* * * * *
The room was a study in contrasts. The polished oak of the tables, chairs and bar could have darkened the space, but the pale walls and full-length windows stretching across the back of the room lifted it into the light. There were a few occupied tables, and a couple of servers strode from the kitchen to the diners and back again. A black man with gray on his temples and a roadmap of years on his face wiped the bar, occasionally glancing at the TV screen, where a baseball game was in progress.
A young, lithe woman in a simple uniform of white shirt, black slacks, met Peri at the door and led her to a table near the windows. Nikki and her friends were seated near the bar, all as coiffed and beautiful as she imagined. She gave them a relaxed glance as she walked past, and catalogued two brunettes and an ash blonde in addition to Nikki's golden curls. One of the brunettes looked up from her salad, and Peri could feel the intensity of her gaze as much as she could see it in her peripheral vision.
The hostess offered her the seat beside the window. This didn't give Peri more than a slight side view of Nikki's table, but she didn't want to appear suspicious, so she sat down. The same woman came by to take her order. She asked for a spinach salad and iced tea, then opened the brochure and began to read.
Twenty thousand dollars? Peri fluffed her hair and tried not to grimace as she read. Plus annual dues? And monthly dues? She turned the page. Green fees? Isn't the golf course green enough?
Laying the packet aside, she studied her surroundings. To her left, golfers dotted the grassy carpet outside. She thought they looked similar in the way they walked around the area, faces tilted to the ground, occasionally looking up, as if gauging the distance. They were all tanned, wearing standard issue polo shirts, dressy shorts, white socks and golf shoes. The men wore hats. The women had a mix of hats and visors, but it didn't matter. Their faces were all still golden from the sun.
Peri looked up to see Blanche, casually gorgeous in a pair of tailored, knee-length tan shorts and a sheer lilac blouse, the lace of a white camisole peeking out. She got up to hug her friend and gestured to a chair.
"How nice to see you," Peri told her.
They motioned to the server, who came over and took Blanche's order, giving Peri another opportunity to glance at Nikki's table. They were lively and loud, which meant it should be easy listening.
The server brought their drinks.
"So, thinking about joining?" Blanche pointed to the brochure.
"Possibly." She noticed the volume of her own voice. As much as she enjoyed having her friend here for support, it dawned on Peri she would not be listening to Nikki's table if there was too much conversation at her own.
"You're a member, maybe you could explain what this means." She placed the brochure next to Blanche and leaned in. As Blanche looked at the paper, Peri whispered, "I need you to identify who is talking at that table behind me."
"Hmm." Her friend pointed. "Oh, those fees only count if you aren't a resident. Here, give me a pen and I'll circle the ones you'd pay."
As the server arrived with their salads, Peri heard her cell phone. Tunneling through her wallet, car keys, and assorted flotsam, her fingers closed around a familiar object, a small digital voice recorder. She often used it to take notes. While her hand was still buried, she turned the recorder on. Perhaps she could capture their conversation and listen to it later.
Pulling her phone out, she looked at the number. "Skip."
"Did you guys kiss and make up?"
"You know we never stay mad for long." She swirled the baby spinach leaves around to coat them with raspberry vinaigrette and picked up a fork full of leaf, mango, and candied walnut. A crumb of feta cheese clung to the leaf and completed the sweet-salty-umame trinity in her mouth. "We've had worse arguments."
"Oh, yeah. I remember when you tried to live together."
"I might have thrown a few objects," Peri said.
"To get your point across?"
"Hairbrushes are good for punctuating sentences."
They laughed, loudly, until Peri noticed she wasn't hearing the women behind her. She looked at her friend and rolled her eyes in an attempt to point to the table she was watching. Blanche smiled and gave her a small nod.
"So what did Don say?" The question from the table was asked by a voice that sounded like a muted trumpet.
Peri looked at Blanche and pointed back to the brochure. "What about this?"
"Some people like to pay extra for that," Blanche said as she picked up the pen and scribbled, Susan Leske.
"Oh, I don't know." This voice was high, almost childlike.
Peri took the pen and wrote Nikki? Blanche nodded, as the voice continued. "He was all, 'Nikki, do you have to find the most expensive dress in the mall? Who is this Michael Course guy, anyway?'"
Several women joined her laughter.
"Course? Like golf course?" Peri noted this voice was lower, and the words had a bit of a slur to them. She wondered if this woman had lived in the South for awhile.
Lisa Silvan, Blanche wrote.
A soft, languid voice seemed to quiet the whole table. "Your husband needs a lesson in designers, that's all. Perhaps we could instruct him in the difference between Michael Kors and Alta Vista."
Laughter started again, although it didn't erupt as much as it bubbled.
"Oh, Kim, it doesn't matter." This was Nikki again. "Don doesn't really care. He just likes to tease me."
As Blanche scribbled another note in the sidelines, Peri heard Lisa say, "Clinton does the same to me. What are those shoes again? Choo-choo trains?' They tease us, but they love it when we look good."
"Which is why I'm so happily divorced," Susan said. "I have the Jimmy Choos and no one to get on my case about them."
The server came by Peri's table and offered more iced tea. She looked confused by the silence between the two women. Blanche put the brochure back in the folder. "I'm sure you can read all this when you get home."
"Thanks for the info," Peri told her. The server busied herself by taking their empty plates, so Peri turned to Blanche again. "How's the landscaping coming?" The question sounded so banal she felt like slapping herself, but it was the safest thing that popped into her head.
"It's a good thing Paul's on travel. Took us months to work out the design with the landscaper, and now every day is a brand new day for these guys. A new supervisor shows up, doesn't know what's been done, what's supposed to go next. Then I have to step in and undo the work…"
She said a lot more, but Peri's focus went back to the women behind her.
"Oh, Susan, how you tease," Nikki said.
"At least as long as those alimony checks keep coming," Susan added.
Lisa changed the subject. "Did you see this Sunday's LA Times?"
Peri heard Nikki say, "I so want that Kate Spade outfit in the magazine. Too cute."
"It was okay," Kim replied. "I wasn't crazy about the bag."
"I couldn't get past that hatchet piece on USC," Susan told them. "How dare they say our alma mater is egotistical."
"Bet the writer went to UCLA," said Kim.
"Kim, that's not exactly fair." Nikki's words were harsher than her delivery. "There are dozens of schools who envy USC."
"Shoot me now." Blanche's voice was a graveled murmur, but it was clear she had been listening, too. Peri choked down her laughter.
Lisa spoke. "So, what's our game for this week?"
Peri thought she saw unusual activity out of the corner of her eye. She resisted the impulse to turn and look, but got a brief impression of the women's arms reaching toward something in the center of the table. There was quiet chattering, none of it intelligible. She looked at her friend, her eyebrows raised in question. Blanche smiled back, so Peri knew she'd get the rundown later.
Peri heard the light pinging of glass upon glass. Someone was making a toast.
"Bettys rule," Nikki said.
Peri's phone began to vibrate again, so she turned to her bag and noticed the women all getting their purses out, too. They were preparing to pay, which meant she had to make her exit first. Her phone had stopped ringing, but she pretended to answer it anyway.
"Hey, you ready to go?" she said to no one. "Okay, I'm on my way."
She fished out a twenty and gave it to Blanche. "I need to pick up –," here she fumbled for a name, "Benny. This should cover my lunch."
"No problem, Kiddo. I'll see you later." Blanche held out the folder to her. "Don't forget this."
Peri picked up her tote and stood. As she walked toward the door, she heard Kim's voice again, although she couldn't make out the words. She did catch a comment about "ladies room" and saw money being taken out of bags, so she continued outside, to her car.
After reaching her car, Peri put her ball cap on again and assumed the air of the inconspicuous private eye. She read over Blanche's scribbles as she waited. According to her BFF, Kim Patterson was the long-haired brunette, Susan Leske had the darker complexion, and Lisa Silvan spoke with the southern lilt.
Blanche had written her notes next to the price list. Peri saw the numbers again and rubbed her neck. If she needed to follow Nikki Keller any deeper into that establishment, she may need Blanche's help as a member.
Peri finally saw Nikki walk out of the entrance, with two of the women at the table. Susan dug in her purse while Lisa turned to listen to Nikki. There was no sign of Kim. They all laughed and strolled to their cars, hugging as each one was dropped off.
Although they were of varying heights and hair color, the trio shared a common patina. Peri thought it was the glow of money, then scolded herself for judging.
They can't help it if they're rich.
She watched a blue Beemer and a silver Benz slip out. Nikki's convertible eventually reached the entrance, so Peri started her car and eased toward the driveway. She and a dark Range Rover with tinted windows arrived at the exit simultaneously, but the Range Rover paused and let her go first. Nikki made it across the intersection just as the light changed, making Peri wait. The light was mercifully short and Peri was able to see her target pull onto her home street.
Peri drove past the Keller enclave, planning to turn around at the next cul-de-sac, but the stream of luxury vehicles behind her made her travel further into the country club homes. Turning left got rid of some of the cars, but the Range Rover still tried to push her down the street, obviously trying to get home. Finally, it turned into a driveway and Peri could return to Nikki's house.
As she rounded the corner, Peri felt her car grab to the right, then heard the familiar thwop-thwop of a flat tire. She pulled over to the curb and got out.
The tire slumped against the pavement, giving her Honda a definite list to starboard. Peri looked up the street in time to see Nikki's car whip out, toward Alta Vista.
There was nothing to be done, except change the tire. Peri opened the trunk and peered inside. It wasn't a pretty sight. In addition to two plastic bins of paper she needed to file, the trunk was littered with papers she needed to put into the bins, along with a pair of running shoes, an emergency roadside kit, and a small bag, which was stuffed with a few toiletries and clean underwear, in case she had to tail anyone for more than a day.
So far, she'd used the roadside kit more than the toiletry bag.
Peri thought briefly about changing the tire herself. It wasn't rocket science, after all. She moved the trunk contents to her back seat, then lifted the carpet to find the spare tire release and the jack kit.
It took her exactly five minutes and two fingernails to realize that, although she had the brains for the procedure, she lacked the brawn. She called the Auto Club and spent her waiting time throwing loose papers into the plastic bins.
After an hour wait, then thirty minutes more while the tire was changed, Peri was finally able to drive, although not in pursuit of Nikki Keller. Hungry again, she stopped on the way home to pick up skordalia chicken from Sophia's, the local Greek restaurant. She felt like everyone's eyes were on her car as she drove; the little blue Honda still sat at a tilt with its emergency donut where a real tire should have been. Car troubles sharpened her cranky edge, so she decided to spend the evening working out a schedule for tomorrow.
She pulled into her driveway and stopped. Ordinarily, she left the car parked next to the front door. Her one-car garage sat back, detached from the house, and as much as she loved her older neighborhood, walking to the garage at night to get her car out made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. But she wouldn't be going out tonight, so she went ahead and yanked the garage door open, drove the car in and locked it up.
Having learned from the previous afternoon's encounter with the cat, Peri entered her house slowly, looking down to keep from stepping on the large tabby. Mr. Mustard was nowhere near. She set the food on the counter and walked through the rooms, turning on lights.
"Here Kitty-Kitty," she called.
There was no response.
"Mr. Mustard, Kitty-kitty-kitty." Peri looked in all the corners of the living room. "Great, I've lost the cat."
As she moved toward her bedroom, she heard a soft, shuffling noise, followed by thumping. She slipped off her shoes and tiptoed to the door, hoping it was the cat and not an intruder.
The sight before her made her wish for the latter. Mr. Mustard had found an old spool of red and green curling ribbon, probably under her bed, and had wound it around every object in the room. It was knotted around all of the legs of her shaker-style furniture, and had actually pulled the nightstand away from the wall, knocking a candle onto the floor. Pillows were on the floor as well, and one of them showed definite signs of shredding.
The cat was busily pushing the now-empty spool through the maze he'd created. He looked at Peri, jumped straight up, and then ran out of the room.
Peri looked around, trying to decide whether to eat first, or clean first, and whether she might actually be able to flush a cat. Cleaning won. She armed herself with a pair of scissors and a trash bag, and went to work. Half an hour later, she finally sat down in the kitchen with her dinner and her notes.
She was enjoying a mouthful of the rich, lemony chicken when she felt a warm, furry body rubbing her shins.
"We gotta find you a new home, cat."
As she read through her scribbles about Nikki and her friends, a rhythmic beep-beep-beep interrupted her study. She picked up her phone, but it wasn't the source of the noise.
The next ten minutes were spent checking clocks, smoke alarms, kitchen gadgets and anything else that might be setting off a warning signal. Peri finally narrowed the sound to her pink snakeskin tote in the living room. She dumped the contents onto the floor and sorted through her portable life until she found her digital voice recorder. A tiny red light flashed with each beep.
"Oh, yeah, I forgot I turned you on." She picked up the small, silver rectangle and took it back to the kitchen.
After another bite of dinner, Peri turned on the recorder and listened. There was a fair amount of extraneous noise from the room, but she could clearly hear the women's voices. She worked her way slowly through the recording, identifying each voice and taking notes on what was said. The conversation was pretty benign, even boring, by Peri's standards.
Right after Lisa asked about the game plan, she heard the server ask about more tea and turned the volume up to listen to as much of the background voices as she could. All she got were disjointed words, "blonde", "one of us", "discourage", and "force". She replayed the section several times, trying to add one more word to make it all make sense, but the ambient noise overpowered.
At last, she gave up and let the recording continue to the end. She heard the scrape of the chair as she arose, and the fluctuation of sounds as she moved through the room. Closing her eyes, she pictured where she was at each rasp, rattle, and voice. Suddenly one voice became clear.
"There goes the mark," Kim said in a whisper.
Peri's pulse trotted a little faster, wondering if she was Kim's "mark". She listened to the last part a few more times, but was unable to hear anything else. Leaning back in her chair, she speared another piece of chicken and put it in her mouth. She chewed, thinking.
If I could somehow separate the different sounds like they do on those TV shows. Grabbing her cell phone, she called Jason Bonham. He probably wouldn't be able to process her file, but he might be able to tell her what kind of software program would.
Mark or not, she was going to find out the game for the week.
* * * * *
Well that sounds ominous. Is Peri their "mark"? What are they planning to mark her with, a Sharpie? Tune in next Sunday and learn more.
P.S. Did Santa bring you a new Kindle or Nook? You could be reading HIT OR MISSUS right now, for only 99 cents!