“Well, as I live and breathe! Or maybe I don’t.”
Temple looked up from her trudge across the condo parking lot. Albertson’s plastic grocery bags dangled from her every extremity. She’d been thinking, however, less of cabbages and more of furniture kings, her next freelance public relations assignment.
There her sixty-something landlady stood like somebody’s favorite fairy-godmother-cum-conscience, arms akimbo on broad muumuu-swathed hips.
“Let me help you with those bags before you break a fingernail,” Electra said.-
Temple stopped, happy to let Electra strip her of assorted burdens. She hadn’t seen Electra Lark in what seemed like ages, given all the clandestine excitement in her own life lately.
Apparently that was a major omission, because something was radically different about Electra. For one thing, she looked fifteen years younger.
“Electra. Your hair is brown.”
“Well, aren’t you the ace detective! Correction. My hair used to be brown.”
“And so it is again. Hey. It looks great this way. And what did you mean by ‘maybe you don’t’ live and breathe?”
Electra leaned close as they resumed plodding toward the side door of the Circle Ritz apartments and condominiums, a round ’50s building that was, architecturally speaking, as charmingly eccentric as its owner.
“It seems this old place is haunted.”
“Haunted? Oh, I don’t think so, Electra.”
“Don’t believe in ghosts?”
By now Electra had tugged—and Temple had elbowed—the door open and they squeezed through together.
Inside, the hall was cooler, but not much. Summer had not yet turned Las Vegas streets into one big sizzling Oriental wok.
“Why should the Circle Ritz be immune from ghosts?” Electra asked.
“Because I live here and I really don’t need another complication in my life right now.”
“You live here. Isn’t that amazing?”
They had reached the small but handsome lobby. Electra pressed the up button for the sole elevator with one elbow and the expertise of a longtime resident.
“I don’t live here?” Temple was getting alarmed.
Electra’s usual mode was unconventional rather than cryptic. She’d always used her snow white hair as a palette for a rainbow of temporary colors to match the vivid tones in her ever-present muumuus.
Brown was alarmingly ordinary for one of Electra’s expressive bent.
“Is this your subtle way,” Temple asked, “of trying to kick me out? You can’t. I own my place. On the other hand, you could kick out Matt Devine. He only rents.” As if anyone would ever want to kick out Matt Devine.
“Electra! You’re acting ultraweird. Maybe Miss Clairol has gone to more than your head. The moment I dig my key out of my tote bag and let us in, I’m going to fix a cup of tea or a snifter of brandy and find out what’s going on with you.”
“Funny, I was planning to ply you with brandy, if you have any.”
Temple temporarily transferred some grocery bags to Electra’s arms while she plumbed the jumbled depths of her ever-present tote bag. The keys surfaced tangled around a giant can of paprika. Some of her purchases hadn’t fit into the six bags she could conceivably carry.
She dropped the paprika into a bag in Electra’s custody, then unlocked the door.
She never glimpsed her own place without an internal sigh of satisfaction. No “unit” in the Circle Ritz was the same, another aspect of the vintage building’s charm. Temple’s place was Mama Bear size: medium, partly because it had been bought for two.
The Baby Bear-size entry hall showed views of a black-and-white kitchen just the right size for Goldilocks and, farther in, the pie-slice-shaped living room. Its handsome rank of French doors led to a small triangular patio. Off each side of the main room were two bedroom suites with tiled baths. One of them served as Temple’s home office, because for the year that Max had lived here openly, no way did they need separate bedrooms.
Temple’s current live-in roommate sprawled on the off-white sofa dead ahead. Okay, he was often lazy, but he always looked good, which was more than some of her women friends could say about their slacker layabouts.
“That’s no ghost,” Temple said, admiring the black hairy body lounging so fluidly on her furniture.
Electra snorted. “I’ve seen more of Midnight Louie lately than I have of you. And he’s a real Houdini when it comes to slipping in and out of this place.”
“I’ve been busy.” Temple proved it by heading for the kitchen to unload her week’s worth of the Craven Cook’s convenience foods, frozen stuff first. “And why do you need to ply me with anything alcoholic?”
Electra unloaded canned and dry goods onto the tiled countertops in silence. Nothing in the Circle Ritz had ever been updated except the owner’s hair color.
The rhinestone-festooned Felix the Cat clock on the wall swung its molded black plastic tail back and forth, telling time as quietly as a cat.
Temple finished stowing the refrigerated foods, then turned to the still-startling brownette beside her. “Weird how radical ‘ordinary’ looks on you. Would Dr Pepper on ice in my best Baccarat glasses stand in for the brandy I don’t have?”
“Absolutely. I’ve squeezed out some the world’s deepest, darkest secrets over Dr Pepper. So misunderstood.”
By the time they’d iced their soft drinks and headed for the living room sofa, Midnight Louie had obligingly moved to the white faux goathair rug under the coffee table. There he lounged like a Playgirl centerfold in desperate need of a full body waxing.
“This is nice.” Electra leaned back into the neutral-colored sofa cushions.
Inspired by her recent research into decor, Temple decided she really needed a fashion-forward seating piece with as much ooomph as the red suede ’50s couch she had found at the Goodwill for Matt, a floor up.
Electra wiggled into the cushions. “I do like sitting down with a resident in one of my units. Unwinding. Not worrying about ghosts.”
“First, explain the hair. I’ve gotten used to the Color, or Multicolor, of the Week, but…brown. Who wants to be brown?”
“Brown is back, big-time.” Electra hefted the mahogany-shaded soft drink in her glass. “And sometimes you’ve been fashion-forward for long enough that you yearn for some stability. Like residents you know and occasionally actually see.”
“I’m getting the idea that you think I’ve been running around town too much. You are not my mother, Electra.”
“Heaven forbid! My own kids were enough to get educated and out on their own. It isn’t just you, Temple, dear. That darling boy Matt Devine has been even more of a ghost around here than you lately. And when I have run into him in the parking lot, ‘run’ is the word for it, as in ‘hit and.’ He doesn’t stop and chat like he used to, or offer to help me with something. He just skedaddles like I was Typhoid Mary in a toxic muumuu.”
“Don’t take that personally,” Temple advised, although she certainly had when it first started happening to her. “After all, he’s got that night-shift radio counseling job. Doesn’t exactly get him out and about early in the day. And now there are out-of-town speaking engagements. So he’s been a bit distracted lately. The price of being a semicelebrity.”
“Distracted, hell. He’s been avoiding me. And now you are too. Plus, you’re making lame excuses for him. Why?”
“I felt the same way, Electra, until I realized all that Matt had going.”
“He’s always been busy, but never…aloof. I’m worried about him. Something is wrong.”
Electra’s frown accentuated two of the amazingly few lines on her face. Even the darker hair color didn’t age the plump contentment of her features. Temple guessed Electra had never been a pretty girl, but she was heading toward being a gorgeous old lady.
She almost leaned over to pat Electra’s hand…and tell all. Only there was so much to tell and it really wasn’t her story to spill.
“Matt’s all right,” Temple said firmly. She wished she really believed that.
“And then there’s my favorite phantom,” Electra said ominously. “He’s running on a short leash.”
Temple glanced to the cat-shaped rug that was rubbing its permanent five-o’clock-shadowed jaw on the toe of her Via Spiga pump.
“Louie has always been a night person. He’s proven he can take care of himself, and then some, and he’s not reproducible.”
“Not that phantom. I mean Max.”
“Oh. Hello? Pardon my slang, but you and he did buy this place together. As far as I’m concerned, he’s been AWOL since he vanished a year and a half ago. ‘Absent without Leave.’ Without my leave, if not yours.”
“Electra, I really can’t discuss why Max moved out, or why he didn’t move back in, actually, when he…turned up again. I keep up the mortgage payments, don’t I?”
“I don’t care about the mortgage. I care about you. Here I have this attractive young career-gal tenant who has associated with two of the—well, in my age group, the word was ‘eligible,’ but I’m sure you young things have a much raunchier way of putting it nowadays…hot hunks?—guys to hang out at the Circle Ritz, and she seems to have lost both of them sometime, somewhere, somehow.”
Temple tried to answer but the “hot hunks” phrase had temporarily muted her.
“Oh,” Electra went on, gesturing widely enough to make Louie jump up as if she held a hidden treat in one of her hands, “I knew Max was still my Invisible Tenant. What a second-story man! As good as Louie at discreetly eeling in and out the place, which one would expect of a professional magician. They never can do it the easy way.”
Electra peered owlishly over the titanium rims of her often present reading glasses. “I don’t know if that applies to everything about them, but we’ll let that go. Anyway, Max’s hide-and-seek act added some Cary Grant caper charm to the place. So romantic. But he hasn’t been eeling in and out, or out and in, like he used to. Matt’s been vague and distant. And you’ve been looking way too worried for a natural redhead for far too long.”
Temple heard her out, turning the cold crystal glass in her palm. Electra had put her flower-appliquéd fingernail on the unflowery bottom line: Temple and the two men might have faced extraordinary dangers in the past few months, more might still be facing them, but the upshot was that Temple’s personal life wasn’t very personal at all anymore. With anyone.
“I don’t mean to depress you, dear, but I’m worried. Max I enjoy worrying about. I know if he gets himself into a tight corner, he’ll get himself out of it, and you along with him. But you and I know that Matt’s background doesn’t exactly equip him for living in city full of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I would hate to see that sweet boy get into something he’s not ready to handle.”
“Ex-priests are more resilient than you think.”
“You think so, dear?”
“I hope so. Listen, Electra. I can’t say much about it, but you’re right. We’ve all three been under tremendous pressure. I don’t want to scare you, but it could have touched the Circle Ritz. Even you. Now I think, and hope, it’s over. Or the worst of it, anyway.”
Electra sat forward.
“I really can’t say more.”
“A tiny hint of what kind of danger you’re talking about might help my insomnia. You know, up in the penthouse I can see a lot of comings and goings. Not that I snoop on my tenants, of course. You’re saying you’ve kept me in the dark because it’s ‘good’ for me? Honey, ignorance is never bliss.”
Temple bit her lip. She recognized the truth of Electra’s reverse aphorism. She owed her an explanation. So she spilled the bizarre beans everybody had been keeping secret from each other for too long.
“Matt had a stalker. But it’s over now. Definitely over.”
“A stalker? From his radio job? Media personalities attract nuts sometimes.”
Temple shook her head. “That’s what’s been so…awkward. The stalker was someone who wanted to harass Max but couldn’t find him.”
“How would he find Matt, then? They have nothing in common but you. Oh.”
“That’s why they’ve both stayed as far away from me as they could. They didn’t want the stalker finding me. And the Circle Ritz.”
“Nothing in common but you and the Circle Ritz?” Electra looked down at Louie, who rewarded her attention by performing an impossibly long stretch that torqued his body in two opposite directions and showed off all of his, er, undercarriage.
“Amazing,” Electra mused as Louie’s yawn showcased sharp white teeth and crimson tongue. “Was this stalker a woman, by chance?”
“Yes. What an amazing deduction, Electra. The vast majority of stalkers are male.”
“Deduction, phooey! I just remembered seeing Matt down by the pool months ago talking to some strange woman. I don’t often see strangers in the rear pool area.”
“How strange was she?”
“Not strange weird, just strange as in ‘unknown.’ She was a knockout, actually. Wore a jade green pantsuit, more formal than you usually see in Vegas, especially poolside. I couldn’t see her features very well, but she had Louie coloring.”
“Naturally black hair and lots of it. Red lips, not natural in her case; white teeth, maybe helped along by bleach. I’m guessing she had green eyes like Louie too. The two of them made a striking picture near that oblong of blue water, that’s why I stopped to study it. Matt so blond and lightly tanned and so very unclothed, she so white skinned, yet boldly colored and overdressed. That’s what struck me, how pale she was, as if she never went out in the sun. Not a native, that’s for sure.”
Temple, mesmerized, contemplated the vivid picture Electra had painted. She’d never seen the woman in the flesh tones, in Technicolor, but that’s how the lively Electra always thought. Even Janice Flanders’s “police" portrait had been executed in charcoal gray. Executed. Strange word for the act of making art, but apropos in this case.
“Kitty the Cutter.” Temple murmured the sobriquet she had given the woman months before.
Electra hissed out a breath and sat back. “That bad, huh?”
“Her first attack was her worst.”
Temple supposed that Matt’s lightly tanned body still carried the scar. Not that she was into dwelling on Matt’s lightly tanned body. Kitty, though, had been into ruination, all right. She felt a surprising surge of anger.
“You say it’s over.” Electra was prodding.
“It’s over. She left. She’s gone.”
“Hmmm.” Electra sounded properly skeptical. “She must have left a lot of damage in her wake. So both men had to stay away from you for your own protection.”
“Kitty was a jealous god. If she was after a guy, nobody female close to him was safe, not even Molina’s daughter—”
“I thought you two haven’t gotten along ever since Max disappeared and the lieutenant was questioning us all. She seemed sure he’d been involved in a murder at the Goliath Hotel the night he vanished.”
“We don’t,” Temple said. “Get along. Then, when she was persecuting Max, and now.”
“You poor thing! Trying to hold the fort with all this going on. No wonder you’re so confused about your love life.”
“I’m not confused about my love life, I just haven’t had much of one lately.” Temple clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Oho! Now it comes out. I wasn’t born in those exciting days of yesteryear for nothing, dear. You are blowing opportunities left and right, girl.”
“I’m not blowing them, circumstances are. Max can’t get married-"
“For reasons I find reasonable.”
“And Matt can’t do anything but get married, I imagine, given his Church’s strict position on everything carnal. No wonder everyone has been so cranky lately.”
“We have not! Been cranky. Just stressed.”
Electra chugalugged the last of her Dr Pepper and stood.
“Disgraceful. All this sex on TV, sex on the Strip, sex on the billboards, and here we have three healthy young people who can’t seem to get around to it.”
“This is all so none of your business, Electra. You don’t know the whole story.”
“Whoever does? When you figure it out, tell me. I’d like to see two people in this unit again.”
“You’re such a romantic.”
“Even if it’s only you and Molina.”
“Electra! That’s outrageous.”
“Not the way things are going around here. Give my regards to whichever phantom you see first. Adios, Louie.”
With that Electra let herself out. Temple considered shouting denials after her, but rose, went to the French doors, and opened one onto the balcony patio.
Her plants looked a little droopy. The pool, kept filled year round, glistened like a huge, wet, emerald-cut aquamarine in the sunlight.
Now Temple was seeing phantoms: Matt and the strikingly described woman Temple had never met, but who had bedeviled the lives of two men who were important to her.
Electra had stirred up a lot of ghosts in the process of complaining about them.
Temple turned to regard her familiar rooms, running reels of her memory back and forth, pausing on certain indelible pictures.
Max’s fingerprints were all over this scene. On the stereo system, in the kitchen, the bedroom. They’d lived together here for six ecstatic crazy-in-love months, flirting with marriage but not quite saying so. Temple moved suddenly across the room, causing Louie to scramble upright at full alert.
In her bedroom she went straight to the row of louvered closet doors.
The soaring chords of Max’s favorite Vangelis CDs seemed to ricochet like musical bullets off the walls.
Digging in the deepest, darkest corner, she pulled out the last remaining performance poster of the Mystifying Max, the one Lieutenant Molina had insisted on borrowing after she’d deduced, merely from the blue-toned sweaters he’d left behind, that Max’s compelling cat-green eyes were contact-lens enhanced.
It always galls to have an enemy tell you something you should have known in the first place.
Temple unrolled the glossy poster. Max the professional magician emerged, the top of his thick dark hair first, his devilishly arched Sean Connery the Younger eyebrows, then the phoney but compelling green eyes. He was wearing his trademark black silk-blend turtleneck sweater, long-fingered hands posed like sculpture on each opposite arm. Max was six four and sinewy, as strong and lean as steel cable, an aesthetic athlete. He wasn’t handsome in a classical sense, but he didn’t have to be. Sexy was good enough.
And for an all-too-few long, loving months, it had seemed that he was all hers.
Temple let the poster roll up like an old-fashioned window shade. Now you see him. Now you don’t.
One week he was admitting her into his undercover life, like a partner. The next week…vanished again, without ever leaving town. Something had happened on the night Matt’s stalker had died pursuing Max’s car. Something that was taking Max away from her. Something that, if it kept on, might be taking her away from Max.
She’d seen fire and she’d seen rain, and she’d stood by him. Electra had just reminded Temple how hard it was to stand by a phantom. It had been that way after Max had first disappeared, when big, bullying Lieutenant Molina had badgered Temple to crack like the small-boned, petite woman she could be mistaken for.
Hah! That’ll he the day, copper! Even two ham-fisted thugs hadn’t done that.
No, Temple’s key problem wasn’t Las Vegas’s hardest-boiled female homicide lieutenant. It was Max. Always and ever the charmer, always and ever impossible to pin down.
Temple put the rolled-up poster back in the corner of her closet, her fingers brushing soft black jersey in the dark. The Dress. The rather out-of-date dress. For a vintage clothing aficionado like Temple, nothing was ever really out of date. Not even the stuff in her refrigerator that she always seemed to get around to only past the expiration date.
The Dress. Max had been back again, then, in Las Vegas and in her bed. But. Matt Devine had been there when Max hadn’t, and something got cooking there. He’d seemed so safe for a white widow (with a significant other gone, but not legally pronounced dead) like Temple: ex-priest, handsome as hard candy, nice as someone else’s big brother, and too ethical to take advantage of any woman. Perfect prom date. No unromantic groping. No danger.
Except that one time, after his vile stepfather’s funeral. Funerals always let out the demons. The phantoms of the past.
On her sofa. Temple walked back into the living room. That one. Broad daylight. Matt’s fingers on the long bright hard row of black buttons up the center of That Dress.
Something happening. Oh, very definitely. And definitely to her taste. His too.
Temple sank into the cushions, reliving those—ha! Bring on the film noir flacks—”forbidden moments.” She could sure see why they were forbidden. Way too addictive.
So. Did Matt really mean it? Feel it? Of course. But did he want to? Maybe not. Did she? Maybe not…oh, yeah. But she was spoken for. And very nicely too, when Max was around to speak for her.
But he hadn’t been, not lately.
And he hadn’t told her why. A poster is a poor excuse for a man, even a charismatic one.
Temple squinched down in the cushions and picked up her cell phone from the coffee table. She would try calling Max one more time today.
Her phone bleeped at her and shot a little message graphic into her heart.
Message. From Max? All her internal mutterings faded. At last.
She pressed the right buttons and then a couple wrong ones, and groused aloud and tried again, putting the phone to her ear.
“Hey, Little Red.” Max’s baritone vibrated through the earpiece. If you could sell that on the Web via spam…“Sorry we’ve been playing phone tag. That is definitely not what I’d like to play with you. Too much has come up for phones. I’ll be in touch when I can. Ciao.”
Something soft and sensuous stroked her forearm. Temple looked down. Midnight Louie had silently lofted up next to her. His long black tail was just barely swiping her skin.
Temple gritted her teeth.
Electra had been right. Midnight Louie was the most constant and attentive male in her Circle Ritz life these days.
Did relationships have an expiration date too? And how far past that date did you dare nibble on the past without getting poisoned?
Copyright © 2004 by Carole Nelson Douglas