I had to give myself credit. I certainly knew how to choose a nice restaurant. The silver was polished, the china was gleaming, and the lighting was muted. By the time I had followed the maître d' across the room, I'd realized I owed Irene big-time for loaning me the little Stella McCartney number. It hugged me in flattering places and was absolutely killer with the Jimmy Choos she'd had that were thankfully almost in my size. Okay, they pinched my toes a bit, but they were so worth it. My hair was smooth and glossy. My jewelry was simple but looked like it was worth as much as the Porsche that had brought me there. And my heart was pounding out an anxiety-induced staccato. Acting was one course I'd never crashed.
I spotted Dr. Watson waiting at the table. He stood when I approached, and I couldn't be sure, but I think I saw frank admiration in his eyes. At least I chose to believe it was frank admiration. He had no idea how much work it had taken to make me look this way. I would never look at an eyelash curler the same way again.
It had probably taken him a fraction of the time, but the man looked positively edible in a gray shirt, black tie, and black suit that set off his blond hair and made his eyes look like sapphires glowing in a midnight sky.
"You look nice," I told him. Understatement of the century. I could practically feel my hands twitching with the urge to run my fingers down that tie. That tie led to good things. It even pointed to them.
He smiled his crooked smile in acknowledgment. "You look…"
Smoking hot? Irresistibly sultry?
Nice. That morning, in a bathrobe and bedhead, I'd looked fine. Two hours of hair and makeup, and I'd managed to achieve nice.
"But I'm surprised to see you," he added. "I expected Mr. Holmes." He glanced behind me as if expecting the man to materialize.
I sat down, dumped my silverware onto the table with a clatter, and spread the linen napkin across my lap. "He wanted to be here, but he was called away on business at the last second. He couldn't get out of it." I gave him a hard stare, daring him to question me.
His expression morphed from admiration into doubt.
It didn't matter. I hadn't wiggled into this dress and these shoes and driven all this way in a Porsche 911 and endured being told I looked nice to back down now.
"He didn't want to waste your time," I added. "So he authorized me to stand in for him, with strict orders that I bring him up to speed in the morning."
I could tell he wasn't buying it. He was sliding down the slope from doubt into suspicion.
"I don't know about that," he said. "Maybe I should reschedule."
"And waste all this?" I made a broad gesture to encompass the dining room generally and my outfit specifically. My nice outfit. Honestly, had the guy ever tried to walk in almost fitting stilettoes? Another few hours in these shoes, and I'd be hobbling straight to a podiatrist.
"I wouldn't want to do that," he said with martini dryness. After a pause, he added, "I hate to eat alone. And you do look great."
There, was that so hard?
My smile rose up from my toes. So maybe I was just a dinner companion, but at least he was willing to stay for dinner, and he'd finally noticed that I looked great.
"So what was it you wanted to tell Mr. Holmes?" I asked.
Watson cleared his throat with a quick glance toward the waitstaff. "Uh, maybe we should order first." He quickly picked up his menu.
I pursed my lips. Okay. I could be patient. I picked mine up as well and studied it quickly. Then almost swallowed my tongue. The prices were higher than I usually spent on groceries for the week…maybe even month. I was going to have to pick up another shift at the coffee bar just to pay for this meal.
"The risotto here is good." Watson must have mistaken my fear of footing the bill for indecision over the meal.
"Huh. I would have thought you'd be ordering the salmon," I answered absently.
"Really?" His right eyebrow rose playfully. "And why is that?"
Playful looked good on him. I had a feeling it wasn't something he indulged in often, and I took that as a compliment.
"Just elementary deduction, my dear Dr. Watson," I answered, trying to match his teasing tone.
"Humor me. What sort of deduction?"
I set my menu down and gave him my best scrutinizing gaze. "Well, for starters, you strike me as the highly regimented type at work, being the fan of policies as you are."
The other eyebrow rose at my slight jab, but he didn't interrupt.
"I would say that same behavior probably extends into your personal life and health regimens as well. I take you as someone who flosses nightly, exercises three times a week, and views food as fuel rather than any sort of gratification. As such, I expect you to go for the most nutrient-dense foods on the menu."
"That all?" he challenged.
I shrugged. "Well, when you do visit the gym, my guess is you opt for weight training over cardio, based on your physique."
"My physique?" His mouth quirked upward at one corner.
I felt a blush creeping into my cheeks. Had I just admitted to checking him out? I tried to ignore the growing heat. "Weight training requires a higher intake of protein, so you probably opt for meat-based meals rather than grain-based."
"Go on," he prompted.
"Okay, well, you're a doctor, so I assume you're up on the latest in nutritional science. Being that omega-3 fatty acids are currently being touted as the latest and greatest, I would assume you'd try to fit as many as possible into your diet, leading you to seafood. However, you probably also know about high mercury levels in fish like tuna, meaning you'd probably stay away from the tuna tartar appetizer. Which leaves the obvious choice of the grilled salmon," I finally finished.
Watson was staring at me with an unreadable expression.
That blush grew, spreading up my neck. "You know, just a guess," I mumbled, putting my menu back up in front of my face.
"Are we ready to order?" A server suddenly appeared at my elbow.
Thankful for the respite from Watson's assessing stare, I let him order us both dry, white wine to start. When the server turned to me, I quickly said, "I'll have the risotto, please." What could I say? It was the cheapest thing on the menu and came highly recommended.
"And I'll have the grilled salmon."
I peeked over my menu to find Watson grinning at me.
That blush was threatening volcanic proportions.
"You're very observant," he said once the server left with our orders.
I shrugged. "Irene says I have an overactive imagination."
"What does Mr. Holmes say?"
"Your boss. I would assume your observations come in handy in your line of work?"
I bit my lip. Oh. Right. "Uh, yes. Yes, they do." I took a sip of water to cover the lie.
"So how long have you worked for Mr. Holmes?"
I hadn't expected questions. I hadn't prepared for them. I was prepared to be asking questions—specifically what it was he'd been so eager to tell Mr. Holmes. Maybe peppered with some pleasantries like: How long have you lived in San Francisco? And You smell very nice for a man who spends his day bathing in formaldehyde.
He was waiting for an answer that I didn't have.
I patted my lips with the linen napkin, hoping it didn't smudge Irene's $60 lipstick. "About a year."
He nodded. "You must have an interesting job."
Oh, sure: mix, blend, pour. It's fascinating.
"It has its moments," I said.
"Tell me about some of them."
"Tell you…" The napkin slipped from my fingers and fluttered back into my lap. "I'm afraid I can't do that." I smiled apologetically. "Our cases are confidential."
"Really." His eyes were locked on to me in a way that would be very sexy if it wasn't completely unnerving. I had the uneasy feeling I was being interrogated, which meant he still didn't quite believe me. And me looking great too. "What sort of cases do you handle?"
"All kinds," I said without hesitation. "Missing persons. Murder." I stared straight back at him. "Cheating spouses."
He didn't flinch. So maybe he wasn't married. Or maybe he had his own deception going. Well, I could find that out easily enough. After all, I worked for a private investigator.
"So wives hire you to follow their husbands around with a telephoto lens?" He smiled at me, a full-on, no-holds-barred smile. It was breathtaking. "Or vice versa?"
I smiled back. I couldn't help it. "Sometimes. You never know what you'll discover."
His expression softened. "No," he said, "you never do."
Wow. There was an undercurrent to that comment that almost knocked me off the chair. That didn't sound like the kind of comment a married man would make.
I took a breath. "What about you? Your work has an investigatory component to it, doesn't it?"
"Very much so. Take your aunt's case, for instance. It's proving to be much more of a challenge than I initially expected."
Now we were getting somewhere. "How so?"
The server arrived with our wine. When he'd left, Dr. Watson took a small sip and leaned forward. "I told you I'd revisit my autopsy notes."
He hesitated. "Are you sure this is something you want to discuss over dinner?"
I was, but I hesitated to say so; he might think I was a ghoul. But I wanted to know what he had to say, and I might not get a better chance.
"I never met her," I said. "I didn't even know of her. Sad to say, but it's like she's a complete stranger to me. That's helped me keep an emotional distance from the circumstances of her death, whatever they might be."
He considered that and seemed to accept it. "There's something I didn't put much weight to initially," he said. "But looking at her death in a new light, I thought Mr. Holmes might find it interesting."
I leaned forward. "Which is?"
"There was a substance under your aunt's fingernails."
"What kind of substance? What was it?"
I blinked at him, waiting for the punch line.
"It's a plant. Not terrifically common, but it's often used in eastern medicine, and specialty incenses and teas."
"So, my aunt ate ginger lily in some form before she died?"
Watson paused. "Not necessarily. We don't have the tox screen back yet, so I can't confirm what was in her system. But we found traces of dried ginger lily under her nails, which indicates that she came in contact with it in powdered form shortly before her death."
"That's it?" I asked, a bit deflated.
"Sorry," he agreed. "Looking under the fingernails is routine. Often when the manner of death is homicide, we find skin cells and such under the victim's fingernails, because victims usually fight for their lives. Unless, of course, they've been shot. Which isn't the case here." He looked at me. "Are you alright?"
Sure, sure. Despite my assurances, it was unsettling to discuss how my great-aunt had been killed. For the first time, I knew how Candy Crush Girl had felt at Dr. Osterman's lecture.
"I'm fine," I said. I smiled again briefly to prove it.
Watson took a sip of wine. "You'll tell Mr. Holmes?"
"What?" Oops. "Oh yes," I said. "Of course."
"It may mean more to him that it does to me," he confessed.
Yeah, I doubted that.
That reminded me. I found the phony business card in my clutch and slid it across the table. "It would probably be easiest to email him. I never know where he's going to be, but he checks his email several times a day."
He glanced at it. "There's no phone number on here."
My smile came too easily. Clearly I was getting comfortable with this deceit. "He'd have to print new cards practically every week. He uses burner phones and changes them a few times a month. No decent private investigator would allow himself to be tracked through his cell phone. You understand."
"I guess," he said doubtfully. "I never thought about that."
Neither had I, until a moment ago. But it had sounded pretty plausible, right? Maybe someone in law enforcement wouldn't buy it, but I wasn't selling it to them.
Our food came, and I ate my risotto in silence, trying to remember if I'd seen anything at the house that might contain ginger lily. Teas, incense, medicine. I hadn't specifically found any of those things, but I made a mental note to look again. I wasn't sure how it might relate to her death, but it might at least give me a clue what she'd been doing in her last hours. And if it wasn't in her house now, that means it might have come and gone with the killer. Had the killer been covered in ginger lily? Had there been a struggle when they'd killed my aunt? That would explain it getting under her fingernails.
Of course, it could also easily be explained by her making herself a benign cup of the stuff herself before having a perfectly natural heart attack.
Dr. Watson looked up. "Something wrong with your meal?"
"No, not at all," I said. "I was just thinking about your findings."
His expression pinched a little with worry. "I knew we shouldn't have discussed it."
"It's not that," I assured him. "I'm just thinking of all the places my aunt could have ginger lily powder stashed away in her house." I paused at his confused expression. "My aunt was a bit of a…hoarder. Anyway, proving an absence of it might mean it came from her killer, right?"
"If," he added, "there is a killer."
"But with the way she stashed things in every corner, it could take me a year to be sure it wasn't hers."
"Maybe I can lend a hand."
"You don't have to do that," I said immediately. Who knew what undiscovered things Kate might have squirreled away in the place. The potential for humiliation was too great. As if he could see worse than me in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.
He smiled that crooked smile that made me want to invite him not only back to the house but up the stairs and into the bedroom. "Think about it on the way. I can be very useful. Trust me—I'm a doctor." He glanced around for the server. "Did you want to order dessert to go?"
I shook my head. I didn't think I could stomach it.
He insisted on paying the bill (not that I protested too heavily) and guided me out of the restaurant with a hand at my elbow. I didn't mind the help. My feet were killing me. He could have carried me over his shoulder like a caveman if he'd wanted to. I was never wearing borrowed stilettoes again.
Sadly, he was a perfect gentleman, right up to the time we stopped next to the Porsche. Then I heard his low whistle. "Is this your car?"
"I drove it here," I said. Not the same thing, but he was hardly listening anyway. He circled the car, running his hand lightly across the fenders and the roof. I sent Irene a silent thank-you for her generosity and her good taste in cars.
"It's a beauty," he said. "It's this year's model, isn't it?"
I had no idea. "Of course," I said.
"A boxer six, right?"
I stared blankly at him.
"The engine," he prompted.
I gestured to the hood. "Take a look for yourself."
He grinned at me. "I could try, but this is rear engine."
Just my luck. He was a car guy too.
"I was just testing you," I said. I beeped the door open. "Try to keep up with me, will you?"
He laughed. He had a nice laugh, deep and genuine. "I'll do my best."
He did keep up with me, pulling up right behind the Porsche when we reached the house. He managed to materialize at my door before I got out, opening it for me and offering his hand. Carefully, I slid my legs out and let him help me to my feet, holding on to his hand for a little longer than I had to. Nice.
"Maybe I need to consider a career change," he said as we headed up the walk. "Lowly public servants don't get to drive Porsches."
Neither did lowly baristas. Or make-believe PIs. I smiled at him. "You seem to be enduring the hardship pretty well." We climbed the front steps. "Maybe you could take it for a quick—" I stopped dead, staring at the door.
There were pry marks on the jamb. Slivers of wood lay on the sill plate, and the door itself was gouged, as if several off-target hacks had been taken.
Someone had broken into my house.