Authors: Jaqueline Girdner
The Last Resort
by Jaqueline Girdner
Copyright © 1991 by
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
KATE JASPER MYSTERIES
by Jaqueline Girdner
Available from E-Reads
ADJUSTED TO DEATH
THE LAST RESORT
A STIFF CRITIQUE
DEATH HITS THE FAN
MURDER, MY DEER
SUZANNE WAS RUNNING the perimeter of the spa in the cool night air. Her long smooth legs were the metronome for her breathing. Step, breathe in. Step, breathe in deeper. Step, breathe out. Step, force the last breath out. She wasn’t going to be one of the pack in this year’s Bay to Breakers race. She was going to be a contender! She pumped her arms as if propelling invisible ski poles and lengthened her stride, gliding past early primroses and outdoor mud baths. In. In. Out. Out. Back straight under streaming blond hair. Shoulders down.
She rounded the curve toward the section of the spa under construction, her arms and legs a study in symmetry. This lousy spa, she thought. In. In. We could have gone to one of the first-rate resorts. Private hot tubs, room service, haute cuisine. Out. Out. No haute cuisine here. Raw vegetables, brown rice, carrot juice. In. In. She was thin, young and healthy. She didn’t need that garbage. Out. Out. And the rooms. Dark paisley wallpaper, decor by Charles Manson.
As she neared the rubble of the old solarium she saw a solitary figure at the entrance. Jesus Christ, one of the local inmates. In. In. A hand waved at her, beckoning. No way she was going to stop and talk. Out. Out.
Time to ramp up the speed, she decided, and then felt the sudden jerk around her neck. Her long body slammed to the ground. Scream! she told herself. But there was no air for a scream. Breathe! she commanded. No air. She clawed at the thing around her neck. No air.
No more air.
I HAD JUST ripped open the envelope when the telephone rang. I unfolded the enclosed document and read as I walked to the phone. Two days ago, on Monday, October 10th, a Final Judgment of Dissolution had been entered in the Marriage of Craig and Kate Jasper by the Clerk of the Superior Court of California, County of Marin. The attorney for Craig Jasper was listed as one Elias Rosen of Rosen, Chang and Ostrow.
Fourteen years of marriage finally ended. My feet stopped moving. I ignored the second ring of the telephone and stared at the words of the decree, trying to analyze my feelings.
I didn’t hate my ex-husband, Craig, anymore. Not that I wanted to be married to him. Never again. It was just impossible for me to hate him for very long. Even in his upwardly mobile incarnation, he was a warmly enthusiastic and funny man, incapable of intentional malice or cruelty.
But unintentional cruelty, that was another story. After years of our on-again, off-again, mismatched marriage, Craig had finally severed the bond and found a more suitable woman by the name of Suzanne Sorenson. She was an up-and-coming attorney with Rosen, Chang and Ostrow, as driven to success in her own field as Craig was in his thriving computer business. And she was beautiful. Model-thin, tall and elegant. Sultry Scandinavian features under flowing angel-blond hair. A far better match for Craig’s long, lean good looks than I.
I’m short, dark and A-line, myself. And, as far as my own gag-gift business goes, I define success as solvency. Plus enough salary to keep me in tofu burgers.
I probably would have hated Craig for a lot longer if I hadn’t found my own someone to love. But I had. A shy, homely and quietly intelligent someone—Wayne Caruso. And once I had found Wayne, Craig and I had unaccountably become good friends. Strictly platonic, but still closer to each other than we had been in all the years of our marriage. Much to Wayne’s muted unease and Suzanne’s shrill dismay.
The piercing insistence of the telephone’s fifth ring ended my abstraction. I sprinted the last two steps to my favorite naugahyde easy chair, plopped myself down and picked up the receiver. My cat, C.C., jumped into my lap just as I said “Hello.”
“Kate, is that you?” asked a familiar voice, tuned to an unfamiliar pitch of hysteria. It was my new friend and ex-husband, Craig. His voice was high and trembling. Had the end of our marriage upset him that much?
“Yeah, it’s me,” I answered. “Who did you expect? C.C.? Meow, meow?”
He didn’t respond to my invitation to lightness. He didn’t respond at all. The only sound that came over the phone line was his raspy breathing. C.C. flexed her paws and purred.
“Are you all right?” I asked impatiently. C.C. sank a claw into my thigh. I plucked it out. Then I heard what sounded like a muffled sob over the line. Good God! I had never heard Craig cry before. What was wrong with the man?
“Craig?” I prompted anxiously.
“It’s Suzanne,” he said. He drew a deep ragged breath. “She’s dead.”
My mind couldn’t assimilate it. “Your Suzanne?” I asked stupidly. C.C. raised her claw for another dig. I caught it midair.
“And they think I did it!” He wasn’t holding back now. His wail was a hurt child’s.
“Did what?” I asked in my calmest voice, while my stomach tightened with dread. “How did Suzanne die?”
“She was murdered.”
Three hours later I was sitting in a front aisle seat of a Southwest Air flight approaching San Diego, my head buzzing as loud as the turbo jets. San Diego had the closest airport to Spa Santé, where Craig and Suzanne were staying. Or, more accurately now, where Craig was staying. Suzanne was in the Lakeside County morgue. I was only able to get a few more details out of Craig by phone. That he had found Suzanne face down in a Spa Santé mud bath, for one. And that he would pick me up at the airport if I would fly to San Diego, for another. It was his final tearful “please” that snagged me.
I accepted what was to be my lunch from a smiling Hispanic stewardess. Tomato juice and salted nuts. At least it was vegetarian.
It hadn’t been easy to tell my sweetie, Wayne Caruso, that I was flying to San Diego for Craig’s sake. On a workday yet. I sipped at my tomato juice and sighed. Wayne. A homely man from the neck up, but beautiful from the neck down. Not to mention the inside out. He was a man who liked me, even loved me, exactly the way I was. A powerful aphrodisiac after years of not meeting Craig’s standards.
Wayne hadn’t even objected to my trip. Instead, he had expressed his concern quietly and offered to feed C.C. Whatever jealous torments he was going through, if any, he had kept them to himself.
“My name’s Krystal, what’s yours?” squeaked a voice to my left. I turned my head and saw a small freckled face with intent hazel eyes scrutinizing me.
“Kate,” I answered cautiously.
“I’m six. How old are you?”
“Thirty-nine.” Might as well be honest.
“Oh.” She considered for a moment, furrowing her freckled brow. Maybe she was trying to count that high. “Grandma’s older than you,” she said and tugged the tweed sleeve of a well-groomed woman who was busy reading on Krystal’s other side.
The woman gave me a brief unfocused smile, before sliding her eyes back to
Queen of the Damned
“I’m going to see my daddy and his girlfriend in San Diego,” Krystal continued. “Who are you going to see?”
“My ex…my friend,” I answered.
“Oh.” She considered again. “My daddy misses me. He wants me to live with him again. Does your friend want you to live with him again?” Her clear hazel eyes glommed onto mine knowingly.
“God, I hope not!” I replied.
My comment popped Grandma back out of her book. “Krystal, that’s enough! Buckle up. We’re almost there.”
It certainly was enough. Krystal’s question had opened a Pandora’s box of doubts in my mind. And tensed all my shoulder and back muscles in the process. As the plane began its descent, I thought enviously of C.C., probably digging her claws into Wayne’s well-muscled thigh at this very moment. What was I going to do down here? Comfort Craig? Find out what happened to Suzanne? Or get myself in a lot of trouble? But it was too late to turn back. The plane was bumping down the runway, and suddenly I was feeling airsick.
Craig was waiting for me in the crowd at the gate. His lean, handsome face no longer looked lean and handsome. It looked gaunt and aged under dark stubble. His large brown puppy-dog eyes were bleary, red and swollen. His broad shoulders were hunched inward. Splash on a little eau-de-vino and he wouldn’t have looked out of place sitting on the curb drinking Thunderbird out of a paper bag. A far cry from the man who might have modeled for the cover of
magazine the week before.
“She’s dead, Kate,” were the words he greeted me with. He held out a hand for my suitcase, ever courteous, even in his disheveled grief. Empathetic tears surged up unexpectedly behind my eyes.
“I know,” I replied inadequately. I gave his outstretched hand a platonic squeeze before letting him have my suitcase. Only the echo of six-year-old Krystal’s question kept me from wrapping my arms around him. No use encouraging him if he did harbor any illusions about marital reconciliation. The crowd surged around us as I stared at him, formulating questions that couldn’t wait any longer. Krystal waved at me as her grandma hustled her down the corridor.
“Tell me what happened,” I said finally.
Craig stared down at the airport floor. “She was murdered,” he said softly, as if he still didn’t believe it.
“How?” I asked firmly. “How was Suzanne murdered?”
Craig raised red eyes full of panic to mine.
“I…I found her, Kate. She was…” He dropped his eyes again. I could hear his breathing as he tried to calm himself.
“What happened to her?” I asked again, unable to keep the impatience out of my tone.
“I don’t know!” he yelped. Curious faces turned our way. Damn.
I patted Craig’s shoulder uneasily. What was it that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell me? “Are you all right?” I asked after a few moments.
“I’m fine,” he insisted in a voice two octaves too high. “Fine.” He brought his head back up, but his eyes weren’t seeing me. They were looking through me.
“Did you call the police when you found her?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly. “Fran called the police,” he murmured.
“Who’s Fran?” I asked.
“She’s the lady that runs the spa,” he answered quietly. “When I found Suzanne last night…” he began. He took a breath and continued, his voice a little stronger. “When I found her body I ran and pounded on the doors of the main building. Pretty soon the lights and the sirens came. Then everyone from the spa was out there milling around. And Chief Orlandi…” Craig’s face paled beneath its stubble.
“Who’s Chief Orlandi?” I asked.
“He’s the chief of the Delores Police Department.” Craig’s eyes focused on mine suddenly. “Kate, he thinks I did it.”
“He thinks you killed Suzanne?” I prodded.
“Yes.” Craig swallowed. His eyes went wild again. “He questioned me for hours! He had our room searched. They took my clothes for lab tests. They took my fingerprints. Orlandi told me I had to stay at the spa!”
“Did they just take your fingerprints?” I asked. “Didn’t they take anyone else’s?”
His eyes refocused. “No, I think they took everyone’s. They would have searched all the rooms too, but Terry McPhail—he’s one of the guests—asked the cops if they had a search warrant and started squawking about constitutional rights.”
“Are the police still at the spa?” I asked, wondering why they had allowed Craig to drive to the airport.
“No,” he said. Then he sighed. “At least they weren’t an hour ago. They left right before I drove out to pick you up. They’d been at the spa since I found Suzanne last night—actually it was this morning, just after midnight—asking questions, measuring things, searching.” Panic was seeping into his voice again. He picked up speed. “Chief Orlandi said he’d be back this afternoon. I didn’t like the way he stared at me when he said it.”