Excerpt of the fourth book in the Alvarez Family murder mysteries
Debuted October 13, 2014
Chapter One: Can It Get Any Dirtier?
According to song and legend, for the past few centuries, hot sulfuric mud is sucked out of caverns loitering beneath the hills of Calistoga. For the privilege of parking your backside in the stuff, big bucks are sucked out of your bank account. Only in California do you pay through the nose for something most kids can run outside and jump into after a rainy day.
I did find a twig or two earlier, but was reassured by the spa attendant, Rainbow, the trees and all their inhabitants died long ago. I tried to embrace the thought as my new phone rang out with Beethoven’s Fifth.
At eight-oh-five in the morning I should have been suspicious. I should have known disaster can find you wherever you go, but I was a reluctant PI on vacation. My sixth-sense was on vacation, as well.
My name is Lee Alvarez and I’m the in-house P.I. for Discretionary Inquiries, the family-owned Silicon Valley detective agency. I was tired and in need of a little R and R, having recently wrapped up a case, a big one, involving the entire Alvarez clan, God help me.
There are probably worse things than working hip-to-hip with CEO and mother, Lila Hamilton Alvarez, she who can shoot the tattoo off a fly at fifty paces in her size six stilettos, but I can’t think of them. She’s still my mother and there’s something unnatural about it.
Throw in a techie geek of a brother, Richard Alvarez, he who fobs off the latest gewgaw on me while I’m busy taking down felons, and you have my life as of late. That’s the downside of a successfully run family business: the family. The upside eluded me for the moment.
But glory hallelujah, everyone was out of my hair for an entire week, thanks to my brother’s wife, Vicki. Said sister-in-law was opening a new branch of her hat shop, The Obsessive Chapeau, in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Lila, Richard, and my Uncle Mateo, better known as Tío, went to help out. For one week. Laissez le bon ton roulette. Yup, let the good times roll.
They’d have been rolling a lot better if I’d known whether or not the mud I was lying in had been washed and hermetically sealed. I have a thing about creepy crawlies.
Regardless, when the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra plays its heart out, it’s apt to get your attention. Especially when the blaring phone in question is out of reach and you’re in a vat full of mud pretending to enjoy it.
The song ended but the melody lingered on, reverberating around the large white-tiled spa room. Meanwhile, I wondered who called. Not many people know my private number, just family and close friends. Still, there was the occasional carpet cleaning service drumming up business or wrong number. Was that it or was it something important? Let’s face it, there’s nothing more awful than an unanswered phone, even a smart one that makes you feel stupid.
“Sweetheart, I told you not to bring your phone into the mudroom.” The voice of Gurn Hanson, the love of my life, wafted over the steam rising from our side-by-side tubs. He spoke in a slow, lazy voice and didn’t even open his eyes; he was that relaxed. Mine were bulging out of my head.
We’d reached the point in our relationship where we could throw out the occasional ‘I told you so’ remark, in between proclamations of love. I hope we never neglect the proclamations. I’d been in a disastrous early marriage, where not only were the ‘I told you so’s sans any declaration, but my ex threw in the occasional punch for good measure.
Thanks to a good helping of self-esteem and a black belt in Karate, I’d filed for divorce several years back. So here I was, thirty-four years old, five foot eight inches of me, four pounds over the allotted one-hundred and thirty-five, curly dark hair in a knot atop my head, sprawled out in a revolting tub of mud, and telling myself to relax. After all, I was on a long awaited vacation, eating and drinking my way through Napa Valley, and sharing the experience with a honey of a man.
“Relax, sweetheart, relax,” Gurn crooned, then opened green-grey eyes and looked over at me. “Is it the phone you’re worried about or leaving Tugger and Baba alone in the room?”
“No, I’m sure the cats are fine. They’re noshing on kippers and catnip. I’m the one chin deep in disgusting muck. Who’s sorry she’s not a cat?” I muttered the last bit and wasn’t sure Gurn heard me. It was just as well. I tend to complain.
The two aforementioned felines were my Tugger and Gurn’s cat, Baba Ganoush, named after the eggplant dish. The fact our two cats were with us had nothing to do with the wine or mud, because I’ve never met a cat into that sort of thing. It was more that the Alvarez clan, as previously mentioned, was off in New Orleans and I trusted no one besides Tío to take care of the little darlings. So we threw the cats into their carriers, climbed aboard Gurn’s Cessna, and flew here to spend a glorious week living the high life, putting aside the current visit to a mudslide.
My phone sprang to life again. The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Beethoven’s Fifth bounced off the walls once more. I tried not to think about it. Eventually, the phone stopped ringing, but Beethoven’s ‘ba ba ba bum’ continued to bong around the room and in my head. I gotta change that ring one of these days.
“I think you should have left it in the room, but I probably shouldn’t say that.” Gurn gave me another wide grin.
I had to think for a moment of what he was talking about. Oh, yes. Phone. Mud. Yuk.
He exhaled a long, relaxed breath and closed his eyes, looking quite yummy, even covered with black gunk. “It’s your phone, sweetheart. You take it wherever you want.”
“Thank you, but you’re right. I am kind of indisposed and shouldn’t have brought it with me.” Relax, relax, relax. Nope. Forget it.
Too late I remembered that even as a kid, I was never the mud-cavorting type, preferring to stay clean and dry, playing with my Legos on the patio. My brother, however, sought every opportunity to be in mud. Gurn seemed to be enjoying his own foray. Maybe this was a guy thing?
I took a deep breath and choked on the sulfuric smell rising on clouds of steam. Buried under steaming dirt, I reflected on how a pig at a luau must feel. All I needed was an apple in my mouth. Then I thought about the posted warnings overhead: Do not put your feet down on the bottom of the tub. I wasn’t exactly sure why you couldn’t, but it became my raison d’être. Among other things, that’s French for ‘What the hell did I get myself into?’
A large bubble found its way to the surface and exploded into the air. I tried not to scream. Rainbow, a flower child of the sixties, was quite firm in her introductory statement that any bubbles appearing were only trapped sulfuric gas. I chose to believe her.
Rainbow had passed what we define as ‘older’ decades before, and was now racing toward eighty like a thoroughbred coming down the home stretch. Dressed in a tie-dyed, free-flowing robe, slathered in patchouli oil, and weighed down by dozens of love beads, her look was finished off by two silvery-white braids hanging down to her knees. Barely audible New Age music piped through the sound system completed our trip to the Age of Aquarius, geriatric style.
The phone rang out for the third time with Ludwig’s finest.
“You know, Lee, you could move over to the side, get out, shower off, find out who’s calling, and then jump into the hot tub. I’ll join you there in about ten minutes.” Gurn opened his eyes and looked over, his wondrous lopsided smile enchanting me down to my muddy toes. “I suspect you’re not enjoying this part of spa day.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. With about as much grace as a beached walrus, I rolled over to the side of the tub and splashed down on the white tiles, flinging dark glop everywhere. As I stood dripping onto the once spotless floor, I realized what a bitch it must be to keep the room clean. Note to self: never use white tile on floors. Too unforgiving.
The BP Orchestra went silent.
I leaned over to see who called and a chunk of mud fell from my neck onto the phone, obscuring the ID number. I gave up and padded toward the shower area. I’d like to say I rinsed off fast and easy, but I found mud in crevices of my body I didn’t even know were creviced.
The phone beeped with sounds similar to Morse code on helium.
“What the hell is that?” I shouted from behind the curtain, hoping Gurn could hear me.
“That’s your messaging notification. Someone’s texted you.”
“What do you mean, texted me? I don’t have texting.”
“You must have. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be beeping.”
“Fer crying out loud, you need a degree in computer science to figure out these phones.”
I continued to grumble and grouse, but finally turned off the water and snatched a towel. Wrapping it around me, I made a dash for the phone, which stopped beeping as I reached for it.
Gurn chortled. “Somebody’s persistent. I’m glad I left mine in the room.”
I chose not to answer but picked up the phone, wiped off the mud with a corner of the towel, and looked at the incoming call list. “The number’s blocked. It must be Richard.”
“What makes you think that?” Gurn no longer sounded like he was being fed Prozac intravenously, but alert and back with the living.
“He’s one of the few people I know who has the guts to have a blocked number and not be an insurance salesman.”
“So maybe it’s Met Life.”
“No, it’s Richard.” My sixth sense returned, albeit if only on two cylinders. “And where’s this texting business?”
“I’ll get out and show you.” He made a move for the side.
“You don’t have to do that, just tell me.”
“It’s better if I show you.”
We heard a soft knocking and without waiting for a reply, Rainbow opened the door. She wafted inside, love beads clicking in rhythm with the braids swinging from side to side. How did she keep those braids out of the mud, I wondered? Tie them in a bow around her neck?
“Love, peace, and harmony, friends,” her small voice waivered. “It’s only Rainbow telling you it’s time for grooving in the hot tub.” She saw me on my phone and got a little prickly. “Oh, no, no, no. No cell phones in the place of tranquility.” She straightened up as much as possible, waggled a finger at me and came forward, assuming the attitude of an elderly drill sergeant.
Gurn tried to cut her off at the pass. “Rainbow, why don’t we let Lee do her thing and we’ll do ours?” Without thinking, he tossed two muddy legs over the side of the tub and with the nimbleness of an acrobat threw himself into a standing position.
Rainbow gasped and turned away. We’d been told several times rules state that men’s private parts must remain beneath the mud whenever female attendants are in the room.
“Sorry, Rainbow,” Gurn said, as mud sloughed off him. “You’d better leave and come back in ten.”
Our octogenarian ran out of the room like a vestal virgin pursued by a legion of Roman soldiers.
“You know, that could be considered elder abuse.” I raised an eyebrow at Gurn.
Gurn ignored me and went back to the phone. “What makes you think it’s Rich calling? I thought everybody was in New Orleans.” He pulled excess mud from his arms and hands as he spoke, flinging it down to the floor. A not so clean hand was extended in my direction, with the goal of taking the phone from me. “Here, let me see it.”
I turned away from him, deep in thought. “Okay, maybe it isn’t Richard. He knows I don’t text. My thumbs don’t work that way.”
“Only one way to find out. Give me the phone, Lee. I’ll see.” Gurn reached out a persistent hand again. “Come on, blue eyes.”
“No, you’ve still got mud all over yourself. This thing cost over four hundred bucks, even with the trade-in of my old phone. Go wipe your hands on one of those towels over there.” I pointed to several towels neatly folded at the side of the tub. “I can find the text thingamagiggy. After all, it’s my phone.” I pushed buttons and managed to turn on the flashlight.
With a shake of his head and a laugh, Gurn ran a quick hand down the front of my towel and made a grab for the phone. He was playful about it. I was not. Reluctant to let go of any power I had over the phone, be it zip, we went into a mini tug of war. Hands grappling one over the other, the phone escaped our grasp in an upward motion like a slippery bar of soap. Following a neat arc, it landed with a ‘kerplop’ in the middle of the tub.
“Now look what you did!” I stared in horror at the phone floating belly up in mud.
“What I did? Never mind.” Gurn reached over and lifted the phone out, snatched the towel off my body, and wiped off the mud.
“Is it dead?” My voice trembled at the thought.
“No, of course not.” He continued to wipe the back of the phone with care, while he inspected it. “When the mud dries completely, we’ll scrape it off. It didn’t get inside, because you’ve got the protective case on it. See? Nothing’s hurt.”
He handed the relatively clean phone back to me and kissed me on the nose. I rethought my position. I was being too possessive and grumpy about one of my shortcomings. Technical stuff and I do not get along. And if Gurn knows more about Smartphones, who was I not to let him help me out?
The phone in my hand started its Morse code thing again.
“Sorry I was so snarky before. You want to show me texting? At least I know where the flashlight is now. You never know when that will come in handy.”
He took the phone with a grin, swiped at something, and handed it back to me. “There you go. Just touch on the messaging icon.”
I followed instructions and began to read the short missive. When I finished, I sank down to the side of the tub. It took me a second or two before I could utter anything, and then it was only a single word.
He turned to face me, the one word stopping him from wiping his face on his towel. He carried it with him and sat beside me.
“It is from Richard.” Together we read the short but disturbing message in silence.
Fly to NOLA General Hospital ASAP. Terrible danger. Think Vicki will be arrested for murder.
I looked at Gurn. His face registered all the shock, confusion, and fear I was feeling. My voice shook when I spoke.
“If this is a sample of texting, I don’t like it one bit.”
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