“I’ve been married eight times. If you add up all the years I’ve been married to someone, it comes to over forty. Of course, the first time, I was a child bride.”
Dolores De La Vega’s dark eyes looked past me and at the other person in the room: the Man. She fluttered long, thick lashes at him then directed her expressive eyes and dazzling smile to the three dogs sitting on the floor, huddled around her wingback chair. A German shepherd, a Border collie, and a smaller mutt, cute but of undetermined parentage, looked up at her adoringly.
I’m glad they adored her. Since I walked into the room, I had been ignored to the point of rudeness. Then I got why She Who Must Be Obeyed, one Lila Hamilton Alvarez, mother mine, and CEO of Discretionary Inquiries Inc., insisted the Man accompany me to the meeting. It was probably the only way I’d get any information from the raven-haired actress, third party though it was. All I had been told beforehand was someone was trying to kill her. And if I had to spend any more time with her, that someone was going to be me.
I had to admit Dolores De La Vega was a legend, and not just in her mind, but to the rest of the world. She’d been a film actress during the eighties and nineties, known as much for her looks and torrid romances as her acting ability. At least, that’s what TCM said when they showed her last picture, Deadly Beauty.
Scandalized, romanticized, ostracized or homogenized, Delores De La Vega was news. Every tabloid and tell-all show continued to report on her escapades, even though her age began to rival that of many a redwood tree along the California coastline.
The rich and powerful had been succumbing to her beguiling ways for decades, the last a presidential hopeful. The men got older as the years went by, as did she, but there never seemed to be a shortage of them.
I sat back and studied the woman top to bottom, she who so deliberately ignored my presence. Her long dark hair was a glowing tribute to a colorist. Almost natural looking, it was piled on top of her head with several strategic strands pulled free and cascading down the sides of her face, for that tousled, just-got-out-of-bed look. Perfect patrician features, albeit covered with a tad too much makeup, gave her an ageless but predatory look. Wrapped around her neck was a sparkling emerald-and-diamond necklace. It didn’t hide the fact that her neck alone seemed to be in keeping with her calendar years, covered as it was with the crisscrossing of lines, sags, and shadows.
Mom once told me if you want to know a woman’s true age, just look at her neck and hands. Those are the two toughest places for the miracles of plastic surgery. This could account for the abundance of gloves and high-necked collars at many gatherings I’ve been dragged to by my youthful and gorgeous mother who, if she’s had any “miracles” performed, keeps pretty mum about it.
I glanced down at my hands, more or less to reassure myself that at thirty-four this was all far, far in my future. Big mistake.
Uh-oh. What is that on your left hand? A liver spot? And your right hand looks like a roadmap! Yikes! One of those wanting hands flew up to my neck. What’s that dangling there? Oh, great, I’ll be tripping over a double chin by the time I hit fifty. Better start doing some neck exercises now, kiddo.
“And keep a plastic surgeon’s number on your speed dial,” I muttered aloud.
“What?” Gurn gave me a strange look. “What did you say? Something about a surgeon?”
“Sturgeon,” I said. “Sturgeon. Fish on the mind. Sorry.”
I refocused my attention on Dolores De La Vega. After a downward glance, the phrase “her face was her fortune and ran into a nice figure” leapt out at me. That figure was draped in a purple knit jumpsuit, purple being her brand color. The clingy fabric revealed a curvaceous body with not much left to the imagination. Long, slim legs led to feet wearing bejeweled gold-and-silver sandals with five-inch stiletto heels. Pearly green varnish on well-groomed toenails completed the picture.
One could make the argument the actress had written the Kardashian clan’s guide to fashion i.e., there is no such thing as too much or over the top. She even wore gold earrings the size of Hula-Hoops. But I regress to bitchiness.
This could have been because, bowing to the dictates of She Who Must Be Obeyed, I was in disguise. My own uncolored long, dark hair was parted in the middle and pulled back at the nape of my neck in a tight bun ala Miss Grundy from Archie Comics. No makeup. No jewelry. Pucker Up Pink polish stripped from nails revealing all their naked glory. Large, round glasses were pulled down to the tip end of my nose, so at least I could see.
But all that I could have borne. The dagger through the heart was the baggy, shapeless dress from a thrift store in yellow, yellow, yellow. I cannot emphasize strongly enough what the color yellow does to me. Along the lines of just shoot me now, it makes my eyes look bloodshot and my skin as if I’m in the last stages of jaundice. But I regress to self-pity.
Being a professional, I tried to rise above all this and returned my thoughts to the job at hand. But for whatever reason, the actress seemed to be reluctant to get to the reason we’d been urgently summoned.
I let her continue to distract us. The “us” would be the aforementioned Man aka Gurn Hanson, husband mine, and me. I am Lee Alvarez, lead in-house investigator for Discretionary Inquiries, the family-owned investigative services. Discretionary Inquiries is also known as D. I. by everyone save my mother, who hates initials of any kind and will not use them. But we are already on to She Who Must Be Obeyed or S.W.M.B.O’s heartless streak. Yellow, indeed.
Gurn and I sat in what might be called the parlor of the actress’s two-story farmhouse, plunked down in the middle of one hundred acres of Silicon Valley’s chic horse country, Portola Valley. The parlor was enormous, echoey, and had all the hominess of the waiting room at the Palo Alto Caltrain station. There had to be seating for at least thirty people scattered around in conversational clusters and still room to throw a square dance.
I looked around wondering if this was the original design or if someone had knocked down a wall or two to create such a room. Remnants of two different hues of wood meeting in the center told me the latter was the case.
Sixteen-foot high ceilings looked down on walls painted a hospital mint green. A light breeze blew in through tall, open windows, still retaining the irregular hand blown paned glass. Off-white curtains, looking plain and old-fashioned but no doubt screamingly expensive, moved languidly as they caught small gusts of air. I settled back on the cream-brocade, horsehair love seat, uncomfortable enough to be a real antique, and waited for something on subject to be said.
Miss De La Vega turned back to Gurn, giving him another coquettish, come-hither smile, which continued to surprise me no end. Not just because he was young enough to be her son, but because he had introduced himself to her as my husband. In my world that means lay off, taken man, save your charms. But to some women, that means nothing. I guess that’s how you get to be married eight times.
Gurn gave her one of his gorgeous, irresistible crooked smiles, one that has certainly had its way with me. His short, sandy-colored hair, shot through with sun streaks, framed a handsome face down to a square jawline. I’d prevailed upon him to wear his sage-green dress shirt, the one that matches his eyes. Gray slacks completed the killer look. He smiled. She drooled. I watched.
You’d never know Gurn had been dragged kicking and screaming to this meeting at Mom’s insistence. He opened his mouth and his rich baritone voice held the right amount of sincerity and concern. It’s a gift.
“Why don’t you tell us what your problem is, Miss De La Vega? We’re here to help you.”
The actress reached out long, tapered fingers covered with sparkling rings and ending in dagger like red nails. She tapped his hand with one of those nails in a flirtatious manner.
“You must call me DeeDee, Greg,” she said with a soft laugh.
“Gurn,” he replied, still smiling and not missing a beat.
I refrained from laughing. Gurn has one of those names no one ever seems to get right.
“DeeDee,” I piped up, and watched her rankle at my not only entering the conversation, but using her nickname uninvited. I used it, anyway. “DeeDee, Lila says there have been some incidents involving attempts on your life. Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?”
The annoyed look she gave me for interrupting her seductive ways turned to one of pleasure. She actually acknowledged my existence before she spoke.
“Ah, yes, your mother, little Lila Hamilton. I so adored that child. Of course, I was only one or two years older than her, but I did look on her as a baby sister.”
I gave the woman my professional smile. Although claiming to be in her late fifties, my kid brother Richard, head of D. I.’s IT department, obtained Miss De La Vega’s birth certificate, showing an upcoming birthday. Sixty-eight. My mother was fifty-five. So if a difference of thirteen years can be interpreted as only “one or two,” then I’m only one or two pounds over goal. I can live with that.
I tuned back into Miss De La Vega’s well-modulated and husky voice, famous for its sexual innuendos, and sensed fear behind her words. Still reluctant to get to the reason we were there, she driveled on about her history with my mother.
“I’m sure you know our families lived across the street from one another in Palo Alto when we girls were growing up. So much promise, our dear Lila. I remember the last time I saw Carson, her father; may he rest in peace. Such a handsome, distinguished man. Most attractive. And I know he found me alluring. We flirted with each other outrageously. At that time, I was just eighteen, already widowed by my first husband.”
All of this was directed to Gurn, of course. Nonetheless, I chafed at the idea of my grandfather flirting with any woman other than my grandmother while she was alive.
“That must have been after my grandmother passed,” I said in a clipped tone.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Some men are like that. She was ravishing from the cradle.”
“Good heavens, no,” she said, a bell-like laugh escaping from her lips. “Your grandmother was a pleasant-enough-looking woman, but it was Lila who turned heads wherever she went. And her carriage! Impeccable. I remember saying to her, ‘Lila, you can go far in this world on your looks alone.’ But what did she do? Married that Mexican man with no money and no future.”
I tried not to blanch about the reference to my father, no longer with us, and his Latino heritage. The actress went on, completely oblivious to her prejudicial mindset. Maybe. Some people just like to make provocative statements.
“Not that the man wasn’t good-looking, I’ll give him that. And I understand he did fairly well for himself. But nothing compared to what a girl with her looks could get.” She turned to me with a regal, condescending smile. “He was your father, right?”
“Right,” I said, resisting the urge to clock her.
Gurn gave me a “please, don’t clock her until we find out what she wants” look. I took a deep breath and went back into my professional mode.
“The report given to us says you think someone is trying to kill you.”
She didn’t answer, but picked up a needlepoint pillow by her side and hugged it to her, as if for comfort. The mutt, seeming to sense her need, jumped into the chair and leaned its body against the actress.
“Now, Coco,” Dolores said to the dog in a gentle voice, “You know you’re not allowed on the furniture. Get down.” The dog obeyed. “There’s a good girl.” Coco wagged her tail. DeeDee turned in my direction, letting out a deep sigh.
“Well, it was the broken ladder, of course, and the candy. Then being locked in the stall with that rabid pony. The pony simply hates me. That was yesterday. But the first thing that happened was every picture of me was slashed throughout the house. I woke up one morning and they had all been destroyed.” Her gaze turned to a vacant spot on the wall. “A life-size portrait of me hung there. I painted it myself, but it was beyond saving. Every framed photograph taken of me throughout the years, all beyond saving. That happened three weeks ago.”
I sat up, apprehension running through me. “Your house was broken into and your pictures were destroyed? Didn’t the dogs bark? Don’t you have some sort of security?”
She shook her head slowly and reached out a loving hand to her pets. “Two of them can‘t bark. Cruel people cut their vocal cords. And Coco is too shy. They’re not guard dogs, anyway. They’re my companions. And as for security, I’ve never needed it before, even when I threw huge parties. I don’t throw them anymore, but many people still come and go. I’ve never been in any danger. All I’ve done is try to help the animals.”
Dolores De La Vega may have been many a woman’s nemesis, but she had one large plus on her side. The one hundred acre farm and all her billions were devoted to rescuing abused and abandoned animals. I couldn’t help but respect her for that.
“Why would anyone want to hurt me?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
Gurn leaned forward in his best bedside manner and fairly crooned. “That’s what we’re trying to understand. Why don’t we start with the broken ladder?”
He was rewarded by another one of her dazzling smiles. Then she took on a veneer of false modesty.
“I think you know I am a painter of sorts.”
“Of course,” Gurn said with enthusiasm. “You are known throughout the world for your art. I read where you’re painting one now for a charity auction.”
“Yes,” she said. “The Oakland SPCA is doing their annual fund drive. I have offered one of my paintings for the auction. It’s similar to the one I did last year for San Jose. That one brought in over three hundred thousand dollars. They are quite large, these paintings, more like a mural, and I need a stepladder to do the top. A couple of weeks ago, I stepped on top of the ladder and it gave way under me. When Tom found me, I had fallen into the wall of my studio and been knocked out.”
“Who is Tom?” I asked.
“Tom Schwonke, the grounds manager. He heard me cry out and came running. I had a mild concussion and spent the night in the hospital. He said it looked like someone sawed through the underside of the ladder, causing it to break under my weight. Then last Friday afternoon, I found the box of candy on the doorstep addressed to me, about two hours after the usual mail delivery. Let me get them.”
Accompanied by the click-click sound of her stiletto heels and three sets of dog nails across the hardwood floor, she swept over to a mahogany antique desk on the other side of the room. A gorgeous, brown-gold Maine coon cat stirred, uncurling itself from the top of the desk. I hadn’t even noticed the cat before, and I am a cat person. The feline had blended right in with the color of the wood.
“Stay where you are, Rusty,” she said.
Dolores De La Vega ran her hand over the cat’s silky fur in one quick stroke. Rusty gave off a large yawn and balled himself up once more, blending in again with the desktop.
Removing a key from under a nearby vase, she unlocked the desk and pushed up the rolltop. After a brief look in one drawer, she began a more frantic search, opening and closing every drawer.
“I don’t understand it,” Dolores finally said. “I locked the candy inside the desk. They were poison!”
Gurn and I both rose and came to either side of her. The dogs clustered around. The cat slept.
“You’re sure this is where you put them?” Gurn’s voice was gentle but firm.
“Yes.” Her face had a perplexed, worried look, but she gave him a fleeting smile more out of habit than intent. “When I saw they were poisoned, I locked them in this desk.”
“How did you know they were poisoned?” My voice made her head snap around and stare at me. “Did someone eat one?”
She didn’t answer, but followed by the dogs, crossed back to her chair, and collapsed into it. She raised a shaking hand to her forehead before she spoke.
“Dickie Bird had some.” She looked up at us, as we crossed back to that particular conversation area. “He’s my…He was my parakeet. He loved candy. I would always share any candy I had with him, except chocolate. You never give a bird chocolate. Or a dog, either.” The brief lecture had rallied her, but she became sad again. “Actually, Dickie Bird always had the first bite. It was silly, I know, but I would hold him on one finger and let him peck at the candy first. And now he’s dead.” Huge tears ran down her cheeks. “It was only a few seconds afterward. He wobbled and fell off my finger to the floor.”
Her body shook with sobs. I felt my eyes brim over. I’m a sucker for any hard-luck animal story. Even Gurn seemed moved before he spoke again.
“How do you know it wasn’t a coincidence? Maybe he had a seizure.”
“The staff heard me screaming. When they came running, Mirabelle took the candy from my hand, turned it over and saw someone had tampered with the bottom. All the candy in the box had been tampered with. Being it was Friday, I was going to have them sent to a lab today and have them tested. Then I thought to call your mother. Lila promised to help me. I knew she would. I saved them to give to you.” She turned, looking at both of us with fear in her eyes. “But someone’s taken them. The poison was meant for me. I’m the only one in the household who likes Pineapple Coconut Crunches. Me and Dickie Bird. I buried him Saturday morning. I loved that bird and he died because of me.”
Another sob escaped her. The German shepherd leaned a comforting chin on her knee and looked up with doleful eyes. She reached out and stroked the dog’s head. She really had a way with men and animals. Me, not so much.
I turned to Gurn. “Maybe we could have a necropsy performed on the bird. See what kind of poison it was.”
“I will not desecrate his little body like that,” DeeDee said with a fierceness I hadn’t suspected living inside her. “He is with God now.”
“But if the candy is missing,” I countered, “We need to.”
“Absolutely out of the question.” She looked me dead in the eye with unconcealed contempt. “No. Do not ask me again to do something like that.”
“All rightie,” I said. “Let’s turn to the pony.”
“Our latest rescue,” she said, looking at Gurn again, regaining much of her past demeanor. “I don’t even want to tell you the abuse that poor animal suffered before the county took it away. But apparently it suffered at the hands of a brunette woman. He cannot be near me without reacting violently. I try to keep my distance, but yesterday I heard loud music playing in his stall. I was the only one around and knew he must be agitated by the sound, so I crept inside to turn it off. I found a transistor radio set on an acid-rock station, if you can imagine the horror of that.
“When I went to leave, I discovered someone locked the door from the outside. I panicked and started banging on the door to be let out. Well, of course, the pony decided I was there to do him harm and tried to attack me. Fortunately, there were several bales of stacked hay, which I used to keep away from him until Rocky heard my cries and opened the door.”
“Rocky?” I leaned forward.
“Yes, he’s the vet. Doctor Rocky Cafiso. He said someone had inserted the tong of a pitchfork into the lock to keep it closed.” She pushed the fold of the sleeve up on her arm. “You can see the bruises where the pony nipped me before Rocky unlocked the door.“
I ventured another question. “And that was yesterday, Sunday?”
She didn’t answer me, but nodded. She bit her trembling lower lip and reached out, roughing up the Border collie’s neck fur. All three dogs pushed forward for attention from their mistress.
“Who has access to your house?”
“Does anyone else live in the house besides you?”
Gurn and I spoke simultaneously. Naturally, she chose to answer Gurn’s question.
“Access to the house?” She looked at him. “Well, everyone. Anyone.”
“I mean,” he clarified, “do any of them have a key to your house?”
She shrugged. “It’s never locked. Everyone just comes and goes.”
Gurn smiled a little too brightly. “Like who?”
“Let me think. I’m not sure. Mirabelle is the housekeeper. She’s here every day. The same with Rosa. She does the light housework. Although she was visiting her son for a few days in Oxnard or Davis until yesterday. She sent a postcard from there.”
“Do you have it?” Gurn reached out a hand.
“I threw it out. Silly things, postcards. Oh yes, we bring in a cleaning crew once a week for the big jobs. I like a clean house.”
“Which cleaners are they?” I asked.
“Something…something…Ladies,” she replied, screwing her eyes shut in thought. “I can’t remember their exact name, but they’ve been coming for years.”
“The gardener. He brings in fresh flowers from the garden every other day. I think I heard Mirabelle call him Gonzales or Rodriguez once. Or maybe it’s Lopez.”
“And everyone you’ve mentioned so far is here only during the day?” Gurn asked, as I was furiously typing into my phone.
“Well, no,” she said. “Mirabelle is often here at nights, too. She does my hair and gets me dressed if there’s a special occasion or if I need help. But most are here only during the day.”
“Anyone else you haven’t mentioned?” Gurn’s smile waned.
“Let’s see.” She thought for a moment. “Every Saturday and Wednesday my hairdresser. I can’t remember his name: maybe Paul. My manicurist comes on Saturdays, too. It might be Dolly or Fran. Sometimes an esthetician comes with her if I need it, but it’s always somebody new.”
“What’s an esthetician?” Gurn wore a puzzled look.
“Facials,” I murmured. “But if they’re called an esthetician, it’s double the price.”
De La Vega went on. “And there’s my masseur. He comes once a week, Mondays. Oh, yes, my personal trainer comes three times a week. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. His name is Brian. Other than that, I don’t know any names.”
“And that’s everyone?” Gurn’s smile took a nosedive.
“Well, no. There’s the catering service that delivers my meals twice a day, breakfast and dinner. I don’t eat lunch. I have a protein drink instead. But I don’t see them. They just put the food in the refrigerator.”
It takes a village, I thought, as I typed away.
“They’re called Portola Valley something or other,” De La Vega said. “Mirabelle will know. I don’t cook, and I don’t care much for Mirabelle’s cooking, even though she’s willing to do it.”
“We’ll check with Mirabelle,” I said. “She may know the last names, as well.”
“Yes,” she said, momentarily flustered. “Mirabelle will know. She signs their checks.”
“Where is Mirabelle now?” Gurn asked. “We’d like to talk to her.”
“I’m not sure. Shopping, perhaps. We have company coming, but I’m not sure where she is or what she’s doing. Maybe laundry?”
Sadness covered her face. At first, I thought it might be because she realized she didn’t know diddly about the people who worked for her. But awareness is rare in a person who doesn’t want to be aware.
“I will never forgive myself for causing Dickie Bird’s death,” she said in a quiet tone without looking up. “I don’t want any other of my sweet animals hurt because of me.” She turned to Gurn. “Find out who killed my bird and who’s trying to kill me. Please.”