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I HAD JUST ripped open the envelope when the telephone rang. I unfolded the enclosed document and read as I walked to the phone. Two days ago, on Monday, October 10th, a Final Judgment of Dissolution had been entered in the Marriage of Craig and Kate Jasper by the Clerk of the Superior Court of California, County of Marin. The attorney for Craig Jasper was listed as one Elias Rosen of Rosen, Chang and Ostrow.
Fourteen years of marriage finally ended. My feet stopped moving. I ignored the second ring of the telephone and stared at the words of the decree, trying to analyze my feelings.
I didn't hate my ex-husband, Craig, anymore. Not that I wanted to be married to him. Never again. It was just impossible for me to hate him for very long. Even in his upwardly mobile incarnation, he was a warmly enthusiastic and funny man, incapable of intentional malice or cruelty.
But unintentional cruelty, that was another story. After years of our on-again, off-again, mismatched marriage, Craig had finally severed the bond and found a more suitable woman by the name of Suzanne Sorenson. She was an up-and-coming attorney with Rosen, Chang and Ostrow, as driven to success in her own field as Craig was in his thriving computer business. And she was beautiful. Model-thin, tall and elegant. Sultry Scandinavian features under flowing angel-blond hair. A far better match for Craig's long, lean good looks than I.
I'm short, dark and A-line, myself. And, as far as my own gag-gift business goes, I define success as solvency. Plus enough salary to keep me in tofuburgers.
I probably would have hated Craig for a lot longer if I hadn't found my own someone to love. But I had. A shy, homely and quietly intelligent someone--Wayne Caruso. And once I had found Wayne, Craig and I had unaccountably become good friends. Strictly platonic, but still closer to each other than we had been in all the years of our marriage. Much to Wayne's muted unease and Suzanne's shrill dismay.
The piercing insistence of the telephone's fifth ring ended my abstraction. I sprinted the last two steps to my favorite naugahyde easy chair, plopped myself down and picked up the receiver. My cat, C.C., jumped into my lap just as I said "Hello."
"Kate, is that you?" asked a familiar voice, tuned to an unfamiliar pitch of hysteria. It was my new friend and ex-husband, Craig. His voice was high and trembling. Had the end of our marriage upset him that much?
"Yeah, it's me," I answered. "Who did you expect? C.C." Meow, meow?"
He didn't respond to my invitation to lightness. He didn't respond at all. The only sound that came over the phone line was his raspy breathing. C.C. flexed her paws and purred.
"Are you all right?" I asked impatiently. C.C. sank a claw into my thigh. I plucked it out. Then I heard what sounded like a muffled sob over the line. Good God! I had never heard Craig cry before. What was wrong with the man?
"Craig?" I prompted anxiously.
"It's Suzanne," he said. He drew a deep ragged breath. "She's dead."
My mind couldn't assimilate it. "Your Suzanne?" I asked stupidly. C.C. raised her claw for another dig. I caught it midair.
"And they think I did it!" He wasn't holding back now. His wail was a hurt child's.
"Did what?" I asked in my calmest voice, while my stomach tightened with dread. "How did Suzanne die?"
"She was murdered."
Three hours later I was sitting in a front aisle seat of a Southwest Air flight approaching San Diego, my head buzzing as loud as the turbo jets. San Diego had the closest airport to Spa Santé, where Craig and Suzanne were staying. Or, more accurately now, where Craig was staying. Suzanne was in the Lakeside County morgue. I was only able to get a few more details out of Craig by phone. That he had found Suzanne face down in a Spa Santé mud bath, for one. And that he would pick me up at the airport if I would fly to San Diego, for another. It was his final tearful "please" that snagged me.
I accepted what was to be my lunch from a smiling Hispanic stewardess. Tomato juice and salted nuts. At least it was vegetarian.
It hadn't been easy to tell my sweetie, Wayne Caruso, that I was flying to San Diego for Craig's sake. On a workday yet. I sipped at my tomato juice and sighed. Wayne. A homely man from the neck up, but beautiful from the neck down. Not to mention the inside out. He was a man who liked me, even loved me, exactly the way I was. A powerful aphrodisiac after years of not meeting Craig's standards.
Wayne hadn't even objected to my trip. Instead, he had expressed his concern quietly and offered to feed C.C. Whatever jealous torments he was going through, if any, he had kept them to himself.
"My name's Krystal, what's yours?" squeaked a voice to my left. I turned my head and saw a small freckled face with intent hazel eyes scrutinizing me.
"Kate," I answered cautiously.
"I'm six. How old are you?"
"Thirty-nine." Might as well be honest.
"Oh." She considered for a moment, furrowing her freckled brow. Maybe she was trying to count that high. "Grandma's older than you," she said and tugged the tweed sleeve of a well-groomed woman who was busy reading on Krystal's other side.
The woman gave me a brief unfocused smile, before sliding her eyes back to Queen of the Damned.
"I'm going to see my daddy and his girlfriend in San Diego," Krystal continued. "Who are you going to see?"
"My ex ... my friend," I answered.
"Oh." She considered again. "My daddy misses me. He wants me to live with him again. Does your friend want you to live with him again?" Her clear hazel eyes glommed onto mine knowingly.
"God, I hope not!" I replied.
My comment popped Grandma back out of her book. "Krystal, that's enough! Buckle up. We're almost there."
It certainly was enough. Krystal's question had opened a Pandora's box of doubts in my mind. And tensed all my shoulder and back muscles in the process. As the plane began its descent, I thought enviously of C.C., probably digging her claws into Wayne's well-muscled thigh at this very moment. What was I going to do down here? Comfort Craig? Find out what happened to Suzanne? Or get myself in a lot of trouble? But it was too late to turn back. The plane was bumping down the runway, and suddenly I was feeling airsick.
Craig was waiting for me in the crowd at the gate. His lean, handsome face no longer looked lean and handsome. It looked gaunt and aged under dark stubble. His large brown puppy-dog eyes were bleary, red and swollen. His broad shoulders were hunched inward. Splash on a little eau-de-vino and he wouldn't have looked out of place sitting on the curb drinking Thunderbird out of a paper bag. A far cry from the man who might have modeled for the cover of Inc magazine the week before.
"She's dead, Kate," were the words he greeted me with. He held out a hand for my suitcase, ever courteous, even in his disheveled grief. Empathetic tears surged up unexpectedly behind my eyes.
"I know," I replied inadequately. I gave his outstretched hand a platonic squeeze before letting him have my suitcase. Only the echo of six-year-old Krystal's question kept me from wrapping my arms around him. No use encouraging him if he did harbor any illusions about marital reconciliation. The crowd surged around us as I stared at him, formulating questions that couldn't wait any longer. Krystal waved at me as her grandma hustled her down the corridor.
"Tell me what happened," I said finally.
Craig stared down at the airport floor. "She was murdered," he said softly, as if he still didn't believe it.
"How?" I asked firmly. "How was Suzanne murdered?"
Craig raised red eyes full of panic to mine.
"I ... I found her, Kate. She was..." He dropped his eyes again. I could hear his breathing as he tried to calm himself.
"What happened to her?" I asked again, unable to keep the impatience out of my tone.
"I don't know!" he yelped. Curious faces turned our way. Damn.
I patted Craig's shoulder uneasily. What was it that he couldn't, or wouldn't, tell me? "Are you all right?" I asked after a few moments.
"I'm fine," he insisted in a voice two octaves too high. "Fine." He brought his head back up, but his eyes weren't seeing me. They were looking through me.
"Did you call the police when you found her?" I asked.
He shook his head slowly. "Fran called the police," he murmured.
"Who's Fran?" I asked.
"She's the lady that runs the spa," he answered quietly. "When I found Suzanne last night..." he began. He took a breath and continued, his voice a little stronger. "When I found her body I ran and pounded on the doors of the main building. Pretty soon the lights and the sirens came. Then everyone from the spa was out there milling around. And Chief Orlandi..." Craig's face paled beneath its stubble.
"Who's Chief Orlandi?" I asked.
"He's the chief of the Delores Police Department." Craig's eyes focused on mine suddenly. "Kate, he thinks I did it."
"He thinks you killed Suzanne?" I prodded.
"Yes." Craig swallowed. His eyes went wild again. "He questioned me for hours! He had our room searched. They took my clothes for lab tests. They took my fingerprints. Orlandi told me I had to stay at the spa!"
"Did they just take your fingerprints?" I asked. "Didn't they take anyone else's?"
His eyes refocused. "No, I think they took everyone's. They would have searched all the rooms too, but Terry McPhail--he's one of the guests--asked the cops if they had a search warrant and started squawking about constitutional rights."
"Are the police still at the spa?" I asked, wondering why they had allowed Craig to drive to the airport.
"No," he said. Then he sighed. "At least they weren't an hour ago. They left right before I drove out to pick you up. They'd been at the spa since I found Suzanne last night--actually it was this morning, just after midnight--asking questions, measuring things, searching." Panic was seeping into his voice again. He picked up speed. "Chief Orlandi said he'd be back this afternoon. I didn't like the way he stared at me when he said it."
Craig looked at me, his fear fully evident in his red, swollen eyes. He didn't just look like a wino anymore. He looked like a man on the run. Why was he so afraid? And why did the police think he killed Suzanne?
I cleared my throat and looked straight into his frightened eyes. "You didn't kill her, did you?" I asked.
"No!" he yelped. The intensity of his answer turned the heads of the last of the disembarking passengers.
"No," he repeated in a deeper, modulated tone. He closed his eyes for a few heartbeats. When he opened them again they were clear of panic. Then he straightened his shoulders. The wino persona dropped away. He began to look like a corporate leader again, albeit a rumpled one.
"Kate, look at me," he said in a nearly steady voice. "I've made mistakes. I've treated you badly, for one. I shouldn't have taken Suzanne to Spa Santé, for another. But I did not kill Suzanne. Believe me."
I looked into his sincere red eyes and believed him completely. Well, almost completely. "Then, who did?" I asked.
He began to crumble again, shoulders first. "I don't know. I don't know! I can't even believe it happened ... but I saw her body. And the police! They haven't charged me, but I know they think I did it. I can see it on their faces." His voice was leaping in pitch with each word, his eyes darting wildly.
"Craig, we'll figure out who did this together," I promised rashly. Anything to alleviate his mounting hysteria. "But I'll need your help. Let's get the car and you can fill me in on the way."
The driving seemed to calm him. So I let him be as he guided the rented silver Toyota northeast on Highway 15 from San Diego to Lakeside County. But after twenty miles of brown hills and low dry shrubs, my need to know what had happened overtook my more tender sensibilities.
"So why do the police think you did it?" I asked.
"Because no one else makes sense," he answered after a moment of continued silence. I was relieved to hear the steadiness in his voice. "Spa Santé is pretty isolated. It's unlikely that a stranger would have been on the grounds last night, and none of the others staying at the spa knew Suzanne." He paused. "Except for me," he added bitterly.
"Who are the others?" I asked. "Run them down for me."
He sighed before speaking, but complied. "First, there are the owners. Francisca and Bradley Beaumont. She's friendly, competent. From Hawaii originally." He pointed out the car window toward some orange groves that glittered in the midday sun before going on, more comfortable as a tour guide than an interrogatee. "Bradley's a bit strange," he said.
"What do you mean 'strange'?" I probed hopefully. "Strange like Ted Bundy?"
"No, I don't mean that kind of strange," Craig snapped. He looked over at me with sudden anger in his eyes. The speed of the Toyota was accelerating with his temperature. "It's bad enough that the police suspect me. I don't want to slander anyone else."
"Damn it. Why did you ask me to come here?" I asked sharply. I was getting angry myself. I didn't need to be here in the middle of nowhere, receiving a lecture on ethics from my ex-husband.
He turned his eyes away from me, pressing down on the gas pedal. The orange groves disappeared rapidly behind us.
"Craig?" I had to know the answer.
"Because I need your support!" he exploded.
"Is that all?" I probed, all the while watching the road nervously.
Suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed shrilly, pressing the gas pedal even harder. Laughter had always been his way of coping. Nervous laughter, that is. But this was not mere nervous laughter, this was hysteria. Tears rolled out of his eyes. And he kept laughing. And sobbing. And laughing. And speeding. Damn. How well could he see the road with tears in his eyes? I gripped the handle of my suitcase, cramping my hand, and watched the miserable landscape whizzing by. Were we going to crash and die here on Highway 15? I held my breath.
Just as I had considered and rejected the idea of forcibly taking over control of the speeding car, his laughter and sobbing merged into a long gurgling sigh. "I never have been able to lie to you," he said. His foot eased up on the gas.
I loosened my cramped hand and allowed myself to breathe. He spoke again in a voice of forced calm. "I want you here because the police suspect me. Because I would too, if I were them. Because you've solved a murder." He glanced over at me, his swollen eyes pleading. "Figure this one out, Kate. If you don't, I don't know who will."
Was it time to tell him that I had only figured out that last murder by a fluke? That I couldn't save him? That he was doomed? I looked over at him and saw the wetness on his face left by his tears. And remembered his heavy foot on the pedal. No time for realism.
"I can try," I said softly. I realized I was trembling. "But only if you help me. You've got to tell me everything. Agreed?"
"Agreed," he said flatly, as if the feeling in his voice had been washed away by his tears.
"How is Bradley Beaumont strange?" I began again.
"He's just not exactly of this world." Craig let loose another sigh. "He walks around talking to himself. And laughing his weird laugh. Fran says he's a writer. Maybe that's it. You'll see when you meet him."
"Their kid, Paul. He's just a teenager. And their handyman, Avery Haskell. That's all the staff that was there last night. And that's when Suzanne..." His voice broke. I tensed, waiting for the Toyota to accelerate again. But Craig didn't tromp the gas. He sucked in a series of deep breaths instead, and drove on in silence.
I glanced at his gaunt face and settled into silence myself. I wouldn't push him anymore. Not while he was driving, anyway.
The silence in the car provided a hospitable environment for self-recrimination. What the hell was I doing down here? Did I really know the man who drove in torment beside me? And what made me think I had even a chance at figuring out who had killed Suzanne? I closed my eyes and began relaxing my still-trembling body, starting with my scalp. Thirty miles later I had reached my ankles, further detours into fear and doubt having slowed my progress considerably, when Craig's voice brought me back to the inside of the Toyota and current reality.
"I'll tell you about the guests," he said. His words raced as fast as the Toyota had earlier. "Besides me and Suzanne"--he faltered and then rushed on--"this couple, Jack and Nikki. He claims to be a rock promoter or something. She's an actress, black and beautiful. There's a man in a wheelchair, Don. He's pretty quiet. Hangs around with the Beaumont's kid sometimes." He stopped for a moment to think and then rattled off the rest. "Then there's Ruth Ziegler. She's a kick. I think she writes pop psychology books. And Terry. I mentioned him before. The one who insisted on a search warrant? Mr. Social Consciousness incarnate." He paused. "Those are all the guests."
"That's it?" I asked incredulously. "No one else? How can the Beaumonts make a living?"
"They just bought the spa. Got a good deal because it's been abandoned for years. They're rebuilding it bit by bit, and renting out the rooms that they've finished as they go. Ought to be a good investment if they handle it right." Providing hard information seemed to have done Craig good. Or maybe it was the preceding thirty miles of silence. His tone was conversational now, at ease. "They've placed a few ads, like the one that I saw in the Vegetarian Times. Vegetarian cooking, by the way. You'll appreciate it. And Fran told me they expect more people this weekend. Some kind of weight-loss program."
"Back to the people who were there last night," I said. "They all claim they didn't know Suzanne?"
"That's what they say," he answered thoughtfully. He took a highway exit marked DELORES, then circled back under the freeway in the opposite direction of the signs pointing to that town. We drove along a tree-lined road for a mile or so. "But you'll be able to ask them yourself. We're here."
"Here" was a gap in the trees with a tasteful cream-colored sign proclaiming "Spa Santé, Hot Springs and Resort" in brown script. As we drove through the gap I saw scattered stucco buildings of various shapes and sizes. A few sported sparkling white plaster exteriors, but most were brown and cracked with decay. Some were even missing sections of roofs and walls. Those in the worst condition were cordoned off by white nylon rope strung on wooden stakes. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Bursts of color from red geraniums, white alyssum, yellow pansies, richly purple violas and just-planted pink primroses reclaimed the faded beauty of the spa. Packed-earth paths flowed gracefully between the old and new buildings and around the flower beds. The whole compound was encircled by orange trees.
Craig pulled up beside the largest stucco building and parked. "Are you ready to meet people?" he asked.
I looked into his ravaged face and returned the question. "Are you ready?"
"Always ready, always willing, darlin'," he replied. An old joke of his. He twisted his face into a parody of his old easy grin. Watching him, I felt the sudden pressure of imminent tears once more. But I shook them off and twisted my own features into an answering smile.
"Lead on, Macduff," I said, misquoting Shakespeare in a show of camaraderie.
We walked up the stairs of the big building and across the large porch with a redwood bench and invitingly placed lounge chairs. Craig held open a glass door and waved me into an attractive lobby decorated in muted pastels. He hurried me past the registration desk. "They'll be in the dining hall. That's where everyone hangs out."
The dining hall was beyond another set of glass doors. I peered through the glass and saw a spacious room with high wood-beamed ceilings and large sunny windows. One long table with room for at least two dozen people dominated the center of the hall. A buffet extended the length of the side wall, and at least thirty smaller tables were scattered throughout the remaining expanse. The buffet and tables were made of dark lacquered wood. Many of the tables were brightened by fresh flower arrangements. A waist-high counter, complete with cash register, stood sentry at the front of the hall, but no one was on duty behind it.
As Craig and I opened the glass doors, the disconcerting sound of uninhibited laughter reached us.
I located the source of the sound. At the end of the long center table an older woman with short, frizzy grey hair was wiggling her finger at a weasel-faced man who looked to be about my age. He was frowning peevishly. Whatever the joke was, I would have bet it was at his expense. A bearded man in a wheelchair was talking softly to a teenage boy at a table by the windows, oblivious to the others in the room. The boy looked up at us, shouted "Mom!" and continued to listen to the bearded man's words.
The swinging doors to the kitchen opened, and a plump Eurasian woman came bearing down on us, one arm clutching linen napkins, the other outstretched in my direction.
As I watched the five strangers, my skin prickled into goose bumps. Was one of these strangers a murderer?
Or--the thought crept into my mind before I could block it--was the murderer the man who had picked me up at the airport and now stood expectantly by my side?