Excerpt from Book three of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries
The Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series
Death Runs in the Family, Book Three
Another Mrs. Papadopoulos?
I threw back the covers and staggered to my front door, commanded by the insistent ringing of the doorbell. Ordinarily, after the night I’d had, and it being eight o’clock in the morning, on a Sunday no less, I would have just let it ring; hoping whoever it was would go away or fall into a sinkhole. But this ringer wouldn’t stop, and the bell sounded more and more like an air raid siren to my hung-over eardrums.
My name is Liana Alvarez. Everyone calls me Lee except my mother and the less said about that the better. My email reads Lee.Alvarez.PI@DI.com, but I don’t always respond in a timely fashion, especially when I’m in the middle of a case. D.I. stands for Discretionary Inquiries, the family-owned investigative service, and everybody knows what a PI is. I’m thirty-four-years-old, five-foot eight, 135 pounds on a good day, with thick, brown/black hair. The love of my life, the gorgeous Gurn Hanson, says my eyes are the color of twilight. At the moment, however, they mostly resembled a beady-eyed hippo’s.
The previous night, Lila Hamilton Alvarez, mother and CEO, fobbed off a last-minute job on me, one not so good for my California lifestyle. Due to our close relationship, my designer-clad mom knows she can do this. So, instead of being at home playing with my cat and sucking down a mango-orange-guava yogurt shake, I was imbibing huge amounts of Tequila Slammers. This slamming was in an effort to get the tipsy girlfriend of a software thief to reveal where he’d gotten to. Said girlfriend dished, but my liver will never be the same.
Me being about as hardboiled as a two-minute egg, the following morning found me sleep deprived, alcohol poisoned, and feeling enormously sorry for myself. But I still remembered to look out the peephole instead of throwing open the door because L.H. Alvarez did not raise a stupid child. Not seeing anyone, I leaned against the framework in a hangover-induced quandary. Was someone there or not?
But the ringing continued, so shrill and loud that it had to be an affirmative unless my front door’s electrical system had gone wiggy. I squinted into the little round circle of glass again, strained my eyeball downward, and spied what looked like the back of a curly, platinum blonde, female head. I left the chain on when I opened the door, because my mother did not raise…never mind.
Facing away from me, the blonde female continued to lean into my doorbell for all she was worth, oblivious to my presence. A serious shrimp, she wore a pair of fire engine red spike heels and still didn’t clear much over five foot two. Looking pretty harmless unless she came at me with one of those six-inch spikes, I undid the chain and opened the door.
“All right, all right. I’m here. Get off the bell.”
Startled, red stilettos wheeled around and faced me. “Hi,” she said in a voice with no bottom to it, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, but not nearly as sexy. “I was beginning to think you weren’t here.”
As self-confident as her body language had been earlier, she seemed to become unsure of herself, shy almost. Although how anyone could pull off shyness in that getup I’ll never know. The killer heels were a perfect complement to the red satin miniskirt, scanter than a Dallas cheerleader’s costume, and the plunging neckline of the yellow and green floral blouse emphasized cleavage aplenty. A thin, black polyester sweater, way too small, was buttoned haphazardly below her breasts. Clanking gewgaws hung from her ears, neck, wrists, and fingers. She looked like a walking display case of gaudy jewelry. Before me stood a young lady who could send any self-respecting fashionista screaming into the night.
“You’re Lee, right?” she said in a barely audible voice.
“That’s me,” I croaked, and I tried to clear my throat, which didn’t do much good. “And you are?”
“Why, I’m Kelli, with an ‘i.’” The name was pronounced as if it should mean something to me.
She waited a beat, expectantly.
I was clueless.
“Kelli with an ‘i’?” Although in my condition, it came out more like ‘Kawawaya?’
“Yes, Kelli. With an ‘i.’”
There was the damn pause again.
She stared at me, as if me not knowing whom she was made me too stupid to live. I stared back in complete agreement. I think I hiccupped.
“Nick’s wife,” she said, in a manner reserved for the slow of mind.
“Nick’s wife?” I stuttered.
I only knew one Nick, and that was a Nick I’d divorced four years prior with joy in my heart and a gun in my hand. “When you say, ‘Nick’s wife,’ you don’t you mean, Nick Papadopoulos, as in my Nick or rather my ex-Nick, by way of being my ex-husband, Nick? You’re talking about someone else, right? Another Nick I can’t quite place…” My voice trailed off because she was nodding in the affirmative every time I said his name.
“You’re Nick’s wife?”
She nodded again just as Tugger, my adolescent orange and white cat, came out of the bedroom and trotted down the hallway followed by my boyfriend’s gray and white Persian mix, Baba Ganoush, named for the eggplant dish. My boyfriend, Gurn, was in Washington D.C., and I was catsitting this darling, little green-eyed girl until his return.
Baba entered quietly, but Tugger caterwauled the entire time, obviously complaining about being awoken at such an ungodly hour of the morning. He sauntered over, sat down in front of me, stared up at this Kewpie doll of an intruder, and gave a long, wide mouthed yawn. My sentiments exactly.
Kelli looked down. “What a beautiful cat,” she exclaimed, not seeing Baba who was hiding discretely behind my legs. Then the girl/woman extended both arms out to Tugger.
Without further ado, my traitorous feline leapt into her open arms, snuggled in, and began to purr almost as loudly as he yowls. There was nothing left for me to do. I opened the door wider and stood aside.
“All rightie. You’d better come in, Kelli, and bring the cat with you. He’s not allowed outside.” I bent down and picked up Baba, who rewarded me with her own yawn.
“What’s his name?”
“Rum Tum Tugger, but we call him Tugger. This one is Baba. She’s a friend’s cat.”
“What a darling cat,” she cooed, walking over the threshold and into my home. “And I just love your name, Tugger,” she said, rubbing noses with my little guy.
“Go straight down the hallway and turn to the right. That’s the kitchen.”
“What an awesome place. Who would have thought such a hot apartment would be over a garage?” Kelli tottered down the hall chatting away, while I bent over to pick up the morning paper. Barely able to straighten up, I set Baba down, afraid I’d drop her. I needed coffee badly.
“And whose house is in front? Or should I say, mansion?”
“My mother and uncle live there. Back in the ‘30s, this apartment was for the chauffeur. I’ve done it over.”
“Yup, lucky me.”
With a throbbing head, I traipsed behind Kelli, my eyes riveted on her foot action in those heels. It was nothing short of remarkable. Even Baba seemed impressed.
“I like your kitchen.” Continuing the review of my two-bedroom, one bath digs, she scrutinized the backsplash. “Those tiles French? I know they use a lot of yellow and blue in France. I read it once in a book.”
I wasn’t going to touch that statement with a ten-foot pole. “No, Talavera from Mexico. I hauled them back on one of my trips to Dolores Hidalgo.”
“Neat,” she murmured, now looking up at my ceiling. “What’s that?” Kelli slowly spun in place studying the large inverse teacup-shaped dome set in the center of the terracotta ceiling.
“It’s called a cupola.”
“What’s it for?”
“See the series of small glass windows at the top? Not only do you get extra light, but you can open them with this pole for fresh air.” I pointed to an eight-foot pole languishing in a nearby corner, while I wondered which kitchen cabinet held the Aspirin.
“Cool.” Kelli focused again on Tugger, rocking him back and forth in her arms and cooing in a bilious tone of voice.
With the House and Garden tour over, I slipped around her, threw the paper on the counter, and reached for the coffee pot with a not-too-steady hand. I poured water into it and counted out scoops, suddenly aware the cooing had changed to sobs.
I turned, scoop in hand, and saw Kelli crying into Tugger’s lustrous fur, something I’ve been known to do myself. Tugger reached out and caressed her face with a soft paw, purring his head off. A true gentleman, my Tugger. Even Baba sat at Kelli’s feet looking up, emerald eyes large with concern.
I clicked the coffee pot on and let it do its thing while I did mine.
“Sit down, Kelli, and tell me what’s wrong.” I put my arm around a shoulder and guided her to one of the cobalt blue chairs gathered around my kitchen table.
Kelli snuffled and wiped at her runny nose with the hand that wasn’t wrapped around a cat. I slapped a paper napkin from the holder into said hand and chucked Tugger under the chin. He was a good boy.
Kelli blew her nose and started talking. I couldn’t hear or understand a word.
“Kelli, you’ll have to speak up and not just a little.”
Whether she was embarrassed, or something else was on her mind, she started playing with Tugger’s tail, something he can’t stand, so I took her hand, shook it, and made her look up at me.
“What is it?”
Kelli snuffled again, and a large tear ran down a painted cheek. “He told me if I was in trouble, and he wasn’t around, I was to come to you.”
“Who told you that?”
“Nick said that?”
She nodded. I was shocked but tried not to show it. This was the ex-marine who started cheating on me soon after the honeymoon and who beat me up when I finally confronted him. He was the main reason I got a black belt in karate, to protect myself from his unwanted attentions before and after the divorce. When I flattened him one day, he got the message and left me alone. But I still breathed a sigh of relief when I found out he’d moved to Las Vegas and married someone else, someone currently sitting in my kitchen blowing her nose into one of my paper napkins.
“So where is Nick?”
Her voice nearly gave out on this one. “I don’t know.” She cleared her throat and began to speak louder. “He’s been missing for a week. That’s why I’m here.”
“Forgive me, Kelli. I’m not quite getting this.” I smelled the coffee, got up, poured some into a mug, and took a good, scalding gulp before I turned back to her.
“Coffee?” I offered. She shook her head and wiped another tear away. “If he’s missing in Las Vegas, why are you here in Palo Alto?” I started opening cabinet doors, searching for the errant bottle of Aspirin.
“Because last night I found this on the doorstep.” She reached inside her blouse—I didn’t think anything else could fit in there—and pulled out a crumpled envelope. “I got into the car and drove most of the night to get here. I’ve been waiting in your driveway since around five-thirty this morning.” She thrust the packet at me.
I stopped my search for Aspirin, sat down, took the small, square shaped envelope and looked inside. A man’s gold wedding ring looked back at me. My PI mind kicked in, albeit if only on one and a half cylinders.
“Is this Nick’s?”
She nodded, pursing her lips together.
“Was he wearing it the last time you saw him?”
She nodded again.
“Was there anything else inside the envelope?”
This time she shook her head. I could see this was going to be more or less a one-sided conversation.
“Have you been to the police?”
She looked at me as if I’d suggested we eat the cat she cuddled in her arms.
“I can’t go to the cops.” This time her voice was loud and clear.
“Why not? It’s what they’re there for, among other things. We pay them to find missing people. I don’t mean to sound like a poster boy, but I am a big believer in using natural resources.”
“You don’t understand.” Her voice became small and childlike again.
“Then enlighten me.”
“Nick has been…we’ve been…there have been some money problems ever since he had to close the office…” She stopped speaking, sobbed, and buried her head again in Tugger. Looking a little soggy and cramped, my boy had apparently had enough and pushed free of her grasp. He hopped down from her lap and sauntered off toward the bedroom with a careless flip of his long, graceful tail. Baba followed, giving a toss of her luxuriant tail for good measure. Maybe if I’d had a tail, I’d have done the same thing. But I didn’t, so I stayed put.
In that instant, I reevaluated Kelli’s persona. Once you got past a face looking like it had been drawn upon by the more colorful contents of a crayon box, she was quite pretty, with a gorgeous kind of coloring that takes your breath away. I’d put her hair down to Clairol’s finest but knew then it was a natural pale blonde. Her eyes, huge and round, were the bluest blue I’ve seen outside a Paul Newman movie, even when red-rimmed and surrounded by running black mascara. Barely out of her teens, there was a residual sweetness to her that bad taste had yet to tarnish.
Still, she was absolutely everything my classy, conservative, and well-bred mother would find appalling. Lila Hamilton Alvarez’s idea of bad taste hovers around the lines of an art gallery showcasing Andy Warhol’s work. I just had to get Mom and Kelli together one of these days. Then stand back and watch.
“So tell me about Nick,” I said, getting up for a second cup of coffee. “He’s a real estate agent or something?” I noticed I could move my eyebrows again. Things were looking up.
“He’s what they call a broker. And he was good. We had lots of money, even after the recession. He bought me a new Mercedes convertible for my birthday. Yellow. But something happened, and he had to close the office. And oh, I don’t know, everything fell apart about six weeks ago.”
“How so?” I said, resuming my search for Aspirin.
“Bills were piling up. We got behind in our mortgage payments. We had to sell my car.” She shook her head. “He wouldn’t let me go back to work, either. I offered, but Nick said no.”
“What type of work did you do?” Bingo! I found the Aspirin bottle hiding behind the sugar.
“I was a blackjack dealer at the Royal Flush Casino. That’s how I met Nick.” A fleeting smile crossed her lips for the first time, I guess at the memory.
“You don’t look old enough.” I crammed three pills in my mouth, took a slug of coffee, and sat back down.
“I’m twenty-two. I’ll be twenty-three in a couple of months.” I realized I was the same age when I married Nick. Glad to see I was part of a pattern here.
“Then he went to work for a bank as a courier or something, I could never figure out what, but when I asked him…”
Her voice faded out. Maybe she was talking, maybe she wasn’t. I couldn’t tell. I waited. She reached out a hand and touched one of mine. Still looking down at the floor, she began to pour her heart out, loud and clear.
“Nick told me you were the best thing that ever happened to him.”
I blanched. What kind of man makes a statement like that to a current wife about an ex?
“Nick said if anything happened to him, I was to come to you. He said you’re the only person in the world he trusts.”
I froze. What the hell is the matter with the man?
“He also said you were the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.”
Okay, it’s official. The man’s a bozo.
She looked up at me with appraisal in her eyes. “I guess I can see why he’d think that,” she said, her baby voice riddled with doubt.
“Now wait a minute.” I checked out my reflection in the stainless steel toaster and ran fast fingers through hair looking like it had been combed with an eggbeater.
“I usually look a little better,” I said, with a feckless laugh that sounded like the death rattle of a soot-clogged moped. “I’ve had a tough night. I was up until two-thirty knocking back margaritas and tequila shooters with the girlfriend of a missing-in-action software designer, hoping to get her to tell me where M.I.A. was.”
Kelli nodded a little too enthusiastically, as if she were the unwilling caretaker of the town drunk.
“And she must have had a hollow leg,” I went on, “or me a hollow head, because at last count, four shooters and three margaritas passed her lips and consequently mine before she uttered the magic words, ‘Bruce, South Dakota,’ and slid under the table.”
Out came another feeble laugh. This one sounded like the sucking noise made by a water buffalo’s leg when he pulls it out of a mud hole.
She nodded sagely. “You like to drink.”
“No, no! Last night’s bout was business. I had to get this 3D program, this little computer gizmo back, understand? It was vital to my client.”
“Is it like the 3D they do in the movies, like in the cartoons and stuff?”
She was finally with me. “Yes! But this 3D is on a computer. And being worth about fifteen mil, the client wanted it back pronto.”
Kelli inhaled a sharp breath at the amount. Money she understood.
“But let’s move on,” I said, feeling somewhat vindicated, even though I needed to work on my laugh. “What exactly do you want from me?”
“I want you to find Nick.”
I must have rolled my eyes or something because she grabbed at my hand this time. “Please, Lee. He once said you were the nicest, smartest person he ever knew.”
I’ll kill him.
Kelli let go of my hand and looked down at short, black fingernails. Hers, not mine. I don’t do nail polish. “Please help me. I don’t have anybody but Nick. My family disowned me after…after… Then I moved to Las Vegas, but I don’t have any friends, not real friends. None that could or would help.” She put those black fingernailed hands up to her face and started blubbering into them.
“Did you two have a fight or words?” She shook her head. “Did he seem unhappy or preoccupied about something?” Another shake.
“He has a cell, doesn’t he?” She nodded but continued to blubber. “What happens when you call it?”
A muffled voice spoke through her fingers. “Nothing, it goes into voice mail. I must have left fifty messages, and he’s never called back.”
“What about friends? Has he been in contact with any?” She gave her head another sad shake. “Credit cards? Have any been used during the time he’s been gone?”
“The only one not maxed out is in the bureau drawer. I got the statement yesterday, and there aren’t any new charges. None of his clothes are missing, and he didn’t take the car. I’ve got it; it’s right outside. But he’s got to be hiding somewhere.”
“Why do you say that?”
She shrunk into herself. “Oh, maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s…” She broke off and suddenly leaned into me with such force, I spilled half my coffee in my lap. “I’ve been reading the papers looking for unclaimed dead bodies. I even called the morgue once.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s not dead.” Only the good die young, sweetie.
I set the dripping cup down on the table and reached for several paper napkins to blot up the mess.
“And I’ve been calling the hospitals every day, too.” She went back to blubbering. I patted one of her shoulders with a limp, coffee-drenched hand, while the other dabbed at my wet, stained robe.
“Maybe he rented a car, took a bus or a plane. There are other ways of getting out of town.”
“No, he’s around. I can feel.” She wiped her eyes with her soggy, make-up stained napkin. I gave her a fresh one, noting to buy more at the rate we were going through them. She blew her nose into it and handed it back to me.
Then Kelli looked up at me and smiled. It was a rather glorious, angelic smile and made you want to like her. Oh, God. I did like her.
“Sometimes I think he’s watching me.” She reflected. “Or somebody’s watching me.” She actually started to swoon at this point. I thought she was going to pass out and grabbed to steady her.
“When was the last time you slept? Or ate?” She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head in a dismissive manner. “Where are you staying?’ She raised the shoulders again, this time dropping them in a sad, waif-like gesture.
“I don’t know. The car, I guess. I don’t have much money left, only enough for gas, about twenty or thirty dollars. I spent the night in your driveway, because I can’t afford a motel room. There was four thousand dollars in our savings last week, and it’s gone. All his stuff is still in the condo, but the money’s gone! All I have left is the car and Lady Gaga.”
“Lady Gaga’s my goldfish. She’s in her tank in the car. I can’t leave her out there when the sun comes up; it’ll get too hot. I had to keep the heater running in the car last night, so she wouldn’t get too cold. They’re delicate,” she explained, looking into my bloodshot eyes with the sincerity of a true animal lover. “They need a constant temperate temperature in order to maintain optimal health,” she said, as if reading from a manual.
She looked at me.
I looked at her.
“All rightie.” I stood, resigned to my fate as the world’s biggest chump. “Go get Gaga. We’ll find somewhere in the apartment where the cats can’t get at her. Then we’re going to feed you. I can only make scrambled eggs, so if you want something else, you’re out of luck. You can crash on the couch for a day or two until I make some phone calls and see what’s going on. I’m not promising anything, but I’ll do the best I can.”
Kelli snatched at my hand and held it to her cheek in an act of gratitude and supplication. If I’d been wearing a ring, I think she might have kissed it. If this is what the pope goes through on a daily basis, you can have it. Wait a minute. It was more like the godfather.
I opened my mouth to speak when the landline rang. Pulling away from Kelli, I grabbed the phone after the first ring. Few people know this number, and each person who does means a lot to me. I’d turned off my cell and given the hour, I knew the call had to be important. I looked at the incoming number. Richard, my brother. He knew better than anybody what I’d been doing the previous night.
“What’s wrong?” I said, leaving the kitchen and crossing into the living room for privacy.
He paused and gulped. “I’m on my way over to the Big House. I’ll be there in about five minutes. Meet me there.”
Since we were kids, the Big House is what he and I have called the large two-story family home, an ode to the American success story, Palo Alto style.
“Where are you now?” I asked.
“D.I. I just left the office.”
“On a Sunday morning? What the hell were you doing there?” Silence. “Richard? What’s wrong?”
“Lee, there’s some…some news. Vicky just told me it’s in this morning’s Chronicle.” Vicky and he have been married less than a year, but she is the finest addition to a family any one could ask. I adore her. My brother’s voice cracked as he went on.
“That’s why I’m calling you. Mom didn’t want to wake you after the night you had. But I don’t want you to find out from the papers. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
“Find out what? Jesus, Richard, you’re scaring me. Just tell me.”
“Richard! The paper’s in the kitchen. Should I go read it, or are you going to tell me right now?”
He let out air in a whoosh then said, “It’s Stephen. It’s about Stephen.” He hesitated. “It’s bad.”
“Stephen?” I tried to flip my mind around from Kelli’s mess to Mom’s only living relative, outside of us. My heart began to pound. Something happened to Stephen. Stephen, my older second cousin, who taught me how to ride a bike, play Scrabble, who’d stolen my Easter candy when he thought I wasn’t looking, who tipped over our canoe on a disastrous but fun river ride; wonderful, gregarious, sweet-natured, joke-telling Stephen. Although he’d moved to Phoenix thirteen years ago, he was still a much loved, integral part of the family. I tried to steel myself.
“When you say ‘bad,’ how bad is bad?”
His voice broke. “The worst. There’s no other way to say it. He’s dead, Lee. He’s dead.” Richard became lost in sobs.
I gasped, drawing air into my lungs so fast it physically hurt. Then I half stumbled, half sank into a nearby wingback chair, glad it was there, glad it caught me.
“Dios mio!” I whispered.
Richard gulped. “Sorry, Lee. I didn’t mean to break it to you like that. But I didn’t know…I couldn’t think of any other way to say it. I’m sorry.”
“But he was only forty-three,” I said, faltering over the words.
“Maybe there’s a mistake.” My voice had an anguished, yet angry tone. “Maybe—”
“No mistake, Lee,” Richard interrupted me, his voice low and hoarse. “The medical examiner’s off-the-record comment was it probably was a heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
My kid brother began to cry full out, while I listened on the other end of the line. I sat still, trying not to breathe, trying not to move, warding off the inevitable rogue waves of emotion heading in my direction. I knew them only too well. They would be like the ones pounding at me when our father died. They would strike again and again, endlessly and without mercy. My mind fought off the oncoming onslaught and hid behind numbness and denial.
“Richard, this can’t be. I don’t understand. Stephen was in such good health. He had a physical every year. How could this…?”
“I’m searching for the answer to that question, myself. Meanwhile, you need to come.”
“Of course, I’ll come.” My voice broke. “Where are you?”
“About two blocks from home. Meet me in the driveway.”
“Why there? Why not inside the house?” More damned silence. “There’s something else. Something you’re not saying.” Fear grabbed me. I didn’t know why at the time. Call it premonition or something in Richard’s voice.
He took a deep breath, exhaling it in a rush but hesitating over the words. “It might be a lack of sleep, Lee, or shock; I don‘t know—” He interrupted himself. “No, it’s not any of those things. I’d thought, I’d hoped, but facts don’t lie. I’ve been up all night, checking stats, looking into this.”
“Looking into what?” I demanded. But the other end of the line went stony silent again. “Richard, are you still there?”
“I’m here,” he said. His voice was filled with grief, but there was something else besides the sorrow—something that reached out and clamped down on me as if it were a steel vise. For a moment, all I could hear was my brother’s staccato breathing and the sound of my own heart thudding in my ears.
“Oh, God, Richard, you don’t think his death was accidental or from natural causes.”
“You think Stephen was murdered.”