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Authors: Diana Killian

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BOOK: Dial Om for Murder
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Though she had to admit, it was easier to hold onto this mildly nostalgic sense of peace and harmony with her mother safely out of the country on an Egyptian cruise, and Andy, A.J.’s ex, in New York, where she never had to see him or deal with his troubling desire to remain friends.
 
 
A
few minutes outside of Blairstown she pulled off the main road and drove past white-fenced pastures until she came at last to the mansion Nicole Manning had purchased during the five-year run of the popular TV series
Family Business
.
A catering van was parked next to a florist’s minivan in the drive. Blue-jeaned minions carried elaborate arrangements of roses, eucalyptus, and delphiniums in large crystal vases up the steps of the three-storied white colonial. A.J. parked and got out of her Volvo, following the florists though the double doors of the mansion.
A young woman with short red hair and freckles pushed through the line of people, planting a six-inch, crimson wedge-shaped heel into A.J.’s foot in her haste to exit.
“Ouch!” said A.J., staggering and bumping into the person next to her.
“Well, excuuuse
you
,” said one of the florists who had narrowly missed dropping her plumy arrangement.
The red-haired young woman’s eyes met A.J.’s briefly, and A.J. was startled to read something like terror in the wide blue gaze. The next moment the woman was out the door and down the steps, sprinting across the gravel toward the back of the house.
“Well!” said the florist, meeting A.J.’s eyes and then glaring after the fleeing woman. “How rude!”
A.J. shrugged. A few minutes of Nicole’s company tended to have the same effect on her.
“Right this way!” chirped Bryn Tierney, Nicole’s PA. “Only forty-five minutes to show time!” She was a slim, efficient young woman with very long blonde hair, which she habitually tied back in a French braid. Bryn beckoned the florists toward the dining room. Catching sight of A.J., who held up the gold Nokia phone like a cop flashing a badge, she said, “Oh, thank goodness! Nikki is going crazy. Just go on through to her office.”
A.J. was still trying to equate the idea of Nicole with “office” as Bryn pointed to the left. A.J. nodded, peeling off from the floral contingent and following what appeared to be a genuine antique Axminster carpet down the long hallway to the door that stood partially open.
She knocked on the door, but there was no answer. From inside the room, pop music played loudly, showcasing the talents and tonsils of some female artist. A.J. tried to think who. Lately, she felt a little removed from what was happening in the rest of the world, and she wasn’t entirely sure that was a good thing. Who
was
that singing? Britney Spears? Beyoncé? No. Shakira.
Relieved that her pop culture skills were still relatively sharp, A.J. knocked louder.
Shakira continued to belt out “Hips Don’t Lie” at the top of her lungs.
Pushing wide the door, A.J. called, “Nicole? I have your phone.”
At first glance she thought the room was empty. No one sat at the fragile, decorative-looking desk, although A.J. noted that the receiver of the white and gold princess phone was lying off its hook as though someone had stepped away in the middle of a call.
That must explain the busy signal.
But even as the thought registered, chill recognition prickled down her spine. There was something . . . not right . . .
“Hello?” she called, raising her voice to be heard over the music.
Gigantic photographic images of Nicole in various film roles beamed and twinkled from the walls of what was otherwise an elegant room. A.J. had a quick impression of traditional yellow and white striped wallpaper, a bookshelf which seemed to be filled with books matched for size and color, and perfectly coordinated furnishings that were either genuine Empire antiques or very expensive reproductions.
A.J. walked into the room. “Nicole?”
She stopped. A tall window looked out over the flowering garden. Sunshine poured into the room and sparkled off what A.J. at first took to be shards of smashed glass on the parquet floor. Then she made out what appeared to be the crystal head of an animal of some kind. A bear or a monkey—no, a koala. The crystal koala head sat in a puddle of water—was, in fact, melting into a puddle. Ice. An ice sculpture.
A.J. was still trying to make sense of this when her gaze sharpened, picking out two motionless feet in blue high heels extending from behind the long primrose-colored sofa. Something about the graceless slant of those limbs alerted A.J.
She rushed forward even as, belatedly, her brain began to connect the dots: the deafening music, the phone off the hook, the broken ice sculpture . . .
Eyes half-open, Nicole lay sprawled behind the sofa, a mess of blue silk and water and blood. Her upswept blonde hair was matted with dark stickiness. She was utterly still. A.J. had never seen anything as still and silent as Nicole Manning crumpled on the floor, and she stopped herself from kneeling beside the fallen woman. Nicole’s gray waxy pallor and the dreadful, ominous lack of movement told her it was already too late. Had been too late for some little while.
She took a step back, sucking in a breath as she narrowly avoided the carved ice body of the broken koala bear—tinged pink. For a moment reality shuddered, and A.J. wondered if she was going to do something totally uncharacteristic like . . . faint.
Someone spoke behind her—voice raised to be heard over the pounding music.
“Nicole, the caterers want to know . . .” Bryn Tierney’s voice died. “What’s going on?” she asked, approaching A.J. at the edge of the blue oriental carpet. “What’s wrong?”
A.J.’s lips parted but there was no need to try and find a gentle way of breaking the news. Reaching her side, Bryn stared down at Nicole’s body. She turned to A.J., eyes cartoon-sized. Her mouth worked, and she began to scream. . . .
Three
“Okay,
let’s just run over your statement.”
Emergency vehicles and police cars crowded the drive—along with a couple of news vans. Crime scene specialists moved across the grass talking and nodding. For these people it was . . . business as usual. A.J. tore her gaze away from the window that looked onto Nicole Manning’s front lawn and met Detective Jake Oberlin’s eyes.
“I’m not sure what more I can add,” she said. What she wanted to say was
Not again! How about a little sensitivity here? Do you have any idea how horrible it is to stumble on a murder scene?
But of course she didn’t say that—and, besides, he
did
know.
Tall, dark, and official, Detective Oberlin had broad shoulders, piercing green eyes, and zero sense of humor when it came to his job. Today his job was Nicole Manning’s murder. Still, as his eyes met A.J.’s, there was something almost sympathetic in his gaze, as though he understood exactly the sick mix of shock and horror she felt. Nonetheless, his voice was brisk, and it was clear to A.J. that her sort-of boyfriend, Detective Jake Oberlin, was not pleased to see her involved even peripherally in his homicide case. And she sympathized, because she wasn’t exactly thrilled herself.
“I want to make sure we haven’t missed anything,” he said, and A.J. sighed.
She had never felt more tired. The initial surge of adrenaline that had kept her moving after the ghastly discovery of Nicole’s body had gradually drained away, leaving her feeling more than a little shaky. She had been at Nicole’s house for nearly three hours. First they had waited for emergency services and the police who had taken initial statements. Then they had waited for a homicide detective to show up—which had turned out to be Jake. Jake had taken a more complete statement, and now he was verifying every little detail with her. Which made sense, of course, but A.J. desperately wanted to go home, to leave this scene of violence and tragedy.
Jake stared down at the paper he held. His long, dark eyelashes threw shadow crescents on his tanned cheeks. The eyelashes were disarming because A.J. had never met a man more aggressively male than Jake.
He raised those strikingly green eyes to hers. “So you got a call from Nicole at exactly what time?”
“About one-thirty.”
Jake opened his mouth, and A.J. said, “I didn’t look at the clock, but I’m pretty sure it was close to one-thirty because I was thinking I’d have time to get through another two or three resumes before going home to change for the party.”
“Cutting it a little fine, weren’t you?” he remarked. “According to Manning’s PA, the party was supposed to start at three.”
Was he going to lecture
her
on social etiquette? He didn’t even
like
parties.
She retorted, “I think it was more of an open house. They were planning on a buffet rather than a sit down meal. And anyway, I planned on being there by three-twenty, which is well within the fashionably late no harm, no foul margin.”
“Right. So Manning calls and tells you she’s left a three-thousand-dollar cell phone in the bathroom, and can you bring it to her immediately because she’s expecting an important call from her producer?”
“Yes.”
“And the producer’s name is?”
“She didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”
He made a check mark on his notes. “You run upstairs, you find the cell phone right where Manning described, you run downstairs and try phoning Manning—”
Jake broke off as A.J. moved uncomfortably. “What?”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“See, this is why we go over the statements.
What
is probably nothing?”
A.J. really did not want to bring up her conversation—that was one word for it—with Barbie. It wasn’t as though Barbie had actually threatened Nicole. Saying someone was dead to you wasn’t the same as saying you were going to kill them. But Barbie and Nicole had had a contentious relationship, and, worse luck, that discussion had taken place on a crowded staircase in front of easily a dozen wit nesses. Important client or not, A.J. was going to have to mention Barbie’s name to the police.
She replied, “On my way downstairs I bumped into Barbie Siragusa.” The glint in Jake’s eyes gave her pause. “Barbie mentioned how unhappy she was that I had decided not to allow any filming of her reality show,
Barbie’s Dream Life
inside Sacred Balance Studio.”

Barbie’s Dream Life
?” Jake repeated slowly. His mouth twitched with a hint of grim amusement. “Do they have an episode where Barbie visits the Big Bopper in the dreamy new federal “supermax” facility in Florence, Colorado?”
“I’m not a regular viewer,” she admitted primly. It was only too easy to picture just such an episode. “Anyway, Barbie seemed to believe that my decision was influenced by Nicole.”
“Was it?”
“No. Not at all. I mean, it’s not a secret that Nicole was scornful of Barbie’s . . . um . . . work. But I didn’t want a film crew inside the studio because it would be disruptive. I can just imagine what Aunt Di would have thought of that idea. Anyway, I tried to explain to Barbie, but I don’t think she really believed me. . . .” A.J. trailed off as a sudden thought hit her.
Barbie had seemed to be part of the group leaving the neonatal Pilates session. Not one of her usual choices. Was that because Barbie had missed her regular Pilates class or could Mrs. Siragusa possibly be pregnant? Maybe A.J. needed to tune into
Barbie’s Dream Life
more often.
“And?” Jake inquired.
A.J. snapped back to the present. “And I invited her to come down to my office, but she declined and left the studio.” At about eighty miles per hour.
“What are you not telling me?” Jake said in a resigned tone that indicated he knew that no one ever told him everything.
A.J. made a face. “Well, before Barbie left she said that Nicole was dead to her.” Hurriedly, she added, “She didn’t say she was going to kill her.”
Jake considered this without comment. Then he returned to his notes. “Okay. Let’s talk about this woman you saw leaving the house when you arrived. The woman who bumped into you.”
“Shorter than me.” A.J., who was tall and lanky, gestured to her nose. “Petite. Spiky red hair, freckles. She was wearing a Kay Unger embroidered blouse, Billy Wildcat jeans, and red platform shoes with six and a half inch heels.”
Silence.
Jake said, “You can recall what she was wearing down to her six and a half inch heels but you didn’t notice her eye color?”
“Blue, I think.”
He nodded skeptically. “Had you ever seen her before?”
“Maybe.” A.J. added apologetically, “She did seem vaguely familiar, but I’m not sure I’ve actually met her. I couldn’t place her. Granted, I only saw her for an instant.”
Another nod. Another note.
Into A.J.’s mind popped the image of wide blue eyes in a pert, freckled face. Yes, she’d seen that look before . . . like on the face of someone destined to be an alien hors d’oeuvre—or serial killer victim number two.
BOOK: Dial Om for Murder
13.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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