Masks are dangerous. The merest scrap of silk or slip of cardboard can eclipse one's civilized identity and set loose the dark side of the soul.
Trust me. You take a pair of perfectly well-behaved newspaper reporters, or software engineers or whatever, dress them up as Spider-Man and a naughty French maid and whammo! It's a whole new ball game.
Which is why this party was getting out of hand. Free drinks can make people crazy, but free costumes make them wild. Two hundred big black envelopes had gone out to Paul and Elizabeth's friends and colleagues, inviting them to a Halloween engagement party in the Seattle Aquarium, down at Pier 59 on Elliott Bay. And tucked inside the envelope was a very special party favor: a coupon for the persona of one's choice at Characters, Inc., a theater-quality costume shop.
So tonight, more than a hundred and fifty reasonably civilized people were living out their fantasies among the fishes. And the fantasies were getting rowdy. It all started innocently enough: Madonna flirting with Mozart, Death with his scythe trading stock tips with Nero and his violin, Albert Einstein dirty dancing with Monica Lewinsky. And everyone toasting the engaged couple with affection and good cheer.
Paul Wheeler, the groom-to-be, was news editor at the Seattle Sentinel; he made a skinny, smiley swashbuckler--sort of Indiana Jones Lite. His fiancee, Elizabeth ("not Liz") Lamott, was a tough-minded Microsoft millionaire who had retired at twenty-nine. Dressed as Xena the Warrior Princess, Elizabeth looked drop-dead sexy, and more than capable of beheading barbarian warlords. The Wheeler and Lamott families would all be at the wedding in two weeks--an extravaganza at the Experience Music Project--but tonight's bash was more of a coed bachelor party.
And like so many bachelor parties, headed straight to hell. Mister Rogers was juggling martini glasses, quite unsuccessfully, near Principles of Ocean Survival. A well-tailored Count Dracula had knocked over the sushi trays at Local Invertebrates. Various members of the Spice Girls and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band were disappearing into the darkened grotto of Pacific Coral Reef and returning with their costumes askew. And at all the liquor stations, masked revelers had begun pushing past the bartenders to pour their own drinks--a danger sign even when the crowd is in civvies.
I wasn't wearing a mask, and I certainly wasn't fantasizing, except about keeping my professional cool and getting our damage deposit back from the Aquarium. It was my hands the party was getting out of: "Made in Heaven Wedding Design, Carnegie Kincaid, Proprietor." I usually stick to weddings, too, but business had been iffy ever since I'd been a suspect in the abduction of one of my brides. Everybody reads the headlines, nobody reads the follow-up, and now my name, besides being weird in the first place, had a little shadow across it in the minds of some potential clients.
So an extra event with an extra commission had been hard to turn down. And the formidable Ms. Lamott had been impossible to turn down. When Elizabeth wanted something, she got it, whether she was launching products for Bill Gates or, more recently, harvesting charity donations from Seattle's crop of wealthy thirtysomethings. Elizabeth asked me to manage her engagement party in person, I explained that I really don't do costumes, and suddenly, somehow, there I was in a long jaggedy-hemmed black gown and a crooked-peaked witch's hat, stationed by the champagne at Salmon & People, and reminding my waiters that cleaning broken glass off the floor comes first, no matter how many guests are demanding more booze.
"What?" I snapped. "Oh, sorry, Lily. I'm losing my mind here."
Lily James, my date for the party, was a statuesque black-skinned Cleopatra, rubber snake and all, with her wide eyes and arching brows elaborately painted into an Egyptian mask of gold and indigo. By day, Lily staffed the reference desk at Seattle Public, but tonight she was every inch the voluptuous and commanding Queen of the Nile. Of course, Lily could be voluptuous and commanding in sweatpants--I'd seen her do it any number of times.
Why was my best friend also my date? Because I'd had a spat with Aaron Gold, my who-knows-what. The spat was about Aaron's smoking, which I found deplorable and he found to be none of my business. But it went deeper than that. We were teetering on the brink of being lovers, and life on the brink was uncomfortable. At least it was for me; I kept hesitating and analyzing and wondering if we were right for each other. Aaron's view was that we could analyze just as easily lying down.
Aaron was at the party, of course. All of the Sentinel's reporters were there, gleefully adding to the pandemonium. I could see a laughing, breathless bunch of them now, escorting Paul and Elizabeth up the tunnel from the Underwater Dome room, where the dancing was. As they headed for the martini bar, Aaron put his arm around Corinne Campbell, the paper's society writer. A handsome couple: he was quite dashing in a Zorro mask and cape, and she made a blonde, bosomy Venus in a filmy white gown crisscrossed with silver cords.
I knew Corinne professionally--she often wrote about my brides--and I'd been seeing more of her now that she was one of Elizabeth's bridesmaids. She wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she could be pleasant enough, in an overeager kind of way. Especially to men. I bet she found the scent of cigarettes manly and exciting.
"I said, I'm having a fine time." Lily's voice broke through this sour speculation. "You're not listening, are you? You're mooning after Aaron."
"I am not! I'm keeping an eye on all the guests. He just happens to be one of them."
"Whatever you say." Her glittery makeup caught the light as she gazed around and let loose the deep, provocative laugh that often startled the library's patrons. "This is a fabulous place for a party!"
"You bet your asp it is," I said, scanning the crowd over her shoulder. "But it's tough to supervise, with all these corridors and cul-de-sacs. I've got a couple of off-duty cops here as security and I haven't talked to either one in hours except on the two-way radio. Makes me nervous."
I was especially nervous about Northwest Shores, a narrow grotto behind the martini bar. I'd already had to shoo some Visigoths off the handrail of the shorebird exhibit down at the end. The water in the little beach scene was only a foot deep, but if anybody tumbled over backwards it would terrify the long-billed curlews and they'd never let me rent this place again. The management, I mean, not the curlews.
"Well, everyone but you is having a blast," said Lily. "Even Roger Talbot, in a quiet sort of way. I'm surprised he came."
Talbot, publisher of the Sentinel and a prominent Seattle Democrat, was making a brief appearance to toast the happy pair. It was generous of him; he'd recently lost his wife to cancer, and could hardly be in a party mood. We watched him join the little crowd of newspaper people, shaking hands with Zorro, giving Venus a quick hug, raising his glass to lead a toast to Xena and Indy. In his black tuxedo and carrying a black topcoat, Talbot looked grave and distinguished among all the gaudy costumes.
"He's really fond of Paul," I told Lily. "And he's on his way home from a medical fund-raiser. I guess if you're going to have a public career, you've got to put your private life aside."
Not long before his wife's death, Talbot had announced his candidacy for mayor of Seattle. He had a fighting chance, too, despite the incumbent's popularity. He looked like a statesman, for starters, with the height and grace of a former college basketball star. More than that, he had a scholar's grasp of detail and a reporter's knack for crystallizing ideas. The word around town was that if Talbot did make it to the mayor's office, he'd soon be packing a suitcase for the other Washington, the one back East.
"Carnegie, there you are!" Talbot raised a hand to me above the crowd and came over. Even with his air of strain and fatigue he was a handsome man, with a bold Roman nose and dark eyes and brows below thick, prematurely silver hair. "I understand you created this wonderful event. You do good work."
"Thank you, Roger. Thanks very much." I'm leery of politicians, as a rule, but still I found myself glowing at the praise. There was something about Roger Talbot's gaze that made you feel special, singled out. I introduced him to Lily, and watched the magic take effect on her. That kind of charm must be money in the bank to an ambitious man. Talbot listened intently to Lily's comments on the controversial design of the new downtown library, added a few well-informed remarks of his own, and then moved on.
"Well, he could eat crackers in my bed," pronounced Lily as we watched him walk away.
I was about to agree, when we heard an angry shout from the martini bar. A knot of people tightened suddenly, their backs to us, intent on a scene we couldn't see.
Over their heads, arcing high in the air, rose the scythe of Death.
I shoved my way through the crowd. I'm almost six feet tall, so I can shove with the best. Lunging like a fencer, I parried the scythe with my broomstick just in time to save Zorro from having his hair parted right through his hat.
"What on earth is going on here? Syd? Aaron?"
Death's hood had fallen back, revealing the fat and furious face of Sydney Soper, a big-shot local contractor and personal friend of the bride-to-be. That explained what was going on. Aaron had done an article, the first in a series, questioning Soper's methods of winning state highway contracts. With Seattle and Bellevue booming, and traffic approaching Los Angeles levels, those contracts ran into the millions. According to Aaron, a lot of millions were being misspent, if not actually swindled.
So now Death was pissed off at Zorro, and Zorro was standing his ground and grinning, a lock of raven-black hair flopping down beneath his black gaucho hat. I knew from personal experience how infuriating that grin could be, and I felt for Soper. Especially since, unlike me, Soper probably didn't appreciate the sexy brown eyes above the grin. His own eyes, hard and pale as pebbles, were bulging with anger. God knows what Aaron had said to provoke the Grim Reaper, but he was lucky the scythe was plastic.
As I hesitated, wondering how to cast a soothing spell, the scene was stolen from me by a gypsy queen. Mercedes Montoya, another of Elizabeth's bridesmaids, stepped up in a swirl of bright skirts and a chiming of bracelets. She was a classic Castilian beauty, via Mexico City, with a mane of midnight curls framing cheekbones so sharp you could cut yourself. And a mind to match. Mercedes had recently decamped from the Sentinel for the headier world of TV news, and she was already making a name for herself. The camera, as they say, loved her.
"Mister Soper," she murmured, with the faintest hint of an accent in her caressing, dark-chocolate voice. "This is a party. Come dance with me."
She held out a slim brown hand, sparkling with costume jewelry. Soper glared at her, breathing hard, but Mercedes' hand never wavered and the smile never left her narrow, aristocratic lips. I marveled at her self-assurance, even as I waited for the burly contractor to snarl her off. We all waited, Zorro and Cleopatra and the rest of us, through a long, uncomfortable moment. And then damned if Soper didn't take her hand and walk away, with a flush rising up the back of his thick neck. Taming the fury of Death, now that's what I call magic.
The knot of guests unraveled, many of them following Mercedes and Soper to the dance floor. I saw Mister Rogers hand in hand with Lady Macbeth, and Dracula bowing gallantly to a hippie chick in love beads and granny glasses. As he swept her down the tunnel with his black cape fluttering around her tie-dyed shoulders, Lily went off to boogie with the Visigoths, and I was left with Aaron Gold. Behind the Zorro mask, his eyes were cold and angry. But not at me. Our latest argument was the farthest thing from his mind, at least for now.
"That bitch," he said.
"Aaron! She was just smoothing things over."
"No, she was just worming her way into Soper's confidence." His usually flippant East Coast voice was harsh and flat. "Montoya's working up her own expose on construction fraud. In a couple of weeks, Soper's going to turn on the TV and wish he'd used that sickle thing on her."
"Well, you're trying to expose the fraud yourself. So what if it gets TV coverage, too?"
He sighed. "In the long run, it's better for John Q. Taxpayer if this all comes out as publicly as possible. But I've been dogging that story for months. Our favorite fortune teller there waltzed off to KPSL with all my research in her pretty little pocket."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean, she stole my notes right off my hard drive!"
"Couldn't she be fired for that? For unethical behavior?"
"Well, I can't actually prove it. But I got a very confidential lead about Soper bribing someone at the DOT, and now Montoya has lined up an interview with that same someone. And she was at my desk one night before she quit, fooling with my computer. Said she was interested in one of my programs, but that's bullshit. She hates computers. I'd bet money she read those notes."
"You're beautiful when you're angry." I couldn't resist; he needled me often enough.
"Very funny. She better not tip her hand to Soper, though, or he'll really freak. He thinks he's untouchable, but this bribery deal could bring him down for good."
"Mercedes seems so talented," I continued innocently. What a relief to be back on teasing terms after the chilly anger that had sent us to this party separately instead of together. "I saw her interview Roger Talbot on that afternoon show the other day and she was brilliant."
"Brilliant?" he yelped. "How brilliant do you have to be to bat your eyelashes? 'The people of Seattle are so grieved for you, Roger.' 'Roger, how will you pursue public office without Mrs. Talbot at your side?' What a phony."
I giggled at his rendition of Mercedes' soulful on-camera manner, and he narrowed his eyes.
"Wait a minute, you never fall for that kind of crap. You're just giving me a bad time, aren't you? Wicked witch."
Excerpted from Died to Match by Deborah Donnelly. Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.