Authors: Janice Kaplan
We drove for a few minutes without a word. Finally, Grant said softly, “Cone of silence, Mom, okay? What I tell you doesn’t go any farther.”
“The night started out pretty typical,” Grant said. “Three of us being initiated. A bunch of guys tied us to a tree and we had to figure out how to get free.”
“How’d you do it?”
Grant shrugged. “They’d left a knife on the ground, just out of reach. I took off my shoe and kicked it over so it hit the handle at the right angle—and popped the knife up toward us.”
“Very clever,” I said.
“Delta ij’s a secret society for physicists,” Grant said. “Basic mechanics isn’t much of a stretch.”
“It’s a stretch for me. I’m not used to dealing with geniuses.”
Grant snorted. “Don’t be too impressed. After that, we did the usual stupid games. Beer pong. Flip-cup. Professor Bohr had told them I’m too young, so not to make me drink. All cool.”
“Thank goodness for that.”
“Yeah, well this is where it gets strange,” Grant said. “Did you know there’s a whole system of tunnels under the campus?”
“I’ve heard stories.”
“They’re locked and off-limits, and you can get thrown out of school for being in them. But everyone does it.”
I let the proverbial “Everyone does it” pass. Not the moment to be judgmental.
“We went into the tunnels and crept around for a while with little flashlights,” Grant continued. “Then Professor Bohr showed up and led us to this dark corner that had an open coffin. The first guy had to lie in it and tell about his weirdest sexual experience. The next guy the same. Then my turn. I lay down in the coffin”—he shuddered—“which was pretty creepy, by the way. He said I had to talk about death. Answer five questions.”
I gripped the wheel. “What did he want to know?”
“Stuff about murder. Poisonings. Everything about Cassie Crawford and what you knew about her murder. Then he asked me if I thought Molly had killed her and she’d die for her sins.”
Now I shuddered. “Any of the other guys say anything?”
“After a while, he told them all to leave, and he gave me a mug to drink from. He said something like ‘Your cup of mead for Delta ij. Also known as Kirin tea.’”
Grant nodded, miserably. “Being in Delta ij’s a big deal. As far as hazing goes, it seemed pretty mild. I took a few gulps and Professor Bohr grabbed it back. Then he left. It was pitch-black in the tunnels, and I didn’t know how to get out.”
“You poor thing,” I said.
“I eventually found my way,” Grant said, embarrassed by my sympathy and trying to sound dismissive. “I even got back to my car. I probably shouldn’t have called you.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said simply. He didn’t have to explain himself. Fatigue. Fear. All good reasons not to drive.
Grant wrapped his arms around himself, as if he were suddenly cold. “If you want to know the truth,” he said finally, “I felt sick. I threw up.”
Involuntarily, I let the car swerve. My God, what had I gotten my son into?
“How do you feel now?” I asked, controlling my voice as best I could.
“I don’t know. Better. I’m sure it was just anxiety,” Grant said. He rocked back and forth in his seat. “Just anxiety,” he repeated. “Nothing in the tea. But I got scared. Jeez, Mom, I got to tell you, Professor Bohr freaks me out.”
When we got home, Grant slipped off to his room, and I plopped on my bed with a notepad and pencil. I made a list.
Cassie: Drinks tea given to her by ???. Dies of arsenic poisoning.
Grant: Drinks tea given to him by Hal Bohr. Gets sick.
Me: Sips tea from Andy Daniels. Gets scared. (And pisses off husband.)
So much for tea being healthy. I wouldn’t get near the stuff again unless the head of the FDA came back from Sri Lanka clutching pekoe leaves he’d picked himself. Back in
220, the famed physician Hua Tao said, “To drink
constantly makes one think better.” Sorry, pal. Looking at this list, I couldn’t find anything sweet about bitter tea.
I got a couple of hours’ rest, and when I woke up again Grant had slipped a note under my door saying that he felt fine and had gone off to play tennis. Nice that he could bounce back faster than an Andy Roddick serve. I paced for a while, and needing distraction, I headed to the greenhouse. I’d been ignoring my beautiful orchids, but now being in the sunny room with the brave little plants immediately made me feel calmer. I gave a light misting to the dainty flowers of a creamy white
that seemed to have stretched upward in the sunlight. A fragile-looking
on a long spindly stem had sprouted three broad-petaled pink flowers. I tenderly tied it to a support to keep it from sagging, but just looking at the beautiful blossoms made me smile. Like children, orchids turned out to be hardier than you expected.
My few rosebushes had bloomed full and fragrant. I’d just started repotting a Belle Amour rose plant when my ringing cell phone shattered my flower-induced tranquility. I pounced, worried that Grant might be in trouble again. But it was a woman’s voice.
“Mrs. Fields? This is Elsa Franklin.” My silence must have given me away, because she quickly added, “From the UCLA development office.”
Oh, right. Cassie’s onetime boss. Good thing I’d remembered, or I might have blurted that the only contribution I’d be making today was to a stress headache.
“Yes, of course. How are you?” I asked, unwittingly matching her patrician East Coast intonation.
Her manners must have curdled in the LA heat, because she immediately jumped to business. “I heard about Billy Mann’s murder. We need to talk. Can we get together tonight?”
I demurred, since I’d already planned a special family dinner for the evening—take-out chicken sate and beef with ginger sauce, served on the handmade straw mats I’d picked up at the Vietnamese design store on 3rd Street. Unless it rained, we’d eat on the deck, under the silk-and-bamboo lotus-shaped lanterns imported from a small shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Once Americans bombed there; now we bought there.
“How about tomorrow?” I suggested.
“I’m leaving for Boston, and it can’t wait,” she said firmly. “There’s a movie premiere at the Village Theater tonight at six
I’ve invited a lot of donors, so I have to be there. Walk down the red carpet, and then we can sneak off during the film.”
“Fine,” I said resignedly. Maybe I could get home in time for sweet rice-cake dessert.
“Black tie, of course,” she added, hanging up.
I clicked the phone shut. Black tie? I had to put on an evening gown to talk about Billy Mann? Maybe the yellow Nina Ricci.
Instead, I left the house in a pale green chiffon Valentino cocktail dress that was older than Ashley. Given how often I’d worn it, I figured the gown amortized per wearing better than a Gap T-shirt.
Down the street in front of the movie theater, a long row of limousines snaked slowly, dropping off actors, studio execs, and first-night hangers-on. The rest of the street had been cordoned off with red ropes, so I parked a few blocks away, probably the only person willing to arrive on foot. Klieg lights flared and the usual array of photographers lined the red carpet, but given that movies opened in LA as often as Starbucks stores, the excitement level was minimal. Still, I liked this theater, a 1930s Spanish-modern treasure that had been well restored over the years. The high tower and sweeping spire suggested a cathedral. And why not? On premiere nights, everyone came and prayed to the box-office gods.
I walked along Broxton Street, the thin straps on my Versace sandals cutting into my toes and the high heels threatening to end in a turned ankle. Male designers should be forced to do two laps around a track in any shoe they plan to sell. Or to include health insurance riders in the box.
A young man with very short hair, a black shirt, and too-tight black pants stopped me at the edge of the red carpet. I gave my name and he studied the clipboard in front of him.
“You’re not here,” he said officiously.
“Actually, I am here,” I said. “I’m standing right in front of you.”
“You’re not on the list.”
“Is that the A list or the B list? Sometimes I’m only on the C list.”
list,” he said, missing the joke. “I can’t let you through.”
I shrugged. “No problem, I’ll leave.” I hadn’t wanted to come, anyway. “Just please tell Elsa Franklin that I looked for her.”
A clipboard-carrying colleague standing nearby overheard our exchange and quickly came over. She was about the same age as the first guy, but lacked the chip on her shoulder. “If Elsa Franklin invited her, she’s probably a big donor,” she whispered.
The young man clutched his list. “Money doesn’t impress me,” he said imperiously.
“In this town, that puts you on a list of one,” I quipped.
His colleague laughed and tossed back her thick, long hair. “Great dress,” she said smiling at me. “Whose is it?”
“Mine. Designed by Valentino.”
She laughed and waved me ahead. “Valentino is a good enough admission ticket for me. Enjoy the show.”
I walked quickly down the red carpet, darting by the photographers who had their lenses focused on Jessica Alba, decked out in a low-cut red gown that clung to her flawless body. A handsome stud with broad shoulders and sexy stubble kept his arm draped around her until one of the photographers shouted, “Hey, can we get Jessica alone?” He stepped back, abashed. I wanted to tell him not to feel bad. At least he’d been on the list.
I spotted Elsa standing ramrod straight near the entrance to the theater. Her long black-velvet skirt and high-necked blouse seemed more appropriate for a Connecticut Christmas than for a hot night in Hollywood. Several well-dressed couples had stopped to say hello to her, and, busy being gracious, she didn’t notice me. As the crowd thinned, I gave a little wave, and Elsa quickly excused herself from the people around her and came over.
“Give me a few minutes and we’ll go in together,” she said in a conspiratorial tone.
I found a shady spot and watched Elsa curiously. Her calm, slightly above-it-all demeanor probably served her well as a fund-raiser, but when it came down to it, she might as well be a used-car salesman. Sure she had a worthy cause, but she measured her success by how much money people coughed up.
“I think my flock has been well-tended,” she said, coming over to me as the last stragglers entered the theater.
“Tell me your connection here,” I said.
“I do these events all the time,” she said. “Movie premieres, backstage passes, boxes at Lakers games—just little bonuses for our best donors.”
“As if they couldn’t afford the tickets themselves,” I said.
“It’s not about money, it’s about access. I arrange for Jessica Alba to come over, say hello, and pose for a couple of pictures. My hedge-fund director gets to brag to his buddies the next day that she seemed hot for him. The next donation is even easier to get.”
“Celebrity sells,” I agreed. I remembered Molly explaining why Roger wanted to invest in movies. Glamour greased the money wheels.
Elsa and I stepped inside the heavy doors of the theater, greeted by the welcome rush of cool air. Everyone else had taken their seats and the lobby stood virtually empty. I paused to look at the famous mural of the California gold rush stretching across the lobby wall. Probably more interesting than whatever was showing on the main screen.
“I can be quick,” Elsa said, talking softly. “I wanted to share what happened after you visited me last time. I realized I should clear out Cassie’s office and go through her files.”
“Hadn’t the police done that?” I asked, surprised.
“No. The police never came by or made any requests,” she said.
Did the cops not know Cassie had worked for Elsa? I shouldn’t be surprised. Unlike the handsome hunks on TV crime shows, real-life detectives in the LAPD got too busy to follow every lead. If they had a suspect in Molly, why waste a lot of time looking elsewhere?
“So what did you find in Cassie’s files?” I asked.
“Mostly professional reports and memos about projects she had planned. But I came across an interesting note crumpled at the bottom of a drawer.”
Elsa opened her small evening bag and took out a piece of paper folded into quarters.
“I called you because I needed someone else’s opinion on what it means,” she said, smoothing it out and handing it to me.
“Should I read it now?”
I took a step forward, into slightly brighter light.
Don’t tell me how good life is. Mine sucks and your going to make it better. You owe me, dont forget. Owe me big. Pay up or that perfect life will be over. Is this a threat? Yeah, baby. But I’ll get what I deserve from you, one way or another. Where there’s a will theres a way.
A wet kiss from Billy
I read it through twice, and then a third time. Apart from the spelling mistakes, nothing jumped out at me except the obvious: Billy Mann threatening Cassie Crawford.
“Notice the date,” Elsa said, pointing her finger at the bottom of the page. “Two weeks before she died.”
“Any idea what he means when he says she owed him?”
“No, but he obviously wanted money. And from the first, he struck me as the ruthless, stop-at-nothing kind.”