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If it had been anyone else but my cousin Lisa dying like that, and anyone else but Aunt Carey doing the asking, I wouldn't have gone to the funeral.
I'd escaped from the life we'd shared, shrugged off my childhood, as best I could, put myself through college and landed a job at the paper. I didn't want to be reminded of those long days and longer nights in Pleasant View, California, when I was just another kid without a father, taken in by relatives whose sense of duty outweighed their own good judgment.
"I knew you'd come, Rikki Jean," Carey had said when I met her at her hotel. "You're still a pretty little thing." Then her lower lip trembled, and she let the tears take her.
If there's anything I hate more than my name, it's my whole name, but the only rules Aunt Carey plays by are her own.
Now I hold her hand in the back seat of the limousine, and look out on Belmont Avenue, once a main drag, today an urban danger zone. The limo inches past the freeway, beyond the outskirts of this conflicted, basically angry Valley town. We head for that leftover geography cut off from the city, like dough from a cookie cutter, the part of town now occupied by only the very poor, the very transient and the very dead.
Lisa Tilton is no longer my cousin, but the deceased. No, make that the victim, brought down by a heart attack just months before her wedding. And Carey Tilton, my aunt, has faded and shriveled since I last saw her right after she moved to Colorado, following her surgery. She's the one who's supposed to be dead, but not even cancer could stand up to her.
"She left you her crystal," Aunt Carey says.
"That's nice." I've always felt Lisa's crystal was too fragile. We couldn't even clink it when we shared a glass of wine.
As our limo follows the car that is following the car ahead, I shift in the back seat and squeeze my aunt's limp hand. Her peach-fuzz hair is a shaggier version of mine, but longer, with spiky bangs and fringe around her ears. People always said I looked as if I could be her daughter, which both pleased and embarrassed me back then. And Lisa? Other than a brief, roly-poly moment as an infant, Lisa always looked like herself. Perfect.
This is not one of those block-long, bar-included limos Aunt Carey reserved for Lisa and Pete's wedding, but a short, stout vehicle that tries to scuttle, unnoticed, through the streets on its way to the part of town most residents visit only when they have no choice.
"Valentine's Day. We're burying her on Valentine's Day."
Aunt Carey sits like a statue next to me. All that I can see of Pete's black suit in the back seat of the car ahead of us is caved in, his shoulders rolled toward the window.
During the funeral in the church where he and Lisa would have been married, Pete sat between Aunt Carey and me, gripping his knees so ferociously that I finally reached over and clutched his hand. Grief and emotions I could only imagine wiped his handsome features into a gray slate.
Fresh air. That's what we all need. But none of us dares to say it. We walk through a ritual, written lifetimes before, procedure approved, as is this final ride we're taking.
Finally, we pull into the memorial gardens where Lisa will be laid to rest, as the euphemism goes.
I touch Aunt Carey's stiff shoulder.
"I've got to stay in the car during the next part," I say. "I can't watch it."
"No, honey. You can't stay here. She wouldn't do that to you."
No, she wouldn't. Lisa would do what was expected, and do it better than anyone else. Aunt Carey would see to it.
"I'll go with you, then."
"I knew you would."
Once free from the car, I take her arm, and we walk to the fake grass and the very real dark rectangle of earth I've been trying to avoid.
The minister approaches us, but Aunt Carey waves him away. She grips my wrist, as if she has just awakened from a dream. "I've got something important to tell you," she says. "Something very important." It's the voice she used back then, when she asked me if I'd done my homework. She moves her lips close to my ear. "They killed Lisa, those people at Killer Body."
"Of course they didn't." I step back from the harsh words, so rancorous I can almost smell them, like alcohol on her breath, "I don't even know why Lisa insisted on joining Killer Body. She didn't need to lose weight."
"She wanted to, for the wedding, and those bastards gave her supplements, bad food." Her blurred blue eyes bore into mine, begging me to believe her fantasy, assuage her grief.
"That's not what did this to her. Heart disease runs in the family. It killed Mom, remember?"
"I remember, all right." Her face goes pink, as if someone just pinched her cheeks. "Nan's illness was her lifestyle," she says. "Lisa didn't smoke or drink."
"No, she didn't." My mother did, and we both know it.
"She was in perfect shape, Rikki Jean. And there's something else. A man from Killer Body was meeting her in L.A., coaching her, she said."
"To be on television. He'd promised her she could be in one of their TV commercials. You know how Lisa loved to be in front of a camera."
"I know." That does it. Tears finally begin to squeeze out. I fight to hold them back. If I don't, I'll be lost forever, afloat in a sea of grief and guilt. "No one but Julie Larimore is ever in their ads," I say. "The man lied to her, or she misunderstood."
"She didn't misunderstand. He told her Julie Larimore might be quitting."
"I don't think so," I tell her. "If that were the case, we would have read something about it. Julie Larimore is Killer Body."
"You've got to help me, honey." Aunt Carey grasps my wrist tighter. The blind pain in her eyes makes me want to turn away, but I don't. "For Lisa. You're a journalist. This is what you write about, what you win awards for."
My award was for a series of articles on bulimia, but I don't bother to correct her. I look into those eyes, jolting blue, brimming with tears. I can't tell her that what she wants won't bring her daughter back. I've never been able to stand up to her, and I'm not about to start now.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Get that man. Get Killer Body." Tears course down her cheeks, melting their powdered perfection. She makes no attempt to wipe them away. "Please, honey. I've never asked you for anything."
And you raised me, took me in when my own mother didn't want me.
I look past us, past the softly gathered friends and family, to the rectangle. To the grave. The grave that will hold Lisa, just four months before her wedding. Death by heart attack. Death by Killer Body, Inc. Or so her mother would like to believe.
The minister moves close to us, like a dark memory. I put my arm around Carey's shoulder. How brittle it feels, how frail. Is this how it happens? Age? Death?
"I'll try. I'll do everything I can," I say, hating myself for wanting the approval I see gleaming beneath her tears. Needing it, damn it.
Then we walk past the minister, past the people in the cold, beige folding chairs someone has arranged far too close to the grave and the heavy fall of soil that will follow this brief ceremony of farewell. I can feel the strength drain from me; I feel liquid, like water.
"Promise?" It's that homework voice again. "Rikki Jean?" she asks. "Promise me?"
And I nod.
Ellen Homer had a killer body. Everyone who worked in the inner circle did. It was one of the old man's sexist ideas that persisted, as Bobby W persisted himself, in this otherwise politically correct world.
"Sorry to break in on you like this, but some reporter's trying to reach Bobby W," Ellen said.
Lucas guessed that Ellen would have looked this good regardless of where she worked. She didn't have to flaunt what was obvious in spite of her respectable black-and-white jacket, striped like an awning, and her white skirt that stopped just above her knee.
Her fine blond hair, mostly bangs swept across her brow, was tucked behind her ears, making her look both innocent and professional. But not happy. Not at all happy.
"Female reporter?" he asked.
"Yes, and not a friendly one. Her name's Rikki something." She grimaced. "Rikki with an i, as she was quick to point out."
"He'll charm her," Lucas said. "Always does. Might as well set up an interview."
"Okay." Ellen didn't move toward the door, the expression on her face pure dread. This was worse than a reporter. "What is it?" Lucas asked.
"He's at it again." She gestured with her folder at the ceiling. "This time it's Rochelle McArthur."
"Here? Right now?"
"Upstairs. Door closed. It's all we need."
Lucas's internal sigh stopped just short of being audible. "Where'd he find her, anyway? That TV show was canceled how many seasons ago?"
Ellen grimaced. "She found him, I'm afraid. You know what that means."
"She wants something."
"But just try telling him that."
Lucas got up from his desk, took a fleeting glance at the Santa Barbara coastline, imagining the sailboat where he'd hoped to spend the day. Maybe he still could. Maybe this wouldn't take too long. He opened the door of his office and nodded at Ellen. "Shall we?"
The walls of Killer Body, Inc. were plastered with photographs of Julie Larimore, the company spokesmodel. The walls of Bobby Warren's office were plastered with photographs of Bobby Warren. The shots of the iron-pumping man in the posters had little in common with the Bobby W of today, who, although he still worked out, had to do it around the good-size paunch beneath his windbreaker. Sitting on the chaise across from his cherry-wood desk, he held a glass of bourbon in one hand and Rochelle McArthur's thigh in the other.
"Come in, come in," he said, as if greeting a visitor to his home. Apparently forgetting Rochelle, he rose to shake Lucas's hand and greet Ellen with a kiss on the cheek that turned into an appraising gaze of her body. He smelled of expensive cologne, like the ones that arrived embedded on the glossy papers accompanying Lucas's credit card bills each month.
And bourbon. Yes, he smelled of that, too, And it wasn't even noon yet.
"Care for a cocktail, Luke?"
Fifties word, fifties attitude toward liquor in a health-oriented organization.
"No, thanks. It's a little early for me."
Bobby W grinned, bringing his eyes, the same color as the bourbon, to life. Lucas couldn't help giving in to a smile. He hoped he had half the old man's stamina when he was his age.
"We were getting ready to have a little lunch out on the balcony." Then it obviously hit him he'd forgotten the other half of that we. "Oh, please. I'm sorry. You know Shelly, of course."
Lucas nodded, although they'd met only once in passing.
"Lucas is our marketing director," he said. "My right arm. And Ellen here is my left arm."
"The rest of that body belongs to you, I hope." With an unstated defiance, Rochelle McArthur crossed her legs and didn't bother to pull down the skirt of her shimmery knit dress, green as the contact lenses she wore.
Her voice was the way Lucas remembered it from her television series. The face and body hadn't fared as well. Either hard living or plastic surgery left her looking drawn beneath her ironed-on tan and bleached-to-the-point-of-brittle hair.
Still, to a seventy-year-old widower, his vision dulled by Crown Royal and loneliness, Rochelle probably looked like one of the hotties draped like fur coats around Bobby W in the photographs on his wall.
"I'm always in the market for takers." The old man sat down next to her on the silver-gray chaise, and Ellen and Lucas followed suit on the other side of the coffee table. Ellenperched on the edge of her chair, as if whatever had afflicted Rochelle were contagious and she didn't want to catch it.
"So what we're discussing is the Ass Blaster," Bobby W continued, as was his way, as if they'd all been in on the conversation from the beginning. "This aerobic stuff is shit, if you'll pardon my French. I'm not denying what it does for the heart, but what good is your heart if you're hauling around an assload of lard?"
"My point exactly, Bobbo."
Damn. No one but his oldest buddies called Bobby W Bobbo. Yet, he didn't seem to mind.
Lucas glanced past Rochelle's crisscrossed high-heeled sandals, her long white-tipped toenails, at the pearl-inlaid coffee table and its conveniently available coasters. She'd barely touched her drink. Catching his eye, she reached down and lifted the glass to her lips, deliberately. "You know, Bobbo, someone needs to say it just like that. No mincing words."
Now she'd done it. If anything glazed Bobby W's eyes and good sense more than a semisexy woman looking his way, it was someone, anyone, agreeing with him.
Lucas winced as Bobby W shot him a look of pained superiority and ran his hand across the fraying remains of what had once been a full head of hair. "I've been trying to tell that to my good friend Luke, here, but every once in a while, we fail to see eye to eye."
"But I'm sure not very often." Without moving her gaze from Lucas, Rochelle reached for her glass once more. "Killer Body being your business and all."
"Good business is good people, and I have the best." Bobby W frowned at his empty glass, as if it, and not this troublesome conversation, were making him uncomfortable. "Ellen, honey, get me the Ass Blaster file, will you?"
Ellen stood, as if glad for an excuse to flee. "Which Ass Blaster file?"
"The marketing file. The photos, endorsements. Hell, why not bring in the prototype, too? Maybe Shelly would like to try it out, see if we can improve on perfection."
"Sure," she said in a voice that sounded like a sigh.
As Ellen left the office, Lucas hoped she wouldn't return with her written resignation the way too many others with similar degrees, and similar good looks, had.
The door drifted shut behind her, and Lucas looked back at the sofa to see that Bobby W had moved to the window overlooking the harbor, a miraculously full tumbler in his hand. How had the old bastard wrangled that?
"Mr. Warren," he began.
Bobby W turned from the window. "No need for formalities, Luke. We're all friends here." He smiled at Rochelle. "Isn't she a beauty? Wouldn't anyone kill for a body like that?"
Then Lucas realized what was going on, what the poor old bastard was thinking. Julie Larimore was bad enough. Bobby didn't need two of them. And neither did he.
He moved toward the window, trying to pretend the woman in the emerald-green dress and matching contacts was not in the room. "Could we discuss this later?"
"Later's an excuse for those who can't take action now." Bobby took another swig and stared past Lucas's shoulder at Rochelle, smiling so hard he could injure his jaw. "What the hell is so wrong with having a spokesbody -- what do you call it?"
"Spokesmodel, Bobbo," Rochelle said from the sofa.
"Spokesmodel, right." Then, he turned his gaze on Lucas, and the burn of those still brilliant brown-black eyes and the legacy they carried was stronger than any argument in the room. "Why can't we have Julie Larimore for Killer Body, Inc. and another spokesmodel for the Ass Blaster?"
Copyright © 2004 Bonnie Hearn Hill