Red and blue lights flashed through the palm fronds, reflecting off the surface of the swimming pool, which I was so not looking at again. Men in black T-shirts that read CSI on the back crawled over the hillside like little ants, stopping now and then to seal a piece of dirt or hair into a Ziploc baggie. Police radios crackled to life every five seconds, relaying indistinguishable messages to the uniformed cops standing guard beside the pool as they waited for the medical examiner. And I sat with my head down, trying really hard not to vomit.
"You alright?" Ramirez asked.
"I'm fine," I said. Only it came out as a muffled, "I five," as my head was still firmly placed between my knees in a semi fetal position in a teakwood deckchair. I'd been sitting here for what seemed like years, waiting for the backyard to stop spinning and those little black dots to stop dancing in front of my eyes. I had a vague memory of Ramirez carrying me across the yard and radioing for backup, but it was kind of blurry. Like a really bad dream I couldn't wait to wake up from.
"You'll be okay. Just take a few deep breaths." Ramirez sat down beside me. Or rather, I heard him sit and felt the heat from his body beside me.
I peeked my head up, careful to look at Ramirez and not the swimming pool where I could hear the splashes of men fishing the poor woman out.
"She's dead, right?" I know, stupid question. But I had to ask. Somehow my mind really, really wanted her to be okay. For this all to be one big mistake or a really bad Punk'd episode.
"Who is—" I paused, correcting myself. "Was she?"
Ramirez narrowed his dark eyes at me. I could see him mentally debating whether to treat me like a suspect, witness, or just some dumb blonde who couldn't balance in her new heels. Finally he opened his mouth to speak, apparently settling on the dumb blonde theory. "Celia Greenway."
I swallowed hard, trying to decide how best to phrase my next question. "So, uh, she didn't just slip into the pool, did she?"
Ramirez shook his head slowly.
"It was…I mean, she…" Somehow I couldn't bring myself to actually say the word murder out loud. It seemed so John Grisham and so not anyone's real life. At least not anyone I knew. I designed children's shoes for crying out loud. I did not stumble upon dead bodies in posh Orange County swimming pools.
But, instead of tripping over my own psyche, I rephrased the question. "Someone did this to her then?"
He hesitated, taking in the crumpled position I'd been in for the past half hour.
I straightened my spine, trying to make the most of my meager height in a show of bravado I certainly didn't feel. "I can take it. I'm a tough chick." Yeah right. I forced my gaze to stay on him, not on the gurney now wheeling away the unfortunate Mrs. Greenway in a human hefty bag.
A half smile quirked the corner of his mouth, and he gave in. "Okay. Yes, it looks like murder."
My stomach lurched again, and I resisted the urge to stick my head between my knees.
Ramirez went on. "The official cause of death won't be pronounced until an autopsy can be done by the ME's office. But there were obvious ligature marks on the body. Her neck was black and blue."
Ramirez's gaze drifted to the swimming pool. "Looks like it."
As sorry as I felt for the poor woman, my mind immediately latched onto Richard, an unpleasant image of my boyfriend blue necked and face down in an OC pool invading my brain. I dropped the brave little soldier act and put my head between my legs again, taking deep breaths that smelled like my leather shoes, chlorine, and the cold sweat I felt trickling down my back.
"You sure you're okay?" Ramirez asked again.
"Yeah, fine." Which actually sounded like "yeffen."
"You're a really bad liar. You know it?"
"Well, since you're 'fine', maybe you wouldn't mind answering a few questions about your boyfriend now."
I froze, a horrible thought slinking through my brain. Ramirez couldn't possibly think Richard had anything to do with this. I mean, not with Celia's death. He couldn't. Could he?
"What kind of questions?" I would have loved a clue to what he was after. But as hard as I tried to read his stony expression, I came up blank. The man should have been cleaning up in Vegas with a poker face like that.
"Let's start with, where is Richard Howe?"
"I told you, I don't know. You think I'd be here if I knew?" My voice came out in a high whine I hadn't used since I'd lost my retainer in sixth grade. I sniffed back the tears I could feel welling behind my eyes. "I don't know where my boyfriend is."
Ramirez stared at me for a second. The real unasked question clear in his dark eyes as they narrowed in on me.
"Richard did not do this." I emphasized the point by shaking my head so violently those black dots threatened again. "He's not a killer. He's a lawyer. If he's pissed at someone, he sues them. He would never, could never, do this. You don't know Richard."
His cocked his head to one side. "Do you?"
I bit my lip. Good question. I thought I did. But obviously there were some aspects of my boyfriend's life he'd neglected to share with me.
Luckily I didn't have to come up with a clever answer as a guy in a CSI shirt walked up the hillside toward us. Only this guy looked nothing like the hunks on the CBS version. He was tall, skinny and bald as a cue ball. His nose hooked over like a beak, and he had small, calculating eyes that I would venture to guess didn't miss much.
"Is she ready?" he asked, addressing Ramirez as if I were a piece of deck furniture.
Ramirez glanced at me. "I'm not sure."
"Ready for what?" I asked.
Neither paid any attention. Instead, CSI Guy set his black bag down by his feet. "I think I should do her before she gets any further contaminated."
"Contaminated?" I said.
Ramirez gave me another assessing glance. "Yeah, go ahead. She's ready."
"Ready for what?" My voice was threatening that Minnie Mouse quality again as my gaze ping-ponged back and forth between them.
Ramirez sighed, taking a patient tone one might use with a kindergartner. "They need to take samples of your hair, fingerprints, and shoe impressions. You've contaminated the crime scene by being here. They need to be able to rule you out as they process the evidence."
CSI Guy pulled out a small roller that looked suspiciously like the one I used on my black cashmere after visiting Mom and her army of tabby cats. His tiny eyes scrutinized me like I was one giant piece of evidence. Then, without so much as an introduction, he proceeded to run the roller over my blue baby T, down my sleeves, up my sides, and in places most guys didn't touch without dinner and a movie first.
Ramirez looked on, and I could swear he was almost enjoying this.
"This isn't funny," I shot at him with as much dignity as I could muster while being groped by a lint roller.
"Nothing funny whatsoever." Only Ramirez's eyes crinkled at the corners as he said it.
I decided to change the subject. "Can I ask you a question?"
"I assume this is Celia Greenway's house."
"Did you know she would be…I mean was…"
I cringed. Somehow the word seemed so final. Like poor Celia Greenway would never again know the joy of a semi-annual clearance sale at Bloomies, the scent of new leather pumps, or the thrill of finding that one of a kind bag in the half-off bin. (Really, it's the little things that make life worth living.)
I tried to soften the image. "Swimming."
"No, I didn't. I just wanted to talk to her."
CSI Guy tucked the roller into a baggie, which he then deposited in what looked like a black fishing tackle box. He pulled out a pair of tweezers and eyed my hair.
"What?" I asked.
CSI Guy didn't answer, just circled me, scrutinizing my blonde highlights.
"What is he doing?" I ask Ramirez.
"He needs a hair sample. Preferably one with a skin tag for DNA analysis."
"DNA? I didn't say you could have my DNA. I don't want him touching my hair."
He narrowed his eyes. "Then you shouldn't have crashed my crime scene."
I shut my mouth, not wanting to push my luck. If Ramirez wanted to, I'm sure he could make my life very miserable. I knew I was trespassing, meddling, snooping and a whole host of other minor sins cops didn't look too fondly on. Besides, the way Ramirez had asked about Richard, I wasn't entirely sure that we were on the same side, and it didn't seem wise to make enemies at this point. I had enough problems without Mr. Hardbody complicating things.
One of the uniforms called Ramirez down to the pool level, leaving me alone with CSI Guy, who continued circling my head for the perfect hair. After he chose a couple innocent little strands (not gently, I might add) he poured some plaster into two plastic trays and told me to step into them. I did, after making him promise on his mother's life that the plaster would wash off of my shoes. The death of Mrs. Greenway was tragedy enough for one day. We didn't have to compound it by adding the demise of $300 suede.
As the hook-nosed evidence collector worked, I dared to gaze back at the swimming pool again. With the body gone and the afternoon sun casting a shimmery light on the pool's smooth surface, the scene looked anything but sinister. In fact, if you dressed the CSI ants in chinos and Abercrombie, this would look like any other day in the OC.
Just goes to show you, looks can be deceiving.
I closed my eyes, letting the sun warm my face as I tried to wrap my thoughts around what I'd learned today.
Devon Greenway had embezzled twenty million dollars from his company. Celia and Richard were the only people who knew the details. Celia was dead, and Richard was missing. I prayed Richard was only hiding out from Greenway and not…
"You finished?" Ramirez climbed back up the hill, addressing CSI Guy who was packing his plaster moldings into another black bag.
"I've got all I need," he answered, picking up his bags.
CSI Guy gave me a curt nod, which I took as a "thanks for not squirming too much," and trekked back down the hill. Ramirez watched him go then sat down beside me.
Close beside me.
A little too close. I wiggled away, the increase in pheromones nearly choking me.
Ramirez turned, his eyes darker than a double espresso as a half smile played at the corners of his mouth. "Do I make you nervous?"
What, me nervous? Nuh-uh.
I nodded. I can be such a chicken.
Which of course caused his smile to grow into a full-fledged grin, complete with wolfish white teeth. "Good."
I looked away, preferring the sight of the swimming pool to the wicked gleam in Ramirez's eyes. I had a feeling it was the same gleam he got when he dragged someone off to jail.
Or into bed.
I didn't want to find out which. (Bawk, bawk.)
"So…" I said clearing my throat, "What now?"
Ramirez shifted closer. The scents of Downy and Right Guard hit me as Ramirez casually draped one arm around my shoulders.
"Now," he said, leaning in close. "I take you home."
* * *
Luckily, I convinced Ramirez I was okay to drive myself home. It had been a full hour since I'd been fetal. Not to mention that the idea of spending rush hour traffic back to Santa Monica beside Ramirez the Hormone Machine made the cab of his SUV seem about ten times too small. And last but not least, the idea of coming back to this place tomorrow to retrieve my Jeep didn't hold any appeal. In fact, I had a feeling I'd be staying out of Orange County altogether for a while. (Unless there was a sale at The Block.)
By the time I finally pulled up to my studio, it was dark and I was famished. I fixed myself a grilled cheese with tons of gooey cheddar and washed it down with a Diet Coke. After the day I'd had, I would have preferred a beer, but considering my persistent lateness I didn't think that was wise. Instead, I hit the play button on my answering machine, crossing my fingers there was something from Richard.
One message from my mom, telling me she'd booked Beefcakes for her bachelorette party. (Ugh!) One from Faux Dad, saying he'd picked up a basket of hand knitted baby items for Molly the Breeder. (Double ugh!) And one from Dana, asking if I'd seen a pink line yet. (There weren't enough ugh!'s in the world to express how this made me feel.)
Nothing from Richard.
I eyed the EPT still sitting on my kitchen counter and suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I felt like crying. I felt like my life had suddenly become an episode of Law & Order: Special Blonde's Unit. This week our fashionably, but oh-so-impractically, dressed blonde stumbles onto a dead body while searching for her embezzling boyfriend who flies the coop just as Maddie's monthly visitor refuses to make an appearance.
Not to mention the hunky lead of the series, Detective Jack Ramirez. He was danger with a capital D. No, make that a capital, underlined, and boldfaced D.
I grabbed another Diet Coke, trying to ignore the instant flush at the thought of Ramirez. Though in my defense, it was hard not to flush around a man like that.
I lay down on my futon and turned on the TV, telling myself these were not the kind of thoughts I should be thinking. I should not be fantasizing about rock hard abs, wicked brown eyes, and a smile that could melt the clothes off the Mona Lisa. What I should be thinking about was drinking a gallon of water, taking that EPT into the bathroom, and facing up to whatever reality those little pink lines threw at me like a big girl. And I would. I eyed the test. Someday very soon.
Instead, I flipped to Letterman and settled in as he ran the Top Ten Signs You've Been in the Heat Too Long. He only got to number five ("George Hamilton looks albino next to you.") before I fell asleep fully clothed.
And dreamed of Ramirez, doing laps in a sparkling blue swimming pool.
In the buff.
* * *
First thing the next morning, I retrieved the long forgotten phone number from my pants pocket and called Richard's mother. I didn't really expect to find him there now, but I figured I might as well cover all my bases. Unfortunately I was right. His mother hadn't heard from him since he'd called for her birthday three weeks ago. I then proceeded to call his cleaning lady, his gardener, and his dry cleaner, asking if they'd seen Richard in the last few days. Nothing. He'd vanished off the face of the earth last Friday, and no one had seen him since.
I made myself a cup of coffee and a chocolate frosted Pop-Tart, which I ate at the kitchen counter as I went over my options. And really, when it came down to it, I didn't have any. Either I could track Richard down myself, or I could let Ramirez do it and possibly lead my boyfriend away in handcuffs. Not that I really believed Richard was guilty of embezzlement. But I had a feeling his disappearing act wasn't doing much to convince Ramirez he was an innocent bystander in all this. Unless I wanted to visit Richard behind bars, I had to find him first.
I decided to start back at the beginning. The last place I'd seen Richard. His office.
Unfortunately, I knew it was going to require some serious maneuvering on my part to get past Jasmine again. My brilliant plan—wait until she went on break.
So, at exactly twelve-o-three, I had my little red Jeep parked across the street from the offices of Dewy, Cheatum & Howe as Jasmine wiggled her miniskirt-covered behind out the doors and off to her lunch.
I jumped out of the Jeep, stuffed a couple quarters in the meter, and sprinted across the street. In no time at all I was walking through the front doors and across the padded carpeting to the reception desk, manned by Jasmine's noontime replacement. Althea, a first year clerk with a pronounced overbite.
"Good morning, Althea," I said briskly, laying my little Kate Spade on the counter.
Althea mumbled an indistinguishable greeting while trying to avoid eye contact. She had on a blue-gray cardigan that was stretched out in places, giving her five-foot, 150-pound frame the shape of a ripe tomato. Her frizzy blonde hair (and not a Clairol Spun Gold, but natural dirty blonde) was scooped back on one side with a tortoiseshell barrette, and her big green eyes bugged out at me from behind thick lenses that made her look a little like Mr. Magoo.
"So," I continued, "I guess you've heard that Richard's on a little trip?"
Althea's face turned red. Apparently everyone knew Richard had flown the coop.
I leaned in confidentially. "Have the police been here?"
Althea nodded. "All day yesterday. They took out three boxes of files."
Damn. Ramirez was good. I wondered if I was wasting my time retracing first Richard's steps and now Ramirez's. I tried a different tactic.
"Althea, were you here when Richard left last Friday?"
"Uh-huh. I was in the copy room getting photos of the Johnson brief when he came in to use the shredder."
Shredder? My heart sped up.
"Uh, you didn't see what he was shredding, did you?"
"No. But the cops took the bag of shredded paper too."
Double damn. Ramirez was really good.
"Did he say anything to you as he left?" I asked, grasping at straws now.
"Just that I should make sure I gave the brief to Mr. Chesterton instead of him."
"Was it Richard's case?"
"Uh-huh. But he said it should go to Chesterton."
"Oh. Well, thanks, Althea. I'm, uh, just going to go grab something I think I might have left in Richard's office." I cringed. Against Jasmine, that excuse wouldn't have stood a chance.
Thankfully, Althea was much more trusting. "Good luck. I'm not sure the cops left much."
I slipped through the frosted doors, the carpeted hallway muffling the sound of my heels as I mulled over what Althea had said. I was dying to know what Richard had been shredding. Maybe it was just some statement with a credit card number on it. Richard was diligent about shredding everything that even had his email address on it for fear of identity theft. But then again, it was curious timing. Ramirez had come to see him. He'd just canceled lunch with me. He shreds documents, gives away his case to another partner, then goes home, packs his bags, and disappears.
For half a second my belief in Richard's innocence wavered. I had to admit, it didn't look good. It looked like the actions of a man who had something to hide.
I pushed that thought aside as I reached the door to Richard's office. With a backward glance over my shoulder to make sure Jasmine hadn't miraculously appeared behind me, I quickly slipped inside, closing the door with a quiet click.
My first thought was that a tornado had hit. The second was that Ramirez, although thorough, was a pig. Books were scattered haphazardly on the floor instead of alphabetically arranged in the bookcases. The wastebasket had been emptied and left on its side. File folders and papers littered the area around Richard's oak cabinets, and the items on his desk were askew in a way that would have had Richard flying into an OCD-like fit of straightening.
I crossed the room, stepping over a file folder and two stacks of Westlaw books, and flipped on Richard's monitor. It hummed to life, but the screen remained blank. I looked under the desk and saw, to my disappointment, that the tower was gone. Rats. Ramirez was very thorough.
Well, when technology failed, there was always the good old standby, paper files. I groaned inwardly at the sight of files strewn over every conceivable surface. I started with the piles closest to the door, which turned out to contain copies of Richard's personal accounts payable for the past six months. Boring. Though, I noticed as I looked at the figures, Richard wasn't quite raking in what I thought he was. In fact, he had six overdue slips stamped with big red "delinquent" notices across the top. Great. Add that to the growing list of things Maddie didn't know about her boyfriend. He was a compulsive spender and didn't pay his bills on time. I suddenly felt guilty for prodding him into buying me those platinum dew drop earrings for my birthday. It was clear now that he couldn't afford them any more than I could afford a duplex in Beverley Hills.
I moved on to the next pile of files, teetering precariously beside the bookcase. Billable hours records. Dinners with clients, travel times, and phone records of every millisecond he'd spent on any given case, billed by the quarter hour at rates that made my head spin. But nothing to tell me where Richard might be now.
The pile leaning against the desk contained copies of employee files, no doubt distributed to each partner to keep tabs on the Altheas of the office. While I had a feeling they wouldn't yield anything helpful, I couldn't help my curiosity getting the better of me when I unearthed Jasmine's file. I opened it, peeking inside. Two complaints from other clerks about her personal long distance calls on the company phone, three commendations from the senior partner (who was older than dirt, beaucoup rich, and in the middle of a messy divorce—suspiciously Jasmine's type if you asked me), and her salary statements for the past three months. I almost laughed out loud at the paltry sum Miss PP earned answering phones and guarding the frosted door. I honestly didn't think it was possible for anyone to exist in LA on a salary less than mine, but the statement proved me wrong. Poor Jasmine. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost, I reminded myself, thinking of how I'd had to sneak in here like a common criminal.
Speaking of which…I looked down at my watch and realized I'd been snoop—I mean, searching for evidence (there, that sounded much less nosey) for the last twenty minutes and Jasmine would be back from lunch soon.
Closing her file, I rapidly began searching in earnest for anything that might lead me to Richard. Maybe I was having such lousy luck finding anything because I wasn't even really sure what it was I was looking for. Had there been any obvious clues, they certainly wouldn't be here now. Ramirez would have his CSI Guys scanning them for fibers and fingerprints back at Good Guy headquarters. No, my only hope is that Ramirez may have overlooked something that had meaning to me because of my intimate knowledge as Richard's girlfriend. Yes, I know the chances were slim, especially considering my knowledge wasn't turning out to be all that intimate after all. In fact, give him a couple days and Ramirez might know more about my boyfriend than I did. A thought which caused a bout of morning sickness to roll through my stomach again.
Ten minutes later I was frantically going through Richard's desk, pulling out letter openers, fountain pens, paper clips, rubber bands, and…hello, what was that? A shiny blue piece of foil protruded from under Richard's desk sized calendar. I lifted the calendar corner and pulled the foil out. Staring at it. A condom wrapper?
I froze, one hand gripped like a vice around an empty super ribbed Trojan packet and the other quickly balling into a fist at my side. Richard had a condom wrapper on his desk?
My brain went through a rapid search of possible reasons why this might be okay. It was left over from his associate days (read: pre-Maddie days)? He was representing the Trojan company in a lawsuit and had to inspect the product as possible evidence? Hormone crazed teenagers had broken in wanting to experience the thrill of sex in a lawyer's office?
Damn. None of these was even remotely plausible. I swallowed hard, trying to cleanse the sandpaper feeling that had suddenly formed in my mouth. My boyfriend used condoms at work. This was really not good. If I ever found Richard, I was going to kill him.
I was still staring at the offending Trojan wrapper when the telephone on the desk rang. On instinct, I picked it up.
"Hello?" Oh crap! I wasn't supposed to be here. I thought a really bad word and hoped it wasn't Jasmine checking in.
There was a pause on the other end, as if the person were as surprised I'd picked up the phone as I was. Then a tentative male voice said, "Give me Richard."
I gulped and hoped he didn't hear it. "Who may I ask is calling?"
Again with the pause. Only this time I heard him mumble a swear word under his breath, obviously not pleased with my interrogation and debating whether to answer or hang up on me. Finally he decided to go with option number one, and answered in a gruff voice. "Devon Greenway. Who the hell is this?"