Excerpt from the second book in the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries
Chapter One: “I Love to Cry at Weddings”
Mira McFadden was getting married. And I was the thirty-four-year-old divorcee who had introduced her—my best friend—to one of my brother’s best friends, who also happens to be my mother’s godson. When Cupid’s wings start flapping, take cover. When the groom gets arrested for murder, call me, Lee Alvarez, private investigator.
This all started three months ago. Carlos Garcia, groom and suspect, ran into Mira and me in a Chinese restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf, we having ordered too much lobster moo goo gai pan and chicken lettuce rolls, and he looking as if he could use a good meal. I asked him to join us. It was as simple as that.
For the record, it never occurred to me for one minute these two might fall in love. It also never crossed my mind they would wind up getting engaged, let alone plan a big-in-your-face wedding. Christ, it was just lunch.
Who would have thought this Latino playboy, whom I have known since he was gnawing on pacifiers, would become besotted by a shy, soft-spoken female three years his senior, whose idea of a good time consisted of analyzing the contents of a mound of rocks found in the back yard? Not me, for one.
True, she was drop-dead gorgeous, with one of the sweetest, most generous natures in the world. The daughter of two tall Irish-Americans, she had honey-red hair, turquoise eyes, and a glorious ivory complexion covering her nearly six-foot high frame. Even at my own five foot eight, when standing next to her, I looked like I was parked in a hole. We were a study in contrasts, we two best buds—me with wavy, brunette hair, dark blue eyes, and a slightly olive complexion, more exotic than not, and Mira looking like a larger than life water nymph.
Her beauty aside, Mira was also one of the planet’s major klutzes. It wasn’t at all unusual for her to trip over her own feet in the middle of a room, hurtling her elongated frame to the floor, taking several objects or people with her.
There is even a photo op of just such an event where, on her eighteenth birthday, she fell into her five-tiered birthday cake in front of two thousand people at a fashion show. It was right around the time her father, head of the McFadden Fashion Empire, got rid of the illusion his little girl would become a top model. Yes, she had the physical attributes, as well as being heir to the throne, but when destiny covers you in buttercream icing at the end of a runway, and the occasion has been frozen in time by every major newspaper, it’s probably better to make other plans. Mira enrolled at Stanford University, obtaining a PhD in geophysics. Good girl.
A few years later, enter Carlos, “one of the ten most eligible bachelors in Latin America,” as the San Francisco Chronicle liked to say. A scant two months later, early May to be exact, he threw away his little black book and begged Mira on bended knee to be his bride. I was there. I saw the bending and the begging. Between his hot looks, gentle humor, devotion to her, and ability to sing any love song in Spanish, she would have been a fool to let him get away. In fact, in her excitement to say yes, Mira knocked a chocolate vodka martini onto his pristine, white linen lap. He didn’t even care. That’s love.
This was all happening while I was on a demanding 24/7 undercover assignment, buoying up my own sagging relationship with the man in my life, Detective John Savarese, and raising Rum Tum Tugger, an adolescent feline, better known as My Son, The Cat. Not that raising a cat is all that tough, but I was feeling stretched pretty thin. All I needed was a wedding.
Between being maid of honor, sister of the groom’s best man, and daughter of the godmother of the groom, I became enmeshed in the upcoming nuptials like nobody’s business. Everything except the romance seemed to revolve around me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Cupid has a lot to answer for.
Then Mira came down with the flu during the wedding preparations. High on love, she kept running, jumping, and leaping until she collapsed with pneumonia. She was going to be fine but needed complete bed rest for the next two or three weeks. This made it all pretty intense, as her dream wedding was being thrown together at the last minute due to a sudden cancellation at Stanford Memorial Church, “Mem Chu,” for one of the Saturdays mid-June. It was now pushing the end of May. Usually there’s a two-year wait for such openings at what some people call “the closest thing you can get to a cathedral this side of Manhattan’s East River.”
My stubborn friend had had her heart set on being married in this spectacular church ever since she saw it our freshman year. Postponing the festivities was out of the question. If Mira had to wobble down the aisle in three weeks’ time filled to the gills with antibiotics, then wobble she would.
Carlos was to graduate from the MBA Program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business one week before the nuptials. Directly after the wedding, he had to head back to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, bride in tow, to take over running the four-thousand acre cattle ranch, Los Pozitos de Oros, being temporarily managed by his adoptive mother, Virginia Garcia, who’s also my mother’s best friend.
So in less time than it takes to grow out your nails, a formal wedding with two hundred guests from the varying worlds of fashion, politics, theatre, and society was being thrown together. I hold moo goo gai pan personally responsible.
One recent Saturday morning, I sat at the ancestral dining room table across from my beautiful, ice-blonde, and very put together mother, Lila Hamilton Alvarez. As for me, I was puffy-eyed, exhausted, and looking like something my cat had left in his litter pan.
“We should have hired somebody to stuff these stupid things, Mom,” I groaned, filling envelopes with yea or nay response cards and a sheet of driving instructions to the upcoming shindig. “There must be a million of them.”
“There are only two hundred, Liana, but I want Mira Louise to know we did this ourselves, and we didn’t hire anybody.” Mom has a habit of stressing certain words in every sentence she utters, like the word ‘ourselves,’ which makes me crazy.
“After all,” she continued, stressing away. “We’re all she has. Her mother is dead, and her father is nowhere to be seen, as usual.”
“Mr. McFadden did design and build the gowns for the bride and attendants, Mom,” I said but paused, realizing I had imitated her vocal pattern. I mentally slapped myself across the face and went on, “And I think he’s still planning on giving her away.”
“At least,” Mom countered, “he hasn’t reneged on that yet.”
“True. Maybe this time he’ll be there for her. We can only hope.”
“Mateo is standing by, just in case,” she sniffed.
She was referring to my wonderful ‘Tio,’ and more of a grandfather to me than an uncle. He’s filled in for Mira’s father on more than one occasion ever since I brought her home years ago. His is a large heart, with room for us all.
I sat for a moment, sifting through sad thoughts about my friend’s childhood. There had been the early divorce, followed by the shuffling between two warring parents, the death of her mother when she was thirteen, and then living with an uncaring, narcissistic father. Mira’s family experience was so different from mine. Now that my dad was gone, my family was even closer, especially with our having to run the family business, Discretionary Inquiries, a Silicon Valley based software investigation service.
“You’re right,” I said. “We are all she has. Don’t pay any attention to me, Mom. I’m just tired.”
For the past few weeks, I’d been driving back to my pretend day job around midnight. That was after the last workaholic cleared the building but before the scheduled four a.m. trash pick-up. I’d ransack through our client’s latest piles of garbage in the hopes of finding some evidence of which employee was stealing top-secret encoding. A couple of hours later, I’d drag myself home, shower off bits of pizza and Po’ Boys, and get a little sleep.
At five a.m., the alarm would go off, and it was time to start my day all over again. I could have slept an extra forty-five minutes each day by eliminating my daily ballet barre, but that will never happen. Dance centers me. Even though I’ve had to face that I am, at best, a mediocre dancer and could never make a living at it, I still need ballet in my life. It’s the necessary food for my soul, my own pizza and Po’ Boy.
Born Liana but known as “Lee” to everyone in the world, save a mother who would rather eat broken glass than utter a nickname, slang word, or abbreviation. I am half-Latina, half WASP, and one-hundred percent private investigator for Discretionary Inquiries, Inc. That’s the family-run business left to my mother, brother, and me by my dad, Roberto Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant who made good and died unexpectedly and too young of an aneurysm a little over two years ago. I mourn his loss every day. The family now consists of Lila Hamilton Alvarez, mother; Richard Alvarez, brother; Mateo, “Tío,” Alvarez, uncle; and yours truly.
When Mom’s not around, we refer to Discretionary Inquiries as D.I. It’s one classy operation. That’s probably because Lila Alvarez, the driving force behind it, is one classy lady. She believes what really separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to accessorize.
If D.I. were a car, it would be a Rolls Royce. I own a Chevy, so I needn’t go on. I always get the job done, but I get it done a little differently than anyone else. It’s a blessing; it’s a curse.
With the help of about twenty employees, we deal with the theft of intellectual property, hardware, and software programming in Silicon Valley, often worth millions of dollars. Computer thievery is frowned upon here, especially by the injured company, so this type of skullduggery usually winds up on our doorstep. I am proud to say that D.I. has a recovery/prosecution rate of over ninety-four percent. We Are Smokin’ should be our motto, but I’m sure Lila Hamilton Alvarez would never put that on a business card.
“I’ve always sworn by cucumbers, Liana,” Mom said, interrupting my reverie. “Use those, and you’ll be fine.”
Frankly, I had no idea what she was talking about, having lost myself earlier in my mental wanderings. I fought to remember what I’d said a good five minutes before. Was it something about me looking like cat scat, and my mother looking like something out of Vogue magazine? No, no. I was just thinking that; I hadn’t said it. Then the thread came back. Pooped, tired, and exhausted. That was me.
“Okay, I’ll do that. Cucumbers,” I echoed and changed the subject. “Mom, the gowns arrive this afternoon by special delivery. I hope I make it back from the florist’s in time to sign for them.”
“Why don’t we have Mateo keep an eye out for the delivery truck?”
That’s the upside of living on the family property in an apartment over the garage. The downside is you live on the family property in an apartment over the garage. Tugger and I share a two-bedroom, one-bath abode originally used by the live-in chauffeur back in the days when people in Palo Alto had such things. Four years ago, Mom and Dad renovated it as an inducement to my coming home after my marriage broke up.
“Good idea. I’ll give him a call later.” Just thinking about my uncle brightened my mood. “Speaking of Tio, the bridesmaids’ fittings are at four o’clock. We’re going to have a small party afterward, sans Mira, and Tío made the food.” Apart from being wonderful, Tío is a retired chef. Recently, he’s been trying to teach me how to cook. So far, what I have mastered is eating. “Try to stop by for it,” I added.
“If I can. What’s on the agenda for next week, Liana?” she asked, stacking envelopes alphabetically.
“Mainly, I’ll be at my exciting job, delivering mail, emptying trash cans, refilling supplies, and being a General Factotum.”
I was distracted by a slight smile on Lila’s face and one of the flaps of an envelope sliced my finger. Sticking it in my mouth I muttered, “Shit!”
“Regarding the job, are you making any headway?”
“That’s too bad,” Mom said. “And please stop making those sucking noises.”
“Sorry.” I pulled the offending digit out of my mouth.
“One hundred forty-three. If we can get these out in this morning’s mail, the guests will have almost two weeks to respond in writing. The caterers will like that.”
“The caterers told me yesterday that with this short notice, we were going to get one-hundred fifty Chicken Supremes and fifty Beef Wellingtons and like it.”
Mom smiled, saying, “That was before I spoke with them. They understand now that for the type of guests we are expecting, Saumon Braconne, Canard á l’Orange, et de l’aubergine francais seront plus convenables,” she rattled off in flawless French, “is more appropriate.”
“Okay, Mom, you’re saying poached salmon, orange duck and boiled eggplant are preferable to the chicken and beef? Just making sure I’m still up on my French.”
“The eggplant has a few more ingredients than just boiling water,” she said, “but essentially, that’s what I’m saying.”
My finger hurt from the effort, so I stopped stuffing the envelopes.
“Keep working,” Mom said, nodding at the cellophane tape nearby on the table. “I think you can wrap some tape around your finger as a makeshift bandage.”
She continued sealing the envelopes and adding postage, while I did as she told me and pressed on, like a good little soldier.
“Are you finished with that stack yet?” Lila said and brushed at the sleeves of the soft silk of her lemon yellow jacket. No one wears lemon yellow like my mom. Absolutely radiates in it. When I wear anything in the citrus family, I look like I’ve got a bad case of jaundice. That’s the difference between my mother’s Nordic, cool beauty and my Latina coloring.
“Just about. By the way, were you going to meet me at the church at eleven-thirty for the conference with the florist?”
“I don’t think so. I need to get back to the office and finish up a few things. Then I’m meeting a client for lunch.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Necessary, my dear. As for the flowers,” Mom said, “keep it simple but elegant. For the church pews and altar, try white roses, open and budding, a little Baby’s Breath, with a touch of Lily-of-the-Valley, for interest. For Mira’s bouquet, eight or ten cascading gardenias wrapped in white ribbons. And the attendants might have white rosebuds with colored ribbons that match each dress. Rosebud boutonnières for the men, as well, with Carlos’ rose in a sterling silver holder. Virginia is wearing a Givenchy lavender suede and beaded gown. A single purple orchid might do nicely.”
Everyone else in the world, except mom, knew Virginia Garcia as “Tex,” due to her love and devotion to the state. The two women had met outside Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan when Mom was six months pregnant with me. Tex had been pregnant, too, so a bond was formed faster than usual. Tex lost the baby—hence, adopting Carlos from a Mexican orphanage a few years later. The two women’s friendship has endured over three decades, even though they are as different as a bottle of Dom Perignon and a tall-necked Lone Star. Whatever void lives inside each of them, the other seems to fill. It’s a mystery to the rest of us but makes perfect sense to them.
Mom went on, “As you know, Mira Louise has asked me to stand in for her deceased mother, and I have accepted the honor, so I, too, will need an orchid. I will be wearing ice blue, so something in a pale apricot shade should do.”
I was writing furiously as my mother talked and would no doubt follow her suggestions to the letter. Neither Mira nor I had a clue about what flowers to order.
I’m not a wedding kind of person, having eloped at twenty-two with the Biggest Mistake of My Life. After eight years of trying to make a faithless marriage work, I finally had the courage to get out. As for Mira, she’s more interested in boulders than flowers. If she had to, she could combine some pretty nifty rock formations for the occasion, but that might look a little odd, a granite bridal bouquet.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said. “This is a big help. Hopefully, Mira’s marriage will last longer than mine.” I let out a dry chortle. Mom reached over and patted my hand, saying nothing. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought up Nick. Casts a pall over everything.”
“You can’t help but think of your own marriage at a time like this, good or bad. I know I’ve been thinking of your father even more the last few weeks.” Mom smiled at me.
“Have you? In your case, Mom, that’s nice.”
“Do you keep in touch with Nicholas?”
“You must be kidding, right?” I said, before remembering I had never told my family the details about the night I left. It wasn’t just the other women, who could hold reunions once a year in Yankee Stadium. It was that when I finally confronted him about them, he hit me. Once to knock me down and then once more to make sure I stayed there. I left him and our marriage as soon as I could get out.
“Nick and I have nothing to do with each other, Mom. I thought you knew he remarried a few months ago in Vegas. That part of my life is over.”
“That’s good.” She smiled and changed the subject. “What more do you have to do? Possibly I can help,” she offered.
“Thanks. Let’s see.” Dragging out a dog-eared, worn sheet of legal- size yellow paper, I read it carefully. “Wow! I don’t think there’s much more.” I giggled with relief. “I signed the contract with the two bands yesterday. One is an eleven-piece mariachi band that our very own Richard plays guitar with now and then. He’s agreed to play a set with them. I thought that was a nice touch. The alternating band is a three-piece jazz combo. Something for everyone.”
“Indeed,” Mom responded.
“Allied Arts is renting us the restaurant for the reception, including the outside patios, from five-thirty to eleven-thirty p.m. Do you think ten cases of champagne, plus five cases each of Chardonnay and a Napa cab are enough?”
“That sounds more than sufficient. What else?”
I started counting off items on my fingers. “Bridal shower, next week. Richard is in charge of the bachelor party. The tuxes are ordered. The gowns arrive this afternoon, and I have two seamstresses set up for the fittings. I haven’t seen a picture or rendering of the designs yet, but I’ll bet they’re incredible. Mr. McFadden designed them himself, something he hasn’t done for years. He said he chose a ‘theme,’ which reminds me, I’ll have to get samples of the fabric to the florist. Don’t you own one or two of Warren McFadden’s dresses?”
“No. I find him a little avant-garde, Liana,” Mom said.
“I think they call it cutting-edge now, Mom,” I corrected.
“If you say so.” She smiled and changed the subject. “Did you find a photographer?”
“Yes, finally. I thought I was going to have to buy a camera and take pictures, myself.”
“Who is it?”
“Did you know the reason the wedding got canceled that was supposed to take place at Mem Chu was because the bride came out of the closet and is now living in San Francisco with her lover, Charlene?”
“Get to the point, dear.”
“I thought you might be interested in hearing the lead-in.”
“Oh. Well, anyway, this guy was supposed to be their photographer, so he was available. I’ve seen his portfolio. He’s good.”
“That sounds fine,” Lila said, somewhat mollified. “What about the rehearsal dinner? Didn’t John offer to take care of that part of the festivities?”
“Originally, but he had to bow out due to a heavy work schedule.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yes,” I said and nothing more. My latest love had been pulling back big-time on a lot of things, but I didn’t want to admit it or deal with it yet. “However, Carlos took over and got us a private room at the new Japanese steakhouse for after we go through our paces.” I looked at the tattered list again with all the checkmarks indicating completion and would have done cartwheels around the room if I hadn’t been so tired.
“Mom, I think I’ve done it. After I order the flowers and take care of the fittings, I’m done,” I said with pride. “This wedding is completely done and Good-to-Go.”
Five hours later, I stood in front of a mirror, enveloped in what felt like eighty yards of a chartreuse moiré taffeta laughingly called “Whipped Lime.” Between the starched crinoline underskirt, ruffled hem of the overskirt, and tufted bodice, all in a hideous yellow-green, I looked like a New Year’s Eve float depicting baby poo.
I ripped open the other boxes to find matching gowns in different odious colors sporting the names of “Pineapple Fizz,” “Mango Madness,” “Orange Frappe,” and “Passion Fruit Frazzle.” Mr. McFadden had created a theme, all right. Jamba Juice Rejects. And in moiré taffeta. When Mom called his work avant-garde, she was being kind.
The phone rang, but I was afraid to move. On top of how I looked, any movement sounded like leaves trapped in a wind tunnel. No wonder no one wore taffeta anymore, I thought. Noise pollution. One of the seamstresses answered the phone and slapped it into my frozen hand.
“Hello?” I said.
“Lee, it’s me. We need your help,” Mira said. Her voice sounded frantic and as if she’d been crying.
“Mira? Are you all right?”
“No, I’m not,” she sobbed. “Carlos is being arrested for murder.”
“What?” I said, sinking straight to the floor, buried in a mound of taffeta. “Carlos is being arrested for murder?”
“Yes, they say he murdered the thief who broke into our apartment last night. They’re taking him away,” she wailed.
“Wait a minute. What thief? What murder? Mira, what’s going on?” She tried to tell me, but between the hysteria, coughing, and wheezing, I couldn’t understand her.
“Never mind,” I interrupted. “Hold tight. I’ll be right there.” I struggled to my feet and thought, with the groom arrested for murder maybe this Good-to-Go wedding just Got Up and Went.
Buy: A Wedding to Die For