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An Image of Death
By Libby Fischer Hellmann
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2003 Libby Fischer Hellmann
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ricki Feldman is the type of woman best admired from a distance—if you get too close, you might find some of your body parts missing. But here I was sitting next to her at La Maison, one of the toniest restaurants on Chicago's North Shore.
We were seated in a private dining room with dark wood beams, stucco walls, and terra cotta floor tiles. Huge arrangements of fresh flowers—a significant feat in the middle of January—surrounded us. The occasion was a ladies' luncheon in Ricki's honor. The directors of WISH, Women for Interim Subsidized Housing, had organized it to thank her for a twenty-thousand-dollar donation, dollars that would help support low-cost housing for kids who'd been in foster care but couldn't afford to live on their own.
Charity. Tzedakah. A simple act of philanthropy. Except with the Feldmans, nothing was ever simple. The daughter of a hugely successful real estate developer, Ricki had taken over the company several years ago at her father's death, and was proving to be just as ambitious and shrewd. In fact, you got the sense that good deeds, money, even people, were just commodities to the Feldmans. Bargaining chips for some future quid pro quo. Which was why it was wise to make sure you left with everything you came in with when you dealt with them.
Two waiters hovered over her now, refilling her water glass and whisking imaginary crumbs off the white tablecloth. With silky dark hair, magnetic brown eyes, and a willowy build, Ricki was the kind of woman it was hard to look away from. Even so, her expression was always calculating, measuring, taking stock. I kept my hands in my lap and my knees pressed together.
The eight other women at the luncheon were decked out in designer finery. I spotted a Missoni label on one woman, another with a Fendi bag. Silver flashed at their necks and ears, and it was hard to find a wrinkle on any face. I felt like the hired help in my Garfield & Marx slacks. In fact, when Ricki introduced me around as the woman who produced the video about the Glen, I repressed the urge to pay fealty.
You see, Ricki and I weren't friends. And I wasn't a contributor to WISH. A few months ago Feldman Development had built a luxury housing project on the old naval base in Glenview, and Ricki hired me to produce a video about it. I'd had misgivings—environmentalists were trying, unsuccessfully, it turned out, to preserve the land as prairie. But she threw a lot of money at me, money I needed to make ends meet. So I took it, produced the show, and tried not to dwell on what the shortage of grasslands would do to global warming.
The Glen eventually became one of Feldman's most successful properties, and when Ricki invited me to lunch, I thought it might be a belated thank-you, so I accepted. You might disapprove of their methods, you might not like their style, but the Feldmans were tireless. They got things done. Plus, it's not often I get the chance to hobnob with women of wealth and privilege.
Now, though, as chatter about exotic vacations, haute couture, and the latest Hollywood scandal drifted over the table, I silently shoveled salad into my mouth, feeling just a bit overwhelmed.
The waiters cleared our plates, then brought out brandy snifters filled with sorbet. As I smiled up my thanks, I caught the waiter staring at my chest. I looked down. A dark, oily stain was spreading across my blouse. Salad dressing. And I hadn't worn a jacket. The waiter sniffed and moved on. I propped an elbow on the table, in an effort to hide the offending spot. Resting my chin on my hand, I tried to appear thoughtful.
It was a short-lived attempt.
"You don't like sorbet, Ellie?" Ricki asked.
"Oh, I like it." I smiled weakly and reached for my spoon. As my elbow moved, Ricki's gaze dropped to my chest.
"Oh, dear. I'm sorry."
Suddenly eight pairs of eyes were on me.
I dipped my napkin in my water glass and dabbed at the spot, but, of course, that only made it worse. My heart's not enough—I have to wear my lunch on my sleeve, too. I dabbed some more, but it was hopeless. There was only one solution, especially with this crowd. I tossed my head, put my hands in my lap, and affected a je ne sais quoi nonchalance. Next time I'd wear a haz mat suit.
A blond woman with skin so tight it looked like stretched canvas rose and tapped a knife against her water glass. "Now, ladies." She looked around the table, a brilliant, pasted-on smile encompassing us all. "In honor of Ricki Feldman's generous donation to WISH, I thought we'd play a little game."
I knew these games. A variation of a roast, someone asks silly questions about the individual being honored, and the person with the most correct answers wins a prize. I gazed around the table. During the course of producing the Glen video, I'd learned a lot about Ricki. Where she went to school, her cat's name, her favorite movie. I stood a good chance of winning. I wondered what the prize was. I wouldn't waste my time over perfume or candy, but a day at a spa or a gift certificate for some trendy store could be worth it. I dug out a memo pad and pen from my bag.
The game was momentarily delayed when the maitre d' rolled the pastry cart up to the table. Leave it to a man to tease us with the foods we crave but shouldn't eat. They're still trying to get even for that Eve and the apple thing. One woman ordered flourless chocolate cake, and another chose a flaky apple tart. I summoned up my willpower and tried to pretend they were laced with cyanide. Or botulism.
The lady with the face-lift stood up again. "Ready now, ladies? Oh. I almost forgot." She looked around and grinned. "Whoever wins gets a massage and facial at North Shore Spa." She seemed to rest her eyes on me.
Not bad, I thought, and smiled back, eagerly anticipating questions about siblings, birthdays, best friends in kindergarten.
The blond cleared her throat. "All right. First question. Who's wearing a brand-new diamond today?"
Diamonds? The women tittered, and two hands shot into the air. Ricki fingered a diamond solitaire at her throat.
"No, no, ladies." The blond woman waggled a finger at us. "You're supposed to write down how many ladies you think are wearing diamonds today. And they have to be new."
More giggles and surreptitious glances. I squirmed. Diamonds? What kind of game was this? Maybe I'd made a mistake coming. I could be at home, surfing the net or planning the important, hard-hitting documentary I would produce one day. I snuck a glance at Ricki. A confirmed workaholic, she could be making deals, building shopping centers, collecting rents. But she was smiling benevolently, as if she had nothing more pressing to do than decide between a two- or three-carat prong set ring.
It suddenly occurred to me I might not win this game.
The blond woman waited until the rest of the group had finished writing and licked her lips. "Okay ... second question." She flicked an imaginary speck off her Thierry Mugler jacket. "How many ladies are wearing a new outfit today?"
My smile felt glued to my face. These women may not have gone to Harvard, but the way they scrutinized one another, working their way up from shoes to earrings, was just as intimidating. I imagined a classroom filled with women clutching number-two pencils, filling in designer names on their SATs.
"Ready to move on?" the woman chirped.
I took a sip of water.
"Now for our third and final question." She paused dramatically, then slid her eyes toward me. "Who knows what Ellie Foreman does for a living?"
I slumped, trying to ignore the knowing looks cast my way. Now I knew why I was there. They wanted me to produce a video for WISH. Ricki must have told them all about me. Hell, she probably promised to deliver me on a platter. I was the lamb led to slaughter. The dog to the pound. And Ricki Feldman was holding the leash.
"Waiter!" I shot my hand in the air, no longer caring about the stain on my blouse. If I was going to pay for this lunch, the least I could do was order dessert.
Chapter Two As I climbed into the car a half hour later, I counted my fingers and toes one more time. Ricki hadn't approached me about a video, but she had worn a complacent smile for the rest of the luncheon, and the other ladies were entirely too solicitous.
I pulled out of La Maison and headed home. I'd probably get a call next week. They'd want a modest, ten-minute kind of thing. Interviews with the founder of WISH, the young people they'd helped, maybe even—they'd pause self-effacingly—the board of directors. And oh, they'd add, since they were a charitable organization, could I do it pro bono? WISH was undoubtedly not-for-profit, which, over the years, I've learned is code for I shouldn't make one either. If I objected, they'd argue that it couldn't be that hard. Their kids could probably produce the piece with the digital gear they'd bought them for Christmas. Frankly, they'd say in a low but earnest voice, they were doing me a favor. All the positive publicity would reflect well on my reputation.
I turned up the heat. A weak flow of air filtered out of the vents. My Volvo was getting old and cantankerous. Don't get me wrong—I'm not a tightfisted person. Or a misanthrope. But my ex-husband's child support payments are negligible, and producing videos is how I support my fourteen-year-old and myself. Playing Lady Bountiful, as noble as it may be, doesn't put food on my table.
It was barely four when I drove past the forest preserve, but daylight was already fading. It had snowed again last night, and the tree branches were bowed out with a ribbon of white. The coating was so thick that the skinny, dark edges of the branches underneath looked like a drop shadow. Still, there was something soothing—almost elemental—about the combination of brown branch, white mantle, and pale sky.
By the time I turned onto our street, the heater finally kicked in, and I made it to the house in relative comfort. I live in a small three-bedroom colonial that I struggled to hang on to after the divorce. It's not new or plush, but they'll have to carry me out feet-first. I pulled into the garage and went inside.
No reply. I ran upstairs and changed into a pair of sweats, then went into the bathroom. The mascara I'd put on this morning was still there; gray eyes fringed with clumpy black lashes stared back at me in the mirror. I ran a brush through my hair, which used to be black but is increasingly streaked with gray. I sighed. I'd never be as well preserved as the Women Who Lunch. They could afford plastic surgeons and exotic beauty treatments. The best I could do was a fresh application of concealer. Still, I hang on to the fact that a guy once told me I could pass for Grace Slick. Never mind that it was thirty years ago, and we'd been in a dark room smoking weed.
I was downstairs chopping tomatoes for a batch of chili—this was turning out to be a day of continuous meals—when the kitchen door flew open.
"Hi, Mom." Rachel bounded in, accompanied by a gust of frigid air. "What's for dinner? I'm starved!"
"Oh. Sorry." Rachel slammed the door and sniffed her way to the stove. Her cheeks were flushed, and despite the weather, her blond curls were damp.
"Were you running?"
She nodded. She'd been trying to stay in shape for her newly discovered passion, field hockey. Soccer with a stick, she called it. Even though it was a fall sport, she was thinking ahead to next season—a significant feat for a fourteen-year-old. Not only was she jogging regularly, but she was also exercising with a huge rubber ball.
I wouldn't admit it, but I was thrilled. Her keen interest in the sporting life—regardless of how long it lasted—was a sign that our troubles of last fall had abated. That, for the moment, she was navigating the Sturm und Drang of adolescence smoothly. The best part was the occasional flash of maturity that hinted at the magnificent adult she would become. I kissed the top of her head, not an easy task, since she's only two inches shorter than me.
"No kidding. It took almost a mile to warm up."
When I gestured to the package of chili seasoning, she shot me one of those exasperated teenage expressions that says for all her adult ways, she still has a few years to go.
"And bread and salad. But it's going to be a while."
"No prob." She headed out of the kitchen. "I'll do some rotation exercises." She'd made me buy her one of those huge rubber balls for Hanukkah and was doing all sorts of twists, contortions, and stretching. To increase flexibility, she claimed.
We didn't eat until 7:00, and we were finished by 7:10. I was stacking plates in the dishwasher when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," Rachel said.
The front door groaned as she opened it. The car wasn't the only thing feeling its age.
"No one's here." Then, "Oh." The whine of a vehicle pulling away floated through the door. "It's a package."
I wiped my hands on a towel. I couldn't remember ordering anything that would bring UPS to the house. Especially after the holidays, when I'm at my most parsimonious.
Rachel came into the kitchen carrying a lumpy manila envelope. She flipped it over, shrugged, then handed it to me. There was no label on the package, and my name, the E in Foreman missing, was scrawled in formal cursive. The handwriting, filled with swirls and curlicues, leaned left, not right.
There was nothing else on the envelope. No markings. No UPC code. I chewed on a nail. The anthrax scare might be over, but once my confidence in public institutions has been shaken, it never rebounds to the same level. And I have a history of mistrust toward institutions. "I'm guessing it wasn't UPS."
Rachel shook her head. "Some kind of van dropped it off."
"No. Bigger. Well, boxier, I think. I only saw it from the back."
I studied the envelope. Except for the lump, it looked innocuous. I didn't hear any ticking or smell anything unusual. It crossed my mind to call the police, but village detective Dan O'Malley has had enough of me for a lifetime. What would I say, anyway? A package came, and I'm afraid to open it?
I looked up at Rachel, then headed toward the steps.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I'm taking it down to the garage."
"Mom, it's just an envelope."
"I realize that. I want to check it out."
"You're being really paranoid, you know." She took a step forward as if to snatch it from me.
"Young lady, don't you dare."
She stopped and shook her head. "You're nuts."
I hesitated. She had a point. If something untoward was going to happen, it probably would have occurred by now. I went to the cleaning supply cabinet and took out a pair of yellow rubber gloves.
"Now what are you doing?"
I slipped the gloves over my hands. "You have my permission to go upstairs anytime you want."
She raised her chin. A defiant silence caromed around the room.
I backtracked to a drawer and took out my Cutco knife. A neighbor's son sold it to me two summers ago, and it's the sharpest knife I own. Brandishing it in one hand, I edged up to the table, bent over, and slit the envelope at one end.
Chapter Three Nothing blew up. No cloud of toxic poison dispersed above our heads. I looked over at Rachel. She didn't say anything, but her eyebrows shot up, just like my father's when he's about to say "Nu?"
I grabbed it and peered inside. The bulge turned out to be a VHS cassette. I took it out. It was a workhorse brand of videotape, the kind that's sold in supermarkets and drugstores. There were no markings on it, and no label on the top or the spine. I turned the envelope upside down, thinking a note might fall out. Nothing did.
"I wonder what it is."
"Try videotape," Rachel said.
"Thanks for your observation. But who would send me a tape? And why?"
"Hello ... you are a video producer."
I produce industrials: product introductions, training films, and corporate videos, but I didn't have anything in production at the moment, and I couldn't think of any former clients with a reason to send me a tape. "No one drops off tapes in the middle of the night. Why didn't they come in?"
Excerpted from An Image of Death by Libby Fischer Hellmann Copyright © 2003 by Libby Fischer Hellmann. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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