Luck is merely a product of the happily delusional mind.
—Chrissy McMullen, Ph.D., in one of her more maudlin moods
Senator!" I said, bracing my leg kittywompus across my back door lest Harlequin bound down the stairs and into Miguel Rivera's nattily attired crotch. It was eleven o'clock on hump day, too early for a nap, too late to legitimize a meal involving bacon. "I . . ." I glanced past the senator's smooth-suited shoulder at the septic guy, just recently arrived to drain the pit in my yard. I'd called SuperSeptic nearly a week ago when my toilet had rumbled eerily upon flushing. It had been a particularly distressing moment, since I treat my system with all the sensitivity reserved for a high-strung, fair-haired child. Since the growling incident, however, I had become even more cautious, reserving my bathroom for mirror time and emergency peeing.
Fourteen additional calls to SuperSeptic had produced a "waste-removal associate" immaculately attired in sparkling white coveralls with a red double S emblazoned across his chest. He'd arrived not ten minutes ago, merry as Robin Hood, saving me from violating the Clean Air Act and/or murdering the SuperSeptic guys.
The senator's sleek good looks struck me as somewhat incongruous against the backdrop of my dusty yard and the whistling septic man.
"I wasn't expecting visitors," I said. And even if I had been, I certainly wouldn't have expected Miguel Rivera. He dined in restaurants I couldn't afford to drive past and owned property beyond my capacity to fantasize about, including a modest rancho called Alba Rojo, nestled somewhere in the Santa Monica foothills.
Three years earlier he'd been a senator for the state of California. Currently he was merely Lieutenant Jack Rivera's estranged father. Jack, on the other hand, was another story entirely. Kind of a cross between a pit bull and a really top-notch aphrodisiac. Powdered rhino horn maybe. Not that I would know. I need an aphrodisiac like Colin Farrell needs sexy lessons. But don't get the wrong impression; I no longer harbor any adolescent fantasies for those foreign bad boys.
"Ms. McMullen . . ."
I am, after all, an intelligent, independent woman and a certified shrink to boot. Still, that kind of snockered Irish accent had, in earlier days, been known to pump my estrogen into overflow, effectively drowning my brain cells and floating my imagination into steamy flights of fancy involving . . .
"Ms. McMullen." The senator's voice yanked me back to the present. His accent wasn't bad either: a rich cappuccino of political clout and Latino masculinity that, oddly enough, reminded me of Francois, one of my newest but dearest friends. "It is good to see you."
"Yes, I—" had no idea where I was going with that statement and was more than happy to be interrupted.
"When I saw the septic truck parked near your house, I thought, perhaps, you would be in your backyard. Might I come in?" he asked.
I drew back a half inch and refrained from shrieking like the village idiot. But the truth was, I wasn't quite prepared for a visit from a political icon. It was Wednesday morning. I wasn't due at my office until one o'clock, giving me all morning to ignore my housework. Hence, my living room looked as if it had been struck by an ill-humored poltergeist. I wasn't particularly well dressed, either. In fact, I was a little understated for the SuperSeptic guy. But he'd kept me waiting for most of a week and I thought he deserved whatever he got. Including the tornado-victim hair.
"I'd love to visit," I said, and pushed Harlequin back with my knee. Harlequin's a dog. He's a cross between a Great Dane and . . . something equally large but not necessarily canine. "I'm afraid this isn't a very good time though, Senator. I—"
"Miguel . . . please," he said. "I am sorry to interrupt your morning ablutions. Truly I am, but I will not take up so very much of your time."
"Ablutions." The word threw me, juxtaposed as it was against the sight of the SuperSeptic man hoisting the lid from my apocalyptic pit.
"I would not have arrived unannounced if my visit were not of the utmost importance," the senator added.
His dire expression snagged the image of Farrell as defiant sex slave right out of my mind, replacing it with a sketchy, leftover nightmare in which the senator's son lay facedown on the concrete. I'm not generally prone to dark dreams, but the one I remembered from the night before was a doozy.
"Jack," I rasped. "He's not—"
"May I come inside?" asked the senator.
I bent, grabbed Harley's collar, and held him at bay while my guest stepped elegantly past us into my living room.
Harley and I followed, shuffling and panting. But the senator was too well bred to mention my heavy breathing.
"What a cozy home you have here," he said, barely glancing at the detritus that had somehow accumulated on my furniture since Thanksgiving. "When Rosita and I were first wed, we lived in a humble but comfortable—"
"Has something happened to Jack?" My voice sounded a little croaky, which might, in the wrong circumstances, cause the uninitiated to believe I cared about Rivera Junior.
The senator watched me for an instant, then shook his head. "Gerald is quite well."
"Quite well? What does that mean? Has he been injured? Is he—"
"No." He smiled his thousand-dollar-a-plate smile.
If I were ten years older or one dateless night more desperate, that smile might have convinced me to trade in my favorite late-night companion for something with a pulse. But Franois, as I call him, is a decent lover, for someone who lives in my bedside drawer and runs on batteries. Unlike more conventional boyfriends, he never leaves the toilet seat up or hogs the remote. Of course, he never pays for dinner, either, but there are pros and cons to every relationship.
"So far as I know, my son is in excellent health, Christina. You needn't worry on his account," said the senator.
I felt my lungs deflate but didn't verbalize my relief. Rivera and I have had a bit of a tumultuous relationship for the past . . . well, from the moment we first met over the body of a formerly illustrious football player named Andrew Bomstad. The Bomb had been rather rudely chasing me around my office desk before dropping at my feet, dead as a salami. Lieutenant Rivera had subsequently accused me of his murder.
"I cannot tell you what it means to me that you are so concerned for Gerald's well-being," the senator said. "He is lucky indeed to have a woman such as yourself."
I wondered rather obliquely if I should take umbrage at his implication. After all, I was not Jack Rivera's woman. We had dated a bit, teased a lot, and fought like badgers. Rivera isn't the sort of guy you pick out china patterns with. He's more the sort to throw china at. Still, he has the kind of shivery allure that tends to make women go weak in the head. I had been known to do the same. But I'd never been jelly-brained enough to climb into bed with him. After seventy-some failed relationships, I was taking it slow, playing it smart, communing with Franois, and studiously avoiding the stupid zone.
"So this has nothing to do with your son?" I asked.
"Well, in a manner of speaking . . ." he said, and let the sentence dangle as he motioned toward my couch. "The past few days have been rather taxing. Do you mind if I have a seat?"
"No. Of course not." It seemed wrong to say yes, even though, in fact, I did kind of mind. My hair was greasy, I was dressed like a down-on-her-luck stripper, and politicians tend to make me nervous, even when they're not my pseudo-boyfriend's prestigious sire.
The senator sat like he did everything—with a kind of polished panache. I tried to do the same, but Harlequin has ruined many of my grandiose gestures. Pulled off balance, I plopped into my La-Z-Boy like a kid on a trampoline, grateful that my T-shirt was long enough to compensate for my shorts, which were rigorously true to their name.
Wrestling the beast back under control and myself into an upright position, I stared at the senator. He looked as calm as a table leg. I, on the other hand, felt like there were Pop Rocks in my abbreviated pants.
"Can I get you anything to drink?" I asked. It was approximately five hundred degrees in the shade and had been for days, despite the fact that Thanksgiving had come and gone. Hence the practically nonexistent shorts and my growing suspicion that L.A. would, once again, be bereft of a white Christmas. "Water, soda?" I felt as dehydrated as pumice. "An IV drip?"
He smiled. "I'll take a bottle of water if you have it."
I didn't. Elaine Butterfield, best friend and staunch tree-hugger, had warned me against the evils of plastic. One and a half million barrels of oil wasted annually on PET and all that. "Is tap water okay?"
He assured me it was, so I locked Harlequin in my solitary bedroom with his squeaky toy, Lucky Duck, then pattered into the kitchen for the proposed beverage. It was lukewarm and a little brown, but I handed it over and sat back down, determined to look classier sans giant dog.
"Now, what can I do for you, Senator?" I asked, crossing one nearly naked leg over the other. I have pretty good legs, long and relatively slim. It's my torso that tends to resemble a steamer trunk—well stuffed and sturdy.
He sipped the drink, somehow refrained from making a face, and stared soulfully into my eyes.
"You are an intelligent woman, Christina."
I waited. In the past, such statements have generally been followed by "So why the hell are you acting like such a twit?" A query that has been posed with the regularity of the setting sun.
"Articulate, well spoken, intuitive," he added.
"Well . . . I wouldn't say—"
"You would be an asset to any organization." He took another drink and nodded, staring ruminatively off into middle space.
I narrowed my eyes a little. "What organization do you have in mind?"
He shifted his gaze back to me and smiled as if just remembering I was there. "Tell me, Christina, have you ever considered becoming involved with politics?"
No. But I'd never really thought about having a dentist drill directly into my brainpan, either. "I'm afraid I have my hands full with my practice," I said. My response sounded as diplomatic as all hell to me.
"I am certain you do," the senator replied, diplomacy obviously not lost on him. "You are, after all, a successful businesswoman in your own right."
Success is a matter of opinion, I suppose. The truth is, I rent a little office in Eagle Rock, where I counsel the good, the bad, and the gorgeous. I had once been a cocktail waitress in the greater Chicago area but thought that getting a Ph.D. might provide a better income whilst allowing me to display a bit less cleavage as I ministered to the mentally unfortunate. I was partially right; my decolletage is almost always above my nipples these days. But while I could afford to buy a peanut buster parfait pretty much whenever I wished, I couldn't manage to pay for a new septic system. Thus SuperSeptic's third visit of the year.
I refrained from fidgeting while the senator continued. "Well educated. Intelligent." He scowled a little and seemed to stare through my left eyeball and into the world beyond.
"Are you feeling all right, Senator?" I asked. Usually, when conversing with Miguel Rivera, it felt as though every other woman on the planet had mysteriously disintegrated. Perhaps it was that single-minded focus that made him so successful in the political arena. That and the fact that he looked like a slow orgasm in Armani.
He shifted his attention back to me with an apologetic smile. "I always wanted a daughter, Christina. Did you know that?"
No I didn't know that. In fact, according to his only son, Miguel Rivera should have been rendered impotent at puberty, but maybe that was a biased opinion. Most children have them. I myself have often compared my mother to a burying beetle, which, if the spirit moves it, will eat its young.
"Someone like you," he added. "Bright, resilient."
Was he hallucinating? "Listen—" I said, but he interrupted again.
"Practical, yet instinctive."
"Ummm. Thank you."
"Not to mention beautiful." His smile brightened a little. He took a deep breath and leaned back, intensifying his focus by a couple hundred watts. "Any man would be lucky to have you," he added, his voice soft and speculative.
"I—" I began, but suddenly the realization hit me like a linebacker on steroids: He was coming on to me. I jerked to my feet. It wasn't as if I hadn't fantasized about the good senator a time or two, but having your X-rated ideas reenacted in your living room is a little different than simply playing them through your mind when it's just you and your high-amp Frenchman. "I know Jack and I generally seem mutually homicidal," I yammered. "But really, we're—"
"Good for each other."
I let the rest of my intended monologue hang unspoken in the cranked-up silence. "What are you doing here?" I asked finally.
He looked mildly confused, then his eyes widened and he rumbled a good-natured laugh. "Surely you did not think that I was . . . that I was propositioning you, Christina."
It took me a moment to catch my breath, longer still to zap my brain waves back on track. "Of course not," I said, and stomped down my politically incorrect irritation. I mean, apparently I'm bright and beautiful and all that other crap, so why the hell wasn't he coming on to me? "Why are you here, exactly?" I asked, managing—quite successfully, I believe—to disguise my annoyance.
"I came to beg your help," he said, and stood. Suddenly his voice was darkly dramatic and as enticing as hidden calories.
Sometimes my late-night conversations with Franois began similarly, but I didn't think this was going to be that kind of interlude. "My help?"
He held my gaze. "There has been a death."
I flinched. My own life had been threatened on more than one occasion during the past year. It tends to make a person a little squirrelly.
"The police have not determined the cause, and I feel in here"—he placed a perfectly manicured hand on his chest—"that the mystery must be solved or there will be dire consequences."
"What kind of consequences?"
The hair at the back of my neck crept upward like tiny fingers. "Such as?"
He watched me in silence as if wondering how much to say, then: "I, too, am intuitive, Christina," he said. "It is a gift from my mother's side."
"Uh-huh. But what does this have to do with me?" I was trying pretty hard to act casual, but my heart seemed to be a little bit stuttery in my chest.
He gave a brief shrug. "Perhaps nothing."
From the Paperback edition.