Authors: Janice Kaplan
“Thanks, Molly.” I let my breath out again. “When do you want to meet?”
“Tonight,” she said. “Seven o’clock.”
“Great. Let’s meet in the lobby of Roger’s building. I’ll take you out to dinner afterward. A new Japanese restaurant opened with twenty kinds of eel on the menu.”
“While we’re eating slimy food, you can explain your slippery comment about where I was the night before Cassie died.”
Since she’d let it pass a few minutes ago, I thought she’d missed the mention. But Molly didn’t miss anything.
“So how did you know?” Molly called out to me, as soon as she came into the gleaming marble lobby of Roger’s building.
A spiffily uniformed doorman had pushed open the front door for her, a smartly dressed lobby attendant escorted her in, and a concierge behind a desk smiled politely. Molly ignored all of them, striding across the lobby, her high heels clacking.
“Enough staff here,” I said, getting up from the leather sling chair where I’d been waiting. “They should know what’s going on.”
“But they don’t,” Molly said. “Roger already complained to management about it. The garage elevator is unattended. No security cameras there.”
She had a point. The main elevator from the parking garage came only as far as the lobby. Most guests would heed the small sign that said A
and stop at the front desk. But what if they didn’t? A modern sculpture with a plunging waterfall at its center stood behind the freestanding concierge desk and kept the two high-speed elevators hidden from view. Anybody who wanted to slip upstairs undetected could do it easily. The security system had more holes than a rock star’s jeans.
“I’ve hardly ever been in the lobby,” I admitted as we stepped into the elevator now. “There’s a private penthouse lift from the garage that works with a pass card.” I held up mine to show her. “I assume that’s how you and Roger got in.”
“So I’ll ask again,” Molly said, not confirming anything. “How did you know?”
“A friend of Cassie’s saw you and Roger. She even identified your perfume. Annick Goutal Passion.”
Molly lifted a wrist to her nose and sniffed. “Is that a joke?”
“No. As good an ID as DNA in my book. Probably better than fingerprints. Roger and you were in the study, and eventually you’ll tell me why. More important, he must have had a key to get in. Even though he made a big fuss the next day that he didn’t.”
We stepped off the elevator, and as I put my own key in the door, Molly grabbed my arm. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked.
I heard the edge of fear in her voice.
“I don’t know. You suspect Roger. What if you’re right? He knows we’re coming here tonight. I’m suddenly scared.”
I hesitated, but then pushed the door open and patted her arm comfortingly. Whenever Jimmy got scared, we’d hum an old Simon and Garfunkel song together. It worked for him, and it usually made me feel braver, too. Now I tried it on Molly.
“‘Is there any danger?/No, no not really/Just lean on me,’”
I crooned softly.
She gave a small smile. “Okay, I’m leaning. What’s the plan?”
“Let’s play it safe,” I whispered. “You stay here by the front door. I’ll be quick. If anything happens, you can run out fast to get help.”
Molly nodded and I offered a thumbs-up sign. Then, walking with more confidence than I felt (
“So I’ll continue to continue to pretend/My life will never end…”
went the other Simon and Garfunkel tune in my head), I strode quickly into the study. I had only one place to focus: the bookshelf. Grabbing the library ladder, I rolled it to what seemed the right position. I had a strong visual image of where I’d been standing when Cassie scrambled up, and the angle of the ladder against the shelves. One advantage of being a decorator: Maybe I couldn’t always remember names lately, and the dates of friends’ birthdays blurred, but once I’d seen something, I never forgot it.
I climbed, just as Cassie had done, and got to the rung she’d reached. But I held on firmly, not wanting to repeat the end of the scene.
From where I stood, I could reach dozens of books. Where would Cassie have hidden something? I glanced at the titles. When I’d been in the midst of decorating for them, the Crawfords had sent over countless books, which I’d had an assistant arrange on the shelves. Most of them came from Roger—expensive, leather-bound volumes from a snotty English publisher, along with signed first editions of biography and philosophy books, purchased more for the show-off high price than for literary pleasure. But the section now in front of me seemed more Cassie’s style: hardcovers she had probably read in college and that had excited her to new ways of thinking. Virginia Woolf butted against Ayn Rand and James Joyce, and all seemed well-thumbed. So did the save-the-world texts from Rachel Carson and Jane Addams. As her friend Paige had pointed out, I’d been unfair to pigeonhole Cassie as just another girl who married well.
I gripped the ladder tightly and scanned the titles again, looking for a clue. Some classic mysteries from Dorothy Sayers caught my eye. I pulled down
and flipped through it. A few underlined passages grabbed my attention, but they seemed more the mark of an eager reader than a secret message. No papers fluttered out. I put the book back and took down
How ironic would that be? This time I found a handwritten note tucked into the front. I opened it, heart pounding.
Happy 20th Birthday, Cassie! I love you always.
I grimaced. Nice sentiment, but not the one I needed. I shoved the volume back into place. My plan suddenly seemed futile. Even assuming I’d put the ladder in exactly the right spot, I could spend all night flipping through the books within reach. If Cassie had just hidden a single page or two, I could easily miss it. Not knowing what I was looking for made this harder. Or maybe impossible.
My left hand slipped off the ladder, and I wiped my sweaty palm against my linen pants. Despite my efforts, my courage started draining, and I felt some of Molly’s anxiety seeping in.
I’ll continue to continue to pretend….
“Molly, is everything okay?” I called out.
I waited a beat but got no answer, and I realized she couldn’t hear me. The penthouse was too big and the walls too thick. Cassie and Roger had picked an unusually well-built building. Right now, I would have preferred cheap Sheetrock that let voices carry.
Stepping down a rung, I looked despairingly at the neatly lined-up books in front of me. None jutted from the shelf to show it had been recently read. Maybe I should give up and call it a night, have dinner with Molly and look elsewhere for clues. Hesitating, I gave the shelves one final scan—and an ordinary-looking book with a brown binding caught my eye. Something about the size and shape of the volume seemed familiar. Then I noticed the title—
Words of Love
—and laughed out loud. The perfect title for a book you didn’t want any man to open (or steal). I had the very same brown volume on my own shelf. Instead of pages, the fake binding had an empty center made for secret storage. Mine hid some of my best jewelry. (The fake Brillo box under the sink hid the rest.)
Certain that I’d found what I wanted, I grabbed the book and scuttled down the ladder. Safely on terra firma again, I opened the cover. Sure enough, the book was hollow. I lifted the velvet covering of an enclosed box and felt a wave of excitement as I pulled out a wad of papers.
I knew I should get back to Molly, but I couldn’t resist a quick peek.
First came a worn newspaper clipping from the front page of the UCLA student newspaper
The Daily Bruin
reporting on the death of a junior named Derek Howe. A blurry photo showed a group of grieving students that included Cassie. From the date, I figured it must have been Cassie’s freshman year at college. She had probably saved the page since then.
I quickly went on to the next item, a printout from a local newspaper in Connecticut. The story, from twelve years ago, detailed a house fire in a three-bedroom colonial that had killed a couple named Sandy and Jerry Baker. Their son, Nicholas, home from college on vacation, escaped unharmed. Neighbors expressed shock, and Sandy’s sister, who had lived across the street, promised to do whatever she could for the devastated young man. She pooh-poohed reports that Nicholas could have started the conflagration.
I hesitated, trying to figure out how the two stories could be related. Two tragedies at opposite ends of the country, several years apart. A young man named Nicholas Baker orphaned. Another one, Derek Howe, dead. None of the people overlapped. But both reports had been important enough for Cassie to hide away.
Puzzled, I went on to the next page. This one seemed simpler: a document from the UCLA development office, where Cassie had worked. It described a discussion she had underway with Randall Scott, a Silicon Valley millionaire, to endow a chair in theoretical physics. The straightforward report had been submitted a few weeks earlier to Elsa Franklin.
Finally, I came to a yellow-lined page covered in small handwriting I assumed to be Cassie’s. I couldn’t take the time to read it now while Molly stood worrying and waiting. But maybe Cassie’s notes explained how the other pieces fit together.
I tucked the pages into my Lulu Guinness pocketbook and raced out of the library. I’d grab Molly and we could head to the restaurant to discuss the papers that—possibly—had signed Cassie’s death warrant.
“Molly, I’m set!” I called exuberantly as I rushed into the foyer.
The room stood empty. The front door remained open, just as I’d left it. But Molly hadn’t stayed.
“Molly?” I called her name again, a little louder. No answer. I peered cautiously into the hallway. Nothing. She should have told me if she was leaving. I didn’t feel like playing games.
Suddenly, a piece of metal jammed hard into my spine. I screamed, but a man’s thickly callused hand clamped powerfully over my mouth.
“Shut up.” A low, gravelly voice resonated in my ear. “Don’t move or I’ll shoot.” I could feel my attacker’s hot breath at the back of my neck.
, I told myself.
I jerked back my head as hard as I could and tried to open my mouth enough to bite down on his flesh. But his viselike grip didn’t ease. I twisted, trying to get away.
“Cut it out.” He took the gun from my back and smacked the butt against my hip. Tears sprung to my eyes; I lifted my foot and stomped down, but my soft flats didn’t make a dent in his metal-toed oxfords. Furious now, I swung my hip hard into his groin.
“Oww,” he hollered. “Bitch!”
His gun clattered to the ground and I tried to take off. My legs churned, but like a character in an old Road Runner cartoon I didn’t get anywhere, because he grabbed my arm. Not taking any chances, he looped his leg around both of mine, knocking me over. He fell on top of me, his knee in my chest and both hands at my throat.
“What do you want?” I gasped.
“What you just stole.”
“I didn’t steal anything.”
“Give it to me, bitch.”
Now he pointed the gun at my head, holding the cold metal against my temple. I started to hyperventilate, my breath coming too fast. I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to get under control. Whatever those papers contained, I wouldn’t die for them. I had three children at home.
“In my Lulu Guinness,” I said in a small voice. “Just papers. I didn’t take anything you’d want.”
Some of his weight came off me, but the gun stayed in place. “What’s a frigging Lulu?” he asked. “That your lady friend?”
“My friend,” I gasped. “Where’s Molly? What’s happened to her?”
“I told you to shut up,” he said. “What’d you steal? Where’s the Lulu?”
He grabbed my black patent bag with one hand, unsnapped the clasp, and dumped the contents onto the floor, scattering keys, lipstick, Estée Lauder gold compact, wallet, cell phone, mini photo album, old receipts, pens, Advil, fabric swatches, a small notebook, and a spare pair of panty hose. My portable life.
“Papers,” he said, his hands at my throat again.
“In the zippered compartment,” I choked.
He found the papers, stuck them in his pocket, then picked up something from the scattered pile of items from my purse. With one swift move, he grabbed my arms and flipped me over so my face pressed painfully into the marble floor. He twisted my arms behind my back, then tied my arms and wrists so tightly I could hardly budge. It took me a moment to realize I’d been trussed with my own Donna Karan matte sheer neutrals panty hose.
“Get up,” he said, dragging me to my feet. “Walk.”
Putting one foot in front of the other seemed almost impossible. I staggered forward just a few steps and he yanked open the front hall closet.
“Molly!” I yelped.
She lay slouched on the closet floor, her Hermès scarf tied into her mouth as a gag and her arms held behind her by the rope belt she’d been wearing. An angry red lump swelled on her forehead. He shoved me into the closet with her, then wordlessly slammed the door. I heard the outside latch fall into place. Light seeped in from a crack, so at least we could see each other. Molly looked at me with wide, terrified eyes. I waited a beat before saying anything. Then, as I’d hoped, I heard the heavy front door of the penthouse open and close.
“He’s gone,” I whispered to Molly. “We’ll be all right.”
She moaned and rolled her head. I didn’t want her fainting or passing out from sheer terror.
Continue to continue to pretend
, Simon and Garfunkel advised. Even fake courage could be contagious.
“Look at us,” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “You’re always so chic. You get bound with Hermès and I only get panty hose.”