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MURDER WAS NOT far from my mind when I said goodbye to Wayne's mother, Vesta, at my front door. Vesta Caruso didn't bother to return my attempt at an amiable farewell. Her only reply was to cross her bony arms over her equally bony chest and squeeze her eyes into two malevolent slits. My stomach clenched. I stomped down my front stairs angrily, then took a deep breath, forced my face into a smile and turned back, willing to give sociability one more try. This was my sweetie's mother, after all. But Vesta wasn't glaring anymore when I turned. Her homely face was lit with a rare expression of happiness.
"And good riddance," she cooed. Was this her belated version of goodbye, or was she trying to tell me something?
And that smile. My mind wheeled into a panic. What was she planning to do while I was gone? Burn my house down? Poison the cat?
My cat, C.C., came racing down the stairs after me as if she had heard my thoughts. She took one look back at Vesta, then streaked across the yard and over the fence. She wasn't going to stay alone in the house with that woman. Well, neither was I.
I stomped the rest of the way to my car, telling myself that even Vesta wouldn't stoop to arson or cat poisoning in my absence. She liked an audience too much. And I really was looking forward to the vegetarian cooking class that my friend Barbara had talked me into. If nothing else, it would get me out of the house on Monday evenings. Out and away from Wayne's mother.
I climbed into my old brown Toyota Corolla and took a peek back at Vesta as I set my rearview mirrors. I watched her skinny backside disappear into my house, then started my car, letting out a long, noisy sigh as the engine turned over. I wasn't even married and I had mother-in-law problems. Last year, Wayne Caruso and I had celebrated his move into my home with sparkling apple juice and ecstatic embraces. But in June of this year, Vesta Caruso had been released from The Shady Willows Mental Health Facility and had come directly home to live with us. Wayne had assured me that the arrangement was only temporary. Now it was late August.
I pulled out onto the street, remembering the days when we had visited Wayne's mother at Shady Willows and watched her drooling mindlessly in front of the TV set in the recreation room. With a pang of guilt, I realized how much I missed those days. But an observant social worker had put an end to all that when she discovered that Vesta had been overmedicated by the Shady Willows staff for the past twenty years. I had been filled with indignation for Vesta's sake when I heard about the malpractice. But after two months in her malicious presence I was beginning to understand exactly why the staff had overmedicated her.
Vesta hated me. I'm not exaggerating. Her hatred for me was as pure and visceral as a banker's love of money. And she wasted no time in letting me know about her feelings. And in letting me know that if and when she left my house, she would take Wayne with her. She had driven a wedge between Wayne and myself that bit deeper each day. And she was enjoying the exercise. Immensely.
I put Vesta out of my mind as I pulled up to Barbara's apartment building. I was going to enjoy the evening ... if it killed me.
Barbara Chu was already at the door when I knocked, looking gorgeous in a hot-pink jumpsuit.
But then again, Barbara looked gorgeous in dirty overalls. She was small and slender, with perfectly proportioned Asian features under asymmetrically cut black hair. She could have been a model if she were taller, except that her eyes were too alive for that model's look of ennui. But she wasn't a model. She was an electrician. She was also a practicing psychic.
"So how's Vesta Caruso, the wicked witch of the West?" she asked, her sparkling eyes peering into mine knowingly.
I groaned. She opened up her arms sympathetically and pulled me into a deep hug. A moment later, she released me to peer into my eyes again. This time, her brows were pinched together in a look that combined both concern and curiosity. Damn. Having a psychic for a friend has its drawbacks.
I did the only thing I could do. I changed the subject. "So, what about this class we're going to?" I asked.
Barbara stared at me for a second longer, then cheerfully ushered me out the door and down the stairs as she answered my inquiry.
The class we were going to was a vegetarian, low-fat, low-cholesterol cooking class, she told me. She had seen the ad for it in the Marin Mind. It was going to be held from six to nine on Monday nights at the Good Thyme Cafe in San Ricardo, which sounded like bad news to me. I'd eaten at the Good Thyme. The food was vegetarian, greasy and uninspired. However, the news got better when Barbara assured me that the Good Thyme people weren't giving the class; they were only renting the space to the cooking teacher. And the teacher was going to provide free samples of the food she was teaching us to cook. That part sounded even better to me. But I took a moment to wonder why it sounded good to Barbara. She was no vegetarian.
"So, why are you going?" I asked as we walked to the Toyota.
Barbara's taste ran more to barbecued ribs and bacon burgers than tofu. She never gained a pound. I, on the other hand, on my healthful, low-fat, vegetarian diet, could gain a pound just sniffing the aroma of fresh-baked whole grain bread.
"Because of Felix," Barbara answered as we got to the car.
"But Felix isn't a vegetarian either," I objected. He certainly wasn't. Barbara's reporter boyfriend ate meat and plenty of it. He had the nerve to be thin, too.
"Well, he's going to be a vegetarian now," Barbara said, her face tightening with determination. "Kate, you wouldn't believe it. Not only is Felix's cholesterol as high as the audience at a Grateful Dead concert, but Felix has gout. Too much rich food. I mean gout, for God's sake! This is the twentieth century. I asked him to come to this class, but no way. He's so stubborn ..."
By the time we had reached the Good Thyme Cafe I was convinced that Felix's meat-eating days were numbered. Poor guy. As much as he had driven me crazy in the past with his fevered, journalistic inquisitions, Felix Byrne was still a human being. At least I thought so. I stole a look at Barbara's face as we got out of the car, and made a mental note to send Felix a sympathy card.
Barbara pushed open a glass door that held one sign stating CLOSED MONDAYS and another reading "Welcome, Vegetarian Cooking Class Tonight." I followed her through the door, noting that the restaurant looked pretty much like it had the last time I'd visited, a sea of wooden chairs at tables covered with white vinyl tablecloths. The only difference was that now the chairs and tables were empty.
The only people in the restaurant were three women and a tall black man standing in an aisle at the edge of the tables. As we started toward the group, one of the women looked up at us eagerly. She was plump, with a friendly, heart-shaped face that was defined by a kewpie-doll mouth and dark impish eyes. And she was well-dressed, in a silky magenta pantsuit scattered with black stars that matched the color and sheen of her neatly trimmed black hair.
I began to feel a little outclassed in the corduroys and San Diego Zoo T-shirt that clothed my own short, A-line body. In a last-minute attempt to spruce up, I ran my fingers through the inch or so that was left of my recently hacked curls.
"Hi there, I'm Alice Frazier," the plump woman bubbled enthusiastically. "Are you here for the class?"
"You bet," answered Barbara, matching her enthusiasm.
"Oh, goodie!" Alice danced over to one of the tables and picked up a lined notepad, which she handed over. We wrote our names and phone numbers on it dutifully. Then she asked for our money.
As I handed over my fifteen dollars, I hoped for her sake that more people were coming.
"So, is this the first class you've taught?" I asked conversationally.
"Oh, I'm not the teacher," Alice said, giggling. "My friend Meg Quilter is the teacher. I'm just helping her out." She turned and shouted, "Yo, Meg!"
The young woman who turned our way was too thin, and not nearly as well dressed as her friend Alice. I began to feel a little better about my T-shirt.
Meg Quilter wore dark baggy pants and a high-necked white blouse that did nothing to add color to her pale, freckled skin. Her large sea-green eyes looked faintly bewildered under invisible eyebrows. Her silky blond hair was pulled back in a haphazard ponytail.
As Meg walked toward us, I saw that she wasn't as young as she'd seemed at first glance. She was probably about thirty, I estimated, younger than my forty-one years in any case. Younger than Alice, too. And not happy about meeting new people, if her slumped shoulders were any indication.
"Meg," said Alice as the woman reached us, "Say hello to—" She paused for a moment to look at the notebook. "To Kate Jasper and Barbara Chu," she finished with a big smile.
"Hello," Meg said softly. She smiled vaguely at a point somewhere between Barbara and myself. Then she sniffled and looked away.
Wonderful, I thought. I just paid fifteen dollars and the teacher is too shy to look at us. I wondered what her lecture would be like.
"I'm Paula Pierce, friend of Meg's," came a rapid-fire voice from behind me, breaking into my thoughts.
I turned and got a good look at the last of the three women. She was a short, stocky woman with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, high cheekbones and a determined, tight mouth. She wore a navy blue business suit that strained over her shelf of a bosom.
Before I had a chance to introduce myself, she nodded at the tall, thin black man who stood behind her. "My husband, Gary Powell," she said brusquely.
At least her husband was dressed casually—in a polo shirt and jeans. I smiled up at him. Gary smiled back down at me, a kind smile that stretched all the way across his face and crinkled the edges of his warm brown eyes.
"Kate Jasper," I said.
Paula took it from there. I watched Barbara out of the corner of my eye talking to Meg and Alice, as Paula rattled off information. She and Gary had known Meg for years, she assured me. That made Barbara and me the only ones that weren't personal friends of Meg's, I realized. Meg was very creative, Paula went on. A wonderful artist as well as a good cook. Paula herself was an attorney. And Gary taught mathematics at U.C., Berkeley. I nodded.
My shoulders began to loosen as Paula went on. Then my mind began to drift. It's so much easier to socialize when someone else has both sides of the conversation covered. A look at Gary, still standing behind Paula, told me that he had drifted off too. His eyes were unfocussed and he was playing with something in his hand. What was it? I bent down to look.
But Gary's hand closed just as I got it into focus. Then I realized that Paula had stopped speaking. I brought my eyes back to her face quickly. By her expectant look, I guessed that I had missed a question.
I could hear Alice talking to Barbara behind me. "It was so neat, with me knowing Dan and Sheila and all. They're the owners of the Good Thyme ..."
"I'm sorry," I said to Paula. "What did you say?"
"What kind of work do you do?" she repeated crisply.
"Uh, Jest Gifts," I mumbled in embarrassment. My profession stacked up against an attorney's and a math professor's about as well as my T-shirt did against Paula Pierce's navy suit.
"Jest Gifts?" repeated Paula inquisitorially. I'd have bet she did trial work when she wasn't taking cooking classes.
"I own a gag-gift company," I explained. "We sell mail-order to various professionals." Like you, I thought. I looked into her serious eyes and wondered if she had ever bought one of my shark mugs.
Someone else walked in the door before I had a chance to ask. I turned to look.
The newcomer was a good-looking older woman whose silver hair was arranged in an elaborate French twist. She wore an Indian squash-blossom necklace over a beige linen pantsuit that looked expensive. What was with these people? Didn't they expect to get messy food all over them? This was supposed to be a cooking class.
"Oh my," she trilled as she walked in. "This must be the place. What a wonderful atmosphere!" I looked around at the uninspired tables and chairs and wondered what she was used to.
Alice looked excited as she picked up her sign-in notebook. Maybe this newcomer wasn't a friend of Meg's.
I turned back to Paula, who was still eying me inquisitively.
"I make stuff for attorneys, too," I continued. "Like coffee mugs in the shape of a shark."
Her mouth tightened. Skip the shark mug, I thought. "And for Christmas, I have the Faw-law-law line ..."
I was desperately wondering how to get myself out of this conversational hole when the woman with the silver French twist strode up to our little group. She was a handsome woman with strong facial features, widely spaced blue eyes and the posture of a retired dancer.
"I'm Iris Neville," she announced, her voice high and musical with a touch of something aristocratic. "And you are ...?"
Paula did the introductions, but surprisingly she couldn't hold the floor. Iris met her introductions with a flood of reminiscences about the city of San Ricardo.
"Do you remember Mayor Neumann?" Iris was asking a couple of long minutes later. "Such a delightful man. I was a friend of his dear wife, Nancy. Such a wonderful soul—"
Iris stopped as if someone had kicked her. I followed the direction of her narrowed eyes, looking for the cause.
Two men had just entered the restaurant. The younger of the two wore glasses and a gray pinstripe suit that didn't seem to fit his pear-shaped body. The older man was heavier, with dark shoulder-length hair and a Vandyke beard. He was wearing a beige linen suit. He met Iris's gaze with his own glare. What was going on here?
I looked back at Iris for an answer. Then I saw it. His suit and hers were identical. I caught a glimpse of amusement in Gary's brown eyes; then Iris took a breath and began to speak again. "Such a shame when men dress in women's clothing, don't you think?" she asked in a high, ringing voice. Damn. If I had wanted this kind of evening, I could have stayed home with Vesta.
"Personally," Paula fired back, her head thrust forward eagerly, "I am thankful for the right of free expression that we presently enjoy in this country. If the Moral Majority, which is neither moral nor a majority, was to have its way ..."
As I listened to Paula expound, I realized she probably hadn't even noticed the man's suit. Iris didn't wait long to regain the upper ground, though. When Paula stopped to inhale halfway through her brief, Iris was ready.
"I remember meeting Justice William O. Douglas just before he retired. Such a delightful man," Iris interrupted. "Of the Supreme Court, you know—"
"I know who Douglas was," Paula said between clenched teeth.
"Of course you do, dear," agreed Iris, her wide blue eyes round with innocence. "Such a similar philosophy to yours. And such a unique way of expressing himself."
Paula closed her mouth, seeming to accept defeat. Gary wrapped a long arm around her stocky shoulders and gave them a squeeze.
Iris turned her eyes to Gary. "And you, Mr. Powell, you're a professor of mathematics. Such a difficult field, I would think ..."
I wasn't going to wait around until she got to gag gifts. I smiled politely, then turned to rejoin Barbara. And ran smack into the man in the beige linen suit.
"Well, hello, sweet thing," he murmured with a lecherous smile. I should have smelled him coming. He reeked of partially metabolized wine. "You can bump into me anytime, honey."
I glared into his leering face. I don't mind when waitresses call me honey, but this guy was a different story. His close-set eyes were gleaming with lewd pleasure. He stroked his beard slowly. I had a feeling he was trying for a devilish image with that Vandyke beard and long hair, but he looked like an aging Maxwell Smart in disguise to me.
"Call me Leo," he murmured suggestively and tossed his hair back with a flick of his head.
"Fine, Leo," I said and stepped around him.
"Wait a minute," he called. "You gotta meet my main man, Ken." He nodded to the younger man in the pinstripe suit, who goggled at me through thick glasses as he cracked his knuckles.
"Nice to meet you, Ken," I said and almost ran the last step to Barbara's side. She was still standing with the pale cooking teacher and her plump friend Alice.
"And Meg's artwork is so neat ..." Alice was saying.
"Bad vibes, huh?" Barbara whispered out of the side of her mouth. I nodded fervently.
Excerpted from Fat-Free and Fatal by Jaqueline Girdner. Copyright © 1993 Jaqueline Girdner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 29, 2013