Killer Cocktail

Molly Forrester Novels (Volume 2)

Sheryl J. Anderson

Minotaur Books

Chapter One
 
Solving a murder is a lot like falling in love. The first time, you do it without thinking about it, certainly before you’ve analyzed the consequences, weighed the possible outcomes, or thought about how badly you might get hurt. You get caught up in the momentum, the intoxication of “It has to be right,” and you hurtle along, powered by instinct, adrenaline, and naïveté.
 
And then—boom. It’s over. Before you know it. Before you’re prepared for it. And you suddenly find yourself cleaning up, sorting things out, trying to make sense of everything, and thanking your lucky stars you weren’t hurt any worse than you were.
 
So then you vow, “Never again.” And you stick to that vow, change your ways, and live a quiet, sane life while your wounds heal and you regain some perspective on the world.
 
Until the little voice in your head says, “Well, maybe just one more time.”
 
Actually, it wasn’t a voice in my head. It was in person. The person of Tricia Vincent, one of my two best friends. And that’s the most dangerous thing about friends. They can talk you into doing things that you would never consider doing on your own. Like going out with someone. Or tracking down a killer.
 
She didn’t try to strong-arm me. She was lovely and polite because Tricia would be lovely and polite in the middle of an alien abduction and probing; she’s just wired that way. She just said, “Molly, I need you to figure out who killed her.”
 
I hadn’t gone to the Hamptons intending to get involved in this sort of thing. I’d actually gone to get away from it, or from the fallout, at least. But there I was, on the rebound as it were, and there was Tricia, asking me to take the plunge again. Naturally, I’m always willing to do anything I can to help Tricia, but, just as we have to ask ourselves after a devastating breakup if we’re ready to plunge back into the potentially horrifying world of emotional entanglements, I had to ask myself if I was ready to deal with another murder.
 
There was a time in my life when the only dead bodies I’d seen were in open caskets in funeral homes. And I hadn’t even seen very many of those because the Forrester family thankfully has pretty good genes in the longevity department and those who had passed away did so with the lid down. (Probably the first time some of the Forrester men had ever left the lid down.)
 
But Teddy Reynolds moved me to a whole new level of dead body contact. Teddy was the advertising director at Zeitgeist, the magazine where I work here in New York City. I tripped over his body and wound up trying to solve his murder with some help from Tricia and my other best friend, Cassady, and despite the protests of a seriously hot homicide detective named Kyle Edwards. This all came from my brilliant idea that I could not only solve the murder before Kyle did, but could write an amazing feature article about it and redirect my career.
 
What’s that saying about people making plans and God laughing?
 
To be fair, I did solve Teddy’s murder. I wrote the article and Garrett Wilson published it in Manhattan magazine, a top-flight credit in my circle. I got that far and I have a mounted, laminated copy of the article and a bullet scar on my left shoulder to prove it. But after the dust settled, so did the rest of my plans.
 
The lovingly imagined transformation from advice columnist to crusading girl reporter didn’t happen. My article created a nice buzz, but not enough to get anyone to take me seriously as a full-time feature writer. We got a new editor at Zeitgeist, because our old editor . . . never mind, that’s another story. Though you can order my article from Manhattan’s archives through their Web site if you’re interested.
 
Anyway, now we had a new boss at our magazine, an ice-blooded horror who took great delight in shooting down every idea I had outside my column. And my relationship with Kyle Edwards continued to defy description, classification, and reason. So I hadn’t been planning on hunting down another killer any time too soon.
 
But this was Tricia. Crying and asking me to dive in all over again. I’ve never been very good at turning down a friend, especially a friend who’s also in tears. I always thought “A friend in need is a friend indeed” deserved a corollary: “A friend in need needs a friend in deed.” Besides, I knew Tricia’s plea for help was heartfelt and based on her own judgment of how I—excuse me, we—had handled the first murder. Despite some initial hesitation, she and Cassady had been quite supportive, on both the emotional and investigative levels, so she knew what she was getting into. Or assumed she did.
 
But if good intentions pave the road to hell, assumptions form the median strip. Not that I expect life to lay itself out neatly, with easy-to-follow directions and shiny game pieces and fun prizes. I know that part of life’s beauty is its unexpected twists and turns. But wouldn’t it be nice if life occasionally turned in the right direction?
 
“What’s the fun in that?” Cassady asked when I ran the theory by my two best friends one afternoon, a couple of days before Tricia’s tearful plea. We were having lunch at ’Wichcraft, an amazing sandwich place in the Flatiron District, and I was doing my best to make sure the tomato relish stayed on my meat loaf sandwich and didn’t wind up all down the front of my brand-new white James Perse crewneck tee. My chest is a natural tomato magnet, especially when I’m wearing white. Or maybe it’s the size of my breasts; the tomatoes think they’ve found kindred spirits.
 
Tricia was quiet and thoughtful, which is not that unusual. She has an innate sparkle, but she keeps it contained and unleashes it only after careful consideration. People make the mistake of assuming that she’s malleable because she’s quiet and darkly delicate, but she’s just coiled. Her emotional outbursts carry far more impact, because of their rarity, than mine do because of their appalling regularity.
 
While Tricia often idles, Cassady goes full throttle. Today, Cassady was in fix-your-life mode, to the point that the counterman, a buff beauty of a boy, was flirting with her and she hadn’t noticed. Cassady’s stunning, with that if-she-weren’t-so-much-fun-you-might-hate-her combination of long legs, auburn curls, green eyes, and great body. Men flirt with her all the time, and she generally manages to acknowledge, if not participate, but right now she was completely zeroed in on me.
 
“It’s not about fun, it’s about satisfaction,” I countered, quickly licking up the relish that was dripping down my thumb before it could leap onto my shirt and introduce itself to my breasts.
 
“Those aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they should be required to be inclusive.” Cassady’s an intellectual properties lawyer and I’ve often accused her of deliberately choosing a profession in which she gets paid to manipulate both the language and the people who use it. She’s never disagreed, she’s just pointed out that she’s very good at doing both, so it makes sense that she’s turned that into a career. Satisfaction and fun, a case in point.
 
“What about ‘grim satisfaction’?” I volleyed.
 
“That’s like ‘gallows humor,’ ” Cassady explained. “You concede the direness of the situation, but still admit there’s an element of fun or pleasure in the result. C’mon, Molly. Didn’t you feel grim satisfaction when you caught Teddy’s killer?”
 
“I felt huge relief,” Tricia said. Tricia’s an event planner, which fulfills her need to make people happy. It also appeals to her desire for order, organization, and a smooth flow of foreseen incidents. Being part of a murder investigation had been very trying for her.
 
“As did we all,” Cassady admitted. “But now, with some emotional distance . . .”
 
“Okay. Grim satisfaction. And maybe, actually, not all that grim. What is grim is the fact that I don’t know what to do next.”
 
“Concerning the career or the boyfriend?”
 
“Neither one is where it should be.”
 
Tricia sighed in disagreement. “Isn’t it more of a case of ‘where you want it to be’?”
 
I shrugged. “Well, as the philosopher said, ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ ”
 
“Don’t start quoting the ancients.” Cassady leaned in. “Listen, I know you thought this whole Teddy Reynolds thing was going to change your life and you think it’s failed to do so. I contend it has changed your life and will continue to change it, but more gradually and insidiously than you’re comfortable with right now.”
 
I looked to Tricia for backup, but she was nodding in support of Cassady’s theory. “Patience has never been your strong suit.”
 
“What’s this, tag-team therapy?”
 
“We want you to be happy,” Tricia said firmly.
 
“I am happy.”
 
Cassady arched her eyebrow so perfectly, no makeup artist could have painted it on better. She and Tricia had personally observed many of the ups and downs of my relationship with Kyle and had heard my recitations of most of the others. After all, you can only discuss your problems with a man with that man to a certain point. Then you need to get some genuine perspective, which means asking your best girlfriends what they think.
 
They thought he was delightful. And sexy. And charming. All of which I was in agreement with. But they hadn’t learned to relax around him completely. I was struggling with that, too. He was a pretty intense individual in an incredibly intense profession. He’d always make a point of asking how things were going at the magazine, but how could advising some lovesick public relations exec that it was time to ask her boyfriend to move in with her, even though it meant learning to understand fantasy football, ever compare to solving a murder? My work paled next to his because his changed the world. And, truth be told, I was jealous.
 
Dating any man is a challenge and, with the column, I have a front-row seat at the dizzying parade of complications that trying to synchronize two lives can bring, especially in the areas of emotional baggage and outstanding commitments. But when you date a man sworn to uphold the public good, the stakes increase dramatically. Now you’re not just competing for his attention with the ex-girlfriend, the ex-wife, the hockey buddies, or the doting mother, you’re competing with a higher calling at all hours of the day and night. Even if you’re very high-minded and secure in your place in the universe, it can be difficult to find your footing in a relationship that’s constantly hitting the hold button because his cell phone is ringing again, and never with good news.
 
Kyle and I had tried taking time off from each other, but we couldn’t stay apart. We’d even tried starting over again from the beginning, with proper dates and plans, but we’d been through so much together by that point that it felt artificial. So we went back to this odd in-between space of being intensely close and still not knowing each other as well as we wanted to.
 
“I’m just not as happy as I’d like to be,” I confessed to Tricia and Cassady as a blob of tomato relish evaded my thumb and threw itself at my cleavage. Such as it is.
 
“That’s the human condition,” Tricia offered, immediately dipping her napkin in her water glass and handing it to me.
 
“Exactly. So I’m learning to live with it and I’m changing the subject. Is it rub, not dab or dab, not rub?” I asked, damp napkin poised above the relish stain.
 
“Maybe we could get the chef to lick it off for you,” Cassady suggested.
 
“Dab,” Tricia said. I dabbed.
 
Cassady’s perfectly arched eyebrow slanted unhappily. “None of this is about the career. It’s about the man.”
 
“The Man keeps us all down. You, of all people, should have learned that at your parents’ knee.” Cassady’s parents currently run an educational foundation promoting literacy in inner-city schools, but they met as Eastern Studies majors at Berkeley in the late sixties. Cassady’s named after Neal Cassady. (As Tricia’s named after Tricia Nixon, they make quite a pair.) Cassady refers to her parents as “evolved hippies.” They’re intensely cool, but never call attention to it. Which is where Cassady gets it from.
 
“When’s the last time you talked to Kyle?” Cassady persisted.
 
“I don’t remember.”
 
“You remember the date, the time, and what you were wearing. Or not wearing, as the case might be.”
 
“He called yesterday.” I tried to leave it at that, but Cassady shook her head to let me know I couldn’t get away with it. “Last night. Eleven-fifteen. There was a slight breeze from the southeast and I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt because I was lying on the couch, watching The Daily Show.”
 
“You turned Jon Stewart off for him?” Tricia asked.
 
“Yes.”
 
“I’m impressed.”
 
“What did you talk about?” Cassady asked.
 
“Movies. Politics. We veered perilously close to the weather, but all sorts of internal alarms went off and I brought up football instead.”
 
“How very high school of you,” Cassady said.
 
“Thank you.”
 
“How long were you on the phone?” Tricia was driving at something, but I couldn’t get a sense of the direction yet.
 
“About an hour.”
 
“And you hung up without a date being scheduled?” Cassady asked, probably pulling an eyebrow muscle or two to get them to arch so high. “I withdraw the snarky high school comment.”
 
“Thank you.”
 
“In its place, I now say ‘junior high.’ ”
 
“He’s in the middle of a case,” I attempted, not sure which of us I was defending more.
 
“You need to get out of town,” Tricia pronounced. “Remind him what he’s missing.”
 
Cassady pursed her lips doubtfully. “What guarantee do we have that she won’t wind up missing him?”
 
“None, but the Hamptons are known for their ability to distract. That’s why we’re going to Southampton. This weekend.”
 
I winced. Weekend getaways had contributed heavily to my current state of romantic frustration, so it wasn’t a favorite concept at the moment.
 
Kyle and I met in October. Things had lurched along reasonably well until right before Christmas, when he’d taken me to the precinct holiday party. Kyle was their most eligible bachelor, which meant I was under intense scrutiny by all the wives and girlfriends present. While I’d been spared an interrogation, I had managed to wear, say, and do the wrong thing all in one evening, a feat even for me. My dress had been too low, too short, and too black. I’d trashed the weepy tearjerker they’d all just finished loving in their book club. But my crowning achievement had been to slip on the plastic snow scattered cheerily around the dance floor and spill my eggnog on the commissioner on the way down.
 
Kyle wasn’t bothered by any of it; the eggnog incident actually amused him. But I expected Santa to drop a scarlet A down my chimney and let me guess what it stood for. I was so sure I didn’t fit into his world, maybe it was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’d had to work on New Year’s Eve, so I’d extended my vacation in Virginia. In January, he’d caught a really heavy case and we’d only seen each other twice, so I boldly invited him to my place for dinner on Valentine’s Day. He accepted and it was wonderful. In March, we’d gone to a charity dinner Cassady’s group was cosponsoring and Kyle had been charming to everyone, though his impatience with the politics of the evening had been apparent to me.
 
After that, we’d finally seemed to gain some momentum as a couple. That’s why ten days ago, I’d suggested we go somewhere for a weekend, just the two of us. He hadn’t said anything for a long time and then had said, “We’ll see.” I could hear the squeal of brakes and feel the whiplash. Since then, we’d had a couple of vaguely unsatisfying phone calls. Clearly, I’d made him uncomfortable. How uncomfortable was the question.
 
But perhaps it was a question best pondered somewhere out of town in the company of my two best friends. I tried to remember the balance on my credit card. “It’s the first week of May. When does the season start?”
 
“Doesn’t matter. We’re going to my aunt’s house.”
 
Cassady and I exchanged a look, confirming that we were troubled by the same thought. “Aunt Cynthia?” I asked.
 
“Yes.”
 
“Aunt Cynthia of the ever-fluctuating last will and testament?” Cassady asked.
 
“The same.”
 
“The Aunt Cynthia who got drunk at your grandfather’s funeral and stood on the dining room table and sang ‘We’ll Meet Again,’ ” I continued, just to make sure that we were all, in fact, talking about a woman we had heard Tricia vow she would never speak to again unless under court order.
 
“That’s her.”
 
Cassady and I wavered, uncertain of the etiquette involved in saying the next thing. I took the plunge. “But you hate her.”
 
“Yes, but she has a great house,” Tricia insisted, a little too brightly.
 
“Oh, I get it. She’s going away and you’ve bribed the housekeeper to slip you the keys for the weekend,” Cassady said.
 
“No. She’s going to be there. The whole family’s going to be there.” Tricia’s smile stretched to the point where I feared it might permanently torque her small face like a bad facelift. “And if you guys don’t come with me, I could very well wind up being the one singing on the dining room table.”
 
Cassady shrugged. “Well, I can’t miss that. Count me in.”
 
“What’s going on?” I asked.
 
“That’s Molly’s way of saying that she’d love to come, too,” Cassady teased.
 
“Well, of course I’d love to, but I don’t get it. If Aunt Cynthia’s doing the whole black sheep thing, why’s the entire family trooping down there and why don’t you just plead heavy workload and not go?”
 
Tricia’s smile faltered. “It’s David’s engagement party.”
 
The Vincents are a fascinating family. New England bluebloods, super-Republican, the closest thing to aristocracy I’ve ever met. Tricia jokes that her ancestors came over on the advance ship before the Mayflower, to make sure the Colonies were suitable and that everything had been set up properly; planning and controlling are in her blood. Her parents live in Connecticut, but they also keep an apartment in the city because they’re constantly coming in for some function or another. They’ve always been lovely to Cassady and me. Tricia’s crazy about them, but they also make her crazy. Her favorite brother, David, is a case in point. She adores him, would walk out on the president to take a call from him, but David acts first and thinks second and usually calls Tricia to clean up third.
 
“They got engaged?” Cassady asked.
 
Tricia’s smile disappeared altogether. “Her parents are throwing some huge party in L.A., but Mother and Dad decided to up the ante and throw them a proper engagement party here first. Mother doesn’t think those show people on the Left Coast respect social ritual. But Mother and Dad’s little project turned into a whole weekend that turned into too many people for the house in Connecticut. Obviously, someone didn’t put the scotch away soon enough and got on the phone with Aunt Cynthia, and you guys have to come because I don’t know how I’ll get through it otherwise.” The fingernail of her right index finger dug into the cuticle of her right thumb, Tricia’s classic sign of distress.
 
“Of course we’ll be there,” I assured her, taking her hand in mine to stop the digging.
 
Then, because it is Cassady’s gift, she said the thing we were all thinking. “He’s really going to marry that bitch?”
 
For just a moment, I thought that glow beneath Tricia’s Dresden doll exterior was going to reveal itself to be molten lava and we were going to watch it erupt. But ever the lady, Tricia struggled to keep it all inside and lifted her glass instead. “To my brothers and their god-awful taste in women,” she toasted.
 
We clinked glasses in assent. In all the years we’d known Tricia (the three of us met as college freshmen thirteen years ago, but please don’t do the math), David and Richard Vincent had excelled at involvements with nightmarish women. Richard had gone so far as to marry Rebecca Somerset two years ago. Rebecca’s mom was electronics money, her dad was shipping money, and Rebecca was an heiress cum designer cum disaster. She was famous in a large number of nonintersecting social circles for consistently inappropriate and boorish behavior. I’d had the pleasure of seeing her in action at a fund-raiser where she sat next to the Chilean consul’s wife at the head table of a five-k-a-plate banquet, loudly critiqued the poor woman’s dress and jewelry all through dinner—holding up the Chilean consul’s mistress as a paragon of style—then tried to redo her hair during the keynote address.
 
After a very public romance, Richard and Rebecca eloped to Jamaica and Tricia’s mother literally took to her bed for a week. Richard and Rebecca had made it a whole thirteen months before splitting up—a full trip around the rocky cape of the calendar so they could ruin every holiday once, was Tricia’s theory—and the Vincent family was still reverberating, six months into the separation.
 
And now David was apparently engaged to Lisbet McCandless, one of the few women in America capable of making Rebecca look good by comparison. Lisbet was second-generation Hollywood, the spawn of a movie director and a studio executive, both famous for their tempers and sexual flexibility. Lisbet had been a sitcom star as a child; as a teenager, she drifted into a series of films quickly forgotten despite Lisbet’s willingness to do nudity.
 
Now in her twenties, Lisbet had worked her way back on to television, basic cable at least (rumor was, her mother was having an affair with the network executive who ordered the show). She played a rocket scientist who stumbles upon a government cover-up of life on Venus—the only thing that was covered up on the show. It was a huge hit, thanks mainly to the plunging necklines on Lisbet’s costumes, and the success put Lisbet back on top of the tabloid heap. Lately, she’d gotten into so many public brawls with other starlets that her father had shipped her out to do off-Broadway during hiatus as career rehab. David had met her shortly after her arrival in New York and they’d been paparazzi fodder ever since. And now they were engaged.
 
I put on my most optimistic expression. “So, your parents are throwing them a huge party. They must be pleased about the whole thing.”
 
Tricia scrunched up her face. “Mother’s terrorizing the staff and Dad’s taking way too many meetings. They’re not happy.”
 
“Then why the big party?”
 
Tricia sighed. “Apparently, Rebecca and Richard have one common belief left, which is that my parents were opposed to their marriage and undermined it from Day One.”
 
“Smart parents,” Cassady said.
 
“But in their shell shock, Mother and Dad apparently feel that if they make a big show of supporting David and Lisbet, those two won’t be able to accuse them of the same thing when their marriage blows up.” Tricia’s eyes narrowed. “And blow up, it will.”
 
“If it’s a big family thing, do you really want us there?” I asked.
 
“You’re more family to me than some of the piranhas in my gene pool. Besides, if you don’t come, who will join me as I sit with my bottle of champagne in the corner and sip and snipe?”
 
“Sounds like my kind of weekend. Count me in,” Cassady volunteered.
 
“Could be fascinating,” I had to admit.
 
“Thank you. I feel so much better about going now.” Tricia smiled genuinely and did seem immensely relieved.
 
Which is why, that Friday, I was overpacking my overnight bag and wondering when—possibly even, if—I should call Kyle and tell him I was going away. He was trying to wrap up a case so I had no expectation of spending the weekend with him. When we’d last spoken, he’d said he didn’t know when we’d be able to get together. So if I called him now and told him I was going away for the weekend, would it seem like I was forcing him to revisit the subject of our going away? I didn’t want to seem punitive. Or worse, clingy.
 
Fortunately, I was spared the agony of examining this ethical dilemma by the fact that Kyle chose that moment to call me.
 
“Hey.” He said it warmly, but gave me no indication of whether he was standing in the middle of his office or in the middle of a pool of blood. “This a bad time?”
 
I opted for the breezy, no-big-deal approach. “No, actually good timing. I’m on my way out. What should I bring you back from Southampton?”
 
There was a pause. Brief, but still discernible. The Pause is risky, more for the recipient than for the pauser. Resist all you want, you’re still going to read something into the Pause, a problem that can feed on itself when the pauser realizes he’s paused and starts wondering about what you’re reading into his pause. You’re on one end of the phone, thinking he’s bracing himself to tell you bad news, to get his lie in proper order, to struggle against his desire to declare undying love. And he’s on his end, perhaps doing any one of those things, but maybe just stifling a sneeze or being momentarily distracted by some slut in an exceptionally tight T-shirt and gaudy belly ring.
 
Communication is the foundation of any good relationship, God help us.
 
“The weekend?”
 
I made sure I didn’t pause. “Uh-huh.”
 
“Going alone?”
 
“Does that affect your request?”
 
“Among other things.”
 
I liked that answer, and did my best to detect jealousy lurking around the edges. “Tricia’s family’s having a thing and she wants Cassady and me to come along and protect her.”
 
“Hazardous duty.”
 
“Only for my liver.”
 
“One of those weekends.”
 
“With any luck.”
 
“So you’re hoping to get lucky this weekend?”
 
“Ah. You can take the boy out of the interrogation room, but you can’t take the interrogation room out of the boy.”
 
“Or evasion out of the girl.”
 
“I’m going down to keep Tricia from telling her aunt what she really thinks of her. My sole mission.”
 
“Aunt’s a piece of work?”
 
“Putting it nicely. You may have heard of her. Cynthia Malinkov.”
 
“Any relation to Lev Malinkov, the developer?”
 
“Ex, with an emphasis on big alimony.”
 
“You’re a good friend.”
 
“It’s my only shot at heaven.”
 
He laughed. It was a great sound, especially because he didn’t do it very often. I stayed quiet, which I don’t do very often. It didn’t really constitute a Pause, because I was giving him the opportunity to say something in addition to the laugh. I was also realizing that he hadn’t said why he called.
 
“You underestimate yourself,” he said, and I could tell he was still smiling.
 
“Chronically.”
 
“Have a great time.”
 
“You haven’t answered my question. Or told me why you called.”
 
“You sure you didn’t call me?”
 
Now I laughed. “Not really.”
 
“I don’t want anything. Just call me when you get back.”
 
“But why’d you call?”
 
“Tell you then. Stay out of trouble.”
 
“I’ll do my best.”
 
He sighed and I knew he was remembering the circumstances of our first meeting. “Try harder.”
 
In retrospect, he gets to look all brilliant and psychic, which isn’t entirely fair. Of course, if any of us had realized how the weekend would end, we would have all stayed in Manhattan, even if we did nothing more exciting than sit in my apartment eating cold Chinese takeout and playing cribbage. But life is never that simple. Thankfully.
 
Copyright © 2005 by Sheryl J. Anderson and Mark Edward Parrott.
Excerpt from Killer Deal © 2006 by Sheryl J. Anderson and Mark Edward Parrott