Authors: Janice Kaplan
“Mmm,” I said. Dottie Mather? Never heard of her. But I shouldn’t sound ignorant in front of a dealer. “So sad she died.”
“Not so sad. She’d just turned ninety-three. Didn’t start with art until she was eighty. A modern-day Grandma Moses.” The dealer smiled. “How much can I pay you for the piece?”
Uh-oh. Like the beaded teacup, the vase had clearly appreciated from object to Art. And Art was worth—well, whatever someone would pay.
“Fifteen hundred?” I ventured, pulling a number out of the air.
“Done,” she said, with a glint in her eye.
Darn. She’d probably resell it for twice that.
Now I continued driving through Westwood Village and up Hilgard Avenue to the corner of Westholme. At an information booth, a friendly guard handed me a campus parking permit and directed me to a nearby lot. I stowed the car and walked onto the leafy UCLA campus.
Sun streamed through the trees, and students ambled easily to class. A pack of prettily tanned girls with long hair, long legs, and short skirts rushed by, chattering happily. Nearby, two shapely young women dressed more for a lake than a lecture hall lay on a blanket. No wonder Grant liked taking physics classes here. On this sunny, sybaritic campus, one explanation of string theory involved Brazilian bikinis.
I strolled along Bruin Walk, the main campus path. Two students offered me free movie tickets and another urged me to sign his petition against hunger. I stopped and signed, wondering if anybody was
hunger? I walked on, looking up to admire the stately architecture. Maybe no ivy grew on these walls, but I couldn’t imagine a more majestic campus.
But enough meandering. I hadn’t come here to be a tourist. I asked directions from a friendly student who pointed me toward the building I wanted, the one where Cassie Crawford had worked. Stepping inside, I tugged at the cashmere sweater tied at my shoulders. After the warmth of the campus, the overly air-conditioned office seemed unexpectedly chilly.
I gave my name, and the young woman at the front desk stopped reading. “Elsa’s expecting you,” she said, picking up a pair of red-framed glasses from her desk and putting them on. “I’m Kate. I’ll take you back.”
She stuck a fringed leather bookmark into her library-bound edition of
The Wings of the Dove
. I smiled, glad that Henry James still made college reading lists.
“Great book,” I said. “You have the same name as the heroine.”
She made a face. “The book is way too long. I liked the movie better.”
“You’re not an English major?” I ventured.
“Film and television,” she said proudly. “It’s my opinion that no work of genius should take more than two hours out of your day. One hundred twenty minutes. The best directors get that.”
“What about Cecil B. DeMille?” I asked. “
The Ten Commandments
. Two hundred twenty minutes.”
“Sascha Baron Cohen.
. Eighty-four minutes,” she said, as if proving the point. Who was I to laugh at the comparison? I could guess which movie she preferred.
I followed Kate down a short hallway and into an office with thick beige carpet, classically elegant furniture, and elaborately framed oil paintings, including a portrait on the far wall of a gentleman in eighteenth-century dress. A woman sitting behind an English writing table looked up from her paperwork, removed her reading specs and got up to greet me. I considered Kate in her red frames and realized everything flipped upside down as you got older. At age twenty, you stopped reading and put your eyeglasses on. At forty (or fifty), you took them off.
“I’m Elsa Franklin,” said the woman. “How nice to meet you.”
She extended a hand. Her long tapered fingers were ringless and her short nails neat but unpolished. She had hints of age spots on her neck and her gray hair was pulled back in a chignon. Dressed in a white shirt, tan trousers, and beige pumps, she looked sensible and serious, though a Gucci scarf tied at her neck gave a hint of sophistication.
Elsa gestured for me to sit down. I picked a hardback chair, imitation Louis XIV, and we exchanged pleasantries about the beautiful campus and lovely day. Elsa brought over a silver serving set from a side table. Picking up the graceful coffee pot, she filled a delicate china cup and offered it to me.
“Such a tragedy about Cassie Crawford,” she said, clearly done with small talk and getting right to the point of my visit.
I took the coffee and added milk from an engraved pitcher. “Awful,” I agreed. “I’d known Cassie only a few weeks. I can imagine your shock when you heard.”
“I knew her well. She worked here about a year.”
“Doing what?” I asked.
Elsa settled down in a high-backed chair across from me. “The development office raises money for the university. We deal with alumni, parents, corporations, foundations—you name it. The professors on campus may get all the attention, but they couldn’t do their work without us.”
I heard a hint of defensiveness in her voice. Okay, so I’d discovered one fault line at the university. Probably at any university.
“I’m sure your work is well appreciated,” I said.
“Not always. But we all understand that a large school requires a large endowment.” She passed me a floral Wedgwood plate arranged with expensive chocolates and Godiva biscuits. I carefully picked out a Vosges truffle. Delicious. This must be the same routine Elsa used to pamper prospective donors. I understood how it worked. Much more upper-crust coddling and I might end up writing a check for a new library annex.
“How did Cassie do at her job?” I asked, taking another chocolate and popping it in my mouth. This one had a cherry-cream center. Yuck. Forget the library.
“Oh, I’d call Cassie first-rate. Really outstanding,” Elsa said. “Many of the young women who start here want to deal with the biggest donors immediately. They’re usually not experienced enough to warrant that. But Cassie had”—she paused—“a certain talent.”
“What kind of talent?” I asked. Unlikely that she tap-danced in front of donors or played them
Unless she wanted to become Miss America.
“Cassie had a very seductive way of talking to people. Gently wooing them. Men responded quickly to her.”
“Did she ever step over the line?”
Elsa smiled tightly. “We don’t have lines here. I assume the people I hire act appropriately.”
“No need for moral codes? Lectures to the young fund-raisers on avoiding temptation?”
Elsa took her linen napkin and dabbed an imaginary crumb from her mouth.
“Wealth always has its temptations. Our job is to direct the money where it does the most good.”
“And Cassie did good?”
“Very good. Or very well, I should say.”
“I gather she met her husband working here.”
Elsa nodded. “I knew he liked her right away. She had a number of private meetings with him and then brought in a big check. I hadn’t expected them to get engaged.” She paused, then hastily added, “But of course I was very happy for her.”
Something about her tone seemed off. She sounded as credible as a late-night infomercial for Trim-Fast diet pills. But I couldn’t quite figure out why Elsa wouldn’t want Cassie married to Roger.
“So she gained a husband and you lost a fund-raiser,” I said, taking a stab at one possibility.
Elsa shook her head. “Cassie asked to stay on part-time. She made it clear that Roger had to be her first priority, but she wanted to come in whenever he didn’t need her. We worked it out.”
Given the expression on her face, I gathered that Elsa didn’t usually subscribe to the idea of flextime or “family first,” but she hadn’t had a lot of options. It would be hard to fire a fund-raiser who has dinner parties with billionaires. If Cassie wanted to keep the job to have some identity apart from Roger, Elsa had to cave.
“How much did she work?” I asked.
“Not much.” Elsa took a large gulp of coffee, as if to wipe the sour taste from her mouth. “But Cassie had her connections. She always insisted it’s not the time, it’s the results.”
“Did Roger continue to make donations? His friends?”
“I won’t discuss that,” Elsa said brusquely.
She put down her coffee cup with a noisy clink, and the tension level in the room suddenly soared. An awkward silence followed.
“You have such a lovely office,” I said, hoping to get us back on neutral ground. I gestured to the oil painting on the wall. “Is the portrait a university founder? An early settler of California?”
Her shoulders relaxed just a bit. “Neither. He’s my great-great-great—well, I can’t remember how many greats—uncle from back East.”
Well, that made sense. Nothing Californian about this office, and any guy who’d traveled west in a wagon train probably wouldn’t be posing in knickers and a frilly shirt.
“So your roots are on the East Coast?” I asked.
“Connecticut,” she said, fingering the pearl circle pin on her blouse. “My family’s lived there for generations. I attended Connecticut College for my BA, then did graduate work at Columbia. I worked at both schools for many years.”
“What brought you here?”
“Oh, you know,” she said vaguely. She brought a hand up to her ear and adjusted her pearl-stud earring. “Life takes unexpected turns. We have moral responsibilities. I came about nine years ago.”
“I’m also a transplant,” I said, eager to find something we had in common. “I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and went to Ohio State. I came here on a whim after college with my best friend Molly and met my husband. Dan Fields.”
“Dan Fields, the plastic surgeon?” she asked. When I nodded, she seemed to perk up, then raised her coffee cup as if making a toast. “Well, what a pleasure. We gave Dr. Fields an award at our Humanitarian Dinner two years ago.”
“That was from this office?” I hadn’t made the connection. “I remember it well.”
“Who could forget? He filled three tables at the benefit, at twenty thousand dollars each, and the hospital took several full-page ads in the program. He brought in quite a tidy sum. I’m always pleased when we honor the right person.”
“Actually, I thought he got honored for providing free treatment to poor children with cleft palates,” I said, a tad tartly.
“Of course.” Two bright spots of color popped out on her cheeks as she realized her faux pas. “I mean, we certainly don’t give honors to people to get money from them. We give honors to…um, honor people.”
“Sure,” I said.
Silence, as the tension in the room built again. But now it was Elsa Franklin’s turn to do something about it.
“So how else can I help you with Cassie?” she asked, eager to talk about anything but Dan’s dinner.
“I need some leads,” I said. “Names of people who might have liked her—or disliked her. Donors she encountered. Problems she might have had. Any hints that could help us understand what happened.”
“You’re making inquiries on behalf of Roger, is that right?” she asked.
“More or less,” I said. I’d dropped Roger’s name when talking to the dean and didn’t need to explain more now.
Elsa Franklin nodded briskly. “Roger Crawford has always been a very generous contributor to the school. I’d hate to think any suspicion could rest on him.”
Sure. Not good to name a building after someone who could end up in jail.
“Who’d be on your list of suspects?” I asked.
“I hadn’t really thought about it.” She stood up abruptly and went over to her desk. Sitting down at her computer, she began typing, and after a couple of minutes I wondered if she’d forgotten that I was still there.
“One name that comes to mind is Billy Mann,” she said finally. “Cassie had been seeing a lot of him when she started working here. I let her know he wasn’t an appropriate companion.”
I looked up, surprised. “I thought you said you didn’t have moral codes or lines that couldn’t be crossed.”
“Meet him,” Elsa said. She hit a key on the computer, waited as a page spewed from her printer, then handed it to me. I glanced down and saw Billy Mann’s name, address, and phone number.
“Let me know if you find any line he wouldn’t cross,” she said.
ann’s Motorbikes was a graffiti-covered storefront on a grim stretch of La Cienega, south of downtown. I’d probably passed by here dozens of times, driving to the Los Angeles airport and trying to avoid the traffic on the 405 freeway. But just as the glitterati on both coasts referred to my home state of Ohio as “fly-over country,” this was drive-by country. You ignored it on the way to someplace else.
But now I paid attention.
I pulled up at the address Elsa had given me just as a broad-shouldered man with long hair, gold-stud earrings, and a tattoo on his muscular arm burst out of the shop.
“Help you, lady?” he asked, rubbing his index finger against the side of his nose.
“Um, yes,” I said, “I’m looking for Billy Mann.”
“Well, lucky you. You’re looking
Staring, more like it. He had the handsome, sexy appeal of Russell Crowe playing ultimate bad boy: worn black leather jacket, tight but tatty jeans, and scruffy beard. If Molly had been with me, she’d have cast him in something immediately.
“I’m Lacy Fields,” I said, extending my right hand. Instead of shaking it, Billy grabbed my fingers and pulled them close to his face. Inspecting my pale-pink nail polish, now slightly chipped, he gave a loud snort.
“I skipped my manicure this week,” I said, apologetically. “I’ve been busy.”
He snorted again. Could he possibly be au courant enough to scoff because I liked natural shades instead of Chanel black satin? Really, that fad was going to be replaced faster than Justin Timberlake’s girlfriends.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “I run a bike store. You’re not a biker.” He ran his thumb across my fingers. “Soft skin. Long nails. No calluses anywhere.” He dropped my hand and took a step back. “You a plainclothes cop?”
“Not a cop,” I said. For his information, these weren’t exactly plain clothes, either. My simple silk skirt happened to be Escada, and the ruffled blouse came from the first collection of a talented young designer with her own section at Fred Segal.