Open House for Murder

The real estate market is tanking, even in posh Palm Springs. So when Ian Forbes, the eccentric head of an international hair care empire, offers luxury realtor Amanda Thorne a chance to list his palatial Spanish style pad, she reluctantly agrees--even if it means appearing on the bizarre reality dating show he's starring in.

With so much at stake, a ...
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A Not So Model Home

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Open House for Murder

The real estate market is tanking, even in posh Palm Springs. So when Ian Forbes, the eccentric head of an international hair care empire, offers luxury realtor Amanda Thorne a chance to list his palatial Spanish style pad, she reluctantly agrees--even if it means appearing on the bizarre reality dating show he's starring in.

With so much at stake, a throng of attractive contestants descend on the mansion in hopes of winning Ian's heart--and his fortune. The competition is fast and fierce, and it's almost no surprise when two of Ian's prospective lovers turn up dead. Amanda quickly discovers that everyone has a conceivable motive for murder. And now that there are two more realtors competing with her for the lucrative listing, it seems the killer won't be the only one who's out for blood. . .

"The fun part of this mystery is James' snarky, sneaky sense of humor that keeps his lively cast of characters believable." --Mystery Scene

"Once again, James charms." --Kirkus Reviews
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780758291394
  • Publisher: Kensington
  • Publication date: 12/3/2013
  • Series: Amanda Thorne Mystery, #2
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 507,710
  • File size: 934 KB

Read an Excerpt

A Not So Model Home



Copyright © 2012 David Stukas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7582-0641-1


The Cold, Hard Bitch Slap of Reality

We open on a woman sitting in a chair in a Spanish-style home living room. She is very beautiful and, contrary to popular opinion, does not look like Kathleen Turner punched in the face.

AMANDA: What have I learned from doing this reality show? Hmm ... that you never know a person, even when you think you know them. And that people wear these masks that hide who they really are. You can never know if the person you are talking to, or trust, or love is a saint, a sinner, or a murderer.... (There is a dramatic pause; then the woman continues.) And that you have to remember that when you're saying good-bye to someone, you really are saying good-bye.

A single tear escapes her azure-frosted, luscious eyes and rolls down her porcelain skin. She blots her eyes with an unimaginably expensive handkerchief. She looks into the camera and we are struck by her intelligence, pathos, and beauty.

That's how I wanted it all to happen. But life doesn't always turn out that way. Two people were murdered. There was sabotage, incest, treachery, and the destruction of several expensive wigs. And we all came out smelling like something, but it was definitely not a rose.

Now, back to reality.

Regina Belle, my sexagenarian neighbor, and I are watching The Cougars of Santa Barbara at her house on a TV still housed in a Mediterranean-style faux-wood cabinet. This is not a nature documentary on the indigenous felines of California's Santa Ynez Mountains. No, this is a program about rich, bitchy, overindulgent women from the port city of Santa Barbara whose antics and bad behavior would put Paris Hilton to shame. Regina loves the program, and since I'm looking to get out and be more social, this fits the bill. Plus, her home is right next door, so it's within staggering distance after several blenders of tequila sunrises. Regina is wearing a new T-shirt sporting the phrase: batteries not included. Some assembly required.

Me, I normally avoid reality shows precisely because there's so little reality in them. This is something that seems to escape most people. The dead giveaway is the fact that there always seems to be a camera ready to catch a tempestuous bitch storming out a door, or to be there at the exact moment an awkward meeting just so happens at a local restaurant. The other thing that gets me is that no one ever seems to flub a line when speaking. I can see the director asking for numerous retakes to get the line right, to capture the perfect pout or sneer. Let me tell you, life never works out that way. Because of my Catholic upbringing, I never have the ability to say the perfect comeback, packed full of venom like a pissed-off puff adder. Let me correct that last sentence. I always have the perfect comeback. Unfortunately, it comes to me three hours later, after I've stewed and fumed about a testy encounter and congratulated myself in not owning a gun. But it does no good to get in your car, drive over to the offending person's house, ring their doorbell, and let 'em have it. It's lost the impact, the immediacy; even if you top it all off with a biting bitch slap.

The weird thing about all these reality shows is they've turned the idea of a protagonist upside down. When I was a kid, you were supposed to look up to a show's main character. He or she was supposed to have redeeming characteristics. They were supposed to be smart, witty, sympathetic, kind, or at the very least, likable. Not anymore. You only rise to the top if you're vain, selfish, emotionally stunted, and above all, ready to act out for the cameras. Big time.

Regina, however, loves The Cougars of Santa Barbara for one reason only: "I love the fact that here are these vulgar, nouveau riche women horrifying the local Episcopalian stuck-ups with their antics," she would confess.

"Okay, Regina, how many times were you thrown out of Santa Barbara?"

"Twice," Regina replied.

"So Cougars is your revenge?"

"Partly. I also like the idea of owning a younger lover."

"Regina, from what I can see going in and out of your house, you have younger lovers."

"Amanda, I'm old—all my lovers are younger, comatose, or dead."

"Well, someone should call social services about some of these boys on Cougars. Some of them can't even be twenty-one."

"Amanda, the age of consent in California is eighteen."

"You seem rather sure about that."

"Knowledge is power," Regina smiled smugly.

"Knowledge that keeps you from being arrested."

"Exactly. So tell me, Amanda, what's wrong with women having all the power in a relationship for once?"

"Nothing, Regina. I applaud it wholeheartedly. But these women are paying for it."

"And what's wrong with that?"

"It's called prostitution, Regina."

Regina waved away my morals with a flip of her hand. "When I was working for Warner Brothers back in '53, I had a lot of the actors pay my way and no one gave it a second thought."

"But by becoming the paid-for girl, you lose your power in the relationship."

Regina was not to be outdone. "Women and men give up power all the time in a relationship."



"That's different, Regina. You wear that horse saddle willingly."

"Just like when you let Ken handcuff you to the bed."

"Touché, Regina."

Boy, you gotta be careful what you tell your friends. Ken, for the record, is a detective for the Palm Springs Police Department. Currently, we are seeing each other casually. Since we're both divorced, neither of us is intent on running into a new relationship. And furthermore, yes, I let Ken handcuff me to the bed while making love. You got a problem with that?

"But remember, Regina, this is a reality show," I said, putting vicious quotation marks around the word reality with two fingers on each hand. "There's very little that's real about it. I have a theory about these reality shows."

"Pray tell. What is it?" Regina asked, leaning forward to rest her head on her hand.

"It's the same thing as the early 1970s."

"The 1970s?"

"Yes, it was the rise of the ugly, of the unwashed masses rising up into popular culture."

"You sound like a snob."

"No, it's not that. Remember how ugly everything was in the early 1970s? The cars, the clothes, the hair, TV shows, architecture—everything. It's because the tastemakers were from the uneducated ranks."

"You still sound like an elitist," Regina commented.

"No, it's not like that. Vivienne Westwood, the British clothing designer, said that it's the role of art, of leaders, to set the pace, style, and manners by raising up the lower classes through good example."

"I would think she would be the last person you'd use as your barometer for good taste."

"Regina, you know what I mean. These reality shows reward acting out, bad, trendy clothes, selfishness, lack of consideration for others. It's similar to the 1970s. But now, it's vulgarity that's setting the levels of taste and human interaction."

"Look!" Regina exclaimed, turning away from my insightful observations of popular culture. "Jasmine just threw a cocktail in Heather's face! Someone's gonna get her earrings slapped clear off!"

"I rest my case," I relented as my cell phone rang. It was Ian Forbes, owner of a huge hair-care empire and a former client of mine. Perhaps it was much-needed business now that the second Great Depression was upon us.

"Ian, how nice to hear from you.... Yes, business is really slow ... and how's yours? ... No, not really ... Well, that is a surprise.... I don't really think so ... No, no, really, it's not my kind of thing.... How much? ... Are you kidding me? ... Are you sure? ... Is this a joke? ... No? ... Okay ... I'll consider it. Thanks for thinking of me. Okay, we'll talk more tomorrow. Bye."

Regina broke away from the fight brewing on the TV. "What was that all about?"

"You won't believe this, Regina, but I've just been invited to be on a reality show."

"A reality show?" Alex asked. "Go for it."

It was the next morning in the office and I had spilled the news to Alex, my ex-husband, soul mate, and still-business partner. We were married in Michigan years ago, moved here to Palm Springs, whereupon he confessed to me that he needed to be gay. I knew he was bisexual when I married him, but he was so handsome and exotic and from a family that wasn't highly dysfunctional like mine was, I jumped at his proposal of marriage. As it turns out, he needed a man, so we divorced amicably and we're still the best of friends. The trouble is, there's that soul-mate thing, too, blurring the line between friend and ex-husband/wife. It's complicated.

I was aghast.

"You heard me," Alex repeated himself.

"Why? You're the last person I would have predicted to say that."

"Amanda, times are tough. Like me, you have investment properties you need to pay for, especially if you're taking cuts in rent just to keep them rented. And you still have some things you want to do to your house."

"Not too much. The house is almost finished."

"You've been at it for years, darling," Alex joked. "Your slow-as-molasses contractor finally moved out of the tent in your backyard last year."

I sniffed pompously. "A work of art is never finished ... until you run out of money, which is kinda what happened to me."

"Well, then, go for it."

"I'm still trying to digest this."

"Listen, sweetie pie, besides making some money, you'll get notoriety, which could help publicize your—our—business. Plus, the show could go big time, and there might be book deals, spin-offs, and on and on. You could be famous."

"Alex, how could a show about a real-estate agent trying to sell a hairdresser's big Spanish house go big time?"

"It's a no-brainer. There's a big-time hairdresser involved who's vain, controlling, shallow, and prone to histrionics. And most likely, there will be good-looking men involved somewhere. The drama is a given."

"So you think I should do this?"


"You don't think this whole thing could backfire? That I get on the show and I end up looking like a self-absorbed, slut-bitch Realtor? These shows are looking for drama, Alex. I can just see myself having an open house, with prospective buyers looking around the house, opening drawers and closets. Now that would make for riveting viewing. No, Alex, they're going to want people yelling at each other, throwing things, driving cars over the cherished possessions of rival cast members. This isn't going to be pretty."

"Okay, look on the bright side. Maybe someone will get murdered. If that doesn't get people to tune in, I don't know what will."


An Indecent Proposal

The next day, I met Ian at his sprawling home in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs. Ian's Spanish house is over 11,000 square feet, with eight bedrooms in three buildings on an acre of land. While that may not seem like a lot to those of you in Beverly Hills, or Bedford, New York, it's a lot for Palm Springs. Old Las Palmas is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Palm Springs, filled mostly with Spanish-style homes, some mid-century designs, and a scattering of modern styles. It's been home to Hollywood stars, captains of industry, and the women who married them. Now, it's mostly home to the dying descendants of those families or those who want to live in what is hands down the best area in town.

As I pulled through the gates (with Ian's initials, IF, boldly attached in fancy scripted, gold letters) and drove up the driveway to the house, my car was chased by a pack of wolves who surrounded my car when I stopped, barking endlessly as I made the decision against getting out of the car.

"Zeus! Hercules! Cut it out! You ... The rest of you ... Get in the backyard!" a man shouted as the dogs cowered and started making their way back to hell, or wherever they came from. He was definitely leader of the pack.

He was an extraordinarily handsome man of about forty who looked as if he just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. He approached my window and rapped on it with his knuckle. I powered the window down just enough to talk, but not enough for a dog to jump through.

"I'm Drake Whittemore, the property manager," the man said, squeezing his hand through the narrow slot for me to shake. I reached over with my right hand but slipped and ended up putting the window up, crushing his hand in the process. I quickly pressed the window button down, releasing his hand from the jaws of death.

"Damn!" he yelled, setting the dogs off in another frenzy of barking and unbridled excitement.

"Oh, my God, are you all right, Drake? I am sooooo sorry. Please forgive me," I added, getting out of the car and examining his hand, as if I knew what to do about a crushed hand.

"It's not too bad," he replied. "Come inside, Ian's been expecting you."

"I'm looking forward to it," I replied. "I know I can sell this house."

"Sell it?" Drake replied, giving me one of those boy-you-have-no-idea-what's-going-on looks. "Is that what Ian told you?" he said, shaking his head and chuckling.

I decided that this was one of those Linda Evangelista moments: just smile, look beautiful, and keep your mouth shut to keep from saying something stupid, a credo that supermodels should adhere to.

It was a perfect October day, very warm, but not hot. And topped by a cloudless sky so blue it could just make you cry. The doors to the house stood open to the summer breeze that had just about disappeared everywhere else in the United States, but hung on here like the last guest to leave a party. As soon as I entered the house, I was accosted by a giant penis. I looked to the right: another penis, this time hanging from a sculpture on the wall. To the left, more penises. On the hall table, more penises. And around the living room, more penises, in paintings, more sculptures, water pitchers—you name it. And the one thing they all had in common was that they were large. Very large and pendulous. I wanted to pull a giant condom over my head. Ian had changed his décor again.

I'm not an expert in male homosexuality, having missed my ex-husband's desires even after he told me he was bi, but if you have to have penises all over your house in every form possible, you're not getting any. The other sign that you're sex-starved is that you're overweight. If you're not putting a cock in your mouth, you're shoveling food in it instead.

The house had changed since I was last here, at a party with me as the official fag hag. But then, if you had money like Ian had, you could afford to change it to suit your whims. It still had overtones of Spanish here and there, but it had taken a turn toward the dark side. Ian now had it decorated in Early Spanish Inquisition with a touch of monastic modernism. It was plain, simple, and with furniture that looked like it had been hewn out of old railroad ties, and on closer inspection, proved that my guess was probably right. I sniffed discreetly for the scent of creosote. The place dripped in forced masculinity, which was often the case with big ol' queens. It's not all taffeta, darlings.

"Ian, Amanda is here," Drake called up the stairway, reminding me how few homes had a second story in Palm Springs because of height restrictions. But this house had been built long before that. In fact, it had been lived in by many a silent film star—none of which I could prove because of a large fire in the town records building decades ago. I guess it didn't matter now to the Gen-X kids who were taking over the town. "Theda Bara who?" they'd ask. "Charlie Farrell? Who the hell is that!" they'd answer, taking a moment from their iPhones to text someone interconnected to the human race only by the safe skin of electronic transmissions. No human contact necessary. (Charlie Farrell, for whom Farrell Road is named, was part creator of the famous—infamous—Palm Springs Racquet Club, the lodging, swimming, and tennis club in north Palm Springs that helped put this town on the map. It attracted the biggest and brightest stars in the world at the time to Palm Springs, from Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn, from Joan Crawford to heiress Christina Onassis.)

A moment later, the biggest star in the world appeared: Ian. At the top of the stairs, he floated down in a cloud of not-so-subtly-perfumed hair, too long for the year 2012.

If you live in a cave and have never seen Ian on countless television programs burning the hair of annoying Hollywood celebrities, then let me describe him to you and let me tell you a little about his past.

Excerpted from A Not So Model Home by DAVID JAMES. Copyright © 2012 David Stukas. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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