Here is the first chapter of my current Al Pennyback mystery in progress, Drop Dead, Gorgeous, along with a rough sketch of a possible cover.
On Fridays, after I close up shop, all I usually want to do is hang out on the couch with my feet up, listening to classical music or jazz on National Public Radio. NPR has some of the best programs going, and I don’t have to worry about keeping track of a music collection.
When I lived by myself – which I did for nearly a decade after my wife and son were killed in an auto accident – that was my usual end of week routine. That changed a bit when I met Sandra. Sandra Winter is a school teacher at one of Washington, DC’s inner city high schools, and after a week of being cooped up in a classroom with some tough kids from tough neighborhoods, she likes to join me on the couch sometimes, and at other times she likes to go out and indulge herself in the adult pleasure of a fine meal washed down with a glass or two of white wine. I don’t mind that myself, except that I tend to wash my food down with a cold beer. When we do go out, we usually end up back at my place, cuddling.
So why, I ask myself, on a Friday evening in late-January, did I find myself sitting in a chilly room in Georgetown that had once been a warehouse, now converted into an exhibition room and stage, watching a parade of bulimic women parade back and forth on a narrow catwalk, showing off clothing that no sane woman would wear, along with yards of flesh?
It had all started when I walked through the door, slapping my upper arms against the chill outside, to find Sandra standing in the middle of the living room with a strange smile on her face, and mischief in her bright blue eyes.
“Al, darling,” she said. “You’re home early for a change. I hope you’re up to going out tonight.”
Something in the tone of her voice, or maybe it was the glint in her eyes, made me suspicious. Not that Sandra’s the sneaky type, you understand – at least, not normally.
“I’d think after last weekend, you’d want to stay home,” I said.
I was probing. The previous Saturday had been Inauguration Day, and despite the fact that Sandra’s candidate had lost – or in her words, the court had given the election to his opponent – she felt an obligation to go and stand in the cold along Pennsylvania Avenue with the other gawkers and watch the former Texas governor get sworn in as the 43d President of the United States. She hadn’t gone because she liked that this had happened, but told me she’d never missed an inauguration since coming to the DC area as a college student, and besides, she was planning to join a large group who were there to protest the whole thing.
During the Inaugural Parade, however, someone in her group had pelted the president-elect’s limo with eggs, which had spoiled it for her. She didn’t like the man or his party, but believed that respect should still be shown the office. Quiet, non-violent protest was as far as she was prepared to go.
She looked sideways at me, as if to see if I was being serious. “I’d rather not be reminded of that,” she said finally. “Some people just never know where the limits are. But, there’s little chance of anything going wrong with what I have in mind.”
Now, it was my turn to look at her out of the corner of my eye. “And, just what pray tell do you have in mind?”
“Well, I was thinking we could grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants in Georgetown -“
“Whoa, babe,” I cut her off. “You know I’m not fond of the tony places in Georgetown. Too many tourists and students and lousy parking – and they charge an arm and a leg for food that’s just mediocre. Why in hell would you want to eat there?”
She blushed. She’s cute when she blushes. Two little circles of red appeared on her cheeks. Sandra could never be a crook – she has a conscience the size of Mount Rushmore, and simply cannot lie convincingly. I can’t believe that I once, very briefly, suspected her of being involved in a murder. When I first met her, I was investigating the shooting death of one of her students, and her neighbor tried to convince me that she was having inappropriate relations with the young man and might have had him killed. What a load of crap that was, and I almost fell for it. But, I digress. She was feeling guilty about something. I gave her a stern look, which only made her blush more.
“Okay,” she said. “I do have a specific reason for wanting to eat in Georgetown. Do you remember Calvin Rigg?”
The name didn’t register at first. I never forget a face, but names slide off my brain like ducks on a frozen pond. It took a few minutes of concentrated thought for me to remember.
“Oh yeah, the fashion designer who was accused of killing his former partner – hey, you’re not talking about what I think you’re talking about are you?”
Calvin Rigg’s partner Franklin Honeywell had been found in his office with a pair of tailor’s shears in his chest. Rigg had been accused of the killing, and had hired me to prove his innocence. Turned out that Honeywell had been killed by his assistant, Albertina Wittmer. I hadn’t heard from Rigg since that case, and hadn’t missed it. My introduction to the world of fashion hadn’t impressed me – a bunch of self-absorbed egos whose view of the world was as warped as plastic sheeting in the hot sun. Not the kind of people I looked forward to spending time with.
Sandra’s answer dropped on me like a bag of dog poop. “He’s having a showing of his spring line, and he’s inviting you and me as VIP guests.”
“First you want me to eat in Georgetown. You know I prefer real food to the high-tone stuff they serve there. Then, you want me to spend the evening watching a bunch of anorexic women flashing boob and thigh for a bunch of people who ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but who couldn’t possibly wear the rags these women are showing off. That would guarantee to give me a bad case of indigestion.”
“Oh, come on, Al,” she said, pouting. “You can’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy an evening of ogling a bunch of beautiful women.”
I stood there, looking at her with my mouth open. The last thing I wanted was an argument. I don’t consider myself an ogler – I do like the sight of beauty, but it depends on how you define it. Models have a certain look about them, but it’s not what I think of as beauty. Too gaunt, too aloof, too self-absorbed. Of course, I could spend the evening looking at Sandra out of the corner of my eye. Now, she’s what I call beautiful.
“Okay, okay, if you insist, but could we stop at the coffee shop in Potomac Village and get a light meal?”
“There’s that little Chinese place just off River Road,” she said. “That would be preferable to a coffee shop, don’t you think?”
Beautiful, smart, and really thoughtful – that’s my Sandra.