The next morning I woke up early, a bundle of nervous energy even before my requisite cup of coffee. All night long images of Ramirez, Greenway and, most importantly, Richard kept swirling through my head. Not to mention the permanently seared image of Richard's stray Trojan.
The more I thought about it, the more uncertain I became that Richard was merely an innocent bystander in all this. From the looks of his financial statements, he had needed money. And there was twenty million floating around unaccounted for. It was pretty tempting. And as much as I liked to think Richard was above temptation, I just wasn't sure.
I decided in the wake of my fitful night's sleep to treat myself to a double grande mocha latte with decadent whipped cream for breakfast. (Sometimes a girl needs to splurge.) I slipped on a pair of low-slung, boot cut jeans, a black Calvin tank, and silver patent leather sling backs that complemented my Pinkberry toenails. I grabbed my purse and pointed my Jeep in the direction of the nearest Starbucks.
Amazingly I found a parking place right in front and took my place in line, which, as usual, was about a million caffeine starved people long. It gave me way too much time to contemplate the bakery case. By the time I reached the pimply kid behind the counter, somehow a chocolate chip muffin and a blueberry croissant had been added to my order.
I found a quiet corner in the back and settled in to my breakfast of fat, sugar, and massive amounts of caffeine. By the time I'd polished off the croissant and was digging into the chocolate muffin (melt in your mouth delish, by the way!) I was beginning to feel like myself again.
Okay, maybe not totally like myself, as the biggest worry my usual self had to encounter was if the Spiderman rain boots were going to cover this month's rent. Now shoes seemed to be the last thing on my mind. Which was a sign my life was really falling apart.
I was just licking the muffin remains off my fingers when my purse rang. I pulled out my cell to see Mom's number lighting up my LCD screen.
"Hello?" I answered, still picking up the little stray muffin crumbs with my fingertip.
Mom sighed deeply into the phone. "You forgot, didn't you?"
Oh crap. Not again. "No, mom, of course I didn't forget." What now? I racked my little brain for what wedding related activity I'd spaced out this time. Flower selection? Cake testing? Please, God, don't let it be helping her pick out honeymoon lingerie. Yick.
"The dress fitting? Maddie you were supposed to be here at ten."
Mental forehead slap. The bridesmaid fitting. Mom's best friend, my cousin Molly, and I all had the honor of being Mom's bridesmaids on her second trip to the altar. Mom had picked out vintage gowns for each of us that we'd been measured and pre-fitted for weeks ago, but today was the final unveiling. Mom had refused to show any of us the actual gowns, wanting it to be a "fun surprise." A phrase that inspired no end of fear in me.
Originally I had offered to design the dresses for her, after all I did have a degree in fashion, but Mom wanted a kitschy vintage theme. She insisted that this time around she wanted fun, something that had been seriously lacking from her first marriage.
On her first trip to the altar, Mom had gotten married in a stuffy church with stained glass windows (chosen by my Irish Catholic grandmother), with vows said in traditional Latin (insisted upon by my Irish Catholic grandmother) and an ancient priest to preside over the ceremony (picked out by my Irish Catholic grandmother—see a trend here?). Four years later Mom had found herself a single mother of a precocious three year old (yours truly), and Dad was on a plane to Vegas where I'm told he shacked up with a showgirl named Lola.
This time around, Mom was doing the wedding her way. A civil ceremony presided over by a female justice of the peace on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. And vintage, "fun" gowns.
I put on a brave face.
"You are coming to the fitting, right?" I heard panic creeping into my mother's voice.
"Of course. I'm on my way now. I, uh, just got stuck in traffic." Yes, I know, I was going to hell for lying to my mom.
Mom sighed on the other end, and I could almost see her rolling her eyes toward the sky as if asking for patience from somewhere above. "Just get here, okay, Madds?"
"I'm on my way," I said. Then added for good measure, "Seriously this time." I flipped the phone shut before she could respond and downed the rest of my coffee in one sugary gulp. I paused only long enough to touch up my lip-gloss before jumping into my Jeep and making a beeline for the 101.
Ten minutes later I was frantically circling Bebe's Bridal Salon, looking for a place to park. I rounded the block twice. Nothing. With a glance at my watch, I parked semi-legally with my tail end sticking into the red zone, hoping the fitting didn't take too long.
Mom was waiting in the lobby, her eyes blazing beneath vintage blue eye shadow. Today she was wearing an ankle length denim skirt with sports socks and Keds. Topped off with a frilly button-down blouse in a tiny floral print the color of refried beans. I suppressed a shudder and ignored that little voice of warning telling me I should have insisted on designing the dresses myself.
"Sorry I'm late." I kissed Mom on the cheek, which softened the fire in her eyes some. Not much, but some.
"I swear to God, Maddie, if you're late for the wedding, I'm disowning you."
"Mom!" I said in mock shock. "I'm hardly ever late."
She narrowed her eyes at me.
"Okay. I'll set two alarm clocks."
I think I actually saw her suppress a smile that time.
"Come on, you. They've got your dress in the back."
I followed Mom as she led me to a fitting room in the back of the shop. Bebe's Bridal was small by Hollywood standards, with just three private fitting rooms in the back and a main showroom filled with six racks of long, flowing bridal gowns. I put blinders on as we passed by them. Not that I was one of those girls that has her dream wedding picked out by the age of five, but something about being surrounded by this much Happily Ever After couture had my female hormones squealing like a sixth-grader. In fact, I spotted a Wang knock-off on a passing rack that actually made my heart speed up.
Did I want this? A wedding? I mean, when I'd first realized I was late, all sorts of crazy thoughts had buzzed through my mind. Admittedly, some of them covered in white lace and gauzy wedding veils. But at the time I'd been envisioning the groom as a successful, predictable, if somewhat anal about folding his socks, lawyer. In the last 48 hours he'd morphed into a man of dubious character on the run. For the umpteenth time I wondered just how much Richard really did know about Devon Greenway. Or, even more disconcerting, what did he know about Celia's murder?
I shook my head, realizing my mother was talking to me.
"…and when I found this dress on the internet, I just knew it would be perfect for you."
"Now," she continued, "I tried to pick different styles that would flatter everyone. Of course, we've had to let Molly's dress out a bit, but I'm sure yours will fit like a glove."
I smiled, trying not to let my trepidation show.
Mom settled me on a white sofa in front of a full-length mirror. Three curtained-off fitting rooms stood to the side. I could see bare feet peeking beneath the curtains of two of them.
"Dorothy? Molly? Maddie's here," Mom called to the curtains then turned to me. "I'm going to grab your dress. I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere!"
Wouldn't dream of it.
One of the curtains opened, and my mother's best friend walked out. Or, more like waddled out. Dorothy Rosenblatt was in her sixties, had gone through six husbands, and shared a body type with the Pillsbury Doughboy. She was all of 4'11", topping out at around three hundred pounds. Though once she opened her mouth, people tended to forget about the outside. Mrs. Rosenblatt was what we in LA liked to refer to as "eccentric."
She and my mother had met years ago when Mom had gone to Mrs. Rosenblatt for a psychic reading after a particularly depressing Valentine's Day alone. Mrs. Rosenblatt had predicted Mom would meet a handsome black male and fall head over heels in love. Two weeks later a stray black lab had shown up on our doorstep. Barney, as we named him, turned out to be the love of her life, and Mom and Mrs. Rosenblatt have been firm friends ever since.
Mrs. Rosenblatt was obviously already in her bridesmaid dress, a pale lavender gown shaped like a lampshade and covered in embroidered green daisies. (My trepidation kicked into overdrive.)
"Maddie, you made it," she said, clapping her hands in front of her. Her arms jiggled with Jell-O-like aftershocks from the force.
"Sorry I'm late," I leaned down to kiss her cheek.
"Wait!" she commanded. "Something's wrong."
For a second I had the horrible thought she'd somehow picked up on my other lateness. (Okay, I didn't totally buy into this whole psychic thing she had going on, but I was too chicken to totally discount it either.)
Mrs. Rosenblatt stood back and narrowed her eyes at me. "You're a purple," she finally said.
Huh? "I'm purple?"
"Your aura, Maddie. Oy, bubbee, it's streaked with purple flares. Is something on your mind?"
Hmm…my boyfriend is missing, possibly involved in embezzlement and murder. I watched the Los Angeles county coroner's office fish a woman out of her swimming pool, talked to a wife killer on the phone, and found a used condom wrapper at my boyfriend's office. Oh, and I may be pregnant. Nope, everything's peachy.
But, I decided to give her the condensed version.
"Nope, everything's peachy."
"Hmmm." The lines between Mrs. Rosenblatt's painted-on eyebrows (Lucille Ball red) deepened. "Stay out of the rain. Rain is very bad for purples."
I tried not to roll my eyes. I'm not sure I totally succeeded. "It doesn't rain in LA."
"Madds!" An overweight woman in solid lilac ruffles burst out from behind the other curtain and attacked me with air kisses. It took me a minute to realize she wasn't really overweight, just pregnant. Again.
"Hi, Molly. And, congratulations," I said, trying to navigate a hug around her already bulging belly.
Molly beamed from ear to ear, rubbing her tummy like a good luck Buddha. "Thanks. Stan and I are really excited. We're due in December. We had our first sonogram last week. You want to see the picture?" Molly didn't wait for me to answer before pulling a bulging wallet out of her purse. She flipped it open and a string of plastic encased baby photos unfolded.
"Isn't it darling?" Molly asked, shoving a fuzzy black and white photo of a deformed Muppet at me.
"Oh, yes, darling." I squinted, trying to figure out what I was looking at.
"Stan says he think it's going to be a boy this time, because we're carrying a little low."
We? I wondered how often her husband actually carried that belly around for her.
Mrs. Rosenblatt put a palm on Molly's stomach, rolling her eyes back in her head until she looked like a reject from Dawn of the Dead. "It will be a boy." She paused. "Or else a girl with a whole lotta chutzpah. You're gonna have to watch out for this one." Mrs. Rosenblatt wagged a fat finger at Molly.
"So," Molly said, nudging me in the ribs with her elbow, "any wedding bells chiming in your future?"
I cringed at how very silent the bells in my life were at the moment.
"I have a boyfriend," I said by way of defense.
Mrs. Rosenblatt pressed a thick palm to my forehead and closed her eyes. "I see a wedding. And babies. Very soon, babies. Lots of them."
I felt faint.
"I'm back!" My mother emerged with something behind her back. She was smiling like the cat that ate the wedding canary. "Who wants to see Maddie's dress?"
This was met by excited squealing in stereo. (I'm sure I don't have to add, none of which came from me.)
"So…" Mom pulled a purple shower curtain out from behind her back. "Here it is. What do you think?"
Oh lord. It wasn't a shower curtain. It was a dress. My dress.
Mom did a pleased little nose scrunch, letting out a squeal of pleasure that only small dogs could hear. "I knew you'd love it."
The first mistake my mother made was taking my "wow" for one of awe and not horror. The second, and by far a much bigger mistake, was choosing the dress.
"Where did you say you got this?" I asked, horrified that I might have to be seen in public with this.
"eBay. Can you believe it was only going for $29.99?"
I could believe it alright. "Wow," I said again.
"So, try it on."
I gulped, my skin suddenly clammy at the thought of having to touch that. "Oh wow."
Somehow in a whirlwind of ruffles and Molly squeals, my own jeans and tank came off, and I became a vision in purple. And not lilac or lavender. This was Barney purple.
"Is this polyester?" I asked, feeling itchy already.
Mom moved around me, tucking, buttoning, adjusting. As if it would help. "Uh-huh. It should wash really well. That way you can wear the dress over and over."
I'm proud to say I did not laugh out loud at this.
"So, what do you think?" Mom asked.
I hesitated to even look in the mirror. But it was like a train wreck. I couldn't not look. I peeked one eye open, taking in my reflection as Mom stood back, clasping her hands together in front of her like she'd just created a masterpiece.
"Oh Mads. You look so lovely."
I faked a smile. Okay, actually it was more of a grimace than a smile, but I don't think Mom noticed. The dress (and I use this term loosely) featured a corseted waist that flared out into a bell shape at my hips. Which totally accented the fried food diet I'd been on the last few days. Yikes.
It was cut low in the front, high on the legs and reminded me vaguely of my high school prom dress. It was a style that screamed for crimped hair and jelly bracelets.
"Her wawas are falling out," Mrs. Rosenblatt commented.
I looked down. I did have a little cleavage.
"It's just a little tight." Mom stood back, scrutinizing my mid section. "Maddie, have you gained weight?"
I looked in horror from my stomach to Molly's bulging one.
"It's fine," I said quickly, sucking in. "It's just water weight. I ate a big breakfast. I haven't been to the gym lately." I know, it would have been more convincing if I'd picked just one excuse.
"You know what this dress needs?" Molly asked, narrowing her eyes at my reflection.
Hmmm…a Bic and a can of lighter fluid?
"Beads. All bridesmaids' gowns need beads."
I opened my mouth to protest, but I guess fashion shock must have made me too slow.
"I love it!" Mom squealed before I could say anything. "Maddie, stay here. We'll be right back."
All of them scurried out of the dressing room (with the exception of Mrs. Rosenblatt, who waddled out) in search of beads.
I stared at my image. Trying not to cringe. I reminded myself how many hours of labor my mother went through. It was just one day. I only had to wear it for one day. Then I could shove it into the far recesses of my closet never to be seen again. I mean, how many people were even going to see me in it anyway?
"Cute," a deep voice said behind me.
I spun around so fast I almost popped right out of my neckline…
And came face to face with Ramirez.
Volcanic amounts of heat hit my cheeks, and I resisted the urge to cover myself and scream, "Look away!" Instead, I managed a more dignified, "Thanks."
"Purple's a good color on you." The corner of his mouth quirked up.
"It matches my aura." Oh great, that sounded intelligent.
Ramirez raised one black eyebrow at me.
"Actually, my aura's not solid purple. Just streaked with purple flares. Which means I have stuff on my mind. At least, that's what the psychic said. Which is good. It's better than having an empty mind, right? Besides, I think it's just water weight." Oh. My. God. Shut up, Maddie!
I took a breath, stopping myself before I completely turned into a caricature of The Ditzy Blonde. Instead I asked, "So, what are you doing here?"
Ramirez looked about as out of place in a bridal salon as Faux Dad at a 49er's Game. He was wearing those butt-hugging Levi's again, this time coupled with a white T-shirt that contrasted with his naturally tanned skin. Though white shirt or no, he still had that dark, dangerous look that had me warring between wanting to stand a little closer and backing against the far wall.
"A few things have come up in the course of our investigation," he said. "I need to ask you some more questions."
"Here? Right now?"
"How did you even find me?"
He smiled. "Your jeep is parked illegally outside."
Ugh. I knew I shouldn't have parked in that red zone. "When did LA become such a small town?"
The smile widened, showing off that sexy dimple. "Since I started looking in my rearview mirror for little red Jeeps."
He had me there. I did have a tendency to follow him around. Damn, I hated how stalker that sounded.
Ramirez took a step into the room, leaning casually against the wall. Suddenly the room was way too small, and I felt at a distinct disadvantage wearing The Purple People Eater. "You know, I'm not exactly dressed for an interrogation."
"You look fine to me." His eyes strayed down my frame…then slowly back up again.
Instinctively I covered my wawas.
"I've told you everything I know. Richard canceled lunch with me on Friday. I haven't seen him since."
"So, you haven't been to his office recently?"
I bit my lip. "Not really."
Ramirez narrowed his eyes at me. "Uh-huh. Want to explain that answer?"
"No," I answered truthfully.
His mouth threatened a smile again. "I didn't think so."
He paused, waiting for me to say something. Hoping maybe I would crack under the pressure. Which was entirely likely. His espresso brown eyes bored into me like a spotlight, and I began to fidget. Instead of purple polyester, I suddenly felt like I was wearing see-through undies.
Finally he spoke, changing the subject. "I've been looking through your boyfriend's financial records for the last few months," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "He's a big spender."
"He's in debt up to his eyeballs."
I gulped. I knew. But after saying I hadn't been in his office, I couldn't very well admit to having peeked at his financial records myself. So I said nothing.
"Yet," Ramirez continued, "he just keeps spending. Platinum earrings, a new car, a cruise for his mother's birthday last—"
"Wait," I interrupted, suddenly confused. "Richard hasn't bought a new car. He's driven the same black beamer for as long as I've known him."
Ramirez put on his poker face again, his eyes steady on mine as if he could pry my every secret out with just one look.
"The car wasn't for him," he said slowly. "It was for Amy. His wife."