred to as an erotic boutique, and if there was ever a woman who brought her work home with her, it was Dena.

Dena smiled at her cousin mischievously and Mary Ann rolled her eyes. “Not everyone’s you.”

Dena shrugged and ran her fingers through her cropped hair. “Do the police suspect Leah?”

I nodded. “But she didn’t do it.”

“Of course, she didn’t.” Mary Ann used her hand to make little soothing circles on my back. “Anyone who’s ever met Leah would know she’s not capable of hurting anyone. The poor thing must be devastated by all this.”

“She’s not at her best,” I admitted.

“Is there anything I can do?” Mary Ann asked.

“No—wait, that’s not true.” I shifted my position so I was facing her. “Leah wants to make sure her mourning attire is appropriate in a
W
magazine kind of way.”

Mary Ann nodded encouragingly. “There are a few recently widowed women who I work on at Neiman. Of course I only do their makeup, but I always take note of what they’re wearing.”

“Jesus, is fashion really Leah’s biggest concern?” Dena asked. “What about her kid?”

“Trust me, Jack is always a concern.” I took a long sip of my drink. “In fact, she and Jack will be staying with me for the next few days.”

Mary Ann gasped and Dena’s tan complexion got almost as white as her cousin’s.

I ran a jagged fingernail around the rim of my mug. “It’s not as bad as all that. I can deal with Jack.”

“Of course you can,” Mary Ann said. “You do still have rental insurance, right?”

“And smoke detectors,” Dena chimed in. “You’re going to need lots of smoke detectors.”

“He’s eighteen months old. He’s not going to be setting fire to the apartment.” I glanced nervously at the smoke detector in the living room. When
was
the last time I checked the battery on that thing?

I heard the sound of a key jiggling in the lock and then Leah burst in with Jack in her arms. Despite my concerns I felt a little tug at my heart. Cuddled up against his mother Jack looked like a little cherub. If he didn’t have the temperament of a Tasmanian devil he’d be irresistible.

“Have you listened to the radio?” she asked, skipping the formality of a greeting.

“Not today but—”

“There was this woman on the air and she was talking about me!” Jack squirmed in her arms and she placed him on the ground. “She was talking about how my new status as a suspect is a perfect example of how underprivileged women of color still have to struggle to be seen as contributing citizens rather than potential criminals.
Underprivileged,
Sophie! I have never been less than upper middle class in my life, and this woman has me sounding like some kind of black, blue-collar soccer mom!”

Dena put her cola can on the coffee table. “I don’t think she was trying to make you look like a soccer mom…welfare mom, maybe.”

“This is all Cheryl’s fault!”

“Ah.” I brought my fingers to my temples. “So you know about her comments to Channel Two.”

“Yes, I know! And the sad part is I don’t even think she’s a racist. She just knew this was her one and only chance at grabbing her fifteen minutes of fame. After all, it’s not like she could ever make it as an actress. The senior citizen who fell and couldn’t get back up was a better thespian than she is. Cheryl’s only talent is making other people’s lives miserable. That and her obnoxious ability to quote from
Entertainment Weekly
.”

Mary Ann blinked. “I’ve never met Cheryl. Is she into celebrities?”

“Oh, she’s way beyond that,” Leah said. “They need to make up a new word for what Cheryl is.”

“That’s the understatement of the century. I don’t think there’s an E! Television show that she hasn’t seen or an
Us
magazine she hasn’t read five times over,” Leah explained. “That’s why she got a job at Hotel Gatsby. She read some article about how Gatsby hotels are always filled with young A-list celebrities, so when they opened one in San Francisco she rushed over and strong-armed some unwitting HR girl into letting her work the front desk.”

Dena rolled her head toward her right shoulder in an effort to stretch her neck. “I thought Cheryl worked at the Ritz.”

“She did, but that didn’t stop her from accepting a few graveyard shifts at Gatsby,” Leah said. “Never mind the fact that the Ritz has a policy against working at another hotel while working for them. The management at the Ritz just found out last week and terminated her employment.” Leah allowed herself a brief moment of smug satisfaction before continuing her tirade. “I suppose she’ll go to full-time at the Gatsby now. But it gives you an idea of what kind of woman she is. I mean really, what kind of person is that disrespectful of the Ritz-Carlton?”

Jack toddled over to Mary Ann and she bent over to kiss him on the forehead, then quickly withdrew her head as she caught a whiff of his current odor. “Oh,” she said in a nasal voice that implied that she was holding her breath. “Does he have a poopy diaper?”

“Of course he has a poopy diaper. Do you think my son smells like this all the time?”

Leah strode forward and reached for Jack, but Mary Ann picked him up before she had a chance. “You seem a little stressed,” Mary Ann said, blatantly understating the situation. “Why don’t you sit down and relax and I’ll change Jack.”

“You’d do that?” Leah’s expression softened.

“Of course. You’ve been through so much. This is the least I can do.”

“Thank you.” Leah’s mouth relaxed into a genuine smile. “I’m sorry I snapped, but I’m just at the end of my rope.”

“Any of us would be,” Mary Ann said reassuringly.

Jack pointed to Mr. Katz, who was busy grooming himself. “Kitty lick.”

“Yes, that’s what cats do when they’re dirty,” Mary Ann explained as she carried him down the hall. “I guess you both need a little cleaning.”

Leah waited until Mary Ann had disappeared into the bathroom before turning her attention to Dena. “I haven’t seen you for a while,” she said coolly. “Sophie tells me you’re dating a vampire.”

“He’s not a vampire,” Dena said with a yawn. “He just wants to become one. Anyway, I broke up with him last week.”

“What?” I scooted forward. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s no biggie. He was getting a little too…” Dena waved her hand in the air as if trying to physically grab the word that was eluding her.

“Intense?” I volunteered.

“Insane?” Leah pitched in.

“Conventional,” Dena finished. “When I first met him he was so dark and mysterious, but then he got a job at the Gap and it was bye-bye gothic, hello ‘Songs by Your Favorite Artists.’”

Leah shook her head. “Do you ever get tired of being a freak?”

“I beg your pardon.” Dena raised herself to her full five feet two inches of height. “And the term is
super freak
.” She turned to me. “I’ve got to check in with the shop.”

“I left the phone on my bedside table.”

Dena nodded and disappeared down the hall.

“So,” I said, turning back to Leah, “you’re having a bad day.”

“A bad day?” Leah collapsed onto a chair by the dining table. “My husband was shot yesterday!”

“Yes, I know.” And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“You know, the cruelest thing I ever did to Bob was serve him a cold dinner. And now Cheryl’s accusing me of shooting him?”

“Like you said, she’s just trying to grab her fifteen minutes.” I could hear Jack screaming in the guest room. I eyed Leah to see if she was going to help Mary Ann out, but she stayed glued to her seat.

“I guarantee you Bob never told Cheryl about our marriage problems.” Leah’s eyes narrowed as she looked out into space. “The two of them were hardly on speaking terms! And now she runs out and gets herself a pink hankie and starts comparing me to OJ? Is she
joking?

“Let’s focus on what we can control,” I said. Jack was still screaming in the background and now I could hear Mary Ann’s pleas for cooperation. Clearly Jack wasn’t one of our controllables. “I found some stuff out today that you should know.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, for one thing I…well, I spoke to Bob’s mistress.”

Leah flinched but didn’t say anything.

“She says that Bob almost left you nine months ago. She implied that you and Bob actually talked about it.”

“She’s lying.”

“So he never said anything at all?”

“You would take the word of a whore over mine?”

I sighed and started massaging my temples in earnest. “You know, it would be so much simpler if she were a whore, but after meeting her I don’t think that title really fits.”

“Really? How would
you
describe the woman who was sleeping with my husband?”

“I’d describe her as a wide-eyed innocent who bought Bob’s BS hook, line and sinker.”

Leah pressed her lips together.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that she was some kind of siren whose unearthly song led Bob to the rocks. Although, I’m not a hundred-percent sure she isn’t the one who killed him, if that makes you feel any better.”

Leah shrugged peevishly. “A little.”

I smiled, glad to be able to deliver at least some good news. A fresh-smelling Jack toddled into the living room followed by a somewhat haggard-looking Mary Ann. Leave it to my nephew to break someone’s spirit with one diaper change.

Leah smiled at Mary Ann and pulled out a chair for her, which Mary Ann immediately dropped into. “Thank you so much for doing that.”

“It was no problem,” Mary Ann lied. Mr. Katz stretched his legs and wandered out of the room. Jack went after him, keeping a cautious distance. Leah started to get up to follow him but Mary Ann’s words stopped her. “Sophie tells me you have some fashion questions.”

“Yes,” Leah said urgently. “I need to know what widows are supposed to wear.”

Mary Ann reached out and patted her hand. “The key to the look is earth tones.”

“Earth tones.” By the awe in Leah’s voice you would have thought Mary Ann had just spoken the true name of God.

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