I finished my breakfast with no further interruptions, hurrying so I could get a call in to Purdy’s secretary before touching bases with Casey. Would she talk with me? I’d hoped Theresa Hatch might indulge me and accidentally share a tidbit of information about Purdy’s connection to The Glazed Carb. But she responded as tight-lipped as a persimmon. At least, at first.
Regrouping, I worked another angle. “I’d merely like to ask you a few questions so I can explain to his wife she’s wrong.” The words sounded lame, even to my own ears.
“Just what do you expect me to say?” Hatch asked. “I’m loyal to Mr. Purdy. Not to you, to his wife, or to anyone else for that matter.”
I didn’t anticipate any kind of helpful information. Another of Purdy’s lady friends? “The misses could make it very hard on him. She’s convinced he’s been having an affair.”
“I have work to do.”
“You want to help your boss, don’t you? I mean, he’s important to you.”
“Wait, please. If you could just—“
Then, the geyser unexpectedly erupted, “Listen, I think I understand what she’s imagined for years, and believe me, she has reason to worry. He’s a terrific guy. But, he’s never leaned in my direction nor I in his, if that’s what you’re getting at. He’s a faithful man who treats folks with compassion.”
“He doesn’t deserve the type of garbage that woman dishes out.”
Just keep the person talking. “Is there any chance he’s been…well, at all indiscreet? I mean, maybe with a client or another female from the office.”
“That’s none of my business and,” she stated with a firm voice, “certainly none of yours, Ms. Bassett. I have to go.”
“Have a good day, then.” Have a good day? The woman wanted to have me drawn and quartered, and I was wishing her a good day. He apparently instilled loyalty with his employees. At least this one.
Now what? Secretaries were generally the one’s closest to their bosses. But oftentimes as tough as burly bodyguards to get through. Chalk that one up and move on.
I donned my jacket and boots, stabled the Pony, and headed for the door when my phone rang again.
“Well, Suse. You can lay off Purdy.”
“You no longer have to find dirt on Purdy.”
“She doesn’t think he’s guilty anymore? Wow. I must be really good. Solved it all with one phone call.”
Greg lowered his voice. “The lady just called and said no more investigation, no matter what. And she’s the boss, Susan. Of course, you can always fill me in on what you uncovered. I’m up for a tasty piece of gossip, especially when the rumors involve the nobility and not yours truly.”
“You’re bad. And you shouldn’t be happy when someone else falls on his face.”
“Hey, I’m a guy. Only human.”
I loved Greg; always humorous in spite of a few of the typical menisms. “Greg, what might cause her to stop an investigation that could have netted her maybe millions more in a divorce settlement?”
“I’m not sure, but she’ll be paying us anyway, and that’s all we care about. Bottomline,” he said. “Always remember that. A healthy bottomline is all that matters in a business like ours.”
The memory of the greenbacks swished in my face. “Sure. McCracken would never let me forget the philosophy even if I wanted to. And since there’s no longer a rush on Purdy, I’ll roll in this afternoon instead of this morning. That okay?”
I concluded from the conversation I wasn’t to have anything more to do with Mrs. Purdy, but I often do what I shouldn’t. One visit to the lady in order to orchestrate closure of the investigation read like a logical step in my unusual book of operating procedures. That and I admit to wanting details, especially now there was a chance Elliott could be involved in some scam perpetuated against him and Purdy. Maybe others.
After the second glass of iced mocha Frappuccino, and since I didn’t have to show up at the office early, I settled at the dining room table and spread my work out. Like a puzzle without all the pieces in place, the drawings and observations didn’t mean a whole lot, but in time, I’d hopefully have information that would shed light on the girl’s murder at End Point.
Eyeing my Civil War period clock on the mantle, I shuddered. Time mocked me as if it were running out. Evil fairly jumped off the sketches I’d finished. With almost no consideration for the victim, my mind drifted to Leigh and Rebecca. Were they safe? Did they take care when they went out at night? Could they understand the consequences of irrational behavior? I trusted them, but a mother’s worry troubled me anyway. College influences often overwhelmed an inexperienced mind. Especially at sixteen. And while I couldn’t completely stop the concerns, I could rely on the fact they’d received strong foundations before moving away. They were, after all, smarter than the average kid. I’d seen to that. They also had amazing street smarts.
But they were so young.
Even viewing the murdered girl in death, I recognized her beauty. Beautiful and amazingly toned. Just how badly had she needed a fitness center? Or, maybe that’s how she stayed so toned.
I, on the other hand, had at least two or three reasons to pull on sweats a couple times a week and punish myself. My work demanded my being conditioned whether I had a few extra pounds or not, and I figured a couple miles on the bike would clear my troubled brain as well as do the body good. So before I could talk myself out of the session, I put aside the sketches, filled my travel mug with fresh coffee, packed my gym bag, and strolled out the door for End Point.
Gasping for breath after the equivalent of only four miles, I questioned this gnawing to always be the best at whatever I did. A failing since childhood, but one I didn’t think would magically disappear with time. I was competitive by nature.
Out of the corner of my eye a minute or two later, I sneaked a glance at the woman preparing to mount the bike perpendicular to mine. Jacqueline Stewart?
Perfect eyes—sans circles and pouty lips that belonged on a twenty-year old rather than a middle-aged diva, contrasted far too much with my Quasimodo grasp on the handlebars. I sucked air; she exhaled softly. I wheezed; she gently sighed.
My body stiffened and I rolled my neck from side to side, brushing the long hair away from my face.
If she birthed a baby nineteen years ago, then I’m a runway model. Time had ravaged nothing at all on the tall, svelte body next to me.
As is my nature, I picked up a competitive pace and, at last, I guess she detected through the lines and creases who panted next to her. She cried, “Susan Bassett? The Salem-witch Susan?”
Hiding now would do no good. I groaned, “So, you remember my infamous disaster in The Crucible? My, my. That was a very long time ago, Jacqueline. We were kids.”
“How could I forget? My goodness, we shared some fun times then, didn’t we?” She referred to our mutual sixteen-year-old love of the stage, but fooled no one. We had not considered ourselves friends in any sense of the word. Jacqueline had run with the wealthy crowd at Port Wagner while I attended blue collar high in Camden. There, I’d encountered friends more akin to my taste.
With memories, good and bad, flitting through my brain I mumbled, “Wench.” Oops! Did I say that out loud?
Her immediate flesh side allowed me to conjure depraved sentiments of botched face-lifts, but remorse overcame me as I remembered Elliott’s words that I harbored a propensity to act “bitter” about women who managed to maintain through the years. Well shucks, I was maintaining. I just maintained more than most. But in all sincerity, he was right. I did envy women whose good looks never seemed to fade.
Oh, would I ever be the person I wanted to be?
“Did we, Jacqueline? Did we have fun?” I’d make conversation and feel better about myself. Be friendly. Nice.
With the slightest lift of my hand, I patted some perspiration from my face and smiled. My efforts didn’t last long as I mused. Gorgeous and wealthy women always perspire a bit — the rest of us sweat rings the size of Saturn’s. Okay, nice wasn’t working. I’d shoot for tolerant and be happy about it.
“Are you kidding, Susan? And I’d recognize you anywhere. You haven’t . . . changed at all.” She licked her upper lip as if moisture would stop the lies. “Are you married?”
“I have kids,” I responded too quickly, as if excusing my body because of what “they” had done to the slim, fit deputy’s body.
“You are the lucky one.”
That was the truth. If I had to live my life with Elliott over again just to have Rebecca and Leigh, I’d do it with all the bitterness and unfaithfulness. Yes, I’d still do it. “I am truly blessed. Did you and Doug have any more children?” The question seemed innocent enough in light of their history, but the face pull made me wonder what I’d said wrong.
“I lost my baby right after Doug and I married. And we couldn’t . . . well . . . I found I was unable to get pregnant after that. Complications and all.”
Okay, Lord. I put my foot in it. Do I look like Dear Abbey or something? Help me out here. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.” Again, too much information from someone I had not made contact with in a couple of decades.
“How about you, Susan. Boys? Girls?”
Good, let’s talk about the girls. I don’t plant my foot in my mouth as often when discussing them. And there’s so much to be proud of. “Two girls. They both attend State.”
“You must have had them young.”
Bragging helped me feel above her. “They skipped a grade. Smart little stinkers.”
Not wanting to repeat my earlier blunder, I vacillated before asking, “Are you and Doug still married?” My lips tightened.
“Absolutely. Together forever,” she sighed and I sighed. Then, dangling her fingers, she flaunted a rock the size of my last dental crown.
After about a half hour of idle talk, I spied Bobby Buckner positioned with his back to us. Opposite Bobby, an entire wall of mirror offered him a birds-eye view of Jacqueline’s reflection.
Thirty minutes passed with no further chitchat and when at last the bike spun to a halt—I couldn’t have done another cycle if bloodsucking bats had been chasing me—I trudged to the sauna. I’d depleted my attempts at reminiscing during mile six and the next four had been pure murder. Yipes! Bad analogy.
Draped in white terrycloth and full of memories, I was suffocating in the sauna: steam, heat, sweat and flushed cheeks. Just a cleansing shower remained to strip away the last of the gym smells. Even The Glazed Carb wouldn’t want me in this condition.
Lukewarm water eased the toxins from my skin and I allowed my thoughts, however reluctantly, to drift back to the reporter’s words. “Murdered at a fitness center. Strangled.” Only a male voice, louder than the pelting water, could have forced me to hop back to reality with such a start.
“Man entering. It’s Bobby,” he cried. Now I can say for a fact he watched us go in, because he had been gawking at Jacqueline as if she were the maraschino cherry on a thick slice of hot fudge ice cream cake. So he had no reason to be entering the locker room.
“Bobby, women are in here. Stay out until we’re finished.” I bellowed around the shower curtain. Scuffling footsteps drew me out of the stall. Only a grungy cleaning rag lay on the floor next to a set of wet footprints in Bobby’s unmistakable size sixteen. I donned a robe again and peaked out the door. Bobby shuffled toward the office with a glance over his shoulder followed by a timid wave.
Jacqueline had already started to dry her hair. I did the same and then we painted on new faces. In spite of Bobby’s absence, I had the impression we still shared the locker room with another person. “Bobby,” I shouted but no one answered.
“There was another tube of lipstick in here.” Jacqueline searched my bag. “I’m sure I put it with my make-up yesterday.”
Like she needed make-up. Impressed by her near perfection, I told her as much.
“It’s the only color I use. Peaches and cream,” she said. “And just look at you. I must say, learning you’re a private investigator surprised me at first, but then, you always were the daring one. You’ve actually done something meaningful with your life. And you’ve balanced all that with a family. I understand from friends that’s no easy task.” she applied blush and eye shadow like an artist lifting colors off a palette.
Now I know insincerity when I hear it, but there are those days when a compliment, however shallow, hits the spot; none of my spots had enjoyed many hits recently, so I sucked up the words and smiled.
“I don’t imagine I’d get Elliott’s vote.”
“Well, I think you’ve done a remarkable job. Your daughters sound like lovely girls. And who cares what your ex has to say about anything, right?”
“Puh-lease! Enough with the mutual admiration society. Much more of that and I’ll lose my breakfast right here.”
Still reeling from the morning news, I spun around, expecting the Strangler to pounce from the toilet stall. One of the doors grated metal on metal and flew open to reveal one of those va-va-voom bodies Elliott liked.
“Get a life, you two. You,” the woman said, pointing at me with a finger tipped in cherry red polish, “need a few more hours on the treadmill. As for Jacqueline, she shelled out plenty for all that perfection. Why should she get the credit? Give her plastic surgeons and trust fund the kudos.”
Jacqueline raised a brow. “Monica Prinz, my-my.”
Quite by its own will, my jaw scraped the floor when this Prinz woman strutted into our midst. Must I describe her? In a much too tight leopard print leotard and heavy make-up, she presented a pathetic caricature of an athlete, though I cannot imagine any man in the gym complaining.
Antsy from the day’s events, my eyes darted from one woman to the other and I surmised in an instant bad blood didn’t simmer, but boiled. They glowered over my head, five foot eight versus five foot ten. Five-five officiating.
Monica struck a calendar pose after loosening her blond hair from a teal clip. Yuck!
Not a second passed before Jacqueline challenged her. “Why don’t you leave? Getting a little close in here, don’t you think?” All the while she sneered at the heaving leopard spots.
I gulped at the amount of estrogen circulating in the room. Even with all I’d been taught on the force, I hadn’t prepared herself for the spectacle of two women marking their territory like felines. The leopard print helped make it a vision of reality.
Monica’s eye twitched under thick gooped lashes. “Close in here? Don’t be so hard on yourself, Jacquie. We can’t all be petite forever.”
Waiting for the bell to ring and the two to attack, I held up my hands. “Ladies, ladies, this is not junior high school,” I said it with as much authority as I could muster. They ignored me. They were bent on confrontation, while I foolishly experimented with peer mediation.
Maybe ten more seconds elapsed without another spit or hiss. Monica momentarily let down her guard, but then bristled with another threat after Jacqueline mouthed an inappropriate expletive. “I told you to stay out of my way. I don’t offer the same advice twice."
Jacqueline didn’t shudder, didn’t back down. “You were the one eavesdropping from a toilet. The toilet!”
Regression therapy continued to roil over my head. Not that I actually cared, but I finally understood what a psychologist must go through on bad days. Once the last nasty word screeched to a halt, Jacqueline snatched up a hair dryer and Monica formed fists at her sides. Neither of them offered me a moment’s notice in the middle.
“Listen to me, Jacqueline. I’ll make you sorry one day. Put that dryer down or I’ll wrap the cord around your neck and before I’m done—“
“Can the threats, ladies,” I piped in. “You won’t get anywhere this way. This isn’t the time or place. Why don’t we all just calm down and see if we can settle this quietly and sensibly like adults. Let’s face facts, we’re—“
“Butt out!” They shrieked in unison.
“Fine with me.”
Monica stuck another pose. “Really taken with ourselves, are we, Jacqueline? But then, you always were. The whole world had to revolve around Jacqueline Butler and what she wanted. I’m sorry. That’s Jacqueline Stewart. Or has that changed? Did Doug finally figure out what a nasty person you are? A lying, conniving witch.”
Edging my way around Jacqueline, Monica snapped the strap on her designer bag. Then, she slung the bag over her shoulder and caught me smack across the bridge of my nose.
A truckload of horrendous pain fanned over my face and I reached up to be sure the cartilage was still in one piece. She didn’t break her stride as blood streamed out of my nose and all over the floor. The most I could make out between the tears was the backside of her leotard as it exited the room. She screeched a few final comments, more colorful vocabulary than a drunken sailor on leave in Dubai. I think I blushed somewhere under the blood.
“Wait and see what I can do, Missy. You just wait, Jacqueline Stewart.”
Following two loud thunks, we heard her grumbling. “Moron! Why are you snooping around the women’s locker room, anyway? Get lost, you pervert!”
After I plugged the dam in my nose with a sanitary item plucked from the bottom of my purse, I made my way to the office for a bit of first aid. Dek stood behind the counter with his mouth wide open as I did my best to appear nonchalant holding a towel under my chin.
“Susan, are you aware there’s a—“
“Id by dose? Of course. Get be sub help.”
Jacqueline kept apologizing and finally left after questioning me about our plans for some tennis the next day. If I could see, we were still on.
I still had to put a call in concerning my new defense class which would be meeting for the first time tonight and I had to finalize the number of students with Jason Li, owner of the studio, but the call had to wait for me to see my doctor who tends to be on speed dial.
Following a quick trip to the emergency room, where doc sent me, I whizzed past the Detroit office where I lingered less than an hour. I could feel the eyes swelling and knew I should head for home.
After picking up some industrial-size ice packs for my face, I arrived home around five to find three messages on my deluxe do-everything-but-the-dishes answering machine. If only I could figure out how to operate more than the on and off switch, I would be in electronic Paradise. After a frustrating few moments, I decided I’d start giving my cell number out instead of my home phone.
“Please, Susan. Call me. This is Jacqueline. I received a couple strange messages while I was out. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but they were . . . threatening. I realize we haven’t been in touch in a long time, and there’s no reason for you to believe me, but I’m a little shook here. This kind of thing is what you do, right? Could you call if you get a chance?” And she left her number. Twice.
The last message was from Jason, the friend who owns the karate studio where I teach. He had the information I’d asked for concerning the new class and passed the details along. Fifteen women had called, willing and anxious to learn how to protect themselves. Fifteen. A good-sized class. Not a surprise when you think of the recent murder. I figured a lot of women would suddenly be interested in learning how to defend themselves.
“Listen Susan, I know from past experience the first night will be little more than introducing yourself, registering the women, and giving them an overall view of the class objectives, but offer them a little extra TLC. Not your usual caustic self, okay? A lot of them are very afraid, what with this murder and—” beep.
I would be home shortly after nine and in bed right after the news if all went well. Of course, I had every intention of giving the women all the time they needed to unload any concerns. Defense classes can be a bit intimidating at first, particularly in light of the killer still at large.
After a snack, I slung my gym bag over my shoulder. It reminded me of Monica and I almost ducked. What was it she’d said to Jacqueline? “Wait and see what I can do Missy!”
Could Monica have put in the calls to Jacqueline in order to frighten her? And was Monica’s past with Jacqueline really so intense Monica would wish her physical harm? When I thought of the two of them fighting that morning, I thought maybe Elliott was right after all. Maybe I was in over my head.