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Authors: Jerrilyn Farmer

Killer Wedding (9 page)

BOOK: Killer Wedding
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S
itting at a booth at Kate Mantellini's, the table in front of me was covered with the office-in-a-purse effluvia that normally got toted around just in case. Spread among the loose business cards and Mayfair Market receipts was my personal datebook, several pens, and my pager. I slapped through the clutter on the tabletop, palmed the card I'd been looking for, and began dialing the number on my cell phone.

“Hello,” I spoke into the phone, watching a perky waitress arrive with a large Diet Coke, and careful not to disturb my essentials, set it down. “You just saved a life,” I said to her,
sotto voce
, and then got back to business on the phone. “It's Madeline Bean at two-thirty. I'm afraid your mom's business files were trashed, along with about everything else in both offices on Melwood. Also, that police detective wants to talk to you. Just a warning.”

Wesley looked up at me from behind the huge Kate Mantellini's menu in which he'd been engrossed.

“Machine,” I explained, and then turned back to the phone and spoke quickly. “So you're going to have to track down Vivian's upcoming brides yourself. Try her answering service. Nervous brides tend to call their wedding consultants and leave frantic messages. Oh, by the way, Whisper Pettibone turned up. It's a long story, but, cut to the chase, they've taken him to Cedars. Ciao.”

“Nice message.” Wes watched me gulp down half a glass of soda.

In the catering and events-planning business, much of our work involves communication. From contacting the guy with the best rentable cotton-candy-making equipment to rescheduling the Cal Arts instructor who performs custom temporary tattoo art at bar mitzvahs, it was necessary for me to make a thousand calls. So leaving an effective message was a skill I'd had a zillion opportunities to perfect.

As I drained my glass, my other hand was busy punching in the number to the hospital, which I do with just one thumb, ladies and gentlemen! If my speed record was down a tad, it was just that I was having a little difficulty reading the correct numbers off the note I'd scribbled earlier on the back of someone's business card.

“Checking on Pettibone?” Wes asked, handing me a menu. Subtle. The man was hungry.

Of course, when you dial into a large institution like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, you don't actually get to talk to a human. Instead, there's a gauntlet of challenges awaiting you, requiring precise listening and number-selecting skills, which may or may not get you to where you need to go. I tried to listen, but found myself tempted by the enormous list of California chic, designer diner food on the menu. I don't know if it was my sudden interest in reading the details of Kate Mantellini's disturbingly perfect meatloaf, but soon, I was lost in an audio no man's land, where a surreal voice read off an unending list of extensions, none of which made a whit of sense to me. I touched the
OFF
button, annoyed.

“Ready?” The bright-eyed waitress had reappeared. I wondered if the wait staff at West Side restaurants have perfected the art of showing up at tables the moment they spy a cell phone being disconnected. Just one subtle finger movement and they swoop, before their window of opportunity evaporates.

“Shall I?” Wes asked, hopefully. I usually let Wesley
order for me at restaurants. One reason is I can take an excruciatingly long time to determine whatever it is I think would be the perfect thing to eat at that exact moment in the foodie universe. For another, Wes does a masterful job of selecting the best combinations of food.

As Wes quizzed the waitress on ingredients, I again picked up my phone, but this time I looked up Det. Chuck Honnett's cell phone in my tiny phone directory and dialed. By the time Wesley had satisfied his culinary pickiness with the perfect late lunch order, I was back off the phone.

“That was Honnett. Pettibone is okay. Hit hard on the head, they're saying. Unconscious for several hours. But he's awake now. Last night he was sent by Vivian to go pick up some documents at her home. I think that must have been the honeymoon plane tickets, actually,” I said, putting two and two together as I explained everything to Wes. “But when Whisper got to Vivian's, no one was home. He figured her husband must have decided to come and deliver them after all.”

“So when did Whisper get back to the wedding?”

“Apparently, never. He told the cops he made a quick stop at his office on Melwood before returning. That's when he was attacked. He thinks it was only one man, but he was jumped from behind and never saw much of anything.”

“He's lucky to be alive. It sure seems to leave him out of the running for who killed Vivian.”

“Hmm.” I looked around for Bright-Eyes. I had forgotten to ask for another Diet Coke. “I'm not sure I trust Whisper Pettibone,” I said, slowly. “Who's to say he's telling the truth? So far, it's only his word that he never made it back to the wedding. For that matter, who even says he was really mugged? Maybe he faked the break-in. Let me think. I was standing there in the landing this morning…”

“That would have been
before
you were a victim of an overzealous police action?” Wes almost never pan
icked, and preferred understatement to almost any other type of statement in the universe.

“Exactly,” I agreed, equitably. “I'm talking preassault, here. And I remember clearly, the doors showed no signs of damage. Those locks hadn't been jimmied, that's for sure. So I'm just saying…”

“Oh ho.” Wesley's eyes twinkled. “What kind of random burglar comes equipped with a full set of keys to the offices? So you're not buying Whisper's story. This is so you, Maddie.”

“What?”

“The person with the best alibi so far immediately gets your suspicions up. Interesting.”

I smiled. “I'm only pointing out that Whisper Pettibone has not yet proven he's in the clear. You know, he did have a pretty annoyed look on his face at the wedding last night. He was bugged that Vivian wanted to sell her business to me.”

“Uh huh,” Wes said, nodding. “Annoyed and unconscious. Deadly combo.”

The food arrived and we took a moment to get settled, me furiously sweeping all the receipts and pens and sunglasses into my shoulder bag, clearing the decks as it were, while our waitress set down steaming hot food beautifully presented on overlarge white plates before us. To top things off, she had, just for the heck of it, brought along a fresh glass of Diet Coke. Ah, that woman's tip had just enjoyed a mental merit increase.

“Anything else from Honnett?” Wes asked over a forkful of pasta primavera. “You two still on for tonight?”

“I think so. He's going to call me. He says we need to talk.”

“Talk.” Wes put down his fork. “Has this thing maybe made a subtle transition from a dinner date to interrogation?”

“That would be my guess.” I sipped my drink. “The press is already at Cedars. I'll bet the Pettibone thing is the lead story on the four o'clock news.”

Wes smiled. “That is, if they can't dig up some late-breaking medical news on the safety of silicone breast implants.”

True. There was always an implant story on the L.A. news. I was philosophical. “News is news. Whisper Pettibone is but one man. In this city, silicone news touches everyone.”

Wes raised one eyebrow.

“Except me,” I added, smiling. “Of course.”

“Well, Honnett owes you, Maddie. After his police goons jumped you, you could very easily sue the city.”

“Come on. I'm over it. And, if
every
innocent citizen who was assaulted by the LAPD sued…”

“Paul would love it! Seriously. It's his greatest fantasy to wreak havoc on the establishment.”

“Let's not give him any ideas, all right?” I was not inclined to take anyone to court. Paul considered this my one true flaw. I was antilitigious. And he lived for the thrill of out-tricking the enemy in court.

As I jiggled my straw, adjusting the ice cubes in the tall glass so I could get one last swig of Diet Coke, I remembered the business card I'd used to jot down the hospital number. I went searching through the mess in my leather bag and retrieved it.

“Hospital?” Wes was finishing his primavera, looking satisfied.

“No.” I turned over the card and read the name and address engraved on the front:

 

VERDUGO WOODLANDS COUNTRY CLUB
3000 Fairway Drive
Glendale, California 91207
Chef Jose Reynoso, Executive Chef

 

“It's from the guy I met last night who did those astonishing ice sculptures. He gave me this card.” I handed it to Wes.

“Jose Reynoso. Is that the ice sculptor?”

On my way to the loo, I moved around to Wesley's
side of the booth, standing over his shoulder.

“No. See, written in pencil in the corner? It's Albert Nbutu. This chef at Verdugo Woodlands Country Club knows how to get him. Say, would you mind calling Reynoso? Ask for a direct number or address where we can reach Albert Nbutu, okay?”

“Sure.”

When I returned a few minutes later, I was a hundred times more presentable. My unruly hair was freshly twisted into a large knot, the stray tendrils for the moment in captivity, and an application of lipstick renewed my feeling of having it all together. Wes, I noticed, had already paid the bill.

“It was my turn.”

“Yeah, catch me next time.” That is what Wesley Westcott always said. He was a dear, generous man, but I was going to have to be quicker on the draw if I expected to keep our friendship on an equitable basis.

Before I could protest, he continued. “Guess what? That number for Albert Nbutu was bogus.”

“What?” I thought back to the previous night. After walking right into him, I'd apologized and introduced myself. I'd asked for his card. He had pulled one from the back pocket of his jeans. His professional contact, he'd told me.

I was concerned. “You mean there was no Chef Reynoso at Verdugo Woodlands?”

“Oh, yes. He's a real character. Very nice, in fact. It's this Albert Nbutu person who seems not to exist. Chef Reynoso never heard of him or anyone who fit his description.”

“Odd.”

“Yes.”

“Disturbing, even.”

“Agreed. But, if I may ask, since we aren't planning any parties just now, what would you be needing with an ice sculptor anyway?”

I couldn't explain it. Something about the way Vivian's and Whisper's offices had been destroyed. Some
thing about the jagged rips across everything from the furniture to the computers to the dozens of dumped manila folders had made me suddenly very curious about the man I'd met briefly the night before.

And his chainsaw.

H
alfway across town, I changed my mind. I had an even better idea.

But perhaps I should tell you the first idea. As Wesley and I were awaiting delivery of our two separate vehicles from the Kate Mantellini valet parking attendants, Holly called, relaying an urgent message from Beryl Duncan.

Oh no, I'd said back to Holly, not her.

Beryl was waiting by the phone, apparently, for me to call her back. She was frantic. Her father was
a wreck
, she said.
Emotionally
. He couldn't take care of himself. He missed Vivian. Imagine that. I was quite sure a lot of this story was exaggeration, but the gist was that Ralph Duncan was so, well,
drugged to alleviate grief
, Beryl said, that he was incapable of taking care of the family pooch. He was out of control.

Beryl was out of control, if you asked me. Repressed grief, perhaps. I felt no hesitation at making such a snap diagnosis, as, like the rest of the country, I felt I had earned a psych degree watching
Oprah
, with a doctorate in
Sally Jessy Raphael
.

Infuriating as she was, I still thought, “poor Beryl.” I mean, trying to figure out if you love your parents more than you hate your parents is a full-time hangup for most of the people I know. And that wasn't even taking into account the emotional mess of having the hated/loved parent murdered directly after you last quarreled with
her. So I tended to give Beryl some extra slack.

She begged me to go straight to her father's house and pick up the poor dog, for pity's sake. She, herself, was much too stressed busting her hump on her big-time celebrity divorce case. And, she pointed out, since I wasn't really working at the moment…

Well, heck.

Wes was standing right there when I disconnected with the overwrought Beryl. And, true friend and dog fanatic that he is, he suggested the best solution for Beryl, dog, and me might simply be for Wesley to rescue the mutt and bring him back to Chez Wes for a brief vacation from whacked-out, drugged-up, for-all-we-knew-homicidal Ralph Duncan.

So, while Wesley was driving over to B.H. to pick up Esmeralda, I was headed home. Or so I thought. But on my way, somehow the old Jeep got off track. In fact, if I was not mistaken, I seemed to be getting onto Forest Lawn Drive just before the turnoff to my own neighborhood of Whitley Heights.

Forest Lawn Drive takes a winding, peaceful path past the world famous cemetery to the stars. But aside from its questionable status as one of Hollywood's more morbid sightseeing destinations, it lay directly on a route that would be taking me to Glendale, home of a huge shopping mall, a modest community college, and Verdugo Woodlands Country Club. What a coincidence.

A quick check of the Thomas Bros. guide, ten more minutes of steering east and north, and I was approaching the tree-studded hillside neighborhood that surrounded the club. I pulled up to the valet and stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine. A doorman in uniform hesitated for a fraction of a second and then turned to open the front door for me.

It was then I realized that I was not exactly attired for a day at the country club. I smoothed my khaki shorts, but they were still about six inches shy of golf course code.

“Don't bother,” I said. I gave him a cheerful smile.
“Can you point me to the service entrance?”

“Sure, miss,” he said, his hand releasing the open door, and pointing left. “That way down past two doorways. Turn into that little driveway and you'll see it on your right.”

I thanked him and moved on briskly, walking along the low, elegant clubhouse. It was an enormous, contemporary mission-style building of a very modern design. On my side was a long parking lot for club members and guests. On the far side I caught breathtaking glimpses of the lush green of a golf course. All was extremely quiet—the hush of privilege. Only wealthy birds were permitted to tweet. I counted doorways, turned up a service driveway, and tried the handle on the proper door.

Inside, the activity in the large industrial kitchen belied the serenity of the club's exterior. Four-fifteen on any afternoon, a banquet kitchen is usually jamming. After all, another night, another wedding. The show must go on.

I watched a group of young men doing prep work. They were speaking Spanish, which is not unusual for kitchen staff in Southern California, but I dismissed the idea that one of these men could be Chef Jose Reynoso. Instead, I looked around at other knots of white-coated staff, assessing. When I came to the back of a man's head, wearing a toque, I knew I'd spotted my quarry.

“Chef Reynoso?”

“Yes?” The executive chef turned and gave me a very large smile. All teeth. Well, all except the one on the top left. That one was gold.

“I hope I'm not disturbing you…”

“Not at all.” His smile never wavered. This was a gentleman suited to a job where he must keep five hundred or so picky country club members happy. Short and powerfully built, Chef Jose Reynoso had a thick thatch of black hair beneath his tall chef's hat, and I could see a line of fine sweat across his brow from working over hot stoves all day.

“I wonder if there is someplace more private where we could talk?”

“But of course, miss,” he said.

Just then, the ripping noise of a motorbike's engine whined loudly and close by. I spun around. A man in an adjacent room, wielding a chainsaw, stood over a solid block of ice.

It wasn't Nbutu.

“Too noisy here. Let's just go to my office. It's right this way.” Chef Jose led me to a tiny cubicle next to the kitchen. In order to dampen the noise of the racing chainsaw blade, he semiclosed his office door when I was seated, and picked up a white towel to wipe his brow.

On his wall were many certificates of merit, framed, that spoke of the chef's prowess in constructing life-sized gingerbread houses, for baking towering wedding cakes, and at winning institutional ice-sculpting contests. My, my. Fancy that.

I was quite certain Chef Jose knew a good deal more about my ice sculptor friend, Albert Nbutu, than he had been willing to admit over the phone to a stranger like Wesley. But why had he clammed up?

“My office is a terrible mess, isn't it?”

“Not at all,” I said, politely, sitting down on the only chair facing the small, cluttered desk.

“Well, miss, how can I help you?” Chef Jose beamed at me, gold tooth gleaming.

“My name is Madeline Bean. I wonder if you have heard of the International Society for Ice Artistry?”

“Why, no. Is it new?”

“Quite.”

Chef Jose's eyes glistened and I do believe he smiled a little brighter. “Well then, I must join. Of course. Would you be kind enough to tell me of the registration fee?”

“Oh, no. I'm not here to collect dues, Chef Jose. I know you must belong to several ice-sculpting organizations.” I looked quickly at the ashtray on his desk.
“The American Food Service, I know, holds wonderful competitions.”

“Yes, of course. We have been very fortunate, you know, to win this year's top trophy. Best in our division, of course. But also Best in Show.”

“Exactly, exactly,” I said. “I apologize for just dropping in unannounced. Actually, I am friends with one of your club members. She was raving to me about your wonderful work.”

“One of our members?”

“Yes. In fact, I was just over at her house.” I looked down at my shorts. “Gardening.”

“I see. What member is this?”

My eyes found a name on a work order on the chef's cluttered desk.

“Swanson.”

“Swanson?”

“Yes. Mrs. Don Swanson.”

“You are a friend of Mrs. Swanson?”

“You seem surprised,” I said, lightly.

“Why, no. Of course not, miss. Then you must be coming to Mrs. Swanson's ninetieth birthday party next weekend.”

“Of course! Anyway, Mrs. Swanson insisted I stop right by and interview you,” I said, pulling a small notebook from my bag, along with a pen. “You bringing home the ice-sculpting trophy to Glendale and all. Which is why we at the ISI…A, um, ISIA, we call ourselves, why we would be so grateful for just a moment of your time. For our journal. You must help us out, Chef. You really are the man of the hour.”

“Well, isn't this wonderful? I would love to oblige, but at the moment I'm preparing for a banquet. We have the annual club dinner honoring the president.”

“The president.” I looked at him, picking up my pen. “Of the United States?”

“Of Verdugo Woodlands Country Club.”

“I wouldn't need more than a few minutes. For instance, where did you first learn to cut the ice?”

“You mean ‘carve'?”

“Yes.” How could I get through an interview if I had no idea what the lingo was? Terrific.

“Oh, I began many years ago. I was working for a resort in Arizona then, and the executive chef liked me. He offered to send me to Hawaii for a seminar in ice sculpture so we could improve on our Sunday brunch displays.”

As he continued with his happy road to ice-sculpting fame, I took notice of the various framed awards and photos, hoping I might lift an appropriate catch-phrase or specific jargon that might keep me from blowing my own cover. He was just finishing up, talking about how he felt God had meant him to give back, and now he trained many young apprentices in the noble frozen art.

I was about to ask him about those he had trained, when my eye startled upon a framed photo among the clutter. It showed a team of four men in front of a mammoth ice sculpture of Gwyneth Paltrow. In drag.

“My, that's a marvelous work!” I said, when I realized he'd noticed me staring. “Was that an award winner? My readers would love to see a picture of one of your great pieces.”

“No, that one was not for competition,” he said, with a deprecating laugh. “No, just a private commission. That one was custom-ordered for the post-Oscars party for the movie
Shakespeare in Love
. Perhaps you've seen the movie?”

I nodded politely, but I couldn't take my eyes off of the photo on the desk. The man on the far right was Chef Jose Reynoso. The man next to him was Albert Nbutu.

“The work on…on Gwyneth's face is astonishing,” I said, lifting the photo for a closer look. The ice sculpture was in the background. In the foreground, all four men in the picture were shirtless. From the hand of each man hung a chainsaw. And all but Nbutu were smiling big cheesecake smiles.

“I'd love to use a few of these photos.” I waved
vaguely around the room. “They'd be perfect for my story. Might I borrow some to show my editor? I promise to return them as soon as possible in perfect condition.” I picked up another, to make it look good. It was an elaborate banquet display for the American Uvula Association.

“My, what a marvelous…” I studied the five-foot-high ice sculpture on the dessert table in the photo. “
…uvula
! So real, you can't believe it's ice!”

“We had the devil of a time hanging that down over the table,” Chef Jose said modestly.

“I'll get these right back to you,” I said.

“Well, I would love to do you a favor, Miss Bean, but I'm not sure…” Chef Jose was not accustomed to having to say no to a request. I knew the feeling. We caterers and party chefs are in the “yes, we can” business, and only feel good when everyone is happy. It's a curse.

“Thank you so much. And, of course, I'd love to send our photographer out to do a shoot of your work. Perhaps I could call you to set up a time?”

“That's great. Maybe we can work up some special sculptures for your magazine. I'll start thinking of subjects we could do.”

“Wonderful.” I stood up. “I'm afraid I've taken up too much of your time.”

As he walked me back into the main kitchen, I slipped the 8×10 of the uvula as well as the frozen Paltrow, frames and all, into my large shoulder bag. He did not object.

As the valet pulled my old Grand Wagoneer up to the curb outside the main entrance to the club, I took another look at my prize. Albert Nbutu's sleek, muscled torso stood out in dark contrast to the other men in the group. I wondered again why Reynoso had lied to Wes about knowing Nbutu. And then, in the bright sunlight, I caught a new detail I'd missed when scanning the photo inside. On Albert's right shoulder I could make out the faint markings of a tattoo. That's right. Now I remem
bered. When I had run into Albert in the dark hall, I had seen or more like sensed that tattoo. But now I was curious.

I realized the valet had been standing for some time beside the open door of my car. I passed him two bucks and hopped in. But before I pulled off, I took another careful look at the photo of Albert Nbutu's tattoo.

It looked like a design of some kind of faceted jewel—a diamond, perhaps. And there seemed to be a word inside the gem. It was impossible to be sure. After all, the dark lettering on ebony skin was a challenge. But as I stared I began picking out letters.

S-A-N-D…Slowly, I got the hang of the slanted script. It looked like the word was SANDMAN. No, there were too many letters. I scrunched my eyes and began again. SANDAWANA, or perhaps it was SANDAMAMA.

Sure. Fine. Excellent. Now what in the hell is SANDAMAMA?

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