Authors: Carolyn Haines
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery Fiction, #Women private investigators, #Hollywood (Los Angeles; Calif.), #Delaney; Sarah Booth (Fictitious Character), #Costa Rica, #Motion picture industry
Halfway up the stairs I caught sight of the swish of a red dress hem. It was a flicker of movement, the wisp of material at the corner of my eye. I thought of the red dress and the front door from the previous night--I'd seen it. I wasn't dreaming.
Here it was again, just ahead of me, tantalizing with the possibility of resolving at least one of the mysteries that seemed to populate the movie set.
I doubled my stride and took the stairs two at a time. As I got to the top, I looked down the hallway to the left. A dark-haired figure, slender and indistinct, disappeared at the end of the hall.
The ballroom was to the right, but I turned left, to follow the figure. I meant to find who it was taunting me with these visits set up to make me afraid. What they didn't realize was that I lived with a real-life ghost. Jitty had taught me a few things about the Great Beyond. If this apparition was a ghost, it couldn't hurt me, unless I let it scare me to death.
I ran down the hallway and stopped at a closed door. I rattled the knob. Locked. I moved back toward the ballroom, checking every door along the way. All were locked. Which proved nothing except that the person pretending to be a ghost had sense enough to lock a door behind herself.
"Sarah Booth, are you okay?"
Dallas had come out of the costume room into the hallway. She looked at me with concern as I rattled another door.
"I saw someone down here. What's in those rooms?"
She shook her head. "Federico said something about his wife's possessions. Her clothes, things like that. I guess he couldn't bear to part with them or kept them for Estelle. He said the doors were locked and he didn't want anyone in there."
"So only a family member would have a key to those rooms?" Damn Estelle. She was putting all of her time and energy into trying to run me off. Why me? Why not focus all of this on Jovan, Federico's girlfriend? I was merely an actor trying to make some money.
She shrugged, drawing me into the ballroom where screens had been put up for privacy. "Try this dress on, Sarah Booth. The fabric is perfect to give a soft reflection of the night lights. Federico loves it. He says it's you."
I looked at the dress she held up, fitted at the waist with a full skirt and a plunging halter top that made it totally backless. The fabric was brown, like molten chocolate. "This is incredible."
"Try it on." She held it out to me and I slipped behind a screen and let it glide down my body. Perfection. Dallas could look at a skirt or blouse or slacks and instantly know how they'd fit me.
I came out to show her. She was all smiles until her face fell into a frown.
"What's wrong?" I looked down at the dress. As far as I could tell it was perfect.
"What happened to your arm?" She looked across the room. "Sally, can you come over here. We'll need some makeup to cover these marks."
I looked into the mirror she indicated and saw the deep bluish-purple bruises just above my left elbow where Estelle
had grabbed me. She wasn't a ghost. She was flesh and bones and dangerous.
"Who did that?" Dallas asked.
I shook my head. I wasn't about to say Federico's daughter. He had his hands full with her already.
"This place gives me the creeps." Dallas was suddenly unhappy. When Sally came up and began mumbling over the bruises, Dallas flopped onto a stool. "I've heard this house is haunted."
I tried not to react. Sally was brushing a concealing powder onto my arm.
"Posh!" Sally said. "Don't start that crap, Dallas."
"I didn't start it. Kyle, the cinematographer, told me this morning that someone had tampered with the cameras last night. He fixed them before shooting this morning. He said there was talk of seeing a ghost in the house."
They both looked at me. "Whose ghost?" I asked, playing it innocent.
"Most likely Carlita's ghost. There's talk that she didn't commit suicide." Dallas leaned forward. "I've heard rumors that she was murdered. That's why she haunts this place. She can't rest until the person who killed her pays."
Dusk had swallowed us in a warm mango glow by the time we finished filming for the day. While the end result of our labors might look glamorous, I was learning that shooting a movie was grueling work.
Anticipation of the arrival of Tinkie, Cece, and Millie had me to the point that I couldn't rest, though my body warned that I needed some shut-eye.
"Sarah Booth, why don't you try to relax?" Graf asked. "I'll make you something cool and delicious and you can rest until your friends get here. I'll even go to the airport and retrieve them."
I wondered where Graf kept his suit with the cape and the big "S" on the chest. "Will you really fetch them for me?"
"My pleasure. I owe them a lot. They helped me when I was in Zinnia."
If I had matured in the months that Graf and I were apart, he'd had a major growth spurt. This wasn't the same man I'd shared my bed with in New York. This was a conscious man, one who could put my needs ahead of his own.
"I'll make this up to you."
He shook his head. "This is nothing, Sarah Booth. I don't understand why I never got this until now. Maybe I've never
truly loved anyone before. Now it's all so clear and simple. I'll do everything in my power to make you happy."
I felt a lump in my throat. "I'm not sure I deserve this."
"It isn't up to you to decide. This is my choice." He kissed my forehead. "Now take a hot shower and crawl in bed. I'll make you a Fuzzy Navel, lots of fresh orange juice and vitamins and a dollop of vodka to ease the tension. Then I'll dash to the airport. I should be back by dinnertime. We can all go out."
I started to make a smart-ass remark, but instead I kissed him. A good, solid smack that took his breath away. And then I left him standing at the front door while I went upstairs to follow his prescription for rest.
Federico had generously made two rooms available for my buddies, and I checked to be sure they were ready before I stepped under the stinging spray of a hot shower. The water was marvelous, pounding on my shoulders and melting away the tightness. I was wrapped in plush towels and sitting at the dressing table when Graf brought the drink. He'd squeezed the oranges himself.
"Drink this and I'll be back as quickly as possible," he said.
"Yassa, boss man."
"If you want to play roles, I can think of more interesting ones," he whispered in my ear.
He left while the pink still tinted my cheeks.
I sipped the drink and wandered around the room, examining the portrait of Carlita Marquez. She'd been incredibly beautiful, if a bit too thin. The version of her death I'd heard was overdose of prescription medication--ruled accidental due to Federico's influence, no doubt.
It would be interesting to talk to Millie about this. She was like a research database when it came to movie stars and celebrities. She knew things that no one else could possibly remember.
Though I stretched out on the bed, I couldn't rest. I was anxious. The day had been hard, but the good news was that, despite the lost hours from Joey's accident Federico had shot more usable footage than he'd anticipated. Minimal retakes meant we were ahead of schedule, and he was thrilled at the way things were going.
After twenty minutes of twisting and turning, I gave up trying to rest, slipped into my favorite black jeans and some walking shoes, and decided to explore the Pacific beach.
The sun had set, but the sky was still warm with light as I made my way along the half mile down to the shore. Venus had risen in the western sky, and soon the moon would lift out of the Pacific. Waves crashed against the shore, and I noticed a huge outcropping of rock that created a magnificent display of foam and spray as the waves crashed over it.
I removed my shoes and walked along the warm sand playing tag with the surf like a child. This was exactly what I needed. The tight knot of muscles let go as I inhaled the salt breeze and remembered the joy of being young and unencumbered.
By the time I turned back to the mansion, I was renewed and eager to see my friends. I was also ravenous. I hurried, wanting to slip into something cooler than jeans before Graf arrived with Tink and the crew.
The path that led to the mansion approached from the west, the side of the house where my room was located. I could see my balcony as I climbed the winding path that clung to the incline in a series of wooden steps and steep dirt.
From this view, the house was lovely. Many of the rooms were illuminated, and it looked like a palace waiting for a party. The wind chimes showered the night with music.
As I approached, I froze. Someone was standing on my balcony.
I eased closer, moving through the palm fronds and the small trees that contained heavenly night blossoms. When I
had a clear view, I stopped. A slender, dark-haired woman gazed out toward the water. Something about her made me think that she had done this many times.
Night had fallen, and though the moon was full, I couldn't see clearly. Her features were indistinct. It could easily be Estelle. She was the same size and build, with the same flowing black hair. But I couldn't be certain.
I'd locked my door when I left, but that meant nothing in a house where the daughter would surely have keys to all the rooms.
"Hey!" I called out. "Hey, you!"
Either the figure didn't hear me or she ignored me. She continued to gaze out toward the ocean, as if she waited for some signal.
"Hey!" I yelled louder and jumped up and down, waving my arms. "What are you doing in my room?"
I was about to run the rest of the way to the house when I felt a firm grip on my arm. I turned to see one of the burly security guards eyeing me with suspicion.
"That woman is standing on the balcony outside my room." I pointed to the second floor, and we both looked.
The balcony was empty.
"Shall I help you into the house?" the guard asked in perfect English with a Spanish accent. I recognized him from the night before. He was the same man who'd been outside the front door when I'd seen the woman leave. He'd also claimed that the door hadn't opened.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Daniel Martinez," he said. "The owner of Promise Security Agency, at your service." He almost gave a bow.
"Did you see that woman on the balcony?"
He shook his head. "I didn't see anyone, but it's dark. Let me check your room."
We walked into the house together. When we came to my room, the door was locked. I opened it with my key. Daniel did a quick walk-through of the room and adjoining bath and found nothing.
"The light here can play tricks," he said. His smile revealed strong white teeth and his dark eyes danced. "The locals say this house is haunted, though. Perhaps you saw the ghost."
"The ghost of whom?"
He gave a one-shoulder shrug. "The owner, the mistress, the murdered maid. Aren't the stories all the same? A ghost must be unhappy to remain behind to haunt a place." His smile widened. "And it's almost always a woman, yes? Something to think about."
Great, a security guard with a misogynistic comedy routine. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Martinez."
"Call me Daniel. I hear you're going to be a huge star when you return to the States. Perhaps I can get your autograph later."
I must have looked like a gaffed fish because he laughed. "No one has ever asked for my autograph," I confessed.
"Maybe if you leave one for the ghost, she'll go away happy."
"Call me if you need anything, Ms. Delaney. I'm at your service."
When he left I locked the door and searched the room myself. There was no evidence that anything had been tampered with. Then again, ghosts didn't normally move papers. If the ghost of Carlita Marquez was haunting the mansion, what did she want and why was she trying to get it from me?
"Well, this place puts the Delta to shame!"
Tinkie's lilting Southern drawl echoed in the huge foyer of the mansion, and I ran down the stairs to smother her in a
hug. Right behind her were Millie and Cece, both wearing hats and huge sunglasses even though it was dark outside.
"Sarah Booth, dahling," Cece said, inching her sunglasses down her aristocratic nose. "You look underfed and over-fucked. How do I get that job description?"
She gave me air kisses on each cheek before yielding to Millie, who gave me a big warm hug.
"The paparazzi took our photographs! They were like vultures fighting over a dead possum in the highway. It was wonderful!" Millie stepped back from me and began to ooh and ahh over the house. "I can't believe I'm here."
"She's afraid the cafe will close while she's gone," Tinkie said, a laugh in her voice.
"Don't worry about that! Everyone in town will show up and eat for days trying to pry gossip out of you," Cece told Millie. "In fact, you should set a twenty-dollar minimum. Not one shred of gossip about Sarah Booth unless the tab is at least twenty bucks."
"Where's Graf?" They were embarrassing me, and I wanted to change the subject.