Book excerpt

Killer Riff

Molly Forrester Novels

Sheryl J. Anderson

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1
“I can’t balance my diet, so how am I supposed to balance my life?”
Tricia nodded sympathetically. “Everything you’ve been hoping for. For it to all happen at the same time—it’s just criminal!”
Coming from anyone else—in fact, coming from my other best friend, who was also at the table—it would have sounded snarky at the very least. More probably, it would have sounded like a righteous put-down. But coming from Tricia Vincent, it was a sincere and heartfelt expression of how fate can take something that should be glorious and turn it into a major kick in the teeth.
Cassady Lynch pushed a glass of champagne across the table to me. “I thought we were here to celebrate.”
“That was before I had two things to be happy about.” Two things that clashed with each other with all the vigor of freight trains colliding at top speed. On the one hand, I had the professional promotion I’d been dreaming of. On the other, the romantic redemption I’d been yearning for. But since professional issues were responsible for derailing the romance to begin with, I felt smacked by an Olympian dose of irony, with no clear vision of how—or if—I could make this work.
Things had been much more promising earlier in the afternoon as I’d stood nervously in my editor’s office, listening to her proclaim, “Molly, I’m going to make you happy, and it just kills me.”
Gotta give the boss lady this: You always know where you stand with her. Usually that place is akin to the crumbling lip of a rumbling volcano, but there’s never any question it’s exactly where Eileen wants you to be. So she gets points for honesty, if nothing else. The problem is, from that point, it can be pretty tricky to see where she’s headed, and even though I should know better by now, I always try to figure that out. For the most part, it’s an exercise in futility, but it’s the only regular exercise I get.
On this particular occasion, looking ahead was especially tempting because Henry Kwon was somehow part of the equation. He was slouched on the couch in Eileen’s office. I couldn’t tell if that was an expression of how relaxed he was about what was happening or how impossible it is to sit properly on that ridiculously unyielding piece of furniture. Even so, he looked great—he always looks great—and he was smiling. What could that mean? I looked him in the eye, and his smile grew.
Having a handsome man smile at you is rarely a bad thing. But this particular handsome man was also the associate publisher of our magazine, so the potential reasons for his smile were all the more intriguing. And the fact that he was flat-out gorgeous didn’t hurt. Especially since I had been painfully single for seven and a half weeks and deeply missed having someone gorgeous smile at me.
Pushing that distraction from my mind, I did my best to concentrate on decoding what Eileen and Henry were up to. Even though I’ve been out of school more years than I care to admit, I still feel as though I’ve been summoned to the principal’s office when I have to go into Eileen’s lair. So even though Eileen was suspiciously proclaiming that she was going to make me happy, my perpetually fluctuating self-worth and guilty conscience were conspiring to make me nervous. That annoyed me, because I don’t like letting Eileen get to me. I particularly didn’t want Henry to think of me as anything but cool and controlled.
I tried to dismiss the feeling that I’d done something wrong and focus on the positive sheen to Henry’s smile. Eileen was too savvy to have pulled him into something political between the two of us, so this had to be substantial. It had to be about something pretty darn good, too, if even Eileen was forced to admit it would make me happy. Were they moving my advice column to a different position in the magazine? Expanding it? Or was I being traded to another magazine for a copy editor and an assistant to be named later?
“The Publisher was very impressed with the article you wrote about Garth Henderson’s murder,” Henry said smoothly.
I nodded, remembering the huge bouquet of flowers The Publisher had sent me after I’d helped nab Garth’s killer. Although I had wondered if part of the grandness of the arrangement was because I’d sent Eileen flying across a densely populated hotel ballroom in the process. The Publisher, after all, is known for his sense of humor. “I appreciated the flowers very much,” I said.
Eileen grimaced as though bracing herself to taste something foul. “So he wants you to do it again.”
It took me a moment. “A follow-up? An article on the trial?”
“No,” Henry said, “not that specific. But we do want you to focus on feature articles from now on.”
I actually considered fainting. Millions of microscopic helium balloons launched themselves in my head, trying to push off the top of my skull, and my hands tingled and sweated simultaneously.
“Features?” I repeated, knowing it didn’t sound bright but that it beat standing there gaping in silence.
“We’ve been discussing new ways to increase the profile of the magazine, and including more substantial editorial content is absolutely key. The investigative articles you’ve done are exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for. So we want that to be your new focus, and we’ll use it as a springboard for further growth of the entire publication.” Henry’s smile grew. “No pressure.”
And no pressure just because this was what I’d always wanted, because this was a dream coming true, because I knew I could really make something of this break.
“Thank you,” I said, wishing I could be eloquent and charming, but caught so completely by surprise that two words were all I felt able to string together. I’d been working toward this for such a long time, trying to move into feature writing, grabbing chances when they came my way and proving myself, but never getting the bump. In the last few weeks, I’d actually been quietly checking out opportunities at other magazines because I figured I was never going to be released from my existence as an advice columnist while I was working for Eileen. She’s not the sort to recognize and nurture potential; she’s more the crush-or-curry school of management, specializing in picking favorites, usually attractive young men, and whipping everyone else with delight and regularity.
Small wonder it was killing her to give me this break. Or, more correctly, to sit there and watch Henry give it to me and not be able to do anything about it but scowl. I knew part of her unhappiness was because of her aforementioned aversion to making me happy, but there was more at stake here, too. She’d been brought in to “put teeth” in the magazine. If The Publisher and Henry felt that wasn’t happening fast enough and that they had to get involved in the process, perhaps Eileen was spending some time standing on that volcano lip herself.
“There is a catch,” she said with a crinkle of her little nose that was sharp enough to burst my bubble. I kept smiling. How bad could the catch be if it was part of becoming a feature writer?
Henry frowned, one of those polite frowns bosses use to soften a blow. My stomach gave a lurch like the one you get on the first dip on a roller coaster, the one that’s the tease for that huge first drop. “This isn’t my usual style,” Henry explained, “but we have your first subject, already approved by The Publisher and Eileen.”
My breath came back with a happy puff. “That’s fine,” I said, immediately feeling better because I couldn’t imagine an article they’d come up with that I wouldn’t be willing to write.
“And he’s dead, just the way you like them. Sadly for you, though, he got there all on his own. No conspiracy, no mystery. Nothing to solve, just an article to write,” Eileen said with enough precision that I knew I was being warned as much as I was being informed.
I understood why she was concerned, given my track record of digging into a story where everyone thought there were no unanswered questions and winding up in the middle of a homicide investigation. She didn’t approve, even though I always met my other deadlines; had I fallen on my face with one story, I have no doubt she would have taken great delight in sending me packing. But I’d worked hard and been fortunate, other than losing my boyfriend. Now, here at last was the step up I’d been striving for the whole time. Whoever this person had been, I would dive in and do a great article to prove The Publisher’s faith in me—and Eileen’s inability to erode it—had been for the best.
“It’s not all about him,” Henry said, cutting a look at Eileen. They’d already discussed this, and not altogether happily. I wondered which was upsetting her more, the choice of subject or my promotion. Henry continued, “It’s about his daughter keeping his legacy, that sort of angle. Right?”
Eileen gave him the kind of smile you give the dentist after he’s shoved the X-ray film as far back in your mouth as it will go. “Right.”
Henry’s marvelously dark eyes swung back to me. “My sister went to college with Olivia Elliott. Russell Elliott’s daughter.”
I nodded in recognition. Russell Elliott, a renowned rock-and-roll producer who had started out as the manager of one of my favorite bands, had died three weeks before, alone in his Riverside Drive apartment with music on the stereo and a highball glass in his hand. While the print media politely conveyed the medical examiner’s finding that it was an accidental overdose of prescription medication mixed with alcohol, the Internet and tabloids feasted on the similarities between Russell’s death and that of the lead singer of the aforementioned band. Message boards blazed with theories about suicide, old affairs, demons from the past, and other uncomfortable things it has to be tough to hear when you’re mourning the loss of your father.
Olivia had attempted to drown out the rumors by throwing a monumental postfuneral bash that had been attended by a blinding array of rock royalty. It hadn’t quelled the loose talk, but it had put a pretty gloss on it; people were whispering now instead of proclaiming.
“As you can imagine, she’s pretty shattered. She’s also unhappy with what’s been written about her dad since he died. And I get her point. I don’t know how familiar you are with Russell’s work—”
“I had a poster of Subject to Change on my bedroom wall in high school,” I admitted.
Henry laughed in understanding. “I spent my entire junior year trying to get my hair to look like Micah’s.”
Micah Crowley had been the dark, brooding, and intensely sexy lead singer of Subject to Change Without Notice, a blues-based rock band that ripped through the chatter of the hair bands in the late 1980s, helping pave the way for grunge and roots rock. Russell Elliott had been Micah’s best friend in college and became the band’s manager. Depending on which stories you believed, Russell was largely to thank for guiding the band’s artistic development or Russell was mainly responsible for the infamous fights with producers, session musicians, and record executives that were part of the band’s history. Toward the end, Russell had begun producing the albums—again, either because he was shaping and protecting their vision or because no one else wanted to put up with the drama. But no matter how it was told, the story ended the same way: Micah Crowley overdosed in 1997, and the band fell apart.
After Micah’s death, Russell had become guardian of both the band’s music and Micah’s family. He’d also developed a solid reputation as an innovative producer who didn’t throw temper tantrums anymore—either because he’d cleaned up his act or because it had actually been Micah throwing them—and who’d launched several successful acts in the last couple of years on his own label. His most recent star was Jordan Crowley, one of Micah’s sons.
“Are you sure the poster wasn’t on your ceiling?” Eileen said with a sniff in my direction.
“Did you like them, or were you too old for such foolishness by then?” Henry asked her. My admiration for him doubled on the spot as she blinked slowly, searching for a response.
“I’m more classically oriented,” she replied. I wanted to ask if she meant Beethoven or disco but decided not to push my luck in the middle of such a crucial conversation.
“I’m glad you bring a familiarity with the band to the piece,” Henry continued to me. “Thing is, Olivia feels all the press surrounding her dad’s death has been about how he took care of Claire and Adam, and now Jordan, after Micah’s death. That he’s viewed as part of Micah’s legend, so his own larger contributions to the music industry have gotten short shrift. My sister mentioned it to me in passing, but I see an intriguing story there. And coming from the daughter’s point of view, it’s perfect for Zeitgeist. And for your first assignment as a full-time feature writer.”
Squealing with glee on the inside, I strove to be polished and professional on the outside. “Thank you, Henry. Eileen. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this opportunity,” I said.
“Personally, I think it’s overdue,” Henry said, standing. Eileen glared at him so hard, it made her roots show, but he ignored her. “Morgan in Legal will talk to you about the new contract, pay structure, all that.” I’d been so thrilled about getting my dream job that I hadn’t even thought about it meaning a raise, too. Suh-weet. He held out a business card. “Here are Olivia’s numbers. She’s expecting your call, keep me apprised.”
We had a brief diploma-exchange tangle as I tried to both take the card and shake his hand, but he smiled at the right moment and made me feel much calmer. “Thank you,” I said, looking him right in the eye and trying to convey my gratitude and excitement. “Sadly, words escape me.”
Henry laughed warmly. “Just make sure they’re back by deadline. Congratulations, Molly.” He nodded at Eileen. “Have fun replacement shopping.”
I’d intended to follow him out of the office, but that pulled me up short. “Replacement shopping?”
Henry paused in the doorway. “Your column. We’re going to keep you too busy for you to stay with it.”
I was surprised by the sharpness of the sting as the news pierced my spinning brain. Of course I had to give up my column. That was a good thing. I’d been eager to move beyond dispensing advice to the distraught, obsessive, and lovelorn for a long time. Still, I found myself feeling possessive and even a little sad. I’d created “You Can Tell Me,” and it was odd to think of handing it over to some unknown party. Unless they’d already figured out that part. “Do you have someone in mind?”
Henry shook his head, gesturing to Eileen. She pursed her lips and turned to me. “I’m still absorbing this happy news, so I haven’t considered its repercussions.”
“I’d like to open it up to magazine staffers, if you think that’s feasible,” Henry suggested. “We should be doing more promoting from within.”
Eileen’s lips unpursed and curled into a smile. “Oh yes. Let’s make it a contest. Our own little American Idol. Post some letters and have people answer them. Best answer gets the job.”
Henry wasn’t going to let her get away with being sarcastic. He opened his arms in a grand gesture. “I love it. Great idea.”
Eileen’s nostrils flared. “You’re not serious. Can you imagine the dreck they’ll produce?” She wiggled her French-tipped fingers in the direction of the bull pen outside her office door, where most of the junior editorial staff sat. “Who could we even trust to screen the responses?”
“No one but you,” Henry replied. I wasn’t sure which was more entertaining, Eileen’s discomfort or Henry’s pleasure in it. This was a whole new take on Eileen’s position in the organization, and I found it fascinating.
“It’s Molly’s column,” she protested with the annoyance of a big sister who’s been asked to baby-sit on a Friday night.
“So you and Molly can screen them together, then the three of us will sit down and make the final selection. How’s that sound?”
“Great,” I said quickly.
Eileen smiled jaggedly. “I look forward to it.”
“It’ll be a party,” Henry said with a smile and a wink as he walked out of the office.
I started to follow him, but Eileen had another idea. “Molly,” she said with a thick coating of ice.
I turned around and launched a preemptive attack. “Eileen, I really can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate this. I know we’ve had our differences, but I also know that you’re going to be very pleased by what I bring to the magazine from this new vantage point.”
Startled, Eileen took a moment before responding. “Isn’t that sweet. I just want to make sure we understand each other.”
“About how this really changes nothing.”
“Except what I’m doing.”
“Yes, but you’re still doing it for me.”
She rose to walk around her desk and get closer to me. It wasn’t going to lead to a congratulatory hug, I knew that much. For a flickering moment, I had thought this promotion might encourage a better relationship with my boss because I’d be doing what I was supposed to be doing, not pushing to do something more. But I could tell by the way her petite shoulders squared as she advanced on me that this was only going to fan the flames. She’d been working hard to keep me in my place, wherever she perceived it to be, but now Henry had lifted me out of it. Was her new hobby going to become trying to trip me up so Henry would withdraw the promotion? It sounded paranoid, but working for Eileen for any extended period brings that out in people.
“I’m sure you’re going to do good work. And I simply won’t publish it if it isn’t,” she said as she stopped in front of me. “Just remember, The Publisher giveth, but the editor taketh away.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I assured her. I thought about hugging her just to see what she’d do but decided not to start off my new gig by pushing my luck. Besides, I was pretty sure her head would explode, and that wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone.
Eileen tilted her head to the side, like a cat deciding whether to play with a mouse or eat it. With an exasperated sigh, she said, “Write a sample question for your column and give it to me. I’ll write a memo to the staff about the process of being named your heir.”
“Thank you,” I said, backing toward the door.
Her lips twitched in the vicinity of a smile. “I had no idea you and Henry were so close.”
“We’re not,” I said, hoping that she wasn’t suggesting what I was sure she was suggesting.
“So this brilliant idea leapt into his head all by itself.”
“You’d have to ask him,” I said, certain she already had and hoping she’d been more graceful with him than she was being with me.
“Fine. Be coy, even though it doesn’t suit you.”
“Eileen,” I ventured, emboldened by the glorious news, “maybe he just thinks I’m a good writer.”
“Of course, how silly of me,” she oozed. “Merit.”
“Isn’t that how you got your job?” I asked.
I meant it as a point of perspective, but I could tell it struck a deep and dissonant chord. Eileen’s carefully plucked eyebrows knotted together, and she pointed to her office door. “Weren’t you leaving?”
I hustled out the door and into the office bull pen, wondering what key point of Eileen’s past I had tripped over as her door slammed behind me.
“That went well.”
Skyler Christopher was Eileen’s current assistant, a job that turns over so often, there should be a turnstile by the desk. A sloe-eyed brunette prone to tight sweaters and tighter skirts, she’d been a startling choice, given Eileen’s track record of selecting gay men and dowdy women to guard her office door. Then the grapevine reported that Skyler’s grandparents were pals of The Publisher. Eileen doesn’t like anyone sharing her spotlight, but she also doesn’t miss a chance to be political. Skyler struck me as too smart to last long in her current position, but she was fun to have around in the meantime.
“She’s very happy for me,” I said.
“I can tell. Congratulations, by the way.”
“So who’s going to get your column?” She said it casually, her eyes never leaving her monitor, but I could hear the steely purpose under the question. Three weeks on the job and already looking for her next move. Who could blame her?
“Whoever writes the best response to a sample question. Unlock that inner Ann Landers and go for it,” I said, and her eyes swung up to meet mine for just a moment. We exchanged smiles, and I headed back to my desk to start spreading the news.
I was tempted to e-mail everyone so there wouldn’t be a question about who got called first. But that was quickly supplanted by the desire to call my boyfriend. And it wasn’t until my hand was actually on the phone that I remembered I couldn’t call my boyfriend because he wasn’t exactly my boyfriend anymore. Mainly because of stories like the one Henry had liked so much.
Kyle Edwards, the man about whom I continued to be absolutely nuts, is an NYPD homicide detective. As supportive and understanding as he tried to be, my attraction to dangerous stories had led to an impasse in our relationship. He’d decided we needed to take a break, and I certainly felt broken. Since the split began, we’d talked only a couple of times; in the last three weeks, we hadn’t talked at all, which I tried to ascribe to our individual schedules, even though I knew our individual stubbornness was really to blame.
So I went back to pre-Kyle mode and called my best friends to tell them. Tricia was with a client, but when I explained to her assistant that I had big news and Tricia should call me when she got a chance, her assistant put me on hold and Tricia picked up immediately.
“What big news?” she asked cheerily.
“It can wait. Take care of your client.”
“It can wait, but I can’t. Besides, they’re trying to decide on linen colors, and I may not be able to get back to you until sometime next week.” Tricia Vincent is an event planner, the key to her success being that you feel as if you’re getting great personal advice from that one friend whose own style and look you secretly covet, “I’m trying to convince them that gray napkins will look dirty, not elegant, and it may take awhile. Tell me.”
So I told her about my promotion and delighted in her gasp of pleasure. “Yes! Are you jumping up and down right this very minute?”
“Actually, no. Wrong shoes.”
“Fine, I’ll jump for you. And I’ll meet you for champagne at the place of your choosing at six p.m. Unless you and Cassady have another plan in mind.”
“I haven’t talked to her yet.”
“How flattering. I’m sure it was just my turn to get called first, but I’ll pretend it was a deliberate choice. Let me know what she says about six o’clock.” Tricia blew kisses into the phone and went back to her napkin dilemma.
It’s become something of a game over the years, this issue of who gets called first when something important happens or even when something inconsequential but emotionally resonant occurs. But underneath is the exquisitely comforting knowledge that the three of us have a bond that can withstand anything. So far.
As I reached for my phone to call Cassady, it rang. Expecting it to be her being psychic, I snatched it up and said breezily, “Hello there.”
“Molly, it’s Ben Lipscomb, and everything’s okay.” Despite Ben’s quick reassurance, there was still time for my heart to stop for a moment as my mind raced through all the terrible reasons Kyle’s partner might call me out of the blue. Emergency rooms or worse headed the list, but I didn’t get much past them before his disclaimer sank in.
“Nice to hear your voice, Ben,” I said genuinely. Ben is a big man who’s intimidating and imposing in the field but gentle and charming at the core. I suddenly realized I missed him, not just because he was Kyle’s partner, but because he was a good guy and you can never have enough of them in your life. “What’s up?” I continued, trying not to sound breathless.
“I just wanted to call and check on you.”
“’Cause that’s what people do when they care about other people. They call and they check on them.”
It was less a rebuke than an instruction, but I still winced. “I have called.”
“Not lately.”
“Who’s keeping track?”
“Who’s admitting to it or who’s pretending not to? Just because I’m the one calling to check in doesn’t mean I’m the only one thinking about you.”
I found myself grinning at the unmasking of Ben Lipscomb, decorated homicide detective, as Ben Lipscomb, old-fashioned matchmaker. “Ben, what are you up to?”
“Molly, when you do what I do for a living, you see way too many people whose lives go wrong because of bad decisions. So I try to make a point of getting the people around me to make good decisions while they can.”
I had a sudden vision of willowy blondes—Naomi Watts and Uma Thurman, to be exact—dressed in Badgley Mischka cocktail dresses with navel-baring necklines advancing on Kyle like panthers stalking prey. Was Ben trying to tell me someone else had entered the picture? “While they can?” I repeated as a request for clarification.
“Wasting time on pride is stupid, if I may be frank.”
I started to protest that pride wasn’t the issue here, but the words wouldn’t come out, probably because they weren’t true. Kyle and I hadn’t broken up solely because of pride, but it was a large part of the equation. In our painfully few recent conversations, all we’d done was acknowledge the impasse, not even beginning to see a way around or through it. The crux was, he worried about my getting hurt while writing about a crime, and I couldn’t see that as anything but a demand to choose between him and my job.
My job. What elegant timing. Getting back together with Kyle wasn’t going to be any easier since one of the first things I’d have to tell him would be that I was a full-fledged feature writer now, which would fan the flames under all his worries. However, thinking optimistically, it might be fine. Russell Elliott hadn’t been murdered, so there wasn’t going to be any danger involved in this assignment. Which would give me the opportunity to show Kyle I could juggle my job and his concerns. Let him get used to the idea that he didn’t have to fear for my safety and buy us time to get everything back on track.
The conversation was going to be a touchy one, but suddenly I couldn’t wait to have it. “Does he want me to call him?”
“Clearly he doesn’t know what he wants or I wouldn’t have to be looking after him like this.”
If he’d been in the room with me, I would’ve hugged Ben Lipscomb. “If I call him, will he call me back?”
“That’s my plan.”
“You’re a wonderful person, Ben.”
“Yeah, and aren’t many of us, so we have to stick up for each other.”
“I appreciate it.”
“You do know that this conversation never happened.”
“Even though I’m very glad it did.”
“Hope I see you soon, Molly.”
“Me too.”  Copyright © 2007 by Sheryl J. Anderson and Mark Edward Parrott. All rights reserved.

Sheryl J. Anderson is a television producer, a novelist, and a writing teacher. She lives with her family in Los Angeles, California.