“Okay, Hannah, you win,” Beth said. “After all, a girl’s gotta eat.”
“Twelve o’clock,” I said. “The Pomegranate, on Main Street.”
I was grinning as I hung up the phone. My sister-in-law had sworn she was handcuffed to her computer, but I knew better. Beth could always be persuaded to procrastinate and I was desperate for some adult conversation. Much as I loved Zoe, my four year old, I was tired of discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It was a beautiful California Sunday morning. I didn’t hurry. I knew Beth would be at least half an hour late, and I’d long ago given up on being prompt myself. Zoe was learning to tie her shoes this week, and one thing she’d inherited from me was persistence. It would take a while before she gave up and asked for help.
In the meantime I put on some blush, glaring at myself in the mirror. Whoever had invented “dress for success” hadn’t been born with my hair, or for that matter, my body. My hair frizzed around my shoulders, defying me to run a comb through it, and to add insult to injury I spotted two new gray additions to the red. My body was looking a little better, thanks to the workouts, but it was still a hefty size fourteen. I changed to a clean T-shirt, buttoned my jeans and sucked in my stomach.
“Look, Mommy, I did it myself,” Zoe said, proudly displaying a perfectly tied sneaker.
“Honey, that’s terrific,” I said. “I bet you’ll pass your medical boards on the first try too.” Zoe gave me a peculiar look and started on her other shoe.
We were only fifteen minutes late, but we beat Beth, as usual, so we settled down with coffee, chocolate milk and the Sunday L.A. Times.
Beth breezed in, looking happier than I’d seen her since before her wedding. A youthful forty, Beth wasn’t exactly beautiful, but she lit up the room. She had a long, narrow face with high cheekbones and exceptional green eyes. Long, thick auburn hair cascaded halfway down her back, held by a fashionable Gucci scarf, which picked up the colors of her yellow and purple outfit. The only blot on her appearance was her nose, which had been a match to Ben’s, my late husband. Being a boy, he’d lived with it. Beth had submitted hers to the ministrations of a plastic surgeon who’d given her a classic ski jump. Unfortunately it had healed poorly and pointed asymmetrically to her left. I thought it gave her face character, and was still an improvement on her teenage photos.
“Aunt Beth!” Zoe said, dive-bombing into her lap. I gave Beth a hug and the menu. Eating with her used to be an adventure. I never knew what crazy food fad she’d be into next, but right now she was still in a Kosher phase. She’d started it when she got married and had kept it up even after the divorce. I was tempted by the bacon and eggs but settled for a jack cheese omelet instead. No point in being offensive. Beth ordered something vegetarian.
“You look great,” I told her. “Is something nice going on in your life that you forgot to tell me about?”
She grinned. “I just met a new man.”
I raised my eyebrows. Not only had Beth been celibate in the year since her divorce, she hadn’t even dated.
“What did he do to catch your attention?” I asked, “invent the human potential movement?”
Beth looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure. He’s a new client. You know how, when ducklings hatch, they bond to the first thing they see and think it’s their mother? I think my hormones finally got turned back on and he just happened to be around when it happened. But don’t worry, he hasn’t even asked me out yet.”
“Just remember, you’re not allowed to marry anyone you haven’t lived with for a year, no matter how fast your biological clock may be ticking.”
“Not to worry,” she said. “I learned that lesson the hard way. What are you up to?”
“Same old,” I told her, “Deliveries, hysterectomies, pap smears. I’m on ER call this week. Should be a bitch.”
“Mommy, don’t use bad words,” Zoe said.
I covered my mouth. Working in the operating room, mostly with a bunch of male surgeons, had enhanced my vocabulary. I hadn’t realized how much of it I brought home until Zoe’s nursery school teacher had tactfully mentioned that Zoe had been educating the rest of her classmates.
“Let’s go,” Beth said. “You guys can walk me home, but I’ve got to work this afternoon. I’m already a week past my deadline editing the Kingsley manuscript.”
“Oh? And how many projects are you juggling simultaneously this week?”
“Only four, I think. I’ve got that new client with a mystery novel, The Oat Bran Cookbook, The Woman’s Guide to Holistic Therapies, and Andrea’s book, of course.”
I groaned. Andrea Marcus was a good friend of mine, a delightful psychiatrist who, in her spare time, was writing a book on psychological aspects of infertility. Unfortunately for Andrea, Beth had always subscribed to the “last minute” technique of getting things done. She’d fill her day with errands that gave new meaning to the word “avoidance”, and only start serious work when she was two weeks past her self imposed deadline and her client was starting to leave obscene messages on her answering machine. Then she’d work a few all-nighters, and save the day. She always did her best work under pressure. Just thinking about it was enough to give me a migraine.
Main Street in Santa Monica was filled with Sunday browsers in shorts and jogging suits, who carefully avoided the few vagrants from the homeless encampment on nearby Venice Beach. Unwashed and unshaven, wheeling their few possessions in shopping carts, they made a grim contrast to the otherwise yuppie festival. There was a convenience store at the corner, and Beth motioned me to stop.
“I need some chewing gum,” she said.
Zoe and I basked in the sunshine, watching the crowds and enjoying the day. Beth came out, backtracked a few feet, and handed a dollar to a homeless man sprawled in a doorway. He took the money and stared at us without an acknowledgment. He had a young, narrow, bearded face with hard, piercing eyes, almost the same shade as hers. Beth turned toward me with a sheepish smile. She’d always been a soft touch and I loved her for it, but my years of residency training in the county hospital had turned me into a cynic.
“Ten-to-one the guy’s an ambulatory schizophrenic or a drunk,” I said. Beth shrugged her shoulders as we reached Rose Avenue, stared at the statue of the ballerina with the clown’s head, and turned east.
Beth’s neighborhood was in transition. To the south was the Oakwood section of Venice, one of the city’s high crime areas. Just a few blocks west were the trendy restaurants, boutiques, and condominiums of Main Street. Beth lived on the ground floor of a seedy looking apartment building. She’d moved in a year ago, just before the divorce, and had been promising to invite us over as soon as the place was decent. As no invitation had been forthcoming, I assumed she hadn’t finished unpacking, or had yet to acquire something to sit on. Usually we met at a restaurant, or she came to my place.
The building had been built in the 1940’s and had probably been painted about then too. It was a garish shade of blue with dirty white trim and a front lawn that didn’t seem to get either watered or mowed.
“Wait here a second,” Beth said. “I don’t have my keys with me. I’ll go around to the back door”
She disappeared down the driveway, and a minute later opened the front door and ushered us in.
The place could have been cute. The walls were white and freshly painted, the wood floors a light oak, and in good condition, but the clutter was overwhelming. The living room was uninvitingly dark, and I mentally installed track lighting. The kitchen had the usual assortment of unwashed dishes and a tray on the stove filled with freshly baked cookies.
“Try them,” Beth said. I reached for a couple. “They’re my wheat free, sugar free, peanut butter cookies. Pretty good, huh?” I had already made the mistake of biting into one but I managed not to wince. I really loved Beth, and I should have known better. I handed one to Zoe and forced myself to finish the other.
Mittens, Beth’s cat, a black and white tabby, came out from under the sofa where he’d been hiding and deposited himself in Zoe’s lap. She petted him gently, a beatific smile on her face, and he started to purr. My refusal to get her a pet was a sore spot between us. I was barely holding it together as a single mom, and the thought of one more thing to nurture was more than I could handle.
“By the way,” Beth said. “That B-E-A-R I was planning to give Zoe is in a plastic bag near the piano. As soon as I sew the arms and legs on I’ll bring it over.” The animal in question had been Beth’s since childhood. It was about twice as big as Zoe and Beth had been promising it as a birthday present for the past two years. Zoe’s most recent birthday had come and gone months ago, but I wasn’t counting.
“Are you sure you can stand to part with it?” I said.
An expression of sadness passed over Beth’s face, then disappeared as she glanced over at Zoe.
“I guess I had some kind of fantasy about saving it for my own child,” she said, “but at the rate I’m going it’s likely that Zoe will outgrow it long before any theoretical child of mine would be ready for it.”
I squeezed her hand and she smiled at me. “I was thinking of getting some new furniture. What do you think?”
“Great idea,” I said. “I’ll come shopping with you.” A cleaning lady would be nice too, I thought.
“I really like the high tech look.”
Sounded good to me. Beth had never been shopping for real furniture. The stuff she had when she and Josh were married had all been his, and it looked like she’d replaced it with discards from Goodwill.
“Are you sure you want to stay in this place, Beth? I’d feel better if you were living in a safer neighborhood.” We’d had this conversation before, any number of times. She’d always been adamant.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” she said. “I keep hearing gunshots at night. The yuppies are moving in, but the druggies aren’t moving out. I’ve actually even looked at a few places in the Fairfax area.”
I was pleasantly surprised. It was beginning to sound as if the old Beth was emerging from hibernation. “Call me when you’re ready to go shopping,” I said. “I think Zoe and I should go now, so you can get some work done.”
I gave her a kiss and detached Zoe from Mittens. Unfortunately Beth wasn’t the only one with a ton of work waiting at home.
Coming home to my townhouse in Brentwood felt like a pleasure. Emilia, my housekeeper, had no tolerance for clutter, and with the exception of Zoe’s room, which always looked like the site of a recent bomb blast, things were immaculate. Zoe headed immediately for the television and put on a DVD of The Little Mermaid. I grabbed a Diet Coke from the fridge and settled myself at my desk in the bedroom so I could dictate the histories and physicals on my surgical cases for next week. The desk was a genuine Louis XV with a satin smooth finish and inlaid parquet of dazzling complexity. Ben and I had fallen in love with it on our honeymoon in Paris, and his folks had shipped it home for us as a wedding present. Ben’s photo smiled at me from a silver frame next to the telephone.
Even after five years it was hard for me to look at it without feeling a wrench in my gut and tears in my eyes. I missed him intolerably. He did look remarkably like his sister–the same narrow face and high cheekbones, the same slightly oriental eyes and generous mouth. Ben’s nose, however, was unmistakably Jewish and stood out from his face like a beacon.
We’d met sixteen years earlier during my first year at Harvard Med. I’d been at the Harvard Co-op trying to collect the books for my first semester of classes. I’d managed to accumulate about thirty pounds of texts, and was balancing them precariously in my arms while teetering in the direction of the cash register in my then fashionable high heels. Ben was walking backwards in the aisle perpendicular to me. Near as I’d been able to tell afterwards, he’d been watching some blond co-ed with a tight ass who’d been going in the opposite direction. Needless to say we collided and I landed ignominiously on my rear, my books flying in all directions. He’d been carrying something on the history of ornament, which wound up in my lap, from which I deduced that he wasn’t a fledgling physician.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?” he said.
“I think I’ve broken a femur, but everything else seems intact.”
He looked so stricken that I relented and smiled at him, accepting the hand he offered so I could assume a more dignified position. What I’d actually broken was more serious than a femur. It was the heel on my new Bruno Maglis, the most expensive pair of shoes I’d ever owned. I’d bought them for myself as a graduation present from Vassar, knowing that they were going to have to last the entire four years of Med School. I was devastated.
“I think I’ve got everything,” he said, gathering my books and purse from the floor. “I feel like an idiot. You’ve got to let me make this up to you.”
“It was an accident,” I said. “But you could help me carry this stuff to the cashier.”
He watched me limp onto the line.
“How about letting me carry those books home for you? My car’s just outside, and you can’t walk in those shoes. We could stop at the shoemaker’s and get them fixed on the way back, at my expense, of course.”
My mother had always warned me not to get into cars with strange men. She’d never said anything about whether I could let them repair my Bruno’s.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Hannah. It’s really sweet of you to offer, but I’ll be fine, honestly.”
“If you don’t let me make this up to you I’ll feel guilty for the rest of my life. I’ll have to go into analysis.”
That sounded like a fate worse than death. No one in Brooklyn, where I came from, ever went into analysis. Anyway he was rather attractive. Some intuition was telling me that I’d be a jerk to refuse.
“I only live three blocks away,” I said. “You’ll lose your parking spot.”
“Not to worry,” he said. “I thought I’d take you out to dinner afterwards, so we’ll need the car.”
I smiled just remembering and ran my fingers softly over the silver frame. Time to get back to my dictations. If I wasn’t careful, my skills at procrastination would begin to rival Beth’s. It had been so nice, finally seeing her happy and looking forward to something. I’d give her a call next week and see if we could set up a furniture shopping date.
A ringing cell phone awakened Detective Daniel Ross at two in the morning. He groaned and rolled over, squinting at the bright screen. The voice at the other end said there had been a murder in an apartment building just off Main Street and he was needed. The call was not unexpected. It was rare for him to get a full night’s sleep when his team was on first call. He’d prepared by going to bed early, drifting off to sleep in the middle of an Elizabeth George mystery novel. The book was lying next to him on his quilt. He turned on the bedside lamp and dressed hurriedly, pulling on a long sleeved T-shirt and jeans, and retrieving his gun from the safe. He made a quick stop in the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face, brushing his teeth and running a comb through his tousled dark hair. His crime scene kit was in the trunk of his car, along with a warm jacket for the chill night. The address they had given him was only five minutes away from his Venice cottage. When he got there he saw two patrolmen in front of the building and crime scene tape across the front door.
“What’s the story?” Daniel asked.
“The next door neighbor heard a scream and called 911. We were in Oakwood, dealing with a gang fight. When we got here we found the victim in the bedroom, stabbed to death. The killer was gone. We secured the apartment, called you and called for the medical examiner and the forensic guys. When the backup cops got here, we sent them into the neighborhood to see if they could find anyone suspicious in the alley or on the streets.”
Daniel nodded. “Let’s have a look.”
One of the cops led him around to the back door. Daniel’s flashlight revealed no sign of forced entry and the door was unlocked.
“Is this how you found it?” he asked.
The patrolman nodded. “Yes, sir. The front door was double locked and all the windows are pinned. This is how he must have gotten in.”
Daniel put on shoe covers and latex gloves and entered the apartment, careful to avoid touching anything. The woman was lying on her stomach, wearing a purple blouse soaked in blood, her slacks pulled down over bare buttocks. He wondered if she’d been raped before she was killed. He couldn’t tell just by looking although the posture was suggestive. The medical examiner would need to check for secretions or lacerations. He could see the defensive wounds on her arms and traces of blood under her nails. She’d put up a fight. Her killer had stabbed her multiple times, far more stab wounds than necessary to kill her. Arterial spray decorated the walls behind the twin bed and blood had pooled beneath her. The murder weapon, a large knife, was lying on the floor.
“Do we have an ID?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” the patrolman said. “Her name was Beth Kline. The neighbor said she worked from home as an editor.”
Excerpt from Murder in the Family, by Paula Bernstein
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