"You've got to come right away, girls. I'm trapped in this damn hotel, and I need you to do something for me desperately
Lenore Richling managed the trick of sounding needy and haughty at the same time. I looked at Terry, who was listening in on the extension. She rolled her eyes at me and made a rude hand gesture.
"We're kind of busy right now, Lenore," I said.
Busy trying to think of a way out of this situation. Lenore was the bosom buddy of our rich Aunt Reba, the Canasta Queen of Beverly Hills, who had called minutes earlier to say that her dear friend was in a pickle, and she'd be ever so grateful if we could help her out.
It wasn't the "pickle" bit that had us concerned. Pickles, you might say, are our business. No, it was the word "help" that gave us pause. Like Aunt Reba--in fact, like most members of the moneyed class--Lenore was famously cheap. She would probably expect the help in the form of a favor, and we doubted she'd be all that grateful. Rich people are hardly ever grateful for anything, since they think they're entitled
Terry had made me promise to pawn Lenore off on someone else.
"I can give you the name of someone who can help you--" I started to say.
"Oh, but I need you
," the older woman wheedled shamelessly.
I hesitated for a second, mindful of the consequences of blowing off Reba's best friend, then caved. "Could it possibly wait till tomorrow?"
Terry's boot connected painfully with my shin. Mouthing the word "wimp" at me, she waved the property tax bill in my face. Our business had slowed to nothing, and the tax bill had arrived along with a notice that our checks were going boing
at the bank. There were no jobs on the horizon and unless we got some paying work quickly, we were going to lose our little love shack to the county. There was simply no time for running down Lenore's runaway new husband, which we assumed was the reason for the call.
"No! It can't possibly wait. I need you this minute
," Lenore said, an emotional quaver working its way into her smoke-ravaged voice.
I sighed. Clearly there was no getting out of this.
"All right. Look for us in an hour," I said, rubbing my shinbone. "You're at the Dauphine on Layton Way, right?"
Terry stomped around the room, whipping her long red braid around like a cat-o'-nine-tails as she cursed me for a turncoat.
"Yes," Lenore answered. "If asked, say you're visiting 'Mrs. Templeton' in Room 308."
A false name, no less. Very cloak and dagger.
"Beverly Hills 213
printed a blurb saying I'm visiting a contessa in Monaco," she explained, referring to a throwaway paper that featured gossip and social items of interest to its denizens--213
being the former area code for the infamous 90210 region. "Only Reba knows I'm here. It's terribly important that you not mention my name to anyone."
Lenore was using this subterfuge because she'd just had her third face-lift in fifteen years, according to Reba. There are more cosmetic surgeries per capita in Beverly Hills than chopsticks in Shanghai, but few self-respecting BH residents will ever admit to having had tummies tucked, faces winched, or thigh fat sucked through a straw. This is why Lenore had leaked the contessa story before going under the knife, then checked into the hotel to be pampered by the "superb staff" while she recuperated away from prying eyes. Afterward she would appear in the driveway with her suitcases looking very "relaxed" after her fictitious trip. Ah, there's nothing like the fresh air of Monaco to stretch your skin as tight as panty hose on a rhino.
"Lenore, just out of curiosity--is this about your husband?"
She snorted into the speaker. "Did Reba tell you about that?"
"Uh, she mentioned something."
She had, in fact, told us the whole sordid story. After the death of Lenore's ancient first husband, Myron Richling, she had married a valet from the Beverly Hills Hotel named Mario Vallegos, twenty-eight years old to Lenore's seventy. She tried to reinvent Mario as an Argentinean polo player on the theory that no one noticed the help at five-star hotels, so no one would tumble to the lie.
Then barely two months later, Mario had run out, leaving Lenore Richling-Vallegos thoroughly humiliated. The face-lift was a way of perking herself up--a kind of surgical shopping spree.
"I called the INS on him," Lenore said. "But they haven't been able to catch the slimy little wetback."Whoa
, I thought. A woman scorched.
"Mario's an illegal alien?" I said.
She laughed, phlegm gurgling in her throat, and I heard her light up a cigarette. "He's an illegal everything. Look, come over here and I'll fill you in. I can't get into this on the phone."
Terry revved the Harley in the driveway as I locked up the house. She was pissed, I could tell by the thunderous volume of the throttle. I walked up to the front tire and made a helpless gesture.
"She's Reba's best friend, what could I do?"
"You could let me
talk to her. I'd tell her what to do with her boy toy."
"It's twenty minutes away. What can it hurt to go see her? She might even pay us."
"Yeah," Terry snorted. "And monkeys might fly out of my butt."
These days, everyone's a detective. Just buy the software, and you can Find Out Anything About Anyone!
Fortunately for us, people don't steal from their employer's warehouses, fake insurance claims, or cheat on their spouses online, though occasionally some idiot going through a divorce will post pictures of himself in compromising positions with leather-clad swingles or bewildered farm animals on his very own website. (Even in a no-fault divorce state, illicit sexual activity or just plain spousal bizarreness can be taken into account when dictating monetary settlements or custody arrangements.)
It's not glamorous work--hunkering down with a telephoto lens behind a Dumpster at the Motel 6 or the Good Guys Electronics store, or trying to bust some worker's-comp faker waltzing behind a mower on his front lawn--but it allows us to postpone thinking about what to do when we grow up, and keeps the credit card company wolves from our door in the interim.
We'd even done our share of locating runaway mates, mostly dads of the deadbeat variety, but I found myself getting queasy as we made our way east on Santa Monica Boulevard toward Beverly Hills. I doubted that Lenore wanted us for anything so straightforward as finding out where that darn man of hers had gone. She'd sounded too bitter, too bent on revenge.
And I didn't much like the idea of sacrificing some poor Mexican national for the sake of Lenore's wounded pride.
Terry slowed in front of the Dauphine Hotel, an elegant faade that blended in with the pricey condos and apartment buildings on either side of it. She waved to the valet standing out front, signaling him that she had things under control, and zipped into the underground parking garage.
The valet did what a lot of people do when they see identical redheads on a shocking-pink Harley. He laughed.
With its eye-catching custom paint job, our bike looks like something from the Barbie Goes Hog Wild!
collection. Plus, Terry wears a matching pink leather jacket with fringe and a pink helmet with a purple flower-power daisy on the side--not exactly stealth transport.
She'd bought the Softail Deuce after we cashed in Dad's insurance policy, and in the lean times following her arrest we'd never managed to trade in her drug- and grief-induced purchase for something more suitable to our line of work.
Terry found an empty parking space in the subterranean garage and we climbed off the bike, grinning at the surveillance cameras aimed at our faces, then hiked up the incline that said Not a Walkway to the street level and back past the valet, who asked the question we heard--on average--twice a day.
"Hey, are you two twins?"
"Identical strangers," Terry said, never very charitable toward the stupid of the species. We breezed up to the doorman, who reached out a white-gloved hand and swung open the brass door.
"Hello, ladies. Welcome to the Dauphine."
We gave him a quick smile that said we hung out in fancy hotels all the time and strolled into the lobby.
The space was done in pink marble, reflected on all sides by floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Massive Japanese flower arrangements protruded from gilded ceramic urns, their stems reaching almost to the ceiling and drawing attention to its Renaissance-style fresco of angels and puffy clouds on a light blue background. Impressionist reproductions, or possibly originals, hung on the mirrors in heavy gold frames, and everyone who was not anyone was attired in an anonymous black hotel uniform.
Everyone, that is, except the short, slick Armani-suited man who headed us off at the elevator.
" 'Allo. May I help you?" he said in a tone that conveyed: I am French. I am better zan you.
"No, thanks," Terry said, punching the call button.
"May I know to whose room you are go-ing
? I am ze
"We're here to see, uh, Mrs. Templeton," I said, remembering to use Lenore's alias.
I glanced over at Terry, who made a face at the back of the manager's pomaded head.
"Room 308," I said.
"Ahh." He ignored the edge in my voice and stepped onto the elevator with us. "I will accompany you. At ze
moment she is in 302 with ze ozzer
He wore an overpowering cologne that sucked all the oxygen out of the small elevator, a cloying mixture of spring posies and animal musk that spoke of goats frolicking in the meadow. I held my breath and watched as he straightened his Givenchy tie in the reflection of the polished bronze doors.
"Madame is expecting you?"
," Terry said.
At the sound of French, he went all charming, almost bowing. He held out a puffy manicured hand. "I am Alphonse."
Alphonse. One name only--like Prince, Madonna, Butthead. Obviously a local celebrity in his own right.
"Therèse," she said with a phony French accent, crooking her hand into a palsied little hook, which he took by the fingers and squeezed.
I rolled my eyes at her. "Kerry McAfee," I said, holding out my hand to him in the normal manner. "And that's my sister Terry."
I got a quick, jerky shake that left my hand reeking of all the perfumes of Araby. "You are relations of Madame?" he said.
"No, we're here on business," I said.
? What kind of beeziness
Terry lowered her voice. "Private business."
"Of course," he said unctuously.
The doors opened on the third floor. "Thanks, Alphonse. We can find it." I hoped he'd take the elevator back down and give my nostrils a rest.
Instead he bolted out the doors ahead of us. "I'm afraid I must accompany you. You understand, our guests expect ze
utmost in discretion, zhey
come here for privacy."
We stepped out into the subdued light of the hallway and followed Alphonse down to 302, where he rapped delicately on the door. " 'Allo? Meezus Templetohn . . . ?"
"Come in!" a voice warbled from within. Alphonse tried the door, but it was locked. I stepped up beside him and knocked again.
"Mrs. Templeton, it's the McAfees."
"Dash it, come in!" I heard a craggy voice grumble, then the door flew open.
I stepped back and my breath caught in my throat.
In front of me stood someone of elfin proportions, balanced on three-inch platform heels and swathed in animal prints. Her face was swollen and oozing at the edges, her beady brown eyes peering out over cheeks that looked like rumpled purple pillows. A large turban crowned her tiny head, giving her the appearance of a genie who had recently escaped from a miniature Aladdin's Lamp.
"Yes . . . ?"
"We're here to see Mrs. Richling, I mean Mrs. Templeton," I said, choking on the words. Just looking at her bruised face made my stomach lurch and my hamstrings ache.
She turned and yelled into the room, "Len, honey! It's for you . . . !"
Beyond the woman in leopard-skin bell-bottoms was a surrealistic scene--a table surrounded by bandaged persons of smallish stature, their ages impossible to guess without the usual markers, their hair caught up in sleek blonde ponytails or bloodred French twists and rich brown bouffants. And underneath the meticulous coifs were bandaged, mutilated masks.
This was obviously a way station for women who, like Lenore, were taking their third or fourth dip into the Fountain of Youth, the hotel standing in for a number of exotic ports-of-call that would never actually be stamped in their passports.
There appeared to be a high stakes game of canasta going on. The playing cards were grasped in hands with long, multicolored talons, the knotted knuckles and spotted skin revealing the years that facial surgery had sought to erase. A Louis Vuitton umbrella bag lay on the satin coverlet of the sprawling bed, stuffed with cash, bundles of one hundred dollar bills carelessly massed in its opening. Another large stack of greenbacks sat on the table in front of a woman with dark hair in a Flamenco dancer's bun, who had normal breasts that sagged perceptibly, something of a belly, and a pleasing roundness to her arms. I guessed that liposuction and breast augmentation were next on the menu.
A big, cellophane-wrapped gift basket caught my eye, sitting on the bureau near the table, stuffed with a profusion of goodies. Perfumed soaps and gourmet comestibles, probably compliments of the hotel.
Lenore looked up from her scorecard and waved to us. I assumed it was Lenore, but only knew for sure when she spoke. I recognized the husky nasal drawl. "Hello, girls. Be right with you."
She totaled up their scores and handed the paper to her neighbor, a woman with a Hermes scarf wound around her face.
"I don't know how," the woman said, "but you've been cheating, Lenore."
Lenore hiked a bony shoulder. "Sore loser."
"We're all sore, duckie!" another one quipped, then they all burst out laughing, their cackling following us as we left the room and all the way down the hall.
When we got to room 308, Lenore turned and dismissed Alphonse with a curt nod.
"Will Madame be needing anything?" he asked, ever the eager toady.
"Later," she snapped. He bowed and disappeared.
Lenore attempted to smile at us. "Thank you for coming, girls. I really need your help." She put her key card in the lock and pushed open the door. Something dashed out of the room, tan-colored and sleek, the size of a large rodent. It ran straight through Lenore's feet and spun around.
"Rat!" Terry yelled.
I jumped back, slamming into the wall, my heart pounding in my chest. I hate rats. Hate the idea of rats.
"Don't be stupid," Lenore said, bending at the waist to scoop it up. "It's Paquito. How's my precious?" she cooed at him.
It was a dog. A rat dog.
Excerpted from The Butcher of Beverly Hills by Jennifer Colt. Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Colt. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.