"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hit or Missus - Chapter 6

I have a couple of things to point out about today's chapter. First, when you meet Linda, know that I secretly want to be her. Well, I guess it's not such a secret now. What I mean to say is that I am a short redheaded gal who sometimes catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and thinks there's a gnome in the house, and I would love to be that tall, graceful woman of a certain age who dresses with taste and comports herself with great dignity. I amuse myself by thinking Dale would not have married that woman.

Second, I had a hard time writing the scene where Peri goes to the country club. I'll talk about it after you read.

* * * * *


Under normal conditions, Peri liked to show up early in a client's neighborhood and park a few houses away to observe the comings and goings of the person she was tracking. The Kellers lived near the Alta Vista Country Club, their house backing up to the golf course. This small area around the country club was the high-end of Placentia; the homes were large, even if the lot sizes were small, and all of them maintained their million-dollar worth, regardless of the economy.

Mr. Keller had told Peri his wife was usually still asleep when he left at seven, but Peri didn't want to miss anything, so she pulled into the Alta Vista community a little past six in the morning. The Keller house was on a corner, which would not have made parking in an unobtrusive spot difficult, but her first pass through the quiet streets made her realize she couldn't park anywhere and remain unnoticed. A little blue Honda sedan would be considered nondescript in most neighborhoods, but not here. The curbs were littered with BMWs and Audis, and her econo-car would stand out like a sore thumb.

She passed a jogger as she drove around the block to the main drag out of the enclave, and tried not to watch the woman stare at her. In her rear view mirror, she saw the easy kick of tanned legs as the jogger tossed one more glance over her shoulder and continued on her route. This was not going to be easy.

The thoroughfare onto their street was not so ritzy. Block walls bordered the sidewalks, making the boulevard look stark. A few random cars were parked here, of the more economical variety. Peri found a spot on the side where she could blend in with the others and still see a corner of the Kellers' driveway. She might not be able to see details, but she could at least tell when a car was pulling into or out of the drive. Tucking down in the seat, she pulled her black ball cap over her brow, put her camera in her lap, and waited for movement.

A few minutes later, she saw the jogger again, running toward her at a healthy pace. Peri tried to push her tall frame further into the seat, but the woman didn't appear to notice her, allowing Peri to get a better look. The woman looked sleek in her fitted running clothes, black spandex capris and a turquoise, racer-back top. She wore a matching ball cap and Peri could see a long brunette ponytail swing like a pendulum as she ran.

She was definitely from the neighborhood. Peri had seen plenty of these women, and was always amazed at the 'something extra' they possessed. It wasn't that their skin was just tanned, it was golden and smooth, as if they had it buffed and polished every morning. And their hair wasn't simply blonde or brunette, it had an additional sheen of copper or silver or gold to make it burn brilliant in the sun. They wore makeup that never smudged and lipstick that never disappeared from their soft, unwrinkled lips.

Looking that good must be exhausting, even if I had the money. Peri licked her lips. They were dry, as usual, so she applied some balm.

By seven o'clock, she watched Keller drive out in his Mercedes SUV, a sleek dark silver model that exuded luxury. She thought he glanced at her car, but wasn't sure. A few other residents drove past, but none paid any attention to her. A flickering light in her rear view mirror distracted her, so she looked up.

It was a police car.

Although she wasn't doing anything illegal, she had a sudden urge to hide her activities. Rumor had it, the police didn't really like private investigators and might try to make her job difficult.

She stashed her camera under the seat, and fumbled in her glove compartment as the officer approached, looking for her insurance card, registration, and a reason to be parked in a high-end neighborhood. There was a first-aid kit, a flashlight, two old tampons and a notebook. She took the notebook.

"You okay, ma'am?" The officer stood just behind her open, driver's side window. Peri recognized him at once, Officer Kenneth Chou.

"Yes, Officer. Is there a problem?"

"No, ma'am, we just had a report that a car had been stopped here for awhile."

"And you wanted to make sure I wasn't dead or something?"

The young, Asian policeman smiled. "Or something."

Peri held up her notebook. "I'm taking notes."

His smile remained, unchanged.

"I'm counting the number of cars in the morning, to see whether we need a traffic light at the intersection."

He continued to smile.

His stare was making her nervous, but she tried not to let it show. "There are a lot of new homes here, you know. Traffic has increased. We need to think about the children who walk to school this way."

A car rolled by them, so Peri wrote in the notebook. "See? There goes one more."

She wasn't certain if he believed her, but he suddenly spoke. "Aren't you Detective Carlton's friend? I don't know if you remember me, but I worked the Needles case."

"Yes… yes, of course… Officer Chou, isn't it? How have you been?"

"Good, thanks. You working a case?"

"Kind of." Peri didn't want to give away too much information. "I'm doing some research for a background check. Pulled over to write up some notes."

"Oh, sure. If another call comes in, I'll handle it."

"Thanks, Officer." Peri smiled at him. "I'll be going soon, anyway."

She watched him walk back to his car, talk on his radio and prepare to leave. As he pulled away from the curb, the jogger reappeared in Peri's side mirror. This time, she caught the glimpse of a tattoo on the woman's ankle, obscured by her sock. Again, she didn't look over at Peri as she passed, but Peri could have sworn she saw the woman smile.

The street grew quiet again and Peri settled back to wait. An hour later, she finally saw a metallic blue BMW whip out of the development, with a stunning blonde behind the wheel. This was Nikki Keller, in all her morning glory.

Peri rolled away from the curb, watching Nikki turn left onto Alta Vista Street before she drove forward to follow. Even though it was small, the little sports car was easy to tail from a safe distance, and Peri's Honda was able to get lost among the rest of the vehicles on the road.

She traipsed along as her client's wife ran mindless errands, to the dry cleaners and the local Bank of America, before stopping at the Brea Mall. Peri watched Mrs. Keller enter the Glen Ivy Day Spa. The spa offered everything from massages to pedicures. After waiting ten minutes, Peri entered.

The front desk sat at the entrance to a gift shop on the right and a lounge area to the left. A small door past the chairs probably led to the spas. The piped-in music was an inoffensive tune played by a trio of harp, flute and running water, and the scents of several flowers and herbs fought for control of Peri's nose. A young woman, exotic in an Asian-Hispanic-Polynesian way, looked up from her computer screen behind the desk and smiled at Peri as she approached.

The phone rang and the girl answered. "Just a moment," Peri heard her say, then watched her walk over to the gift shop.

It was an opportunity Peri couldn't resist. She quickly moved around to the side of the desk and scanned the appointments on the computer screen. Nikki Keller was here for a manicure and pedicure with Emma. The girl returned.

"Sorry about that," she said. "May I help you?"

"I was interested in your services. Do you have a brochure?"

The young girl handed Peri a small catalogue, done in soft neutrals and matte finish. Peri thanked her and left, returning to her car.

As she waited for Nikki to finish her manicure, Peri read the brochure. Holy crap, fifty bucks to get your nails painted? At some point, she might need to get chummy with Emma, but not until she had to, not at those prices.

Two hours later, Nikki's next stop was the Alta Vista Country Club. The club was a jewel in Placentia's crown, a yawning sea of greens that reached up to Rose Avenue, crossed Alta Vista and came to rest at Buena Vista Street.

Peri parked in a section far away from Nikki's sports car and checked her watch. Twelve thirty seemed too late for a golf game, but what did she know? A jaunty little tune began playing in her Bluetooth, so she tapped her earpiece and answered.

"You busy?" Blanche's voice was unmistakable.

"Working a case. I'm waiting outside the country club, thinking of going in. Why?"

"No reason. I got the day off and was bored. Thought I'd see if you wanted to come over."

Peri had an idea. "Want to join me for lunch at Alta Vista?"

"Oooh, can I be part of your operation?"

"Yeah, my very special ops team – of one. I'll go in and get us a table and nose around for info."

"I'm ten minutes away."

Removing her ball cap, she fluffed her hair away from her scalp, and then put on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses with clear lenses. She also slipped out of her gray zippered hoodie, before stepping out of the car.

Tall glass and wood doors stood at the end of a long colonnade of stone columns, which supported an oxidized metal roof. Square, window-paned lights hung inside, illuminating the way.

Peri watched herself walk toward the door in its glass reflection and stopped. When did her khakis get so wrinkled? And her blue polo shirt, the one she liked so much because it brought out the blue in her eyes, looked baggy and tired. Were these people going to believe she could afford to join their country club?

She took another step forward. Dressed up or not, someone should be able to give me information.

She hesitated. But I might get more information if I was dressed like everyone else.

Peri watched her hands smooth over her slacks in the reflection. Beyond her image, inside the clubhouse, she saw someone walking past. With a deep breath, Peri set her shoulders back, lifted her chin and reached for the brass handle.

Maybe Skip is right, I do need a little shopping trip. After I talk to some employees in this place.

The foyer was large and reflected the craftsman-style architecture of the exterior. Rich browns and caramels with slashes of burgundy were brightened by the light from the floor-to-ceiling windows that peeked from the rooms in the back. Peri heard the quiet murmur of a man's voice announcing scores, so she guessed one of the rooms was a bar.

An older woman was on the phone, checking a computer screen. "I see a foursome for tomorrow morning," she told the caller. "But nothing under Barber."

While she waited for the crisis to be resolved, Peri looked at the latest newsletter. Very glossy, high end printing with lots of pictures, it told of members and their accomplishments, as well as their absences. Peri recognized Don Keller's partner, John Patterson, in a small blurb about having knee surgery. The article wished him a speedy recovery, as the Heritage Golf Tournament and Banquet was coming up.

The woman turned toward Peri and smiled. "May I help you?"

"My boyfriend and I were thinking of joining the club, and I was wondering if you had any brochures."

The woman stood, almost as tall as Peri, and reached across the desk. She was elegant in her crisp, long-sleeved white shirt and navy slacks, her silver hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. A small pin on her shirt said 'Linda'. Holding out a blue folder with a business card, she told Peri, "This folder has all of our fees, and services. And this is the manager's card. You can call Jeff if you have any-"

At that moment, a collected burst of laughter from the bar interrupted them.

Peri smiled at her. "Sounds like a lively crew."

"Yes, that group of ladies meets here for lunch every week."

"Wow, so they're members - do they play golf here as well?"

"Oh, yes, they're a regular foursome."

Peri nodded and smiled. "How lovely, to have a group of friends to do things together." She picked up the folder. "Thank you so much, Linda. I have to discuss this with my boyfriend, but I hope to be in touch soon."

Another round of laughter could be heard from beyond the foyer. Peri looked up, tapped the folder against her palm, and hesitated. "You know, maybe I'll have lunch here, if it's okay. Give me time to read over this information and see if I have any questions."

"Absolutely," Linda told her. "Our restaurant is open to the public."

Peri turned toward the bar and felt her chest tighten. If she guessed right, Nikki's group of friends would be as casually perfect as darling Nikki. She smoothed her wrinkled khakis one more time, blew out the air she had trapped in her lungs, and walked toward the restaurant.

It felt like being back in high school.

* * * * *

Were you back in high school, too, as Peri walked into that room? If so, were you sitting with the cool kids or the chick with the wrinkled khakis?

In my original draft, Peri didn't go into the country club at all. Concerned about her appearance, she went back to her car and waited. The problem was, the scene wasn't working.

How did I know?

It felt flat, like Peri was doing all this surveillance, but nothing was really happening. Going back to her car and waiting for Nikki was boring. There was also something about Peri's character returning to her car that felt stilted and unnatural.

After a lot of head scratching I finally figured it out. I had broken two rules. One, I had let the tension wane by keeping Peri out of potential danger. Two, I had forced her to do something out of her character. Peri is too stubborn and curious to let wilted khakis and a sad polo shirt stop her from getting information. She wouldn't walk away.

So I rewrote the scene and had her go into the country club, and all the way into the restaurant. In my second draft, she went in alone. When I rewrote again, I had Blanche join her as a way of giving Peri someone to bounce ideas off, and get information from.

As always, HIT OR MISSUS is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other booksellers, and the right side of this blog, where you can purchase an autographed copy from the author.

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