Read an Excerpt
A Ben Tolliver Mystery
By James Neal Harvey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 James Neal Harvey
All rights reserved.
Caroline Henderson left her apartment at 7:15 P.M., wearing a new blue dress, her best pearls, and her gray coat with the mink collar. A black felt hat was tilted at just the right angle over her blond hair, giving a casual, jaunty look. She carried a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag and a black alligator purse. Excitement coursed through her like an electric current.
She walked west two blocks, crossing Park and going on to the corner of Fifth and Seventy-third, where she caught a taxi. She told the driver to take her to the Plaza, then settled back on the seat, thinking about what the evening would bring.
His name was John Burton and he was from Los Angeles, Martha had said. In a suite at the Plaza, so he had to be loaded. Martha hadn't spoken with him; his assistant had made the date. Which was a new one for Caroline, but it seemed rather sophisticated. She could picture a handsome executive sitting in some vast office in Beverly Hills, telling the assistant to book him to New York on the morning United or American and to put him in the usual suite.
Or maybe he had his own jet. A Lear, or even a Gulfstream. Tell the pilots to be ready for takeoff by nine, he'd say. Also he'd want a table at La Grenouille that evening. And oh, yes—call Panache and tell them to send over one of their best girls, a blonde, of course. Someone really special.
In her mind's eye, he was tall and dark-haired, with a quiet, confident manner, sort of a Harrison Ford type but a little older. He'd be wearing an oxford gray pinstripe with a red Mizrahi tie. Or maybe not so formal, since he was from L.A. Maybe a cashmere jacket and a pale blue shirt, to set off his tan. Everybody from California had a tan.
He'd be smitten from the moment he looked at her, seeing at once that she was not only beautiful but a real lady. They'd chat for a bit over a drink, getting to know each other, and when they went to dinner, he'd relish the way men—and women, too—stared at her in the restaurant.
They'd talk about a wide range of subjects, and he'd be surprised and pleased that there was almost nothing she couldn't discuss. Politics, theater, art, and especially travel: why the Plaza Athénée was the best hotel in Paris, how Marbella was much too crowded in August, why you went to Gstaad in March for great skiing. They'd drink Dom Perignon and she'd laugh delightedly at his jokes and be intensely interested in everything he had to say. At some point, their hands would touch, and her knee would brush his, and by the time they got back to the hotel, he'd be so hungry for her that he'd be practically panting.
Then he'd watch as she undressed, his eyes locked on her as she removed her clothes slowly and gracefully, not knowing she'd turned that simple procedure into an art form. He'd love the peach-colored lingerie trimmed with white lace, and the garter belt with real stockings and not panty hose. She didn't know why, but there was something about a garter belt that really turned men on. Sometimes they even wanted her to leave it on when everything else was off.
Jesus, just thinking about it was making her hot; she could feel the heat and the dampness between her legs. Take it easy, she said to herself, you've got a whole lovely evening ahead of you. And besides, maybe he's seventy years old and bald and you'll have to spend all evening helping him try to get it up. It'd serve you right, you idiot.
The taxi drew up to the east entrance, just opposite Grand Army Plaza, from which the hotel got its name. Caroline paid the fare and tipped the driver extra, for luck. When she got out, she looked over at the shimmering spray of water rising from the Pulitzer Fountain, and at the gilded statue of General Sherman. Couples were strolling on the sidewalk, enjoying the mild October evening.
Autumn in New York. Sinatra knew what he was singing about, didn't he? Caroline took a deep breath, again experiencing a surge of excitement, and walked up the steps and into the hotel.
As usual, the place was bustling. Early diners occupied tables in the Palm Court and the Edwardian Room, and the lobby was thronged with good-looking, well-dressed people. The women all wore expensive jewelry and most of the men were smartly tailored. She recognized silks and handbags and luggage and shoes and suits by their makers' names: Hermes, Jourdan, Gucci, Caraceni, Armani. Even the air was redolent with lush fragrances. She detected Joy and Chanel; and was that one Giorgio?
At the elevators, a security man studied her; but to her amusement, he was interested mostly in her legs. She stepped past him haughtily and entered a car along with other guests. The elevator whisked them upward and she was the only one to get off on the fourteenth floor.
Her pulse was racing now, and she stopped in the corridor and forced herself to quiet down. It was always like this when she knew it was going to be a special evening. Not that she ever had dull ones, but sometimes the men were not so appealing. Rich, yes. But occasionally homely, even ugly. Arabs, for example, could be particularly distasteful, with swarthy skin and hair all over their bodies. Ugh.
Tonight, on the other hand, would be wonderful. She could feel it.
There was a mirror in a rococo frame hanging on the wall beside the entrance to the suite. She looked at her reflection and was pleased by what she saw.
Caroline, you are dynamite.
She adjusted her hat and pressed the buzzer.
To her surprise, a woman opened the door. She was slim and attractive, with dark hair that came to just above her shoulders, wearing a sharkskin business suit. Horn-rimmed glasses added an additional note of seriousness to her appearance.
For an instant, Caroline thought she'd gone to the wrong suite. But then the woman's face lit up in a friendly smile. "Hi. I'm Bobbie, Mr. Burton's assistant. You must be Caroline. Come on in."
Caroline stepped past her and the woman closed the door. From the foyer, Caroline looked into the living room: The drapes were open, and through the windows she could see lights twinkling in the park, and in the hotels and apartment houses lining Fifth Avenue. To the right, the General Motors building loomed.
"Here, let me have your things." The assistant took her coat and hat and hung them in a closet. The Saks shopping bag, containing Caroline's working gear—hair dryer, makeup kit, fresh panties, and so on—she put on the shelf. As she did, she kept up a running chatter: "Mr. Burton will be out to meet you in just a few minutes; he's getting dressed. We've had quite a day. The company keeps its airplanes at Burbank and there was the usual jam-up on the freeway, so we were late getting out of L.A. Then when we got here, the limo was stuck in another mess trying to go over the Triborough. Please go on in and sit down. Can I get you a drink while we're waiting?"
"No, thank you." The last thing she wanted was the smell of liquor on her breath when she met him. She went into the living room and sat in a chair near the windows, taking in her surroundings. The room was furnished in antiques, mostly French provincial, and there were two breathtaking bouquets of yellow and white chrysanthemums, one on a coffee table in front of a sofa, the other on the mantel over the marble fireplace.
Bobbie crossed to a sideboard, where bottles and glasses and an ice bucket were standing. She picked up a glass. "Sure you won't join me?"
Caroline shook her head. "Thanks, no."
Using tongs, Bobbie put one ice cube into the glass, then poured Glenfiddich over it. She added a splash of water from a crystal pitcher. "I just love coming to New York, especially at this time of year. You don't get much theater in California, you know. I have tickets to the new David Mamet play. Have you seen it?"
"Yes, it's excellent."
"Good, I can't wait." She sat down on the sofa and sipped her drink. "I like his work. The dialogue is always rough and raw, but he has such a marvelous ear. You really believe the characters, don't you think?"
"Absolutely. I thought Glengarry Glen Ross was a very important play, but this one is even better."
"Oh, great. My tickets are for tomorrow night. Tonight I'm going to dinner with a friend. And maybe to Renata or Nell's later on. Speaking of dinner, I made reservations for Mr. Burton at Lutece. It's one of his favorites. I hope you like it?"
"Yes, I do. It's a favorite of mine, too."
Bobbie crossed her legs. Caroline noted that they were as long as her own and almost as good. If Burton had this to travel with him, why did he bother to call a place like Panache?
"Tomorrow's for shopping," Bobbie said. "Another great reason to come to New York. Where did you get that dress, by the way?"
"It's lovely. Do you shop there often?"
"Thank you. Yes, now and then. Although to tell you the truth, I usually have the best luck at Bloomingdale's."
"Ah, Bloomie's. That's another must for me. They're always at least six months ahead of L.A."
Caroline tried a small probe. "Are you staying here also?"
"Yes, I'm on the tenth floor." She smiled. "In a single that isn't nearly as nice as this. But it's still the Plaza, right? We used to stay at the Regency, but about a year ago it seemed to slip a little."
"Have you been with Mr. Burton long?" Another probe.
"It seems like forever. I do everything for him. All his personal business, that is. Absolutely everything." She smiled again. "Even engaging you."
"How did you hear about us, by the way?"
"Oh, Martha's very well known in Los Angeles. She has a great reputation. You have a number of clients from there, don't you?"
"We've used other services in New York, but I kept hearing Panache was outstanding, so I called. I told Martha Mr. Burton wanted her best, and here you are."
It was bald flattery, but Caroline didn't mind a bit. She ate it up, in fact.
Bobbie finished her drink and put the glass down on the coffee table. "Now there's some business we have to attend to." She rose and stepped to the desk, opening the center drawer. She took out a thick white envelope and returned to the sofa. When she was again seated, she opened the envelope and withdrew a sheaf of bills. "I believe your fee is twelve hundred, is that right?"
"Yes, but it isn't necessary to go into that now. We're one of the few places that doesn't expect payment until the end of the evening. It's nicer that way, just part of how we do things."
"Oh, I know that. Everything about Panache is class, right?"
"We think so. At least, that's what we try for."
Bobbie was counting bills, all hundreds. "But we have our own way of doing things, too, you see. You may think it's a bit quirky, but please bear with us." She placed a stack of money on the coffee table. "There now. That's twelve hundred."
She paused for a moment, then peeled off five more bills. "And ... this is something extra, for you." She added them to the pile on the table.
Caroline looked at the money. A five-hundred-dollar tip? Not bad. In fact, excellent. So if this was what Mr. Burton and his Miss Superefficient considered "a bit quirky," who was she to argue?
"Go ahead," Bobbie said. "Take it. And tuck it away, please, out of sight. I have to tell you, Mr. Burton's sort of a romantic. He likes the idea of you two falling in love. But only for the evening, of course. And while you're together, he wants it to be a real love affair. So naturally, if money was to change hands, that would spoil it. Do you see?"
"Yes, I think so." What Caroline saw was that Mr. Burton was getting better by the minute. Harrison Ford indeed. With a touch of gray at the temples, and the heart of an adolescent. And pockets bulging with cash. She just might fall in love herself. But only for the evening, of course. She picked up the money and slipped it into her purse.
"And now," Bobbie said, "if you'll just bear with us, there's a little routine I have to put you through."
The assistant smiled disarmingly. "Oh, it's all part of the romance I was telling you about. The fantasy. It has to be perfect, for Mr. Burton to really enjoy it. So there's something a little unusual I have to ask you to do."
Uh-oh. Was Burton into something freaky? If he was, the evening would be over before it even got started. Just the thought of that stuff made Caroline nervous. Something a little unusual? Like what? S&M, maybe? Or bondage? Well, forget it. She'd return the money and get the hell out of here. A few months back, she'd walked out on a boorish official from OPEC, and more recently, a guy from the French delegation to the UN had wanted to beat her with a whip. That time, Caroline had forgotten she was a lady; she'd told the Frenchman to go fuck his hat and had run for the door. When Martha heard what had happened, she put the guy on her PSL: permanent shit list.
But Bobbie seemed anxious to dispel any notion that something strange might be in the offing. She raised a hand. "Now don't get nervous. Nobody's asking you to do anything kinky. It's just that I have to check you out. You know, look you over to be sure there are no blemishes, nothing to destroy the romantic illusion."
Caroline remained tense. "What do you mean by looking me over?"
"You just take off your clothes and let me see you." The assistant indicated the closed door that Caroline presumed led into the bedroom. "He's probably still in the shower. And anyway, he won't come in until I call him to be introduced."
Caroline still wasn't convinced. "That's all? Just undress, you look, and then I get dressed again?"
"That's all. And to show you we don't want to put you to any trouble for nothing, here's another three hundred." More bills were peeled off, and this time Bobbie handed them to her. "That makes a nice round figure, doesn't it?"
It certainly did. Of the basic $1,200 fee, Caroline would turn over $500 to Panache, the service's standard split. The remaining seven hundred, plus a tip that now amounted to eight hundred, was hers to keep. Fifteen hundred dollars. For having dinner at what many people considered the best restaurant in New York, and then getting what hopefully would be a good lay? She added the bills to the ones already in her purse.
Bobbie put the sheaf back into the envelope. "Okay?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Good." The assistant got up and went back to the desk, returning the envelope to the drawer and closing it. She turned back to Caroline and leaned against the desk. "All right, you can get undressed."
Caroline took off her pearls and put them into her purse, then placed the purse on a nearby lamp table. Rising from her chair, she slipped her dress over her head. The material was crepe de chine, as light as gossamer. She draped the dress over the back of the chair and then unhooked her bra. Ordinarily when she undressed on a working date, she did it slowly, almost as a striptease. But this, as Bobbie had made clear, was different.
She laid the bra over her dress and stood up straight, facing the assistant and arching her back a little. It was hard to tell with the business suit, but it didn't look as if Bobbie had too much on top. So let her see what a real pair looked like. Caroline was a perfect 34C, and thanks to a solid hour of calesthenics each morning, in addition to what nature had so generously given her, she had a bust that invariably caused guys to slaver. And that women looked at with undisguised envy—as Bobbie was looking now.
"Beautiful," Bobbie said. "Really beautiful. Please go on."
Caroline slipped her panties down over her hips and stepped out of them. She added the panties to the other things on the chair and again stood up straight. Now wearing only her garter belt, stockings, and her black pumps, she could tell from the way Bobbie's gaze was fastened on her that she was making a great impression. Naturally. And just to rub it in a little, she did a leisurely 360.
Bobbie's voice was a whisper. "My god, you certainly are spectacular."
A dyke, maybe? Was that the answer to all this? Bobbie handles everything but Burton's dick, because she's a lesbian? That could be it, Caroline thought. It was plausible enough. And if that was what Bobbie was about, it was fine with Caroline, so long as the assistant wanted nothing more than to see the goods her boss was paying for. Okay, Bobbie, you can look, but don't touch.
Excerpted from Painted Ladies by James Neal Harvey. Copyright © 1992 James Neal Harvey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews