Freelance writer Jaine Austen has never been able to resist the siren call of an Eskimo Pie, just like she can't resist renewing her romance with Andrew, an old crush. With her bank account hitting new lows, she's also just agreed to write jokes for Dorcas, a stand-up comic who throws her pantyhose into the audience as a punch line.
Not only is Dorcas's act a bomb, she is heckled by Vic, a gorgeous fellow comic. Naturally when Vic is murdered with Dorcas's pantyhose and that same Dorcas is standing over his dead body, the police arrest. . .Dorcas. They figure it's an open-and-shut case, although Jaine figures no killer can be that dumb.
But when Jaine sets out to find the real culprit, she is distracted by one dating disaster after another with Andrewand she may not see the dark side of comedy until she faces the business end of a gun and a cold, deadly grin. . .
"Fun. . .Jaine's dogged sleuthing and screwball antics will entertain fans of this fizzy series." Publishers Weekly
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Death by PantyhoseA Jaine Austen Mystery
By Laura Levine
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Laura Levine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEver have one of those days where everything seems to go your way, where the gods smile on your every move and good luck follows you around like an eager puppy?
Neither have I.
No matter how great things start out in my life, sooner or later something is guaranteed to hit the fan.
Take the day the whole pantyhose mess began. It started out smoothly enough. My cat, Prozac, waited until the civilized hour of 8 A.M. before swan diving on my chest to wake me up.
"Morning, pumpkin," I murmured, as she nuzzled her furry head under my chin.
She looked at me with big green eyes that seemed to say, You're my favorite human in all the world. (Well, not exactly. What they really seemed to say was, When do we eat? But I knew deep down, she loved me.)
When I looked out the window, I was happy to see that the early morning fog that hovers over L.A. for months on end had finally taken a powder. The sun was back in action, shining its little heart out.
Things got even better when I discovered a free sample of Honey Nutty Raisin Bits with my morning newspaper, which meant I didn't have to nuke one of the petrified Pop-Tarts in my freezer for breakfast.
After feeding Prozac a bowl of MoistMackerel Guts and inhaling my Honey Nutty Raisin Bits straight from the box, I did the crossword puzzle (with nary a trip to the dictionary) and spent the rest of the morning polishing my resume for an upcoming job interview. And not just any job interview. I, Jaine Austen, a gal who normally writes toilet bowl ads for a living, had a meeting lined up that very morning at Rubin-McCormick, one of L.A.'s hottest ad agencies.
And so it was with a spring in my step and Honey Nutty Raisin Bits on my breath that I headed off to the bedroom to get dressed for my interview. I took out my one and only Prada suit from my closet, pristine clean in its dry-cleaning bag. No unsightly ketchup stains ambushed me at the last minute, like they usually do. I checked my one and only pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. Not a scuff mark in sight. I checked my hair in the mirror. No crazy cowlicks or brillo patches in my natural curls. Like I said, the gods were smiling on me.
And that's when I saw it: a zit on my chin the size of a small Aleutian island.
Now I've got nothing against the Aleutian Islands. I'm sure they're quite scenic. But not on my chin, s'il vous plaît.
I was surveying the disaster in the mirror when the phone rang. I let the machine get it.
Hi! A woman's eager voice came on the line. I saw your ad in the Yellow Pages, and I'm calling to see if you write comedy material. I'm a stand-up comic, and everyone says I'm hilarious.
Uh-oh. My Bad Job Antenna sprang into action. People who say they're hilarious are usually about as funny as leftover meatloaf.
I need someone to write some new jokes for my act. Your ad said your rates were reasonable. I sure hope so. I was thinking maybe five bucks a joke. Six or seven if they're really funny.
Five bucks a joke? Was she kidding? Court jesters were making more than that in the Middle Ages.
Give me a call if you're interested. My name is Dorcas. Oh, and by the way, you can catch my act at the Laff Palace on open-mike nights. I'm the one who throws my pantyhose into the audience.
Did I hear right? Did she actually say she threw her pantyhose into the audience? Sounded more like a stripper than a comic to me.
Needless to say, I didn't write down her number. In the first place, I wasn't really a comedy writer. And in the second place, even if I was a comedy writer, the last thing I wanted to do was write jokes for a pantyhose-tossing comic. And in the third and most important place, for once in my life, I wasn't desperate for money.
Yes, for the past several months, my computer had been practically ablaze with writing assignments: I'd done a freelance piece for the L.A. Times on 24-hour Botox Centers. A new brochure for Mel's Mufflers (Our Business Is Exhausting). And to top it off, I'd just finished an extensive ad campaign for my biggest client, Toiletmasters Plumbers, introducing their newest product, an extra large toilet bowl called Big John. All of which meant I had actual funds in my checking account.
What's more, if my job interview today went well, I'd be bringing home big bucks from the Rubin-McCormick ad agency. I'd answered their ad for a freelance writer, and much to my surprise Stan McCormick himself had called me to set up an appointment. Who knows? Maybe he'd seen my botox piece in the L.A. Times. Or maybe he was the proud owner of a Big John. I didn't care why he wanted to see me; all I knew was that I had a shot at a job at one of L.A.'s premiere ad agencies.
Which was why that zit on my chin was so annoying. But with diligent effort (and enough concealer to caulk a bathtub), I eventually managed to camouflage it.
After I finished dressing, I surveyed myself in the mirror. If I do say so myself, I looked nifty. My Prada suit pared inches from my hips (which needed all the paring they could get). My Manolos gave me three extra statuesque inches. And my frizz-free hair was a veritable shinefest.
I headed out to the living room, where I found Prozac draped over the back of the sofa.
"Wish me luck, Pro," I said, as I bent down to kiss her good-bye.
She yawned in my face, blasting me with mackerel breath.
Hurry back. I may want a snack.
"I love you, too, dollface."
Then I headed outside to my Corolla, where the birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and the grass was growing greener by the minute.
Nothing, I thought, could possibly go wrong on such a spectacular day.
I'm sure the gods had a hearty chuckle over that one.
Chapter TwoThe Rubin-McCormick Agency was headquartered in a high-rent business complex in Santa Monica, a gleaming Mediterranean extravaganza with swaying palm trees and waterfalls out front. If you didn't know it was an office building, you'd swear you were at a Ritz-Carlton. I drove past the waterfalls to the impeccably landscaped parking lot, thrilled to have landed an interview in such august surroundings.
The lobby was deserted when I got there. It was nearly eleven, that quiet time before the lunch rush, and I had the place all to myself. I rang for the elevator and started rehearsing my opening greeting.
"Hello, Mr. McCormick," I said to the elevator doors. "I'm Jaine Austen."
Nah. Maybe "Mr." was too formal. These ad agencies were hip, happening places.
"Hey, Stan. Jaine here."
No, no, no! That was way too familiar. I wanted to be his writer, not his golf buddy.
"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. McCormick," I tried. "I'm Jaine Austen."
Suddenly a voice came out of nowhere.
"A pleasure to meet you, too, Ms. Austen."
I whirled around and saw a tall guy in his late forties, graying at the temples, in khakis and a cashmere blazer. He wore tinted aviator glasses and carried an attaché case that cost more than my Corolla.
Dear Lord, I prayed. Please don't let him be Stan McCormick.
He smiled a craggy suntanned smile.
"Hi. I'm Stan McCormick."
Great. My would-be employer saw me talking to myself. Just the impression I was going for. The Recently Released Mental Patient Look.
The elevator, which had taken its sweet time showing up, finally dinged open, and we both got on.
"This is so embarrassing," I said. "Not exactly the way I was hoping to start my interview."
"Interview?" He blinked, puzzled.
"I have an appointment to meet with you at eleven this morning."
He still looked puzzled.
"I answered your ad for a freelance writer. Remember?"
"Damn," he said, slapping his forehead with his open palm. "Now look who's embarrassed. I forgot all about it. Completely slipped my mind. I've been down in Newport all morning with a client."
The elevator doors opened onto the Rubin-McCormick reception area, a stark white expanse with nothing on the walls except the Rubin-McCormick logo. A cool, blond receptionist fielded phone calls behind a wraparound desk.
"Actually," he said, waving to the receptionist, "I'm starving. How about I take you to Westwood Gardens and we have our interview over an early lunch?"
My spirits perked up. Lunch-along with breakfast, dinner, and brunch-happens to be one of my favorite meals. What's more, he was taking me to Westwood Gardens, one of the best restaurants in town.
"Sounds wonderful," I said, as we started back down to the lobby.
"Mind if we take your car?" he asked. "I just dropped mine off with the valets to be detailed."
Drat. I'd sweated bullets putting together my Prada-Manolo Blahnik ensemble, hoping to pass myself off as an A-list writer. What would he think when he saw my geriatric Corolla, littered with McDonald's ketchup packets?
"I don't mind," I lied. "Not at all."
We headed over to my dusty Corolla, which I saw, to my dismay, was sporting a big white blob on the windshield, a love note from a bird with a serious gastrointestinal disorder.
"Excuse my car," I said, as we got in. "I'm afraid it's a mess."
"No, no. It's fine," he said, plucking an Almond Joy wrapper from the passenger seat before he sat down.
I gritted my teeth in annoyance. Why the heck hadn't I washed the car before the interview?
I turned on my new state-of-the-art stereo system, a gift I'd bought myself with my Big John earnings, hoping Stan would be so impressed with the quality of the sound, he wouldn't notice the Big Gulp Slurpee cup at his feet.
And he did seem impressed.
"Great speakers," he said, "for such a crummy car." Okay, so he didn't say the part about the crummy car, but it had to have been on his mind.
It was a short drive to Westwood Gardens, most of which we spent making small talk and staring at the bird poop on the windshield.
I pulled up to the restaurant and handed the Corolla over to a valet. Normally I'd circle the block seventeen times looking for a parking space before springing for a valet, but I didn't want to seem like a piker, especially when Stan said, "Don't worry about the valet, Jaine. I'll take care of him."
I handed my keys to the valet and we headed inside.
Westwood Gardens is an upscale eaterie with exposed brick walls, flagstone floors, and rustic wrought-iron furniture. Very "My Year in Provence." A reed-thin hostess/actress seated us at a cozy table for two by the window, overlooking the bustling Westwood street scene. Sizing up Stan as someone who could possibly give her a part in a play/movie/commercial, she shot him a dazzling smile and drifted off.
"So," Stan said, after we'd looked through our menus, "what looks good to you?"
Now this was a tricky question. What looked good to me was the steak sandwich with onion rings and thick-cut fries. But I couldn't possibly allow myself to order it. I had an image to uphold. Women in Prada and Manolos simply do not order dishes that come with ketchup and A1 sauce. Women in Prada and Manolos order dainty salads made of arugula and endive and other stuff I usually don't touch with a ten-foot fork.
"I'll have the chopped salad," I said, with a sigh.
"Is that all?" Stan asked. "I'm going to have the steak sandwich. It's fantastic. You really should get it, too."
"But it's an awful lot to eat," I demurred.
Yeah, right. If he could only see me alone in my apartment plowing my way through a pepperoni pizza.
"Oh, go on," he urged. "You only go round once, right?"
"Well, if you insist." I felt like throwing my arms around the guy and kissing him. "One steak sandwich it is."
At which point, a stunning actor/waiter sidled up to our table. Like the hostess, he shot Stan a high-wattage smile. Something about Stan simply radiated importance. I, on the other hand, in spite of my Prada and Manolos, wasn't fooling anybody. The gang here at the Gardens instinctively knew me for the poseur that I was.
"Hi, I'm Phineas," the waiter said, still beaming at Stan, "and I'll be your server today." He reeled off the list of Today's Specials with all the intensity of Hamlet yakking at Yorick's skull.
"We'll have two steak sandwiches," Stan said when he was through.
"Wonderful choice!" Phineas gushed.
"And how about we split a tiramisu for dessert?" Stan said to me.
Was this the boss from heaven, or what?
Phineas whisked off to get our food, barely restraining himself from leaving a head shot and resume in Stan's lap.
"So," Stan said when he was gone, "tell me about yourself, Jaine."
I put on my tap shoes and launched into my usual spiel, telling him about the work I'd done for Toiletmasters (In a Rush to Flush? Call Toiletmasters!), Ackerman's Awnings (Just a Shade Better), and Tip Top Dry Cleaners (We Clean for You. We Press for You. We Even Dye for You.) I wished I had classier accounts to talk about, but Stan seemed interested.
After a while, Phineas showed up with our steak sandwiches. We devoured them with gusto, and afterwards, Stan looked through my book of writing samples. When he was finished, he shut the book and popped the last of his fries in his mouth.
"Frankly, Jaine, I was looking for someone with a bit more experience on national accounts."
My heart sank. Oh, well. I had to look on the bright side. At least I got a steak sandwich out of the deal.
"On the other hand," he said, grinning, "I like the way you write."
He liked the way I wrote! Maybe I had a shot at this gig, after all.
"So the job is yours if you want it."
"Oh, yes! I'd love it."
Then, just when I thought things couldn't get any more divine, Phineas showed up with what had to be the creamiest tiramisu this side of Tuscany.
"Perfect timing," Stan said. "Let's celebrate."
I picked up my fork and was just about to plunge it into the delectable confection when Stan asked, "Don't you want to know what the assignment is?"
"Oh, right. Sure. The assignment."
In my excitement over the tiramisu, it had sort of slipped my mind.
"It's a brand new product launch. I think you'll be perfect for it. I've got all the facts here in my attaché case."
He reached down to get his case and frowned.
"Damn. I must've left it in your car."
"I'll go get it," I said, shooting a wistful look at the tiramisu. I hated to leave it, but the man had just offered me a job, and the least I could do was get his attaché case.
"No," Stan said. "I'll go. You start on dessert."
Obviously he could see how much I was lusting after the tiramisu.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Of course. I'll be right back."
What a sweetie he was to give me first dibs on dessert. I gave him the parking ticket, and he headed for the door.
Once more, I gazed at the tiramisu in all its creamy glory. I debated about whether or not to take a bite. I really should wait until Stan got back. But he did tell me to go ahead and get started. I'd just have one teeny bite. And then we'd share the rest together.
I took a teeny bite. Okay, so it wasn't so teeny. It was a major forkful. Sheer heaven. I couldn't resist taking another. But that was it. No more. Absolutely not!
And I'm proud to say not a single morsel passed through my lips-not for three whole seconds. Then I broke down and had another bite. And another. And another. Until, to my horror, I saw that I'd eaten all but one biteful.
I was utterly ashamed of myself. What would Stan think? He'd probably take back the job offer. I'd given up a lucrative gig with Rubin-McCormick for a piece of tiramisu!
It was at that moment that I happened to glance out the window and saw the valet handing Stan the keys to my Corolla. That's funny. Stan was getting in on the driver's side of the car. Surely he'd left his attaché case on the passenger side.
It's a good thing my mouth wasn't full of tiramisu; otherwise I might have choked at what I saw next. Much to my amazement, Stan started the engine, gave a friendly wave to the valet, and drove off.
What on earth was he doing? And then it dawned on me.
Stan McCormick had just stolen my car!
Chapter ThreeOf course, the man who stole my car wasn't really Stan McCormick. The man who stole my car, as the cops pointed out when they showed up at the restaurant, was an opportunistic car thief who'd pulled this let's-take-your-car-to-lunch scam many times before.
Like an idiot, I'd unwittingly given him all the information he needed. He'd overheard both my name and Stan's name while I was rehearsing in the lobby. And then, on the elevator, I'd told him I was a writer coming in for a job interview. I'd practically handed him my car keys.
Excerpted from Death by Pantyhose by Laura Levine Copyright © 2007 by Laura Levine. Excerpted by permission.
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