Read an Excerpt
Something's Knot Kosher
By Mary Marks
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Mary Marks
All rights reserved.
I looked at the caller ID and smiled. My best friend, Lucy, often rang in the middle of the afternoon to chat. I fully expected to hear that her youngest grandchild had made the honor roll at Encino Elementary. I certainly wasn't prepared for the shocking news.
"Turn on your TV, Martha. Channel seven."
"Why? What's up?"
"It's bad. I'll stay on the line."
Her voice held an urgent tone I didn't like. I dashed to the living room and grabbed the remote. A local newscaster stood on the sidewalk on Ventura Boulevard next to yellow police tape. "This brazen robbery occurred two hours ago in front of a half dozen customers and employees of First Encino Bank. Witnesses said a single masked gunman forced everyone to lie on the floor in a back room and then pushed a hostage to the vault.
"A minute later, witnesses reported hearing four gunshots. The robber escaped carrying a duffel bag. When the police arrived, they discovered the body of the hostage inside the vault. His name is being withheld pending notification of next of kin."
My pulse hammered in my throat. "Oh my God, Lucy. Does Birdie know? That's Russell's bank." Birdie's husband, Russell Watson, was the vice president and manager of First Encino, Louise Avenue branch. "Who got shot?"
"I'm here with Birdie. We were visiting in her kitchen when the FBI came to notify her."
"Notify?" My stomach turned a flip. "Russell?"
"Yes. He's dead, Martha."
"I'll be right over."
Russell Watson hadn't been one of my favorite people. I never saw him treat Birdie with anything but indifference. Still, his shortcomings didn't justify murder. I couldn't predict how long I'd be gone, so I made sure my orange cat, Bumper, had enough food and water to last for a while. Then I grabbed my keys and jumped in my new Honda Civic. Less than five minutes later, I pulled up in front of Birdie's house behind two other cars, one a familiar silver Camry.
Lucy Mondello and Birdie Watson lived right across the street from one another in a more upscale part of Encino. My name is Martha Rose, and the three of us had been quilting together every Tuesday for sixteen years. We were so comfortable with each other, we didn't bother to knock before entering. I rushed up the stairs of Birdie's front porch and pushed the door open.
A pair of cozy, overstuffed green chenille chairs faced a slip-covered sofa in the living room of the California bungalow. Dressed in matching yellow blouse and trousers, Lucy sat next to Birdie on the sofa, hugging the older woman's shoulders with a comforting arm. Birdie wore her signature blue denim overalls and white T-shirt.
Across from them, a woman in a blue FBI jacket with yellow letters sat in one of the easy chairs. LAPD homicide detective Arlo Beavers sat in the other. My ex-boyfriend. In his mid-fifties, with a shock of gray hair and a white mustache, he appeared fit and as handsome as ever. Just the sight of him made my toes tingle. We exchanged a brief glance and then I rushed to sit next to Birdie and grabbed her hand.
"I'm so sorry, Birdie. I can't believe Russell's gone. You know you're not alone, right? You've got Lucy and me."
Birdie sniffed and reached a shaking, blue-veined hand toward the tissue box on the coffee table. She nodded and blew her nose. My heart broke to see how the shock and grief transformed her normally cheerful face. Her mouth hung slack and her eyes brimmed. She looked all of her seventy-six years.
"I know, Martha dear. I'm glad you're here." Silent tears spilled down her cheeks as she twisted the end of her long, white braid. She introduced the woman sitting in the chair as Agent Kay Lancet.
I nodded at the agent but looked at Beavers. "Do you know who did this? Why did they have to kill Russell? Why couldn't they simply take the money and run?"
Beavers pursed his lips under his mustache and shook his head once.
Agent Lancet wore her brown hair pulled back into a severe, no-nonsense bun. "We don't have much information at this point. It's still early." She stood slowly and handed her business card to Birdie. KAY B. LANCET, SPECIAL AGENT FBI. "We'll do everything in our power to catch the people who killed your husband, Mrs. Watson. Meanwhile, if you can think of anything to help our investigation, please call that number. I'm very sorry for your loss." The heavy rubber soles of her boots squeaked on her way to the front door.
Beavers also rose and turned to me. "Can I speak to you outside?"
I followed him out the front door, curious. Agent Lancet drove away in an unmarked black SUV. Beavers and I hadn't spoken since December, almost seven months ago. I babysat his dog while he took his new girlfriend to Hawaii.
He turned his face toward me and his eyes softened. "How have you been, Martha?"
Those dark eyes. Why did I still find them irresistible? "Fine, until now. I'm still in shock."
He nodded. "Yeah. Nobody's ever prepared for a thing like this. Listen. Since this is a federal crime, the LAPD is officially off the case. But I know Agent Lancet. We go way back. She allowed me to come here as a courtesy when I told her I knew the wife of the vic. Can you think of anyone who might've wanted Russell dead? Did he have financial problems?"
"I haven't a clue. Why do you ask?"
"Just trying to help out."
"Well, Russell wasn't the warmest human being on the planet. He probably managed to piss off a few people in his time, but don't we all? Shouldn't you be asking Birdie this?"
Beavers ran his fingers through his thick gray hair and blew a puff of air out of his mouth. "Kay did ask her, but Mrs. Watson couldn't think of anyone. Maybe when the shock wears off she'll remember more. I figured she might've mentioned something to you and Mrs. Mondello in passing."
I shook my head. "Sorry." I turned to go inside.
He put up a restraining hand and cleared his throat. "Are you still seeing Levy?" Beavers referred to Yossi Levy, aka Crusher. Crusher and I had gotten together — sort of — after my breakup with Beavers. Seven months ago, Crusher, who led an interesting double life, caught a bullet in a shootout and almost died. He spent two months recuperating at my house. After I turned down his latest offer of marriage, he left LA for a new adventure in parts unknown. I hadn't heard from him since, and I missed him. But I didn't want to admit that to Beavers.
I answered with a question of my own. "Are you still dating what's-her-name? Kerry? The veterinarian?" I loved Beavers's German shepherd, Arthur, and hated the man-stealing vet.
"No. I broke up with her a while back. She was too ... possessive."
I jerked my head up and snorted right in his face. "Look who's talking!" When I dated Beavers a year ago, he'd become jealous and demanding. When I refused to be manipulated, he broke up with me.
Beavers had the grace to stare at the ground and said, "I'd like to take you out to dinner sometime. Just to catch up. Maybe start over ..."
Did I hear him right? He wants to pick up where we left off? "I can't think about that, Arlo. The only thing I want to do right now is go back inside and help my friend."
He nodded and backed away as I turned around and pushed through the front door.
Lucy studied my face as I closed the door noisily behind me. Her perfectly penciled red eyebrows raised in question marks. I kept walking and bit my lip. I'd discuss my love life at a more appropriate time. Like when pigs came to Passover.
I headed toward the kitchen. "I'll make us a pot of coffee."
The items Birdie used every day were conveniently displayed on open shelves or behind glass doors in her old-fashioned kitchen. The glass-and-steel coffee press occupied a permanent spot on a counter paved with colorful Mexican tiles. I started a fire under a kettle of water on her large cast-iron stove.
The aroma of cinnamon and molasses led me to a freshly baked ginger cake cooling in a square jadeite dish. Birdie loved to bake in the mornings. Surely the present crisis justified my indulging in a slice. I'd think about Weight Watchers later.
I returned to the living room with a tray of steaming mugs and plates of cake. Birdie gratefully accepted coffee but declined the food. "I couldn't possibly eat anything, Martha dear. But you girls help yourself."
Lucy stretched, arching her back like a tall, orange-headed cat. "What did Arlo talk to you about?" she asked, forking a piece of cake into her mouth.
"He asked if anyone would want Russell dead." I avoided looking at Birdie. "He also asked if you were having financial problems."
Birdie wrinkled her forehead. "Yes, Agent Lancet asked me the same questions, but I couldn't think of anybody who'd wish Russell harm. I mean, I wouldn't have been privy to something like that, anyway. Russell rarely talked about his work." She sighed. "As for financial problems, I really have no idea. He never bothered me with such things."
I understood what Birdie meant. She and Russell lived in a sterile marriage. They coexisted in separate bedrooms and didn't share much of a life. Why she had settled for such a loveless arrangement had baffled Lucy and me. But Birdie always replied, "He has his good points."
"Still," I persisted, "did Russell seem worried lately? Did he act any differently? Show some signs something bothered him?"
Birdie thought for a moment. "Well, he did get a disturbing phone call a week ago. Afterward, he was more snappish than usual." A look of alarm clouded her face. "Do you think the call's connected to his death?"
"Who knows? I mean, when a crook kills someone in a bank robbery, it's usually not personal. Right? So why ask if anyone wanted Russell dead? It's almost as if he thinks Russell was a target."
Beavers's question suggested Russell Watson's killing was deliberate. If so, did Russell know the masked man? Did he have money problems? Did he scheme to rob his own bank? Did something go wrong at the last minute that got him killed? I hoped not, for Birdie's sake.
Birdie looked off into the distance, wrung her hands, and muttered something I couldn't hear. She looked more fragile than I had ever seen her. Poor thing would be mortified if she learned Russell planned some kind of heist. I didn't want the FBI's suspicions to add to her distress.
I wished I knew more, but getting Beavers to part with any facts wouldn't be easy. He'd always been superprofessional. Conscientious. He never once revealed confidential details about a case when we were dating. Could I convince him to make an exception now because of Birdie?
Persuading Beavers to reveal any information would take a lot of finesse on my part but, for Birdie's sake, I had to try. I'd start with his invitation to dinner.CHAPTER 2
The next hour Lucy and I helped Birdie focus on funeral arrangements — a process I had already become familiar with. Last year, right before Hanukkah, an attorney contacted me with the news I'd been named executor of a friend's estate. I accepted the sad duty of arranging for my friend's burial, along with untangling her very complicated life. At least I could help guide Birdie through the same procedures of dealing with the coroner's office and the funeral home.
Lucy cleared the coffee cups while I telephoned the mortuary and made an appointment for the following morning.
Birdie disappeared into her sewing room and emerged with an appliqué project — a barnyard scene featuring roosters with fancy tail feathers in dozens of different prints. "I need something to keep my hands busy. It helps to focus on sewing while we talk."
Lucy waved her hand. "Whatever works, hon! I know this must be an awful shock. You and Russell were married for such a long time."
Birdie threaded her needle and sighed. "We knew each other for more than fifty years. We met in the fifties when we were students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon."
Lucy and I had heard this story before. The older Birdie became, the more she seemed to reminisce. She loved to recount the story about how she met her husband.
"I came from Massachusetts, but Russell was local. Fourth generation. His people traveled over the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon."
Lucy picked up a spool from Birdie's sewing kit and untangled the thread. "Does he still have family there?"
"After Russell's parents died, we didn't really keep in touch. There were problems between Russell and his brother, Denver." We had heard this before, too, but Birdie never offered any details.
"Do you want us to notify Denver?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I don't know if he's still alive."
"Did he have children? Shall we notify them?"
"Denver had a son, but I wouldn't know how to contact him. All I know for sure is Russell's parents are buried in McMinnville. Russell said when his time came, he wanted to be buried there as well."
"I'm certain we can make that happen, Birdie. I've scheduled an appointment with the mortuary in the morning. We'll go with you and help finalize all the arrangements, including transporting Russell to McMinnville. Does he have a space in the family's plot?"
Birdie stopped sewing and frowned. "I don't know for sure. I assume he does."
"Don't worry, hon." Lucy squeezed Birdie's shoulder. "I'm sure they're used to handling situations like this. Right, Martha?"
The phone rang. Birdie put down her needle. "I don't think I can handle any calls right now."
I jumped up and headed for the phone. "No problem."
"Mrs. Watson? This is Tisha Goodall from LA Cable News. Can you give us an interview?"
"Mrs. Watson has no comment. Please don't call again."
Tisha Goodall spoke quickly. "If she could just step outside, this would only take a minute."
I peeked out the front window. Vans from all the major stations crowded the quiet residential street. Their antennas scraped the branches of the sycamore trees on the parkway. A vehicle with LA Cable News printed in tall blue letters partially blocked Lucy's driveway directly across the street. I stepped away from the window, closed the drapes, and spoke into the phone. "Mrs. Watson has no comment. Leave her alone."
A number of feet shuffled on the wide front porch, and someone knocked loudly. "Mrs. Watson?" A male voice this time. "Mrs. Watson, can we please talk to you?"
Birdie buried her face in her hands. "I — I don't want to talk to anybody. Can't you make them go away?"
Lucy stood — all five feet eleven inches — and put her hands on her hips. "I'll call Ray right now." She reached for her cell phone. "He'll get rid of them toot sweet." She made an air quote with the fingers of her free hand.
Lucy's husband, Ray Mondello, was usually a gentle, good-natured man. But he'd been an MP in Vietnam. If anyone could disperse a crowd, he could. Fortunately, Ray's auto repair shop was close by on Ventura Boulevard.
The knocking continued off and on for another minute before I got fed up. "I can't wait for Ray. I'm going out there."
I opened the door and a dozen microphones, cell phones, and cameras were thrust in my direction. I stepped outside and closed the door behind me, waiting silently for the barrage of questions to stop.
Once I had the reporters' full attention, I spoke. "Mrs. Watson is in mourning right now. She will not make a statement no matter how long you pound on her door or how many times you call her phone. Right now, you're trespassing. Do the decent thing. Turn around. Leave quietly. Respect her privacy."
Across the street, Ray barely squeezed his green Range Rover around the vehicle blocking his driveway and jumped out of his car. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and his mouth drew a grim line across his face. In addition, two of his biggest car mechanics, still dressed in greasy blue overalls, jumped out of the car. The three of them waded like Schwarzenegger toward the back of the crowd.
The reporters were unaware of the angry posse coming their way at first and began shouting questions again. Journalists in LA generally respected private property, but an armed robbery and the murder of a bank official had become a major story.
I took a deep breath. "Step away immediately, or I'll have you thrown out."
Ray and his guys pushed their way through the media hounds. A bearded man holding an expensive camera stumbled sideways. A man in a baseball cap stopped taking pictures with his cell phone and turned to leave, briefly revealing a tattoo on the side of his neck. The other journalists had to be pushed back to the street. A blonde in tan makeup from a major network shrieked in protest as a burly mechanic pushed her backward toward the sidewalk. Tisha Goodall.
Ray's voice boomed, "LA Cable News has two seconds to remove your vehicle from in front of the driveway across the street."
The media got the message and began to disperse. Ray turned to me over his shoulder and nodded once. I went back inside.
The phone rang again, and I answered it. "Watson residence."
The female voice on the other end dripped with concern. "This is Sandra Prescott. I'd like to speak to Birdie."
"What is this regarding?"
Her voice took on a commanding edge. "Just tell her it's Rainbow."
I placed my hand over the mouthpiece so the caller couldn't hear me. "Birdie, do you know someone named Sandra Prescott? She said to tell you it's Rainbow."
Excerpted from Something's Knot Kosher by Mary Marks. Copyright © 2016 Mary Marks. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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