There's no way Sophie is going to give up the ghost on her dreams of stained glass and original woodwork, thougheven when things become officially weird. A Society member is found with a slashed throat, and Sophie's house might as well be yelling, "GET OUT!" She's hearing footsteps, lights are turning themselves off and her stuff keeps moving inexplicably. To top it off, boyfriend Anatoly thinks it's all in her head.
Sophie is 99 percent sure her problems are caused by someone six feet tall instead of six feet under, but the only way to be sure is to track down the killerbefore he pushes her kicking and screaming to the other side .
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There are men worth dying for and others who really just need to die.
The Lighter Side of Death
When our marriage ended ten years ago, I figured that was it. I would never see Scott Colvin again. I certainly didn't expect him to be at the open house for this Marina District $1.4-million fixer-upper. But there he was, standing right in the middle of the living room, making it impossible for me to concentrate on the water-stained ceiling or broken light fixture. His body was angled away, so I could only make out a partial profile, but I had no doubt about his identity; that was Scott and the very sight of him brought on a slew of conflicting emotions. One of them was hope. Hope that someone had secretly dropped acid in my Frappuccino and that the thing that looked like Scott was nothing more than a messed-up hallucination.
I had taken hallucinogenics once before, during my freshman year in college. Perhaps if I hadn't allowed a magic mushroom to trample all over my brain cells I might have had the presence of mind not to get married at nineteen. Fortunately my brain cells were working again by my twenty-first birthday and I celebrated their recovery by getting a divorce.
But this moment didn't have the feel of a hallucination. The Frappuccino in my hand tasted real. The hopelessly out-of-date faux-wood paneling looked real. The mildew on the windows smelled real. And Scott looked like a real real-estate agent trying to convince a real middle-aged Japanese couple that the house we were all here to see really wasn't contaminated with asbestos. People on drugs see diamonds in the sky and riders on the storm; they don't see real-estate agents and overpriced four-bedroom houses that need new flooring. That meant that what I was hearing, seeing and smelling was all horribly real.
But the good news was that he hadn't seen me yet. I pivoted and tried to lift my wedge heel off the floor so I could quietly tiptoe out.
"Are my eyes deceiving me or is that the beautiful and talented Sophie Katz?"
Shit! I turned around again and was confronted by Scott's teasing smile. "What do you know, it is you!" he continued. The Japanese couple was now climbing the creaking staircase to check out the second floor. "Of all the open houses in the world you had to walk into mine."
I grimaced and made a sweeping gesture with my hand. "You're the agent representing this mess?"
"Apparently you didn't read the ad I ran in the paper." He handed me a promotional flyer detailing the house's few saving graces. "It's not a mess, it's an opportunity."
I almost smiled. Almost. "Save your BS for the couple upstairs. I'm out of here."
Once again I turned to leave, but Scott quickly jogged in front of me so that I had to stop to keep myself from slamming into his chest. "Sophie, we haven't seen each other in over ten years. You can't still be angry at me."
"I'm pretty sure I can be."
"Nah, you just think you are." Scott's hazel eyes were twinkling with mischief. That's usually what they did when they weren't red from getting stoned. "You're really mad at the old Scott. The kid you were married to. But we're both grown-ups now, old enough to understand the value of forgiveness. Remember, grudges always have a greater effect on the lives of those who carry them than on the lives of those they're carried against."
"Wow, that's pretty deep, Scott," I said solemnly. "So let me think about this. During the time that I've been holding this grudge, I've become an internationally published bestselling author. I have wonderful friends. My family is healthy and reasonably happy. I have a fantastic cat and a boyfriend whom I adore. I'd say this grudge is working pretty well for me. I think I'll keep it."
"Don't you want to know why I've been calling you?"
After ten years of no contact, Scott had, as of five months ago, taken to calling me every few weeks and leaving messages on my answering machine. Of course I wanted to know why, but I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of admitting to my curiosity. Instead I shrugged and retorted, "Don't you want to know why I haven't been returning those calls?"
He chuckled, apparently finding humor in my irritation. "I think the answer to your question is a lot more obvious than the answer to mine," he said.
I hesitated a moment and studied the countenance of this new "grown-up Scott." He had the beginnings of crow's-feet, but other than that he looked exactly the same. He had the same blond wavy hair that was always a little mussed, and of course he still had one dimple in his left cheek and that golden skin tone that suggested he spent his days surfing off China Beach. Once upon a time I had thought that his looks were the perfect complement to my darker, more exotic appearance. My father was black and my mother has the fair complexion common to her Eastern European Jewish ancestry. People were always confused and delighted by my ethnicity. They usually don't know exactly "what" I am yet they find my very existence to be a sign of hope for the improvement of race relations everywhere. However, the attention I get now is a pittance compared to the attention I got when I was with Scott. Together we were a walking Benetton ad. Of course I get a certain amount of attention when I go out with my current fair-skinned, Russian-born boyfriend, Anatoly Darinsky But our differences are less visually dramatic thanks to Anatoly's dark hair and brown eyes.
"I got your latest book, The Lighter Side of Death. It's good." He inched a little closer. "I've also been reading about you in the papers. Sounds like you've become quite the amateur sleuth. According to the Chronicle you apprehended your own stalker, you helped figure out who killed your brother-in-law, and you even had a hand in bringing down the guy who killed that political aide in Contra Costa County." He gave me an approving once-over. "Sounds like you've turned into a real-life Charlie's Angel. Of course, you've always been an angel in my eyes ."
"Ugh." I wrinkled my nose in disgust. "I think I've just been slimed. I'm going now."
I started to walk around him, but Scott quickly sidestepped in front of me. "What if I told you that I had a brand-new listing for a recently renovated Ashbury Heights three-bedroom Victorian."
I hesitated. "How recently renovated?"
"Five years ago."
Only five years ago? Not bad. "Floors?"
"Hardwood. The owner has a thing for Persian rugs so the floors have been covered and protected."
"Seriously?" I was still focused on the door, but my feet didn't follow my gaze. "Okay I'll bite. Who's the owner, and why is he selling?"
"The owner's name is Oscar Crammer, and he's selling because he thinks the place is haunted."
"Why's that?" I asked. "Was anyone ever murdered in the house? Because if it's a site of a recent homicide it should be selling for at least ten thousand below market."
"Sophie, the owner's only asking for $980,000."
I broke out in a full laugh. "Yeah, right, a renovated, three-bedroom Ashbury Heights Victorian selling for under a million? Tell me, Scott, does it come with its own leprechaun, too?"
"I know it doesn't sound possible, but it's true." He hesitated before adding, "I think the guy selling may have the beginnings of Alzheimer's."
"You want me to take advantage of some guy with Alzheimer's?" I snapped.
"It has a two-car garage, Sophie."
My heart skipped a beat, but my sense of morality would not allow me to be tempted by this alluringly wicked proposal. "I won't scam a sick man, Scott. Not even for parking."
"Oscar's old money. He's got at least ten to twenty million in the bank and his son, Kane, has made millions more in the stock market. He sold off his investments in 2007, before the Dow got squirrelly Plus I know for a fact that Kane has been trying to get Oscar to sell the house and move into a retirement home ever since the old man became a widower. So by buying this place you'd be doing everybody a favor."
I turned all of this info over in my mind. It still wasn't ethical to take advantage of an old man with a possibly fatal illness but it had a two-car garage!
The Japanese couple came down the stairs and headed into the kitchen just as an Armani-clad gentleman stepped into the entryway Scott smiled at the latter and nodded at the former before leaning in a little closer and whispering, "I just got the listing this morning. If you want to be the first to see it we could meet there at eight-thirty tonight."
"Eight-thirty?" I asked in a voice much louder than his. "What kind of real-estate agent shows houses at eight-thirty at night?"
"One who is trying to get his ex-wife to give up an outdated grudge," Scott said. "Tomorrow I have to tell all my other clients about this, and at that price you know they're going to descend upon it like a bunch of hungry hyenas. But since I do kinda owe you "
"You kinda owe me?" I parroted. "While we were married you spent my entire inheritance on gambling, alcohol and the various sluts you were screwing. You more than kinda owe me."
"I'll show it to you before anyone else," Scott continued, ignoring my brief tirade. "If you're the first to make an offer the old man might take it before a bidding war has a chance to break out. The guy is motivated with a capital M."
I chewed on my lower lip and glanced at the Armani guy who was now knocking on one of the wallsprobably testing to see if it could withstand the impact. This is what $1.4 million could buy you in San Francisco. I had written six New York Times bestselling novels and yet I could barely afford to buy this moldy rat hole with a view. With that in mind how could I not take Scott up on this once-in-a-lifetime offer?
Another couple walked in and Scott flashed them one of his most charming smiles while whispering through his teeth, "So, we on for tonight or not?"
I squeezed my eyes closed and forced myself to make the only rational decision available to me. "We're on. Give me the address and I'll be there at eight-thirty."
I drove my Audi through the residential streets of Ashbury Heights. Victorian after Victorian blurred into one another as I sped by. There were few pedestrians out although there were probably more than you could count several blocks over where the local shops and restaurants populate Cole Street. I was tempted to turn my car around and head that way now. I could play quarters with some bartender and laugh at the knowledge that my evil ex was standing around an empty house waiting for me. It would be petty, though perversely sweet entertainment. But as I brought the car to a halt at each stop sign, my mind came screeching back to the conversation Scott and I had earlier. I didn't have a problem with being petty, but stupidity was not something I was comfortable with. I had to at least see the place.
It was 8:40 p.m. when I found the address Scott had given me. He'd told me to park in the driveway, but for a moment I found myself idling my car in the middle of the quiet street and staring at the building to my left. The windows were all dark, but the streetlamp illuminated the details of the exterior. It was no bigger than the houses to the left or right, but still, it was superior. Unlike its neighbors, this house was not painted in pastels, but in a color that hovered between tan and a muted lilac. Its gabled shingled roof shielded its angled bay windows from the hazy evening sky. It was beautiful and oddly familiar. I must have passed it before and somehow taken notice of it. As my eyes traveled from the roof to the foundation I spotted Scott huddled between the Greek-styled columns bordering the front entrance. Watching me and toying with the zipper of his insulated brown suede jacket, his presence surprised me. When I had been married to Scott we had both considered punctuality a dirty word. Slowly I pulled into the driveway which was so narrow that it barely accommodated the width of my car.
"How long have you been waiting?" I asked as I slipped out of the car and trotted up the front steps.
"Got here at eight-twenty." He got to his feet and brushed some nonexistent dirt from his jeans. "I figured you'd be late, but I thought I should get here early just in case you'd changed." He smiled, bringing his dimple into view. "I'm glad to see that you're still the same ol' Soapy."
I let out a disdainful puff of air. Soapy was the pet name he had assigned to me after we had gotten into a soapsuds fight while washing my old car. It brought back irritatingly fond memories.
"Let's see the house," I said coolly. As front doors went, this house had a pretty nice one. Tastefully carved without being too ornate or flowery. "Where's the owner staying?"
"Hotel Nikko," Scott said as he fiddled with the key.
"Really? Why doesn't he just stay here until it sells oh, Scott!" I exclaimed as he opened the door to reveal the foyer. "Are those crown moldings?"
"Better believe it, baby. Crown moldings fit for a queen." As we stepped inside he sniffed the air suspiciously. "That's Pine-Sol," he said slowly. "Oscar must have cleaned before leaving."
I barely registered Scott's comment. I was in the living room looking at the bay windows and the lovely upholstered window seat. The furniture wasn't my style, very flowery in a Victorian kind of way, but I wasn't buying the furniture. The gorgeous built-in mahogany bookcases though, those would be mine!
I turned at the sound of Scott's voice behind me. I had almost forgotten he was there. "What's strange wait, that doesn't look fake." I pointed at the fireplace behind him. "It's not just decorative? It's real? A real honest-to-God fireplace that you can set fires in?"
"Gas starter, too," Scott confirmed. "But that's not what's weird. What's weird is that Oscar seems to have rearranged all the furniture. This place has been totally redecorated since this morning."