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Bones and Roses
A Cypress Bay Mystery
By Eileen Goudge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
"Since when is stealing dead bugs a crime?"
Officer James is smirking as he says this. Like he can already see himself recounting the incident over a round of beers at the Tide's Inn for the amusement of his buddies. I want to smack him. But I can't because he's a cop and the last time I took a swing at a cop it didn't end well. That was before I got sober, three and a half years ago, when my definition of a marathon wasn't the kind that had you powering to the finish line with a number on your chest, shrink-wrapped in Lycra and dripping sweat. Mine had me chasing shots as opposed to other runners, while being egged on by fellow bar patrons. Suffice it to say, I was lucky I didn't spend the night behind bars.
But that was then and this is now. The current situation involves the theft of a valuable collectible by a shoplifter and not the loss of my alleged virtue at the hands of a guy who thought I'd be too drunk to notice him grabbing my ass. We're at the Gilded Lily, the shop in downtown Cypress Bay that sells decorative items and high-end household goods, where my best friend, Ivy, works part-time and sells her artwork on commission. One of her pieces was stolen, and Officer Friendly here is doing little to convince me "the long arm of the law" isn't just a figure of speech.
Ivy draws herself up to look him in the eye, which takes some doing as she stands scarcely higher than his shoulder at five foot two. "You think the theft of valuable artwork is funny?" Atta girl.
He's unrepentant. "Pardon me for saying so, but this ain't exactly the Louvre." He pronounces it "louver" as in "shutters." He glances around at the displays — everything from table linens embroidered by French nuns and glassware hand-blown by local artisans to vintage items, like the Victorian brass birdcage and Art Deco martini shaker — with pointedly raised eyebrows. Jerk. Okay, so the Gilded Lily's wares aren't museum quality, but they're carefully curated nonetheless, by the owner, Parker Lane, the only gay man I know who prefers clutter to clean lines.
"Seriously, you call this art?" His beady-eyed gaze settles on one of Ivy's dioramas and he leans in to take a closer look. The piece happens to be one of my favorites: green-backed beetles — from an honest-to-God insect emporium, in LA, where Ivy buys her preserved bugs — picnicking in the park. The "wicker" basket is fashioned from toothpicks, the blanket from a checkered cloth napkin; the greenery is so natural-looking it looks real at a glance. All of it contained on a pedestal, under a glass dome, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Part of a grouping, it sits between dioramas of a cricket jazz quartet and a bespectacled caterpillar peering at an optometrist's eye chart.
Ivy's aquamarine eyes flash and I jump in with, "Good question. And one I'm sure the artist would be happy to answer." I gesture toward Ivy. He has the decency to blush, and do I detect a hint of a smile on the face of his female partner? An attractive dark-haired woman in her twenties, Officer Ruiz appears to be taking pleasure in seeing him squirm.
"Well, are you going to just stand there or are you going to fill out a report?" Ivy demands of Officer James. Her cheeks are flushed and her shoulder-length raven curls make me think of a thunderstorm brewing. "Honestly, what if it was a dead body!"
This prompts him into finally flipping open his notepad. He looks to be in his mid-thirties, the same age as Ivy and me, with police-issue brown hair, a mustache, and acne scars on his cheeks that give him a certain rugged appeal. From the neck down he's Barney Rubble: on the tubby side with rolls of fat slopping over his belt that speak of frequent Dunkin' Donuts runs. He also looks familiar — our paths must've crossed at some point, which tends to happen when you've lived in the same community your entire life. Except for the four years I was at San Diego State I've resided in the Northern California seaside town I call home since I first had my butt smacked, in the delivery room at Cypress Bay Community. Down the street from the Catholic church where I attended Mass when I was growing up and where these days I attend AA meetings.
"Can you describe this individual?" Officer James inquires, all officious-like.
"Mid-forties, medium height, dark brown hair, blue eyes. Kind of heavyset, though I wouldn't call him fat." Ivy describes the man she suspects of having made off with her diorama of ladybugs frolicking on the beach. "He was wearing tan slacks, Merrells, and a light blue O'Neil T-shirt."
Officer James whistles, impressed. "Sounds like you got a good look at him."
"He went out of his way to chat me up," she explains.
"I'll bet." He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
Suddenly I remember where I know him from. He was in Ivy's and my class at Harbor High. Jordan James. I'd have recognized him sooner if not for the mustache and fifty pounds he's gained since then. It was Jordan who pulled that cruel prank on Rachel Shuck, asking her to the junior prom so she'd be humiliated when he stood her up. I had overheard him laughing about it with his buddies at the prom, saying stuff like, "I should've made it a bucket of pig's blood."
I'd been having a crappy evening to begin with — my own date, Adam Ricci, was in the john puking up his guts from the vodka we'd spiked our punch with (amateurs are such wusses) — and this had really gotten me riled. So I'd come up with a plan to teach Jordan a lesson. Armed with my Kodak Instamatic, which I'd brought to take candid shots of the prom for the yearbook (I was on the committee), I'd then enlisted the help of my friend Evan McDougal, the "Carson Kressley" of Harbor High, who was out and proud, sporting guyliner and sequined high-tops before it was socially acceptable. The photo of Evan planting a big wet one on a surprised-looking Jordan became an instant classic when it appeared in the yearbook on the "Most Memorable Couples" page.
"Hey, didn't we go to school together?" I say to him now, a big, fake smile on my face.
"Yeah, come to think of it, you look kinda familiar." He gives me a funny look, like maybe he suspects I was behind his most humiliating moment in high school. Or maybe it's because of what happened with Spence Breedlove later on that year when I was the talk of our junior class. "Her I remember." Her jerks his head toward my best friend. How could he not? Ivy was a standout then as she is now: a Scarlett O'Hara doll from Franklin Mint with the soul of a rocker chick who liked it loud and fast, whether it was partying, cars, or boys. "Didn't you two used to hang out?"
I nod and stick out my hand. "Tish Ballard." My full name is Leticia, but everyone calls me Tish. (My parents, in naming me after my grandmother — thus dooming me to a lifetime of grief, from teasing in school to being hounded by telemarketers who've mistaken me for an old lady these days — at least knew better than to compound their error with the nickname Letty.) I drop my gaze to his ring finger as we shake hands. "You're married, I see. Good for you. Commitment ceremony or did you make it legal?" I also make a point of mentioning I voted for Proposition Eight.
He flushes bright red at the implication. "I'm not gay," he chokes out after he's regained the ability to speak. "I'm married to Teresa. Teresa Winkler." He names another former classmate of ours; they were a couple senior year — it's coming back to me now. "We have three kids," he adds, lest there be any doubt about his virility, deepening his voice and puffing out his chest.
"Oh. I see. I just assumed ..."
Ivy flashes me a grin behind his back. She looks like a demented revolutionary dressed in a ruffled pink skirt, flip-flops with big sparkly daisies on them, and a black Che Guevara T-shirt. Heaps of silver necklaces and bracelets, from her jewelry-making phase, adorn her slender wrists and throat.
Not until they're headed out does Officer Ruiz break rank. She slows her steps to let Jordan get ahead of her, then pauses to murmur to Ivy, "Don't mind him. I love your ... whatever they are. They're beautiful." She studies the diorama of grasshoppers sipping tea from miniature cups around a "wrought-iron" table fashioned from wires. "Strange but beautiful."
Parker Lane blows in minutes later, dapper as ever in a Colonel Sanders suit and striped pink shirt, his thick, wavy mane, the yellowing ivory of old piano keys, blown about as if he dashed here on foot. He hugs Ivy so hard you'd have thought she was the victim of a mugging. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?" Parker was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, his accent so pronounced his mellifluous baritone, if it were a tree, would be dripping with Spanish moss.
Ivy makes light of it, to spare him further grief. "Who, the cop or the robber? Don't worry," she assures him. "I wasn't held at gunpoint. And my virtue is still intact. Mostly," she adds with a wicked grin.
We leave him to flutter around the shop like an agitated magpie putting its disturbed nest to rights, and head out to grab a bite to eat for lunch. You'd never guess, from the way Parker carries on, that he doesn't depend on his income from the Gilded Lily. In fact he's independently wealthy and lives with his partner of fifty-odd years, Desmond, in a spectacular oceanfront home that has every realtor in town salivating, awaiting the day when one or both of them dies off and it goes on the market. Before I traded my dress shoes for sneakers and went into business for myself, I think I was the only real estate broker in town who didn't covet the listing. I could never want someone else's loss to be my gain. I know what it is to experience a devastating loss — when I was eleven, my mom ran off with her lover, never to be seen or heard from again — and it's not something I'd wish on my worst enemy. It left me damaged. It made me who I am today: a person you wouldn't have wanted to encounter after I'd had too many vodka martinis. There's something inside of me that, when let loose, can be like that one kid at a birthday party who ruins it for everyone. Drunk, I was a human wrecking ball. Sober, I'm nicer but never more than one step from blowing it, for myself or someone else, with a mouthy remark or raised middle finger. I don't take well to being told what to do and I don't bow to authority figures.
"I'm starved," Ivy announces as we make our way up the street to the Bluejay Café, where it's the tail end of the lunch hour.
"Nothing like a police incident for working up an appetite," I tease. The truth is, she's always starved. I read that on average a bird consumes half its weight in food per day; if that's true then it's fair to say Ivy eats like a bird. Where she puts it is anyone's guess — she's a size zero petite and living proof that life isn't fair. At five feet, nine inches and a hundred fifty pounds, I'm the opposite of dainty and have the metabolism of a three-toed sloth. It's a constant battle to keep my weight in check. Fortunately I have a job that keeps me perpetually on the move.
I'm proprietor and sole employee of Rest Easy Property Management, the business I launched three and a half years ago, after I flamed out as a broker in a blaze of ingloriousness. I look after other people's vacation homes. I see to upkeep and repairs. I supervise domestics and maintenance people. I make sure the homes that double as vacation rentals don't get trashed by college kids on spring break. I'm also the soul of discretion. If you're cheating on your spouse, your secret is safe with me. I'll even go the extra mile, like when I replaced the previously unopened box of tampons in the master bath at the Stones' after Mr. Stone's romantic tryst with his mistress. Who but me would have thought to do so? It comes from being no stranger to secrets myself.
"In a weird way it's a compliment." Ivy waxes philosophic over lunch. "I mean the guy must really have wanted it. I don't imagine there's much of a black market for stolen insect dioramas."
"Whatever, it still pisses me off that he's getting away with it." Many hours of painstaking work go into each of Ivy's pieces. It's not fair she should be out the commission.
"Yeah, well, what can you do?" She sighs in resignation. "It's not like the cops are going to put out an APB. They won't lift a finger. Especially not after you insulted Jordan's manhood. Totally worth it, by the way," she adds with a giggle. "The look on his face? Oh my God, priceless."
I shrug. "Nothing wrong with being gay."
"Tell him that."
Our waitress arrives with the sandwiches we ordered — the turkey club for Ivy, avocado-and-hummus on whole-wheat for me. (I'm doing penance for the party leftovers — an assortment of finger sandwiches, crab puffs, bite-sized mushroom quiches, and petit fours — I was given by clients of mine, the Willetts.) The dense fog of morning has burned off, giving way to sunny skies that has every outdoor table at the Bluejay filled. Housed in what was once a cottage — the orphan child of the Painted Ladies that line the block — it's a favorite of locals and tourists alike, always packed even during non-peak hours. We were lucky to snag a table on the patio, under the grape arbor that forms a leafy canopy at one end. I bask in the warmth from the dappled sunlight.
Mark Twain is quoted as having once said the coldest winter he ever knew was the summer he spent in San Francisco. The same could be said of Cypress Bay, a two-hour drive down the coast. This time of year the fog rolls in every morning like the tide, usually not burning off until midday. When I left my house at 6:30 a.m. to go to work, it was chilly and gray. Now it's warm enough for me to have peeled off the sweatshirt and Henley shirt I'd been wearing over my tank top.
"How was the meeting last night?" Ivy changes the subject. She means the AA meeting I attended. When I was newly sober, I used to go to one a day, but nowadays I go to one a week. That I felt the need for more than my regular Thursday night meeting this week is clearly cause for concern. I could tell from her overly casual tone.
"Good." I don't elaborate. What goes on in the "rooms" stays in the rooms. Ivy is well aware of this; that's not why she was asking. She's worried I'll fall off the wagon.
"You didn't return my call."
I extract a clump of sprouts from my sandwich before taking a bite. You'd think Cypress Bay was the birthplace of the alfalfa sprout from its prevalence in these parts — it's the kudzu of crunchy land. I'd be happy if I never saw another sprout. "Yeah, it was too late by the time I got your message."
"I thought the meeting got out at nine."
"I went out afterwards with some friends," I lie.
"Really. Is that why all the lights were on at your house?"
I narrow my eyes at her. "What, so now you're spying on me?"
"I was checking up on you. That's not the same as spying. I was worried, okay? I thought something had happened to you." I can't say I blame her, after what I put her through during my Lost Weekend years. She was the first person to whom I made amends after I got sober.
"I'm perfectly fine as you can see." I spread my arms to show I have nothing to hide — as in no bruises from having fallen down while in a drunken stupor, no bandages from having slit my wrists.
Ivy says nothing.
I munch on my sandwich as if I hadn't a care in the world, swallowing what's in my mouth before delivering another whopper. "Today is just another day as far as I'm concerned."
She returns her sandwich to her plate and pushes her aviator sunglasses onto her head to look me in the eye. "It's no use, Tish. I've known you since we were in sixth grade. You can't fool me."
I shrug. "It's been twenty-five years. Believe me, I'm over it."
"No, you're not," she insists. "You're only saying that so I'll shut up. But this isn't one of those fake-it-till-you-make-it things." I hate it when she does that, quotes AA scripture she learned from me.
"What do you want from me? Do you expect me to moan and wail?"
Excerpted from Bones and Roses by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 2014 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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