A KILLER BACHELOR PARTY
Carnegie Kincaid plans weddings, not stag parties. When a client asks Carnegie to manage a pre-wedding blow-out—complete with a stripper—she tactfully refuses the job. So why is Carnegie peering through binoculars across the Seattle Ship Canal, watching a shapely Santa Claus turn naked inside a hip dockside bistro? Because her own significant other—with whom she is having some significant differences—is at the party too. And, so it turns out, is a killer. When the body of the groom’s best man is pulled from the canal the next day, critical questions arise. What did Carnegie really see through her binoculars? More important: What will she tell the police she saw? As a wedding planner, Carnegie has her connections to maintain, and before she points Seattle’s finest to some possibly innocent suspects, she’ll look into the crime herself. But while Carnegie is snooping around, word of a witness has gotten out—and now a killer is watching her.
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I don't do bachelor parties.
Wait, that sounds like I jump naked out of cakes. And who makes cakes that tall and skinny? What I mean is, I don't plan bachelor parties. Weddings, yes. Rehearsal dinners, of course. Bridesmaids' luncheons, engagement cocktail parties, even the occasional charity gala, when business is slow.
The business in question is "Made in Heaven Wedding Design, Carnegie Kincaid, Proprietor." I've got a pretty decent clientele in Seattle by now, and sometimes I accept non-nuptial referrals. But I don't do bachelor parties, for two very good reasons.
First off, I resent the symbolism, the whole bit about the doomed groom's last spasm of freedom before he turns himself in at the matrimonial slammer. I'm in favor of matrimony, after all. I might even try it myself someday. But that's another story.
The second and more compelling reason is that no event planner in her right mind will touch a party where the guests are hell-bent on drinking themselves into oblivion, and behaving as poorly as possible en route. The potential for disaster is huge.
So why, at ten p.m. on the twelfth of December, was I standing out in the freezing night wind, hammering on a locked door behind which lurked a gang of undoubtedly drunken bachelors?
Because of Sally "Bridezilla" Tyler.
I had inherited Sally's New Year's Eve wedding from Dorothy Fenner, my longtime, more-or-less friendly competitor in the Seattle bride biz, when Dorothy's fuddy-duddy husband purchased two tickets on a world cruise and a prescription for Viagra. I appreciated her vote of confidence--let's face it, I desperately needed the revenue--but it was turning out to be hard-earned. This particular bride, besides being lovely and wealthy, was a control freak of the first order.
Most brides are content to let the best man handle the bachelor party, but not Sally Tyler, oohh no. She supposedly wanted me to plan this one so that my valuable services could be her wedding gift to Frank Sanjek, her devoted (not to say besotted) fiance. But I saw through that little fiction.
What Sally really craved was more scope to contradict, criticize, and generally micromanage Frank's every waking moment. Though why she thought my involvement would prevent Jason Kraye, the know-it-all best man, from pouring too much booze, or showing porno movies, or doing anything else he pleased, was beyond me. I'm a wedding planner, not a governess for overgrown boys.
Anyway, I declined Sally's request, she fumed, and tensions mounted. And then Jason Kraye broke the deadlock by coming up with the perfect party site: the Hot Spot Cafe on the south side of the Seattle Ship Canal, owned by a buddy of his and closing soon for a major remodel.
Said buddy was offering use of the Cafe for free. The guests could do their worst, with Jason as master of ceremonies, and I could steer clear. The only catch was that the party had to happen ASAP, on a Sunday night.
But Jason dismissed that little issue with the haughty comment that anyone who couldn't skip work Monday could just sleep it off on company time. He promised Frank a memorable blowout; Frank loved the idea, and that was that.
I even made peace with Sally by arranging for the food: a bachelors' banquet of serve-yourself Greek appetizers, catered by my friend and colleague Joe Solveto. But I stipulated that I personally would not be visiting the party premises. Frank thanked his bride for her generous gift, and everybody was happy.
Until now. I'd been working late the night of Frank's bachelor party, at my borrowed desk in Joe's catering office, when my cell phone sounded.
"Carnegie, it's Sally. You've got to go over to the Hot Spot right away."
I could picture Sally in my mind's eye: a mere slip of a girl, with milky skin and white-blonde hair, but possessed of a dark, furious glare that could pierce your vital organs like a stiletto chipped from ice. At this point, my innards were practically perforated.
I sighed. "We've been over this already. Jason's in charge of the party, not me."
"I know that! But he needs you. Now."
"Why didn't he call me himself?" I stalled. "What's wrong?"
But as I spoke, my stomach was clenching at the thought of all the things that might be wrong: property damage, an angry neighbor, an injured guest . . .
"Just go, OK?" The stiletto stabbed deeper. "Why are you always so difficult? You're, what, two minutes away from there?"
Solveto's was in the Fremont neighborhood, on the north side of the Ship Canal. "Not exactly, but--"
But Sally had already hung up, and didn't answer when I called her back. So, roundly cursing Ms. Tyler and the stack of wedding magazines she rode in on, I climbed into my van and drove south.
By the time I reached the Fremont Drawbridge, my gloom had lifted just a bit, and for an unusual reason: the weather. Usually, Christmas in Seattle is gray and drippy; you get used to it. But this year, December had surprised us all with clear skies and genuinely cold temperatures. This evening had a very non-Seattle, winter wonderland feel, with Christmas trees and decorations all aglitter in the crisp darkness. Gradually, in spite of myself, I stopped cursing and starting humming "Good King Wenceslaus."
The so-called Artists' Republic of Fremont has gone pretty mainstream these days, now that a big software firm calls it home and the fancy condos are rising high. But there are still plenty of funky shops and tempting restaurants, both new and old, and plenty of customers for all of them. Everywhere I looked tonight, Yuletide shoppers and late-night diners bustled across the intersections, trailing Christmas cheer and pale plumes of frozen breath.
I wished I could join them. Instead, I crossed the Fremont Drawbridge, with its goofy blue girders and orange trim, to the darker, quieter blocks along Nickerson. The festive lights disappeared behind me, and I dropped down a side street.
I was driving Vanna White Too, the new replacement for my dear departed white van. She rode like a Beemer after the clanking and stalling of the old one, and we pulled up smoothly to the undistinguished brick front of the Hot Spot Cafe. At least there were no police cars in sight, and no ambulance.
The angry neighbors, if there were any, must be deaf by now anyway, given the rock song now throbbing through the Cafe's front door. The volume was unbelievable, the lyrics incomprehensible, and the message unmistakable: Me man, you woman, lie down.
As I said, the Cafe's front door was locked, so I hammered on it, then tried to peer through the gaps in the curtained windows. No telling if anyone could hear me. After one last pound, I gave up and went around back, hugging myself against the cold. I was still wearing my one businessy suit from a morning meeting at the bank--as if dove-gray silk tweed could make up for all the glaring red ink on Made in Heaven's books.
Meanwhile, all day long the wind had been rising and the temperature dropping. My stylish blazer was no match for the night air, and my short skirt offered no protection against the icy gusts that kept trying to goose me. So now I was shivering as well as irritated and anxious.
Out back, a wooden dining deck extended over a wedge of patchy grass and clumps of shadowy, wind-ruffled bushes. The ground sloped down to an empty bike path and a wide lane of dark, still water between concrete walls: the Seattle Ship Canal.
The Ship Canal is a major waterway between Puget Sound to the west and big Lake Washington to the east, with little Lake Union in between. On summer afternoons, the Hot Spot's patrons could sit out there on the deck to watch the big luxury sailboats and the even bigger barges passing right by: salt water meets fresh water meets beer. But on this wintry night, the splintered planks held nothing but stacks of plastic chairs and a silver veiling of frost.
The frost flashed and sparkled in the light pouring from the sliding glass doors of the Cafe--glass that was vibrating to a 4/4 beat. I crossed the deck, mindful of my footing, and tugged at a handle. The door stuck a moment, then slid back, and I plunged into the warm, wild atmosphere of Party Central.
A quick look around revealed a scattered crowd of young men, a fog bank of cigar smoke, a spreading puddle of spilled liquor, and a massive serve-yourself Greek mess. Empty plates and glasses littered all the tables, but the mess went far beyond that: from the demolished dolmathes scattered across the pool table, to the fragments of fried calamari stuck to the ceiling, to the spatter of spanakopita on the big-screen TV, Joe's feast had clearly been enjoyed in ways he never intended.
There was broken glass here and there--apparently juggling retsina bottles is now a recognized indoor sport--but no broken heads that I could see. Also no blood, and no police.
And no best man. As I peered through the fumes for Jason Kraye, I spotted Frank Sanjek, the bridegroom. He sat, alone and apparently stupefied, before an oversized TV screen on which two women of improbable physique were silently cavorting in a hot tub. Frank's handsomely cleft chin had sunk to his chest, and beneath the curly brown hair his equally handsome and amiable eyes were drifting shut.
Aside from his devotion to Sally, Frank was a pretty reasonable fellow, though, to my mind, his looks exceeded his brains by a long shot. Still, if he wasn't too far gone by now, he should be able to explain Jason's alleged emergency. Averting my gaze from the hot-tub hotties, I headed toward him. But my path was blocked by three men, all of them young and none of them sober.
"Hey, she's here!" shouted one, a beefy fellow whose sweatshirt was anointed with something damp and garlicky. At least he smelled more tasteful than he looked.
Mr. Garlic's face was long and lantern-jawed, with coarse blond hair and small round eyes gone glassy with drink. He swayed a bit on his feet, and gazed at me with the oddest expression, a sort of hopeful leer, as he dropped one moist, meaty hand on my shoulder. "She's finally here."
"Brilliant observation," I said coldly. Someone turned off the music. In the heavy-breathing silence, I removed the offending hand. "Of course I'm here. Now where's Jason?"
No answer, just more heavy breathing. Then another of the threesome, a weaselly sort leaning on a cue stick, demanded, "How come you're wearing, like, a suit?"
"How come she's so flat?" muttered the other, and there was sniggering all around.
This drunken discourtesy left me speechless. While I gathered my wits to tell them off, some of the other men--the ones who were still ambulatory--began to congregate around us. Not quite a wolf pack--the eyes were too dull, the movements too clumsy. More like a herd of cows. But still . . .
"It ain't whatcha got, it's whatcha do with it!" yelled someone from the back. "So do it!"
Whistles and more lewd comments followed. Make that a herd of bulls. A sort of testosteronic bellowing arose, and I backed away nervously--right into Mr. Garlic. Perhaps it was unintentional, but he didn't so much fend me off as draw me in, and as I stumbled backward, his meaty hands slid around my ribs and halted conveniently at breast level.
I am not a violent woman, but that tore it. In a single unthinking movement, I wrenched myself away, leading with my right shoulder, and windmilled around to land a ringing slap upside Mr. Garlic's thick head.
It was a toss-up which of us hurt the most--the blow jolted me to the shoulder--but at least I kept my feet. My assailant staggered into a tangled collision with his weaselly friend, and the two of them made an unintended and horizontal visit to the buffet table, accompanied by a mixed chorus of crashing plates, angry shouts, and drunken guffaws.
A painted ceramic platter teetered dangerously on the edge of the table. What was Joe thinking, giving this crowd his good serving pieces? I snatched at the platter and stepped back from the fray, as a new voice--a familiar voice--cut across the others.
"Shut up, you disgusting white boys! Carnegie, what are you doing here?"
The speaker was a young black man, tall, with rock-solid biceps gleaming darkly against a sleeveless white T-shirt. He had large, ardent eyes, and a humorous curl to his wide mouth that I knew very well. Not so much from my acquaintance with him, but from all the time I spent hanging out with his big sister.
Darwin James, younger by a decade, but with a close family resemblance, was the kid brother of my best friend, Lily.
"Darwin, what's going on here?" I demanded. There was a plastic carrying bin from Solveto's on the floor near his feet, half-full of crumpled packing paper. I set the platter gently inside it and brushed off my hands. Now I smelled like garlic. "I had a call to come see Jason right away. Is someone hurt?"
"Not that I know of." Darwin shrugged, a bottle of orange juice held lightly in one long, muscular hand. "I think Jase is watching the pool players. Want me to get him?"
"Please." I looked around. The herd was moving off, while surveying me sullenly over their shoulders. "Why's everyone staring?"
From across the room, a sardonic tenor voice said, "Mistaken identity, don't you think?"
From the pool room beyond the bar, a rangy, sharp-featured individual sauntered toward us through the debris-laden tables. Jason Kraye's small, light eyes held disdainful amusement, as they often did, and a spark of malice.
Or is that my imagination? I didn't like Jason Kraye. In our planning talks for the wedding, he'd been cooperative enough, but always with an unctuous manner akin to mockery.
"So you came," he continued, smugly folding his arms. "I didn't expect you so soon. The thing is, we need some more booze around here. Some of these gentlemen brought their friends, and everybody was thirsty; you know how it is. Make it a mixed case, OK? And another rack of beer."
"What?! You called me over here to make a liquor run?"
The narrow lips stretched into a slow, arrogant smile. Jason, I realized, was also three sheets to the wind, though he held it better than his pals. "You're in charge of the food and drink, aren't you? That's what Sally said."
"If Sally had told me this on the phone--" But of course, that's why she hadn't told me. Because I wouldn't have come.
"Come on," Jason wheedled, quite sure of getting his way. "You've got your car here anyway, why not do us a favor? All my plastic is maxed out."
"Listen up, Jason," I said. "If you want more liquor, you can take up a collection and get your ass to a 7-Eleven. I'm off-duty."
Then I picked up the Solveto's bin and turned on my heel. It was heavier than I expected--there must be other dishes underneath--and the dignity of my exit was compromised when I stumbled over a shish kebab. But I kicked it sternly aside and strode to the glass door. The door slid open just as I got there, and in walked--no kidding--Santa Claus.
Salvation Army on overtime? I wondered. A late guest with a sense of humor?
Behind me, a howl went up from the men. "That's her!"
"Merry freakin' Christmas!"
Meanwhile, Santa glared at me eye-to-eye--he was exactly my height--and said, "Hey, I work alone."
I took a closer look. Beneath the rippling white beard and padded red suit, this particular Santa Claus wore shiny scarlet lipstick and extravagant false eyelashes. I glanced down, past the big tote bag she carried: several inches of her stature came from wickedly high-heeled black boots.
Enter stripper, exit flat-chested wedding planner. I stood aside to make way for Santa, and walked furiously back to my van. Ho, ho, ho.