Tucker Sinclair's life has returned to normal after her first misadventure with murder in FALSE PROFITS. But that's about to change when her old college flame, Evan Brice, strolls back into her life after a 10-year estrangement that began when he dumped Tucker to marry her closest friend. Evan is now a successful Hollywood agent who has acquired many mistresses and a love affair with drugs. When Evan is found brutally murdered, the police quickly close in on the victim's widow, who turns to ex-best friend Tucker for help. Soon, Tucker runs afoul of the detective in charge of the case and finds herself at odds with a biker gang and a narcissistic soap opera star in a race to sort the innocent from the guilty.
About the Author
Patricia Smiley lives in Los Angeles, California.
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Cover Your Assets
By Patricia Smiley
Mysterious PressCopyright © 2005 Patricia Smiley
All right reserved.
Chapter Oneif life allows us only one great passion, Evan Brice was mine. I met him in a poetry class my junior year at UCLA. He was slumped in the seat in front of me, wearing an oversize black tuxedo jacket that hung on his bony shoulders like a bad prom rental. Definitely not my type: delicate hands, pasty skin, and a crumpled posture that made him seem frail.
At the time, I was working thirty hours a week scraping sticky-bun goop off the floor of a local bakery in order to earn money for tuition. I didn't have time for men, and I wouldn't have given Evan a second look if, at the moment I took the seat behind him, a ray of light from a nearby window hadn't set ablaze the red highlights in his shoulder-length brown hair. My first question had been, why didn't my hair look that shiny? Then I noticed that his was a rat's nest, and that led to my second question: why the good-hair, bad-hair dichotomy?
I constructed then debunked several theories about it during a boring discussion of John Brown's Body, including the possibility that he'd actually paid big bucks to some Beverly Hills celebrity stylist to create that do. Toward the end of class I surprised myself by reaching out to untangle a few of the snarls with my fingers. He turned slowly to blink at me with penetrating blue eyes. Then a quirky smile warmed his face. He leaned back compliantly, letting his hair cascade over the back of the chair as if he were at some beauty-salon shampoo bowl.
Later I'd learned that Evan wanted to be a poet. It wasn't hard to imagine him living in a Greenwich Village loft, scrounging through ashtrays for half-smoked cigarettes and writing tortured poems about his tormented past, except that he didn't have a tormented past, at least not back then. Evan was an Eagle Scout from an upscale neighborhood in West Los Angeles, the adored only child of parents who were a 1950s cliche. His background was an embarrassment to him, and he tried in increasingly dangerous ways to atone for his good fortune.
As it turned out, Evan was no Sylvia Plath. He wrote appallingly bad poetry that never seemed to improve even with the amazingly good drugs he took in search of his muse. The drugs made him anxious and unpredictable, which I interpreted as high-spirited and spontaneous, because back then I was convinced that anyone who could love me deserved concessions.
And Evan did love me. In fact, he loved everything about me, including my name, Tucker Sinclair. He told me it delighted his tongue like a vintage Bordeaux. I'd never tasted vintage Bordeaux, but I was content to take his word for it. He also loved the idea that my father died before I was born, making me half an orphan, and that I'd been raised by a working-actor mom who wasn't always working and whose professional name was Pookie Kravitz. Most of all, he loved the fact that I'd never lived in a house. To Evan, my life up until then had been an ideal blend of pathos and poverty. Simply stated, it had the perfect cachet for the girlfriend of a struggling poet.
I loved Evan because he carried spiders out of the house alive, cradled in a tissue. Despite all that neo-bohemian crap, I sensed his gentleness and inner turmoil. I thought him incapable of hurting anyone except perhaps himself, but I was wrong. In the winter of our senior year, shortly after he'd asked me to marry him, Evan dumped me in a way that proved he was more than capable of inflicting pain.
For months his betrayal rubbed like a burr against every cell, but even the worst breakups are survivable. I'd gone on to complete my BA and then my MBA. I'd eventually married, divorced, and earned a degree of success as a business consultant with a reputation for inventiveness. Sporadically I'd hear about Evan through mutual friends. Hear that in the same ten years he'd gone on to become famous, not as a poet, but as a Hollywood agent hawking the dubious talents of supermodels who wanted to be superstars. Sometimes I'd read articles in entertainment magazines about some mega deal he'd done with the head of Paramount or Sony or Disney, or see pictures of him posing at the Cannes Film Festival or walking the red carpet at the premier of the latest blockbuster movie.
Occasionally I'd also hear darker rumors about parties, and punch bowls brimming with cocaine, but that was no longer my concern. My memories of Evan Brice still triggered a lot of what-ifs, even though I'd long since given up my one great passion theory. I never expected to see him again, but I had. Unfortunately, our brief reunion hadn't prepared me for the appearance of a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective on the doorstep of my Zuma Beach cottage one sunny March morning two weeks later, telling me that Evan Brice had been found stabbed to death in a seedy Venice Beach apartment.
I WAS WORKING at home that morning, just as I had every morning for the past four months, ever since leaving my position as senior manager on the fast track to partner at Aames & Associates, a big downtown L.A. management consulting firm. I had loved my job and thought I'd be with the firm forever, until one of my clients was murdered and I suddenly found myself in very deep doo-doo. The firm's senior partners hadn't exactly supported me through the ordeal. My mother claims it was because they weren't operating at the highest level of their vibrations. She and I didn't always agree, but this time her assessment was right on.
By the time I got myself out of a potentially lethal jam, I'd found that climbing the career ladder at Aames & Associates had lost its allure. I resigned and started my own management consulting firm. I call it Sinclair and Associates, even though at the moment the Associates part is just wishful thinking.
I may have quit my job, but I hadn't severed all ties with the firm. I still had friends working there, including fellow consultant Venus Corday and my former administrative assistant, Eugene Barstok. Venus and I get together when the mood strikes us, but Eugene calls me at least two or three times a week. He considers it his personal responsibility to keep me posted on the behind-the-scenes politicking and backstabbing at Aames & Associates. It's gossip, but I love to hear him spin the details.
I was laboring over a project for Marvin Geyer, the owner of a small family-owned business that sold women's apparel by mail order. Sales were dropping faster than G-strings at a strip club, and he wanted to know why. The answer became apparent the moment I opened the catalog. It was full of merchandise that should have died a natural death back in the 1970s. Occasionally fashions get recycled, but I suspected that muumuus were down for the count.
I urged Mr. Geyer to consider updating the line, but he demurred. As a compromise, he agreed to test the market via a focus group, which I was organizing for him. I'd already mailed the invitations and was now in the process of selecting items from the catalog to parade in front of the group. I hoped that when Geyer heard the collective gagging of twenty impartial fashion mavens, it would sway him to my point of view.
As usual, I dressed for the day in old Levi's frayed at the knees, my favorite green flannel shirt, and a pair of wool slippers I wear for warmth against the damp morning fog even though they make my feet look like Old English sheepdogs. I may have run my fingers through my hair before starting the day, but I doubt I'd bothered with makeup. I do remember I was alone when the LAPD detective arrived. My mother, her boyfriend, and her West Highland white terrier, Muldoon, had already left for the day.
The detective didn't call in advance. He simply materialized at my door, clutching a slim black briefcase. He was a black man in his late thirties with a military bearing and bowed legs that disrupted the well-tended creases in his trousers. When he asked if he could talk to me about Evan, I could tell by the look on his face that whatever he had to tell me wasn't going to be good news. I checked his identification and ushered Detective Moses Green to a folding chair in the little alcove just off my living room that I use as a home office. I sat behind my desk, using it as a barrier between me and any bad news.
The room was awash in sunlight from the naked window. The brightness served to accentuate the craggy furrows Green had worried into his dark forehead. It also highlighted his large brown eyes, which were several shades darker than mine. Framing those eyes were ultralong lashes that reminded me of a llama's.
I'd already imagined the worst, so when Green told me Evan had been found murdered in the kitchen of that Venice apartment, I didn't cry. I didn't know what to feel. Shock? Anger? Mostly I felt numb. I stared at the large ruby stone on the detective's class ring and imagined Evan's blood seeping slowly from his body in ever-widening crimson circles.
Green must have watched this scene play out many times before, but it hadn't dulled his humanity. He didn't exactly apply cold compresses or call 911, but he was respectful enough to leave space for my grief. Still, I wasn't naive enough to think that an LAPD homicide detective had come to hold my hand while I grieved for an old boyfriend. I suspected he was sitting on my folding chair for one reason: He knew I'd recently been in touch with Evan, and wanted to hear what, if anything, I could tell him about his death.
When he finally spoke again, his tone was polite. "Mrs. Brice said the three of you were friends in college, that you and her husband dated for a while."
I tensed, wondering what else Cissy Brice had told him. Not the whole story, I was sure. I didn't want to get into that at the moment, so I just nodded. Then I changed the subject.
"Who killed him?" "We don't know yet. He was stabbed multiple times with a knife from the kitchen. Somebody was obviously pretty angry with Mr. Brice, but they may not have come specifically to kill him. There was no forced entry, no ransacking, so it probably wasn't a burglary. We're interviewing neighbors to see if he had any visitors prior to his death. In the meantime, the coroner's investigator is sorting through fingerprints and blood samples. That's going to take a while. I hear the victim liked to party. A lot of people went in and out of that place, and it doesn't look like it's been cleaned in a while."
"Are you saying the apartment belonged to Evan?" He nodded. "A rental. He used an alias on the contract, which raised a few red flags with us. There's a lot of gang-related drug activity in the neighborhood. Since the victim was a user, we're looking into a possible connection."
"You think he was dealing drugs from the place?" "At this point, anything is possible."
Green balanced the briefcase on his knees and opened the lid. He pulled out a piece of paper in a see-through bag. "We found this at the crime scene. I'm hoping you can tell me what it means." From my vantage point, the words on the page formed the shape of my grandma Felder's old sugar bowl, the one she got free from the Shell station for filling her Buick with gas. Even from a distance and even after all those years, I could tell that the handwriting was Evan's. My breath felt labored as I silently read the words:
To Tucker With Love and Regret
Dark warm room warning, warning No, no, no, maybe, yes, oh baby Springs groan, passion's screams Make love not war she pleads Sword slides into scabbard A perfect fit it seems Till morning comes And questions Far too late For us Red rose. Dead rose. True love. Cruel myth.
I felt strangely embarrassed, wishing for Evan's sake and maybe for my own that the poem at least had been better. My gaze traveled from the paper to Green's face. I sensed him analyzing my every facial twitch and gesture. It made me anxious. I assumed he wanted it that way. Cops have an instinct for making even the innocent feel guilty.
"I'm not exactly Robert Frost, ma'am," he said, "but it sounds like Mr. Brice still had a thing for you."
"There was nothing between Evan and me but history," I said, knowing that the truth was much more complicated than that. "Last time I saw him, he told me he was in a drug recovery program. He felt sorry about our breakup back in college. He wanted to make amends for hurting me all those years ago. Maybe that's why he wrote the poem."
Green looked away briefly. Something about the broken eye contact made me wonder if he understood that kind of regret as well.
"Tell me about that last time," he said. I explained that I'd gone with my mother to an agents' panel at the Screen Actors Guild. Evan had been one of the speakers. At the end of the evening he asked me out for coffee. I hesitated at first, but saying no to him had never been easy for me.
"How many times did you two get together?" he asked. "Just that once. After that, we e-mailed each other and talked on the phone a few times."
"Mr. Brice must have had a lot of apologizing to do." I searched Green's face for the snide look that matched the comment, but found only a neutral stare softened by the sweep of his dense eyelashes.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept the defensiveness out of my tone. "We talked about other things, too, like work and all the fragile egos he had to manage. I let him unload. That's what friends do."
"Did he mention anybody he was having a problem with?" "Not by name."
Green nodded. Then he shifted in his chair to look outside. Something near the shoreline had caught his attention, but I couldn't tell what.
"He ever talk about troubles in his marriage?" I'd been peering over his shoulder to see what he was looking at, but the feigned casualness of his question wrenched me back into the room and put me on guard. I was obligated to tell Green what I knew, of course, but I felt shitty about that because it was only Evan's side of the story, and neither he nor Cissy had a perfect score with the truth.
"He told me there were problems," I said. Green furrowed his brow in irritation when I waited for his "What kind of problems?" prompt. Nevertheless, he listened attentively as I related what seemed to me like the bad relationship cliche: Evan and Cissy had grown apart, had disagreed on everything from money management to child rearing. Evan worried that their constant bickering would damage the psyche of their seven-year-old daughter, Dara.
"When was the last time you heard from Mr. Brice?" Green asked.
"Sunday night. He called around midnight, but I let the machine pick up."
"Did you call him back?" Guilty heat prickled my chest, making me feel trapped beneath my flannel shirt. I didn't want to admit that Sunday had been a bad day for me and I hadn't been in the mood to play any man's psychotherapist.
"No." Green nodded solemnly. "Don't blame yourself, ma'am. Even if you had called him back, it wouldn't have mattered. A couple hours later, he'd have still been dead."
It's strange how guilt compounds when someone tries to take it from you. Until that moment I hadn't known the time of Evan's death. Now I felt sick wondering if that call to me had been his last.
"Did Mr. Brice indicate in his message that he and his wife had a blowup that morning? That she accused him of having an affair?"
I wondered where Green had gotten his information and whether Cissy's accusations were true. I hoped not. Evan hadn't given me any reason to suspect he was cheating on his wife, but I had to admit I was probably the last person he'd confide in about that.
"No," I said. "He sounded tired, and his nose was stuffy like he had a cold. He rambled for a while. Then he asked me to call him back."
Green picked up the poem and studied it. "Mrs. Brice seemed pretty upset when she read this."
His statement startled me, and then slowly the puzzle pieces snapped into place. The poem. The blowup. The affair. "Are you suggesting Cissy Brice thought Evan was having an affair with me?"
Green raised his eyebrows slightly and let my words linger heavily in the air. Finally he said, "I didn't say that, ma'am, but is that what you think?"
My face felt warm with self-doubt and embarrassment. "I don't know ... no, of course not."
"Have you ever known Mrs. Brice to be violent?" Cissy had been a captivating young woman back in high school and college, a real charmer. She'd also been my best friend until she charmed Evan Brice out of my bed and into hers. At the time, her betrayal had felt like an act of violence, but it didn't make her a murderer now.
Excerpted from Cover Your Assets by Patricia Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Smiley.
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You know what makes Patricia Smiley's books so good? The situations which arise for Tucker are things that have happened to us, or that easily could. Although I enjoy Eve Dallas and Jim Qwilleran and their millions to use wisely, I also enjoy a book that's a more everyday situation. Any one of us could marry a really rich person, or we could have some unknown relative leave us a bundle. But it's more likely we would run into an old flame, who wasn't doing so well in the current life. Patricia Smiley has a knack with this everyday thing, and it pulls you RIGHT INTO THE STORY, deep in, where there's just nowhere to go but forward. I really enjoyed 'False Profits' and 'Cover Your Assets.' Tucker is an interesting and totally believable character, and the people/pets who inhabit her world are the kind who would be your friends, too. I'm not sure you can give higher praise than that. (And perhaps, when you read Patricia Smiley's books, with the adventures of Tucker's way-out-there mother, you will appreciate your own mother a little more?)
In Los Angeles, someone stabs film agent Evan Brice in the dump he rented for ¿work¿ gatherings. LAPD visits Tucker Sinclair as a love poem dedicated to the independent business consultant was found at the homicide locale. Tucker explains that she and Evan were college sweethearts until she found her paramour in bed with her best friend Cissy. Evan and Cissy eventually married, but apparently he still felt deeply for Tucker. Tucker visits her former pal to pay her respects. Cissy insists she did not kill her womanizing spouse though Detective Moses Green believes she is the only viable suspect, Unable to ignore her friend¿s plea, Tucker agrees to close the Venice Beach dump where the late agent held a rendezvous, but that leads her to following Evan¿s neighbor while ignoring her business (Sinclair and Associates), her family (mom the drama queen actress, mom's boyfriend and their Westie Muldoon), and warnings from Green's partner detective Joe Deegan, whom she needs as an escort. The key to this amateur sleuth mystery is the self deprecating heroine who as she advances into one escapade after another keeps asking herself why she is doing this stupid dangerous inquiry. The who-done-it is fun to follow as Tucker gets into trouble while browbeating herself and wondering how to persuade Deegan to accompany her to her sister¿s wedding. Thus Tucker with a strong eccentric support cast insures that smiling readers will appreciate COVER YOUR ASSETS and seek out Tucker¿s first business sleuthing adventure FALSE PROFITS. Harriet Klausner