swear I wasn't trying to steal the espadrilles!”
I was sitting in a windowless cubbyhole in the bowels of the mall, across from my arresting officerâa stocky mall cop, with sweat stains the size of Staten Island under his arms.
“I was just trying to catch the killer,” I continued, pleading my case.
“The person who poisoned the Skinny Kitty.”
He shook his head, confused.
“You're looking for someone who killed a skinny cat?”
“No, no. Skinny Kitty is a cat food, and the guy who invented it got murdered. And now I'm trying to track down his killer.”
“You some sort of detective?” the mall cop asked, giving his armpits an energetic scratch.
“Part-time semiprofessional,” I nodded.
“Semiprofessional?” He shot me a skeptical look. “From what I've seen, I'd say barely professional.”
Ouch. That hurt.
At which point there was a timid knock on the door, and the shoe salesman I'd flagged down at Nordstrom poked his head in.
“You wanted to see me?” he asked the cop, whose name, according the tag on his shirt, was J. Schulte.
“You recognize this woman?” asked J. Schulte (or, as I liked to think of him, The Sweater).
“Yes, she was trying to find a pair of seven-and-a-half Nikes with a ketchup stain on the toe.”
The Sweater blinked, puzzled.
“Nordstrom sells stained shoes?”
“No,” I piped up. “They were my shoes. I took them off to try on the espadrilles, and then I couldn't find them and when I finally did this lady who looked like Ernest Borgnine was trying them on, and I had to pretend I had toe fungus so she'd give them back to me, and then I saw Deedee, at least I thought it was Deedee, and I'm pretty certain she's the killer since her husband didn't die of a heart attack like she said, but food poisoning just like Dean, so naturally I ran after her, only it turned out not to be Deedee after all and I didn't realize I still had the espadrilles until you showed up and arrested me.”
I tend to babble when I'm nervous.
But fortunately, my stream of chatter was cut off by the phone ringing.
The Sweater answered it and motioned me out of the room.
I spent the next few minutes sitting in a tiny waiting area, under the watchful eye of a female security officer who in a former life had no doubt been an NFL quarterback.
After what seemed like a small eternity, I was summoned back to the august presence of The Sweater.
“I tried to pass on your story as best I could to the security executive at Nordstrom,” he said. “You'll be happy to know they're not pressing charges.”
Thank heavens for those wonderful people at that fabulous store!
“In fact,” he said, “they feel so bad that you've had such a stressful experience, they want you to have this.”
With that, he handed me a business card.
How nice. Feeling guilty for having me falsely arrested, I bet they were offering me the services of a personal shopper!
But then I looked down at the card, which read:
DR. ALICE RUDNICK
“They suggest you seek counseling ASAP,” The Sweater said. “Preferably with meds. I personally would recommend heavy doses.”
Well! Of all the nerve! Implying that I was a raving loony.
I was so angry, I stomped right out of the security offices straight to my Corolla, fuming all the way.
Okay, so I stopped off for a Mrs. Fields cookie.
And the espadrilles.
And a flirty sundress.
Oh, hell. I was as bad as Kandi.
* * *
I don't know what possessed me to go on that crazy shopping spree.
I guess Dr. Alice Rudnick would say it was some sort of escape mechanism, that I shopped to forget the death threat I'd just received and the snake pit of danger my life had become.
But as I hauled my goodies back to my Corolla, whatever temporary respite I'd gotten from my shopping spree vanished, and a fresh wave of fear flooded over me.
I remembered all too well my Raid death threat, which lay like a burning ember in my pants pocket, and made a mental note to bring it to the cops the first thing in the morning.
Right then, though, all I wanted was to go home and soak in a nice relaxing tub, preferably with a glass of chardonnay at my side.
Back at my apartment, I found Prozac draped across my armchair.
“Oh, Pro!” I wailed, kicking off my Nikes. “I've had the most ghastly afternoon. I got a death threat from the killer, and I almost got arrested for shoplifting.”
Through slitted eyes, she lobbed me a world-weary look.
Yeah, right. Whatever. At least one of us can get arrested in this town.
I headed to the kitchen for a rendezvous with my good buddy Mr. Chardonnay and had just pulled the bottle from the fridge when I heard the unmistakable sound of Lance banging at my door.
“Jaine, it's me. Open up!”
Clutching my bottle of chardonnay, I hurried to the door and opened it to find Lance looking utterly dejected, Mamie at his side.
He staggered in, still in the same outfit he'd worn that morning, his blond curls limp, his polka dot tie askew.
Mamie, trotting in behind him, made a beeline for Prozac's tush, which she began sniffing amiably.
“Horrible news,” Lance groaned. “Mamie didn't get the part.”
“Oh, no!” I tsked in sympathy. “Want some chardonnay to ease the pain?”
“Thanks,” he said, grabbing the wine and glugging it straight from the bottle.
So much for my rendezvous with Mr. C. Why the heck hadn't I poured myself a glass before I answered the door?
“What a nightmare!” Lance said, plopping down on the sofa, cradling the wine in his lap.
“Mamie didn't fetch her newspaper on cue?”
“We didn't even get that far. Remember the trick I taught her to impress everybody? Picking up her toy HermÃ¨s bag and trotting around with it?”
“Vividly,” I nodded.
“Well, it turns out the ad agency producer is a dedicated fashionista. She had a bag just like Mamie's. Only hers was the twelve-thousand-dollar original. When I told Mamie to go get the HermÃ¨s purse, instead of picking up her prop bag like we'd rehearsed, she went straight for the producer's twelve-thousand-dollar jobbie, snatched it up in her jaws, and got dog spit all over it.”
“Oh, gaak, no!”
“The producer went ballistic, and Mamie got so discombobulated, she wound up taking a tinkle on the director's leg.” He paused to take another slug from my wine bottle. “Needless to say, she didn't get the gig.”
“I'm so sorry, Lance.”
“Not only that, Deedee dropped her as a client. Poor Mamie,” Lance said, shaking his head. “She's positively brokenhearted.”
I looked over at Mamie, still sniffing Prozac's rear.
Trust me, the only brokenhearted one in that duo was Lance.
“I suppose I've only got myself to blame. I've taught Mamie to be so discerning, it's no wonder she went for the real bag.”
At that moment, the discerning dog in question had abandoned Prozac's tush and was now industriously licking my big toe.
Prozac gazed down at her with pitying eyes.
Welcome to my world, fluffball.
“What a day from hell,” Lance moaned. “I can't possibly think of a more horrible afternoon.”
“I can. You could have gotten a death threat from a killer and almost been arrested for shoplifting.”
“You poor thing,” he said, swimming up from the depths of his own misery to wallow in mine. “Tell Uncle Lance all about it.”
And I did. I told him about losing my shoes and finding the death threat in my Nike and running after the ersatz killer with a pair of Nordstrom espadrilles and winding up in mall jail.
When I was through he shook his head, tsking.
“Espadrilles? Really? Jaine, honey. They're so last year.”
“Lance, will you please focus? I just got a death threat from a killer.”
“You know what you need, hon?” he said.
“A bottle of chardonnay without your drool all over it?”
“A fun night out. We both need one.”
Which is why an hour later we were sitting on the patio of the swellegant Coast CafÃ© on the beach in Santa Monica, sipping martinis and looking out over the glorious Pacific Ocean.
How wonderful it was to loll among the rich and pampered, watching the sun go down and sucking the pimentos out of our olives.
Soon our martinis were doing their job, and our cares of the day were fading away.
“I suppose it's all for the best,” Lance said, waxing philosophical. “I'm not sure Mamie and I are cut out to be stars, anyway. You know, life in a fishbowl, constantly fighting off the paparazzi. I'm definitely the kind of guy who needs his privacyâOops. Hold on a sec while I take a selfie of me and my martini to post on Instagram.”
We ordered the cheapest thing on the menu for dinnerâhot dogs with fries.
I proceeded to swan dive into mine with gusto, while Lance flirted shamelessly with our gorgeous young waiter.
Lance was right. It was good to get out, especially on such a lovely night at the beach, the sun setting in a glorious ball of orange, the ocean breezes soft as velvet against my cheek. So what if my hair was now the consistency of a Brillo pad, and the carbs from my fries were frolicking gaily on my hips?
That ghastly death threat seemed like a distant memoryâDean's murder a million miles away.
I was sitting there, nestled in my bubble of contentment, when I saw a couple being seated at a secluded table in a corner next to a potted palm. Something about the woman's cap of shiny blond hair looked familiar. And then I realized it was Nikki, the food stylist. She reached across the table to hold hands with her date. This must be the boyfriend she mentioned, the guy she hooked up with after Dean dumped her, the one she was so in love with.
I glanced over to check him out and almost choked on a fry to see that it was Artie Lembeck, Dean's former business partnerâthe redhead in the baseball cap who'd brought champagne and cheese puffs to the funeral to celebrate Dean's passing. The guy who claimed Dean had cheated him out of his rightful fortune.
So Nikki was dating Dean's arch-rival.
I'd sort of written her off as a suspect, but now I wondered if Nikki was the killer, after all.
Had she blasted Dean's Skinny Kitty with Raid as payback for swindling her beloved?
Or had she merely phoned Artie and had him come over to do the job himself?
Suddenly I felt chilled.
And it wasn't from the cool ocean breezesâbut from the realization that I'd not escaped the murder. Not one bit. I was still very much in the thick of it.
For all I knew, at that very moment I was sitting just a potted palm away from the killer.
spent a good half hour on the phone the next morning tracking down the detective who'd come to question me after the murder, the barrel-chested guy with the scar on his cheek. His name turned out to be Ken Carbone, and he agreed to see me at 9:00 a.m. that morning.
After a diet breakfast (cinnamon raisin bagel with butter, no jam), I headed over to his precinct in Hollywood, where I gave my name to a cop at the front desk and was instructed to wait.
I then proceeded to cool my heels for what seemed like a small eternity, sharing a bench with a stunning man in high heels and short shorts who was there to report a stolen wig.
“My Joan Collins
model!” he moaned in dismay. “They snatched it right off my head. I tell you, it's just not safe to walk the streets anymore!” Then, with a sly wink, he added, “Right, hon?”
Of all the nerve! He thought I was a hooker!
“I'd lose that
T-shirt if I were you, doll. You're not gonna score any johns in that getup.”
Before I had a chance to defend my virtue, our tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte was interrupted by Detective Carbone, who came striding over in drill sergeant mode.
“Ms. Austen!” he barked. “Follow me!”
I leapt to my feet and hurried after him as he led the way to his desk in a large open bull pen of a room.
His desk was littered with piles of paper, but thanks to my keen powers of observation, I was able to zero in immediately on the most important item there: a box of goodies from Krispy Kreme.
One of themâa jelly doughnutâhad been removed from the box and sat on a napkin next to a mug of coffee.
I must admit that doughnut looked mighty tasty, dusted with sugar and oozing jam, the very jam I'd denied myself on my morning CRB.
Carbone plopped down on an unlucky swivel chair that squeaked in protest under his weight.
“What can I do for you?” he then asked, motioning me to take a seat across from him.
“For starters, you can offer me a doughnut.”
Of course I didn't say that. But you know I was thinking it.
And he certainly could have. He had a whole boxful. Surely, he could spare just one.
But putting all thoughts of doughnuts out of my mind, I turned to the business at hand.
“Someone left this in my shoe,” I said, handing him my Raid death threat, which I'd carefully wrapped in a Baggie.
“Someone left a note in your shoe?” he asked, puzzled.
“It's a long story,” I said, unwilling to relive the harrowing experience of yesterday's shoe-shopping expedition. “Just read the note, okay? I'm pretty sure it's from Dean's killer.”
He reached into his desk for a pair of tweezers, which he used to pull the paper from the Baggie. Then he quickly perused the doctored Raid ad.
“The way I see it,” I said, “that's a death threat.”
“Sure looks like it,” he agreed. “But why would the killer be threatening you?”
I was a tad reluctant to tell him I'd been investigating the case, especially since I was working without a PI license. The cops tend to get persnickety about stuff like that.
“I have no idea,” I said, all wide-eyed innocence. “All I know is I'm being threatened.”
“All right,” he said, nodding solemnly. “We'll have this paper checked out in the lab. If anything shows up, we'll be in touch.”
Thank heavens he was taking me seriously!
“In the meanwhile,” he added, “I'd advise you to refrain from accosting large women in caftans in the mall.”
Holy Moses. Busted. The mall cop must've checked out what I'd told him about Dean's murder and wasted no time ratting me out to the cops. Quel tattletale.
“Will do,” I said, blushing I don't know how many shades of red.
I got up, eager to make my exit.
“Just one more thing before you go,” Detective Carbone said.
Oh, foo. Now what?
“Care for a doughnut?” he asked.
How nice. The guy had manners, after all.
“I couldn't help but notice you've been staring at them since the minute you sat down.”
“Was I?” I replied coolly, more than a bit miffed at his zinger.
He held out the box, and I eyed a sugar-dusted jelly doughnut longingly.
“The jelly doughnuts are great,” he said, following my gaze.
But you'll be proud to know I didn't take any of his stupid doughnuts. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
I hung tough, and took an apple fritter instead.
* * *
Next stop, Artie Lembeck.
As Nikki's boyfriend, he certainly would have known about the Skinny Kitty shoot and could have easily zipped over to poison Dean's cat food.
Maybe that champagne at Dean's funeral had been a gift to himself for a murder well executed.
Back in my Corolla, I fished around in my purse till I dredged up the business card he'd given me at the funeral. Then I made my way over to the International Headquarters of Lembeck Enterprises, which turned out to be Artie's apartment in West Hollywood.
After parking in front of Artie's building, a shabby stucco affair with a row of dusty azaleas out front, I made my way up the front path, careful not to stumble over the deep cracks in the cement.
Pressing the button for “Lembeck” on a rusted intercom, I soon heard Artie's voice come on the line amid a blast of static.
“Who is it?”
“It's Jaine Austen. We sat next to each other at Dean Oliver's funeral.”
“I remember you! The cheese puff lady. So nice you could stop by. Come on up!”
What an enthusiastic welcome. I must have made quite an impression on him. Evidently, I'd been able to convey empathy for his plight as a victim of Dean's cheating ways while scarfing down my cheese puffs.
He buzzed me into the lobby, where I boarded a creaky elevator to his apartment on the second floor.
Artie was waiting for me at his front door, grinning broadly, clad in a white apron. With his wiry red curls spronging out in all directions, he had the slightly crazed look of a mad scientist.
For a minute, I wondered if he'd recognize me from the Coast CafÃ©, but apparently he'd had eyes only for Nikki last night. He gave no indication whatsoever that he'd seen me staring at him at the restaurant.
“Come in!” he said, ushering me into a tiny living room crammed with cartons. “Excuse the mess. I'm afraid my apartment doubles as a warehouse for my inventions. I'm so glad you decided to stop by and check them out.”
No wonder he seemed so happy I'd shown up. He thought I was there to buy something.
“It's a good thing you came when you did. I was just about to start brewing a fresh batch of Bilk, and once I get started, I can't break for anything.”
“Bilk?” I asked, puzzled.
“Beer, made from milk!” he said, beaming. “Let me show you.”
He led me into his galley kitchen, every square inch of which seemed to be taken up with pots, barrels, hoses, burlap bags of malt and hops, and gallons of milk.
“Bilk is the alcoholic beverage of the future!” Artie was gushing. “It's a fantastic source of calcium. The only beer that gives you a buzz while it builds strong bones!”
“How very interesting,” I said, forcing a smile.
“C'mon,” he said, leading me back out to the living room. “Let me show you my other inventions. All available to order in bulk at low, low wholesale prices.”
Oh, gaak! I'd just walked into an infomercial.
“Here's my latest,” he said, grabbing something from one of the cartons. “My motorized ice cream cone.” He held up a squat-bottomed plastic cone. “It's got a motor inside that spins the cup so you don't have to waste energy licking around the cone. Genius, huh?”
A plastic cone? Was he crazy? Half the fun of an ice cream cone is eating the cone when it's all soft and mushy with melted ice cream.
“Only nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents! Twelve ninety-nine if you buy two hundred or more.”
Twenty bucks for an ice cream cone? Over my dead fudge ripple.
“And here's my combination lipstick holder and dog whistle,” he said, holding up what looked like a tube of lipstick with a tiny whistle welded to it.
“Lipstick holder and
?” I asked.
“Dog whistle,” he said with a proud nod. “No woman should be without one. Say you're alone in the dark, walking to your car, and a strange man approaches. You whip out your lipstick. Your potential attacker thinks you're merely applying makeup. But then you blow the handy-dandy dog whistle, and every stray dog in the vicinity comes running to your rescue, instantly scaring off your would-be assailant.”
Clearly I'd stumbled into a Twilight Zone where bad ideas came to die.
“And look,” he said, whipping out yet another item from one of his goody cartons. “My two-way toothpaste! With a cap at both ends. No more squeezing the end of the toothpaste tube! Only two dollars and ninety-nine cents. One ninety-nine for orders of five hundred or more.”
Just what I needed. Five hundred tubes of two-way toothpaste.
“So what's it going to be?” he asked, rummaging around his coffee table for an order pad.
No way did I want to plunk down my hard earned cash for any of this nonsense, but I needed to stay on his good side.
“I'll take the motorized ice cream cone,” I said, hoping the high ticket item would earn me extra brownie points.
“Just one. But I'll be sure and tell all my friends about it.”
“Great!” he said, handing me a lime-green cone. “And what the heck? I'll throw in a lipstick holder dog whistle. I just happen to have a few thousand extra in my closet. Not one of my better sellers.”
No surprise there
, I thought as I shoved it into my pants pocket.
Reluctantly I handed him a twenty-dollar bill, which he snatched away with record-breaking speed.
Why did I get the feeling this was the first sale he'd made in many a moon?
“Well, thanks so much for stopping by,” he said, his hand on my back, propelling me toward the door. “I really should be getting started on my Bilk.”
I couldn't leave. Not yet. Not without questioning him.
“Now that I think of it,” I said, stalling for time, “I could use a tube of two-way toothpaste.”
“Dandy!” he said, springing back for his order pad.
As he started to write out the order, I asked, as casually as possible, “So was Dean involved in any of these inventions?”
Artie barked out a bitter laugh.
“Are you kidding? The only thing Dean ever invented was his rÃ©sumÃ©.”
“Everyone agrees he was a terrible guy,” I said. “But still, it's hard to believe someone hated him enough to kill him.”
“Clearly you didn't know him very well.”
“I was there when it happened. My cat was in the commercial. It was pretty horrible, watching him die like that.”
“Some people would've paid top dollar for front row seats.”
“I don't suppose you saw anyone sneaking into the studio kitchen that day, did you?”
He looked up from his order pad, suddenly on guard.
“What makes you think I was at the studio?”
Time for an itsy bitsy fib.
“Nikki told me you two were dating, and I thought maybe you dropped by to say hello.”
“I was nowhere near the studio. I was here in my apartment, brewing up a batch of Bilk.”
He looked me straight in the eye, and it seemed to me like he was telling the truth. Then again, I believed the Bloomie's saleslady who sold me a vat of cellulite vanishing cream, so what did I know?
“I'm surprised Nikki told you about our relationship. We tried to keep it a secret from Dean and Linda. We were afraid Nikki wouldn't get the job if Dean knew she was dating me.”
“Nikki and I got sort of close on the shoot, and I guess she figured she could trust me not to blab.”
If I told one more lie, I'd turn into Deedee.
But thank heavens, Artie seemed to buy my story.
“Yeah, we had to keep everything hush-hush. Even though he dumped Nikki, Dean was the kind of guy who didn't want anyone else to have her. What a selfish bastard,” he said, shaking his head in disgust. “Always cheating somebody. Not long before Dean died, I heard rumors that he and Linda signed a multimillion-dollar deal for some new cat toy Dean claimed to have invented.”
I remembered the toy Linda had given Prozac to play with on the shoot, the catnip yarn. I bet that was the toy they sold.
“Lord knows who he stole that idea from,” Artie was saying. “But I wouldn't be at all surprised if Dean had been planning to cheat Linda out of her half of the profits. Linda was a full-fledged partner in the business, you know. But that wouldn't have mattered to Dean. He'd rip off his own wife without a second thought. He was already cheating on her with the Pink Panther. Why not rob her blind in the business, too? That's how he operated. A born con man.”
His rant was cut off just then by his cell phone ringing.
He picked it up and smiled when he heard the voice at the other end of the line.
“Nikki, honey. Guess who's here? Your friend Jaine Austen. I didn't know you told her we were dating.... You didn't tell her . . . ?”
Oh, dear. My cue to skedaddle.
And with that, I grabbed my purchases and ranâfaster than a speeding motorized ice cream cone.