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For the second time in the past thirty minutes of our "girls' night out," the waitress arrived bearing drinks that Laura Smith and I hadn't ordered and didn't want. Within those same thirty minutes, we'd also been approached by two less-than-sober men asking if we were sisters. With Laura's drop-dead-gorgeous looks, that question was, at least, flattering to me, and, thankfully, Laura hadn't paled in horror. However, this latest drink offer was an unwanted interruption of a serious conversation.
Laura frowned slightly and asked the waitress, "Are these from the same guy as the last time?"
The baby-faced waitress, who had to be at least twenty-one in order to work in a bar in Colorado but looked all of fifteen, indicated with a jerk of her chin that the drink buyer was seated behind her at the brushed-aluminum bar. "Nope. A new one. And he has a buddy." She cocked her eyebrow and grinned. "They're both kind of cute, I gotta say."
Without so much as a curious glance in the men's direction, Laura replied, "Please tell them thanks, but no thanks . . . and that we're lesbians."
I hid my smile. The girl gave a slight nervous laugh, as if unsure of whether or not Laura was serious, murmured, "All righty, then," and turned away.
Laura and I were no more lesbians than we were sisters--just friends grabbing a quick bite and a glass of wine before we dashed off to hear a talk on home decor. After a dry spell, I had a new man in my life, and Laura was living with Dave Holland, a bespectacled, thirty-something man with a weak chin. Judging from the fortune that Dave had amassed, he must resemble Bill Gates in more ways than just physically. I'd met Dave and Laura nearly five months ago when Laura had hired me to decorate their gorgeous home in the foothills of the Rockies.
Come to think of it, my occupational habit of scanning my surroundings might have given the impression that I was scouting for men. In actually, I'd merely been admiring the color scheme. The tomato-red wall behind the bar completed an eye-catching gradual transition from the lemon yellow of the opposite wall, through luscious hues of peach, apricot, orange, and pumpkin.
Laura leaned closer. "Getting back to our conversation, Erin, this was your adoptive mother who died, right?"
"Right. Just over two years ago from a congenital lung disease. How long ago did your mother pass away?" I asked.
"Fifteen years ago."
Because we were the same age, my mental math was automatic, and I cried, "So you were just twelve at the time. How awful!"
Laura merely nodded, so I continued, "She must have been fairly young. What happened to her? Was it a car accident?"
Laura turned away slightly and shook her head. She adjusted her Hermes silk scarf infinitesimally, drained the last of her Chablis, then answered quietly, "Murder."
I fought back a shudder. "She was murdered? My God."
Laura kept her eyes averted, but pain flickered across her face. "By my father. He killed my little brother, too. Then he took his own life."
"Good Lord. That's horrible! I'm so sorry." Reaching for the only possible positive spin, I said, "Thank God you were all right, though."
She gave me a sad smile and didn't respond. Then, in a near whisper, she said something that sounded like "I'm a slow bleeder."
She hooked a manicured finger in the knot of her gold and indigo scarf, slowly untied it, and revealed a pinkish-white line of skin that ran across the base of her neck. The puckered suture scars were also visible.
Her throat had once been slit.
A chill ran up my spine. In that instant, I vowed never again to feel sorry for myself and my lonely and, at times, difficult childhood. My heart ached at the unfathomable pain and horror that she'd somehow endured.
"Oh, my God," I murmured. "Laura, I'm so sorry."
In the light of her personal history, I was all the more impressed at how warm and welcoming she'd been to me from day one, when she'd hired me as her interior designer. Since that time, Laura had become more of a personal friend than a client. She'd been remarkably knowledgeable as we'd selected the million dollars worth of antiques for her home. And yet, several weeks ago when she'd suggested that we go "bargain hunting" at a Denver flea market, she'd been every bit as comfortable and in her element while dickering over the asking price of a stained porcelain teacup as she was while selecting a handcrafted seventeenth-century armoire.
Now I understood the origin of the depth that I'd sensed in her and had found so compelling--the occasional sadness that passed over her features during quiet moments. She seemed to be unaware and unaffected by all the heads that turned her way whenever she walked by, and she noticed and found joy in the same details that I did--in the beauty of the sunlight catching an aubergine glass vase, the hue of purple-heart wood, the softness of the finest chenille, the amazing artistry and craftsmanship of Scalamandre wallpaper.
With her eyes downcast and the color rising in her cheeks, she retied her scarf.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" I asked impulsively, all the while thinking that, if she said yes, I might have to signal the waitress and say that I'd changed my mind about accepting those drinks.
Laura sighed and fidgeted with a lock of her shoulder-length brown hair, a slight tremor in her fingers. "No, but thank you. Talking about it only brings back all those memories I try so hard to forget." She put her hand on top of mine on the table and, with forced gaiety, said, "Let's never mention it again, all right?"
She glanced at her watch. "Oh, shoot! We're late for your landlady's presentation!" She hopped to her feet and briefly insisted on leaving an overly generous tip, until she accepted my reminder that this evening was completely "my treat." The waitress benefited from Laura's and my exchange; I now felt compelled to give her the same oversized tip.
"Actually, there's no rush," I told Laura as we left. "I've been to a couple of these events before, and Audrey's always too busy signing autographs and chatting with her legions of fans to begin on time."
Audrey, my landlady, hosted a local television show three mornings a week entitled Domestic Bliss with Audrey Munroe. The name of her Martha Stewart-like show was more than a little ironic. Having shared Audrey's mansion on Maplewood Avenue for nearly six months now, I knew her to be indefatigable, irrepressible, and endlessly entertaining--but her domestic life was far from blissful. She allowed me to live there rent free, in exchange for the never-ending task of helping her to redecorate her home, which she did on frequent and breathtakingly rapid whims. (It took three months until she finally realized that it had been a mistake to turn the one bathtub in the house into a terrarium.) A former ballerina with the New York City Ballet, she was now in her mid-sixties, although she'd recently had a birthday and had informed me that she'd decided to welcome her birthdays by "awarding myself negative numbers every year from here on out." I'd remarked that some thirty years from now she was going to be a very old-looking thirty-five-year-old, indeed. She merely replied, with an index finger aloft, "But a wise one!"
It was a beautiful mid-April evening, and the crisp air lifted my spirits, and I didn't mind that the gentle breeze occasionally blew my auburn hair into my eyes. The sky was a rich indigo hue. The slightly deeper violet shapes of the mountains were just barely discernible in the distance. We meandered along the brick-paved pedestrian mall, window-shopping as we made the short journey to Paprika's. My relaxed mood evaporated when I realized that we were being followed: a bearded and dreadlocked man in Birkenstocks, grungy blue jeans, and a wrinkled, once-white long-sleeved shirt and sheepskin vest had left Rusty's Bar and Grill just moments after we had. Now he lingered behind us, matching our pace stride for stride.
In mock secret agent tones, I said to Laura, "Psst. Don't look now, but someone's close on our tail."
She immediately looked back. The man turned away as if waiting for someone to catch up to him.
"I wonder if that's our would-be drink purchaser, who now thinks we're lovers."
She laughed. "Oh, God. I hope not. I might have to ask you to kiss me." She again glanced back as we continued on our way. "Although by the looks of him, he'd probably be turned on."
"Oh, he looks harmless enough to me . . . though he's sure not your typical Rusty's patron." Rusty's had become the latest hot spot in Crestview; our midsize college town seemed especially prone to trendy hot spots.
"True. And he really doesn't look like the crystal-stemware, copper-pot type, so I'm sure we'll lose him when we get to Paprika's." She added as if in afterthought, "Not that I could blame him for not wanting to go inside. The personnel there isn't up to snuff."
"What makes you say that? I love the staff at Paprika's."
She gave me a warm smile as she opened the door for me. "That's only because you love everyone, Erin."
The man followed us inside the upscale kitchen store. Annoyed and slightly disconcerted, I whispered to Laura, "I'm going to confront him and ask why he's following us."
She touched my arm. "Let's just ignore him, okay?"
In the center of the first floor of the store, merchandise displays had been removed or shoved aside, and in their place, folding chairs had been set up to face the table where the illustrious Audrey Munroe was about to hold court. Only three chairs were empty, in the far corner of the two front rows. Audrey really had her fan club. As an interior designer, I too had been featured at a couple of these special "evening presentations," but hadn't drawn one quarter of this crowd.
We rounded the seats toward two available chairs in the front row. From the back of the makeshift auditorium, Audrey was currently entertaining a large percentage of the customers, who were craning their necks to listen in as she joked with an elderly couple. She was wearing a chic two-piece black dress, perfectly tailored to flatter her trim, petite frame. She gave me a little wave. Beside her was Hannah Garrison, the manager of Paprika's. I could tell by Hannah's plastered-on smile that she'd been trying in vain to urge Audrey forward to begin her talk.
Hannah spotted me, grinned, and started to head over to say hello. But her smile faded midstep and mutated into a glare when she saw my companion. Puzzled, I glanced over my shoulder at Laura and caught her eyeing Hannah with a haughty smirk. Her expression seemed odd; I'd never seen Laura act the least bit haughty. Apparently Laura's dislike for the "personnel" included the store manager--and was mutual.
Hannah hesitated for a moment but soon joined us. She, like Laura and I, was in her late twenties. Tonight Hannah wore an ill-fitting skirt suit that wasn't flattering to her stubby, buxom frame. "Thank you so much for coming, Erin. It's always so great to see you." Her body English hinted that she was trying hard to ignore Laura's presence on the other side of me.
The implication that it was never great for Hannah to see Laura hung in the air. I replied, "Likewise, Hannah. I love to come here."
"How are you, Hannah?" Laura asked pleasantly.
Although Hannah's smile was clearly forced, she replied, "Fine, Laura. And you?"
"Things couldn't be better. Thanks for asking."
As if it were a facial tic, Hannah's lip curled for just a split second, then she shifted her gaze to me. Hannah's arms were folded tightly across her chest, and Laura still wore the Cheshire cat grin. The tension was so palpable that I babbled, "You've got quite the crowd here tonight."
"Yes, we do," Hannah replied in hushed tones, "which is really good timing, because we've had a bit of trouble lately."
"Paprika's has managed to become the target of a . . ." Her voice faded as she caught sight of the new patron in the second row, directly behind us. The bearded, scruffy man who'd followed us from the bar was apparently having some trouble getting comfortable. The front leg of his folding chair was missing its inch-tall base.
Hannah grimaced and said under her breath to us, "Speak of the devil." While Laura and I took our front-row seats, Hannah rounded our row and I heard her say quietly, "Please, sir. Not tonight. It isn't fair to Ms. Munroe, and there's no way she's going to mention you or your cause on her television show, no matter how big a scene you throw."
"Huh?" he muttered.
"Tell you what," Hannah said. Her tone had become patronizing. "Why don't you come to my office first thing tomorrow morning? You can air all of your grievances regarding Paprika's merchandise to me personally at that time."
Dreadlocks harrumphed and, again, seemed to deliberately turn his face when he felt Laura's gaze on him. "You don't sell these crappy chairs here, do you? 'Cuz someone's likely to fall off of one and break their neck."
"I'd be happy to get you a better chair, sir, in exchange for your promise that you'll listen quietly to the presentation. Please, just for tonight, keep your personal opinions about how we Americans should spend our money to yourself. Okay? Would that be too much to ask?"
I cleared my throat, hoping that I could catch Hannah's eye. She might want to let this all slide. The attention of the sixty or so people had shifted from Audrey to Hannah and Dreadlocks' conversation, which, to my mind, was defeating her purpose.
"Look at this!" As if to demonstrate his concern about the chair, he wobbled from side to side, the chair legs clanging against the tile floor. "This chair's totally useless." He then hopped to his feet and bent down to examine the offending leg.
As he leaned over, the back of his shirt lifted a little, and I caught sight of an object tucked into his waistline. I stared in alarm as the man continued, "See? Here's the problem," he groused. "This one's busted."
Cupping my hand over my mouth so that only Laura could hear, I whispered, "Look! The guy's got a gun!"
Laura sprang to her feet. The sudden motion caught Dreadlocks' eye; he turned, and the two stared at each other. Laura gasped, then she yelled, "Get a grip on yourself! Stop hassling the poor woman! She made a perfectly reasonable request that you speak to her tomorrow!"