Voices in the Wardrobe, page 1
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Voices in the Wardrobe
A Charlie Greene Mystery
For Deborah Schneider and Cathy Gleasonz
Water trickled over rocks to tinkle into the little pools of a brook. Birds from exotic places (like outdoors somewhere) trilled and twee’d and chirruped.
“How does all this feel to you?” Maggie Stutzman asked in a dreamy tone, from the next eddy pool over.
“Makes me want to pee,” Charlie Greene answered between clinched teeth. Faraway thunder rolled gently, the water splashed into the brook instead of trickling, and the eerie sound of a freaking flute “luuw-ooted” for no reason. “I want a cigarette.”
“Charlie, you don’t smoke.”
“Well, I’m going to start. How did I let you talk me into this? I hate deprivation.”
“What deprivation? Already today we’ve had a granite body scrub, a hydroptimale facial, a deep tissue massage and realignment, and our first intestinal cleansing—”
“Oh yeah, that one was a real hoot.” Charlie, a Hollywood literary agent, had accompanied her ex-friend to this house of torture because she had some business to attend to close by in San Diego and because Maggie Stutzman was in serious trouble. And because before today they’d been best friends. They were also neighbors at home in Long Beach and had seen each other through any number of life’s vicissitudes.
The eddy pools were, fittingly, kidney-shaped black bathtubs set into the floor of an enclosed deck and surrounded by potted plants so guests couldn’t see each other, but the ocean view was left open at the foot. There were five such pools, the others vacant.
“The Sea Spa at the Marina del Sol is legendary, the Taj Mahal of natural health, beauty, and awareness clinics in the whole world.” When she wasn’t being weird, Maggie Stutzman was a lawyer for an estate-planning firm in Long Beach.
“I read the brochure too.” They hadn’t even had coffee. Just some kind of tea that smelled like mango but tasted like brine left over from a ship’s bilge and stored in a museum for two hundred years. “You said there’d be twin beds.”
“Well, it’s a king—not like we have to breathe on each other.”
“For damn skinny kings.” The thunder grew louder, lightning cracked, wind lashed at groaning trees, and the rain drops pounded the poor brook—the flute replaced by another instrument Charlie didn’t know nor care to. The way-weird about all this was that the Sea Spa at the Marina del Sol was sheathed in glaring sunshine and sat on the ocean front. All you had to do was sit up and look out the window to see the Pacific rolling in some impressive surf and hear gulls and stuff. Of course, in their condition sitting up would not be cool. But who needed brooks and flutes?
“Charlie—have you ever thought about Prozac?”
“I want a drink.”
“If you were on Prozac you wouldn’t need a drink.”
“No, Maggie, if I weren’t wrapped in seaweed with a cucumber stuffed up my ass I wouldn’t need a drink.”
Even Charlie had to admit that the dining room of the Sea Spa at the Marina del Sol was impressive. Pink marble floors, intimate tables for two with pink linen tablecloths and napkins, one gorgeous fat red blossom of some kind in a stem vase at each table. Crystal chandeliers that tinkled gently like wind chimes in the tiny bit of ocean breeze allowed into the room through spaced slats above the windows. They could be closed tight when the Pacific kicked up. The Spa sat on a point so the scene from the curved glass front of sea and sky and surf was one usually conscripted for private use by the inordinately rich.
After the lime and avocado “rinse” they had been allowed to return to their room for a heavenly shower and shampoo and to don real clothes for dinner. Since they’d had nothing all day but tea and chalk bowel-cleansing yuck, dinner sounded exciting even at five in the afternoon.
“So, what wonderful events are on the docket for tomorrow?” Charlie asked.
“A colonic rinse, garden salad and tea, Pilates 101—”
“Stop right there, say no more, say no more.”
“What, Pilates? It’s a—”
“No, colonic rinse.”
“Well, I don’t know what that is, but I’m sure—”
“Maggie, can you say en-e-ma?”
And then came their dinner with a prune juice cocktail, soup broth (read hot water without salt) and a cup of hot ship bilge.
“I don’t think I can take even another day of this. How you can handle five more is beyond me.” Charlie had agreed to bring Maggie down and stay the weekend. “Spa” to her meant rest and soothing massage, coddling, skin and hair treatments—not enemas. Part of what Maggie was here for was to cure the depression brought on by drugs—in her case prescription.
“We have to cleanse our systems. I told you that. And tonight is the hormone, mind, and spirit presentation.”
“Oh look, that’s her, Dr. Judy.” There was actually a little of the old fire sparking in Maggie Stutzman’s eyes.
Charlie recognized the doctor because a much younger version of her hung on a wall in Luella Ridgeway’s office at Congdon and Morse Representation, Inc. in Beverly Hills where Charlie Greene worked too. C & M represented Dr. Judy. “What’s she doing here?”
“Charlie, they gave you a copy of the program when you registered.”
“I got so excited at the thought of food, I left it in the room.” Charlie pushed away the disgusting stuff in the fine china.
One of those lady motivational doctors so popular on local PBS begging weeks, Dr. Judy spoke before audiences of mostly women of various ages about woman stuff, used the latest in visual presentation gizmos like lighted wands and clickers that check off on state-of-the-art number charts, five reasons why hormone replacement therapy is too good for you and so on. Why estrogen won’t give you breast cancer, if used correctly. More women die in automobile accidents than from breast cancer anyway. Well, duh.
Dr. Judy’s hair, smile, and makeup were camera-ready, her dress long and flowing to avoid revealing her figure. She was very tall and had a hump forming where her neck met her back. She exuded a benign good humor gesturing, rocking back and forth in conversation with the Spa’s proprietors, Warren and Caroline VanZant, who had greeted Charlie and Maggie last night.
A snappy little number in black clicked stiletto heels across the room toward them and marked something on her clipboard. “These two front and center, older ladies on either side,” snappy number informed the young gofer following her. You could even hear her tongue clicking. “If they’re done eating, they can report to makeup.” She flashed her teeth, her eyes looking through Charlie and Maggie, and clicked her heels over to the next table.
“The doctor’s taping tonight? Here? There’s a studio?”
“Charlie, where are you going? I need you. I need you now.”
“And I’m here for you. If not exactly in this building every minute, at least close by. I’m not going across country for godsake, just out for a real dinner.”
The lobby was more crystal and marble. Why would people who could afford this place want to treat their bodies to torture? Her heels did a little clicking of their own and she wondered about driving the truck in them but her goal was to get out of this palace of woe NOW.
A large bald-headed person, in white slacks and knit shirt, stood at the ornate gate to the parking lot and put a hand out at her approach. “Sorry, patients can’t leave without permission. Now just toddle back in there for your TV debut.”
“Excuse me? I am not a patient.” Charlie slipped out the gate with a nasty look at the creep just as a film crew member with a badge slipped in through it.
“Stop her,” the gatekeeper yelled at another location type getting out of a van. “These are all addicts in here and they can’t leave.”
Charlie and the location type stared at the bald guy in white pants who watched them from well behind the gate, watched them exchange shrugs and go about their business. The would-be guard didn’t offer to come after her himself.
Charlie almost split her skirt higher trying to climb up into the Dodge Ram. She waved at the bald guard still behind the gate as she turned the pickup around and roared off toward the winding road out of here.
“Mitch? Charlie. Have you eaten yet?” The only telephones allowed at the Spa were at the front desk, cell phones expressly forbidden. Charlie had left hers in the truck. She was barely out of the parking lot before she had it to her face.
“It’s only five thirty. You want me to come up there?”
“No, I’m on my way. I’ll pick you up. Where’s the Catamaran from the Five?”
“Too far and it’s rush hour. Stay on La Jolla to Mission Boulevard. It’ll be on your left, on the bay side. I’ll make reservations for somewhere. What are you in the mood for?”
“Whoa. Things that bad, huh? How’s Maggie?”
“Tell you when I see you. Have to watch the road.”
“How are you dressed?”
“Gotcha, I know just the place,” said the superstar in that voice.
“Don’t you think this is a bit of an over-reaction?” It wasn’t dark yet, but Mitch Hilsten’s eyes fairly glowed in it anyway. How’d he do that?
“You didn’t get crushed by five SUVs trying to escape a runaway semi on the 405. What do you know?”
“Yeah, but a Dodge Ram with an extended cab? What are you going to haul, palm trees?”
“I liked the color and the hood ornament.” The pickup was a metallic blue that made a statement and so did the head of a male bighorn sheep on its front. “And I can see over the traffic, be ready for trouble sooner.” And it had eight cylinders, whatever they were, and an imposing grill that screamed—don’t mess with me, dude—made out of fake chrome.
“Can’t wait for the parking valet to get a load of it. Turn left at the next light. Libby wants you to call her.”
“Libby talked to you?” Charlie’s daughter hated the superstar with convincing ferocity.
“Left a message on my machine. Probably on your cell too. Spa wouldn’t bring you to the phone. No phone calls allowed. Why does Libby hate me so?”
“You’re a heartthrob for women over thirty-five, Hilsten. She thinks you’re gross.” Libby was eighteen.
“Even as a father figure?”
“Don’t take it personally. She thinks I’m gross too. It’s all the press we get.”
“We hardly ever see each other.”
“Yeah, but when we do at least one of us tends to get naked.” And wherever you are there’s a camera lurking. “Tell me you didn’t make the reservations in your name?”
An oncoming stoplight picked up the glint of his teeth as well the glow of his powder blues. “Keith Anderson.”
“Dammit, Mitch, that’s one of your most famous roles. And the fact that you’re in San Diego has been press for a week.” There were few superstars over forty these days.
“Hum, thought the name sounded familiar. But it’s a very ordinary name. Turn right here and follow the road to the end. Why won’t the Sea Spa allow you to a phone? Is that even legal?”
“I don’t know but it’s weird. Had to leave my cell in the truck. This jerk at the gate tried to keep me from leaving. Said I was an addict.”
“What kind of a spa is this?”
“It’s lavish, elegant, and cruel. And incredibly expensive. Not at all what I thought it would be. But Maggie seems okay with it. We’re all hoping for anything that will work.” It had taken sizable donations from friends, neighbors, and co-workers. “Dr. Judy is taping a segment there tonight.”
Charlie punched her cell pad for messages. Libby had left a voice message that Ed Esterhazie wanted to know if Maggie would be able to make it to the wedding. And that Kenny Cowper had called. And that she’d picked up Tuxedo at the vet’s and he’d put the cat on Diazepam and Science Diet. Oh great, more medical bills. The only investments Charlie had that were going up instead of tanking were pharmaceuticals. And what that damn cat would do to the house if he didn’t like the food was not worth contemplating. Bad enough when Charlie bought the wrong kitty litter. The critter came in his cat door to do his do-do, even use his box if the litter was right, otherwise any of a number of corners, preferably carpeted. Then went back out to cat.
When she tried to call Libby all she got was Libby’s voice mail on her cellular. It was scary and lamentable but Charlie and her daughter communicated more by messages left on telephone voice mail and written notes left by magnets on the fridge than any other way these days.
Kenny Cowper had left a message too, but Charlie would put that off until tomorrow. One stud was more than enough in her life at the moment. The parking valet made no horrified response to her Dodge Ram with the cool hubcaps and horned ram on the hood and massive fake grill. He helped her, her split skirt, and killer heels down from the cab, nodded at Mitch with a wink, and roared off in the metallic blue bomber.
“What do you get in that, four miles to the gallon?” Her escort watched the spectacle and exhaust fade into the scenery. “Tell me you just leased that sucker.”
“Mitch, how can anyone who made Bambo and is now going to produce and direct Jane of the Jungle, possibly make fun of a pickup truck?”
He gave her that smile, took her elbow, and guided her to the also smiling maitre d’ who awaited them on the steps of Crustacione de la Mer.
The tablecloths here were white linen, snooty waiters wore white and black. Most of the guests had dressed down in tourist attire. Maybe that’s what made the waiters so snooty. The napkins, chairs, and floor tile were black. Charlie’s lobster came on a black plate, Mitch’s seared mahi on white. Charlie was sheathed in black. He wore white. If not for a chick in bright red at the next table and the superstar’s powder blues, their corner of the room could have been in a pre-color film.
“You’re going to get sick,” Mitch Hilsten warned her a couple of hours later. “I have never seen you finish off a plate of food before. And that was no small lobster. Your face is even red.”
Charlie nodded at the waiter offering more wine and her first cup of coffee in over twenty-four hours. She half-expected she’d be sick too, but her body at the moment was sending messages of ecstatic thank-yous, waves of them. And the coffee, strong and pungent, started right to work on a lingering headache. Okay, so she was an addict. At least she was off all the drugs prescribed after the accident on the 405. “My face is red because I had a granite rub this afternoon.”
“They rubbed granite on you? Or you on a hunk of granite?”
Charlie rolled her eyes in answer. She hadn’t seen Mitch Hilsten for close to a year and, although they occasionally corresponded by phone or e-mail, there was much to catch up on. Unlike most Hollywood notables with whom she came in contact, it wasn’t all about him. They talked about his daughters, both graduated from college and married now—no children. Libby’s disinterest in applying for college.
“At least she’s going to graduate from high school. She has this vague plan to live away from home for a year. Let’s not talk about that, or I will get sick.”
So they talked about his reason for being in San Diego. He was going to direct and co-produce a major studio film, a not-so-rare event these days—but Jane of the Jungle? They’d be shooting some preliminary scenes in the marina below the Sea Spa, doing some interiors in a special yacht, and more in local studios and on local beaches to
Charlie had seen a treatment of that story somewhere. Thought it was awful—thought the published book, Goddess of Glory, even worse. Jane of the Jungle concerns a Bedouin princess captured by the Taliban who makes her escape by way of stuntmen and women, camels, and digital reality. By commandeering an Arabian prince’s luxurious yacht, and with the help of a stud-city CIA agent, she sails to an undisclosed jungle where the story gets worse. Ought to offend three-fourths of the world, but that’s Hollywood.
“Oh, Ed Esterhazie wants to know if you’d like to come to his wedding.”
“You know Esterhazie Concrete?”
“Our kids attend Wilson High together in Long Beach.”
“Esterhazie Concrete sends his kid to public school?”
“No accounting for the whims of the rich. He’s invested some money in film productions. Good man to know.”
“I know. When, where, which wife is this, and do I get to go with you?”
“Next Sunday, in his lovely garden, wife number three, and yes.” This was all interspersed with more coffee and with discreet menus, napkins, whatever for him to sign. They gave up and wandered out into the night, waited for the roar of the metallic blue Ram, Charlie enjoying the night and the freedom away from the Sea Spa at the Marina del Sol. “Can’t tell you how much I dread going back to that place.”
“How do you know they’ll let you in?” Mitch asked as she drove him to his hotel. “They didn’t want to let you out.”
“They have to. Maggie freaked when I left but I promised I’d be back. They have my money. They can’t keep me out. Can they?”
He decided to follow in his rental to be sure she got in. “I want to see the marina below at night anyway.”
Charlie drove faster than he did so she waited for him at the wye where the street to the Sea Spa turned off to climb the cliff through a canyon of crowded homes with only one stop sign along the way. She didn’t know the make of his car but she wouldn’t want to be followed by one at night if she were out walking—black, dark windows, low, sinister. The headlights, sort of oval, blinked as he came up behind her and she gunned the Ram over the crest where the houses ended, onto an empty curving road to Maggie and the house of torture, thinking of two things at once.
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