The Value & Substance of Escapism In 2017

The societal context for the novel I am now finishing has completely changed from the day it was conceived. The Sophie mysteries are light escapism. If there was any doubt about my intent to keep the tone consistent with that principal, just look to the title: CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. This is a book filled with humor, friendship, madcap adventures and at times, tantalizing sexual tension.
But escapist or not, what does it mean to have a black, Jewish protagonist in a time when Nazis and Klan members are marching through the streets? Suddenly Sophie’s very existence feels almost subversive…which means my existence feels a bit subversive too. People who would deny the right of everyone on my Jewish mother’s side of the family and everyone on my black father’s side to exist are feeling empowered and excused by the President of the United States. That affects me. It affects my world view. It affects how safe I feel when I go outside of Los Angeles…or even in certain areas inside Los Angeles. It affects my feelings about sending my eighteen year old son into the the rural areas of this country as he goes off to serve Americorps. It affects my daily interactions. Case in point: I’ve been getting my nails done since I was a teenager but this Saturday was the first time I found myself listening to the whispered fears of my manicurist who wanted to know where I thought it would be safe for her and her immigrant family to travel to within the United States. I know why she chose me specifically to ask her questions to. She saw my skin color and knew that while she was Vietnamese and I was black, the two of us were now facing the same enemy and my experiences and survival strategies could help her navigate the hate that is bubbling up through the cracks in this country. Getting my nails done has always been a light-hearted, girlish-fun kind of activity…kind of like reading a Sophie book. It’s still light-hearted fun, but complete compartmentalization of that experience or ANY experience from the more serious world is no longer possible.
So what about my black-Jewish Sophie? And what about the fact that, in chapter two, I have a man ranting about Nazis…a scene I originally put in because, when I wrote it, Nazis were so removed from our modern day world that having this character rant about them would clearly alert the reader to the fact that he was crazy. But being afraid of Nazis doesn’t sound so crazy anymore. The scene reads very differently now.
So what to do? I want to give you an escapist read. After all, if there was ever a time when we need escapism it’s now. We all  need a break from the anger and fear and vitriol. But Sophie has always been a creature of her time. I can’t really change that either.
I had to think long and hard about this one, but in the end I decided not to change too much. I’m currently making a few minor adjustments. The humor and levity is still there, the mystery is still fun, the sex is still hot. But I’ve also made Sophie a tiny bit more aware of the fact that she is  a minority. There’s simply no way around that. She notes when she is the only black woman in the room even if she doesn’t dwell on it. Because I can tell you from personal experience, in this climate you do notice those things.  It’s not that it stops us from getting on with our lives it’s just that we all have to be a little bit more on alert.
In order to get the copyeditor and formatter I want, it looks like I won’t be able to get this book to you until September 18th. In the meantime I’ll re-release the sixth Sophie book, VANITY, VENGEANCE & A WEEKEND IN VEGAS for free by the end of this month because I want to make the escapist world of Sophie as accessible as possible to everyone who may need her right now. And I hope that her very humanity reminds you of how similar we all are even as a bigoted and vocal minority of this country tries to tear us apart. I hope the aspects of  CHAOS, DESIRE that are unintentionally well suited for the challenges of our times makes you think. And I hope her banter makes you laugh.
And I hope we all get through this…whatever this insanity is that we’re going through right now. I hope we find a way to come together again and to speak forcefully, with one voice, against racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia and just evil in general. I hope that people will soon reach for my books because they want an escape, not because they need one.
Below is the last chapter I will publish on my blog before the official release. Please enjoy, please stay strong and please be kind to those you know and meet. Like escapism, kindness is something we all need a little bit more of these days.

 

Chapter 13

“I share so much more with my phone than I do with my husband.

–Dying To Laugh

 

 

 

Jason had the next two days off from the medical marijuana store he worked at so he declared he would spend the first of those days casing London’s apartment, seeing if anyone matching Anita or Catherine’s description came in or out of there. He’d also try to gauge when the lowest traffic times were for the building and the area as a whole. Then we’d use that information to plan our entry into London’s apartment the day after that.

The very term “casing,” sounded so…well, criminal. Spontaneity never felt criminal. I had initially entered London’s apartment on a whim. I happened to have had the key to his place and so I used it. Surely that wasn’t so bad. But casing the apartment building…now I was going deep. I could get in real trouble. That should have worried me.

But as I drove home from Sutro Heights I realized, it really didn’t. If anything I found the very idea of the risk…energizing.

I had just pulled into my driveway when I heard Anatoly’s Harley pulling in after me. I stepped out of my car, headlights still reflecting off the closed garage door just as he was removing his helmet. His eyes widened slightly as he took in my torn, grass stained jeans and shirt. “What happened?”

I pulled Ms. Dogz out of the back seat by her leash. “There was a squirrel. Ms. Dogz doesn’t like squirrels.”

Anatoly’s mouth twitched at the corner. “I see. Who won?”

“The squirrel gets to live another day.” I looked down at my pants. “My jeans do not.” My headlights switched off automatically, leaving us only the faint glow of a distant streetlight.

“Your hair looks great,” he said, kindly.

“There is that,” I conceded.

Ms. Dogz’ stub of a tail was wiggling like crazy as she strained at her leash to get to Anatoly. He bent down to give her some love. “Need a drink?” he asked. I presumed he was talking to me even though it was the dog that seemed to have his attention.

“Desperately.”

He straightened up, tucked his helmet under one arm and draped the other over my shoulder as the three of us walked up the front steps to our home.

“Any luck tracking down Anita?” I asked.

A slight flicker of concern, maybe irritation, but then Anatoly’s face was smooth and happy again. “She’s been quite good about protecting her privacy. I’m not finding much of anything on her online.”

“Not much of anything would imply you’ve found a little of something,” I noted as he held the door for us. Mr. Katz strolled out of the living room to greet us, took one look at Ms. Dogz and did a 180, flicking his tail in disgust.

“All right, I didn’t find anything,” Anatoly admitted. “But I did track down the number for London’s landlord’s cell phone.”

“Oh?” He wasn’t able to find any information on this woman? The man was a private detective for God’s sake. Something was very wrong here.

I freed Ms. Dogz from the dreaded leash and tossed it in the corner. “Has the landlord, um, been in that apartment today?”

“No, he hasn’t been in there since London moved in,” he said, putting his helmet down and walked through the dinning room to the kitchen. I trailed after him, my concerns momentarily pushed aside by the joy of seeing him take out a chilled bottle of white. “That was nine months ago.”

“But now that London’s dead–” I began.

He placed the wine on the counter with a certain degree of ceremony. “He didn’t know London was dead until I called.”

“Anita didn’t call him?”

“He’s never heard of Anita,” he replied with what seemed like deliberate casualness.

I sank down onto one of the stools by the kitchen island. Never heard of her? “He wasn’t married,” I said, almost more to myself than to Anatoly. “Anita London doesn’t exist.”

“No, I’m sure he was and I’m sure she does. You’re not required to disclose marital status on a rental agreement or credit check.” He took out two wine glasses and a bottle opener. “All we know is he didn’t volunteer the information about Anita, and why would he?”

“But you do think it’s weird, right?” I pressed. “That neither his landlord nor his neighbor knew he had a wife and kid? And that you can’t find any information on her?”

“No, I don’t.” The splash of wine sounded lovely as it filled the glasses. “As we’ve already determined, the two of them appear to have been separated. Anita will probably get around to calling London’s landlord eventually. And the truth is, I didn’t try too hard to find Anita. Just a Google search and an attempt at a very basic background check. I didn’t file any requests with the records office. I didn’t call in any favors with my contacts at the DMV.”

“Buy why?” I asked, baffled. I had never known Anatoly to be half hazard about anything…except maybe housekeeping.

“There’s no need to do more,” he said simply. His tone was so nonchalant. But his shoulders seemed stiff, his jaw set. The contradictions had me completely baffled. “All we need to do was find out if she wanted this dog and make sure she doesn’t charge you with breaking an entry in order to kidnap her.”

“I assume you mean kidnap the dog, not Anita.”

Anatoly allowed himself a small smile at the quip. “I had a good talk with the landlord,” he went on. “I told him London had given you the key to the apartment and you had taken Soph…Ms. Dogz to care for her. I left him our number and gave him permission to pass it on to any of London’s next of kin if they express interest in making further arrangements for his pet. So now, even if Anita finds out you were there, she won’t be able to spin it as a breaking-an-entry. She will also have a way to contact us if that’s what she wants to do.”

I chewed on my lower lip as Anatoly handed me a filled glass. “Will the landlord be clearing out the apartment tonight then?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even. “Or will he wait until tomorrow?”

“Neither. I reached him while he was in New York. He won’t be home for another three days. He’ll take a look at the place then….What’s that smile about?” Anatoly asked as he leaned against the kitchen island.

“Hmm?” I sipped my wine, looked away.

“You’ve got this mischievous smile on your face. The kind you get right before you’re about to do something you know you shouldn’t do.”

I waved my hand dismissively. “That’s silly.”

“I haven’t seen that smile for a while,” he admitted. “Makes it all the more suspicious now.”

“I’m smiling because I like the wine.” I stepped forward and lifted myself on my tiptoes in order to give Anatoly a light kiss.

He pulled away and studied me for a moment, then gave me his own grin and shook his head. “I’m going to throw together dinner.”

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“Something simple…maybe lamb loin chops with Dijon and fresh herbs along with an arugula salad. Take me about twenty minutes.”

I laughed and shook my head in awe. “Yeah, that sounds acceptable.” Anatoly was the only one I knew who could whip together a gourmet meal in a half hour or less.

“I’m going to have to spend tomorrow night tailing a man who may or may not be faking a workplace injury in order to bilk his employer,” He stepped forward and linked his finger around my belt, pulling me forward so there was only half an inch of space between us. “So let’s not allow tonight to go to waste. Go upstairs, clean yourself up, put a little Neosporin on that knee and let me use the rest of the evening to take care of you.”

“You’re going to make me feel better?”

“To start, yes.” He leaned down and touched his lips to the nape of my neck, tasting my skin, sending a little shiver through me. “I’m going to serve you a meal that will make you want to scream with pleasure. And while we eat,” his hand moved to the small of my back, pulling me even closer so my body was pressed tightly against his, “you’re going to tell me every detail about your day.”

“Am I?” I murmured, my pulse rate rising steadily.

“You are. And then,” his mouth was at my ear now, his tongue flicking at the lobe, “after our meal I’m going to make you feel more than better. I’m going to make your whole body sing.” His voice, which had already gone to a low growl, slid into a whisper. “I’m going to make you lose control.”

I bit down hard on my lower lip. Slowly he released me, bringing his own glass of wine to his lips as his eyes ran over me one more time until they settled on my hair. “I do like this style,” he mused. “It makes me want to pull it, arching your neck back for me to kiss.”

It took a second to find my voice. “Oh baby,” I said, softly, “over Marcus’ dead body.” His eyebrows went up and I saw the corners of his mouth twitch. “Anyway,” I went on, placing my palm briefly against his chest. “there are better uses for your fingers.” I turned and walked out of the kitchen, wine glass in hand, as his soft laughter followed me. I headed upstairs to our bedroom and, more importantly, to the Neosporin.

There was no doubt in my mind that Anatoly knew I was keeping things from him. The intensity of his seduction was designed to seduce my secrets from me, but perhaps also to distract himself from…something. Something he didn’t want to share with me maybe?

My cell started vibrating in my purse and I pulled it out as I reached the top of the stairs. It was a number I didn’t recognize. “Hello?” I answered as I made my way to my bedroom.

“Ms. Katz,” said sexy-bored lady. “I have Gundrun Volz on the line for you.”

I froze, right in the middle of the hallway.

“Ms. Katz, are you there?”

“Yes, um, yes of course,” I managed, now talking in a hushed voice.

“I think you’re fading out,” the woman noted. “Am I losing you?”

“No, no,” I quickly made it to my room and closed the door behind me, leaning my back against it. “I’m here,” I said in a slightly louder voice now.

“Good, I’ll connect you now.”

I swallowed hard and walked further from the door. I could hear Anatoly banging around in he kitchen. The sound insolation in this place was not as good as it should be.

“Ms. Katz?” A man’s voice this time. I sat down on the corner of my bed. “It’s Gundrun Volz. How are you?”

“I’m…good?” I should have thought this through more thoroughly. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be interviewing him about. “Thank you so much for getting back to me so quickly,” I said, stalling for time.

“Of course! As I told Tereza last Friday, I’m happy to answer any additional questions you may have. Charity said you wanted to meet in person?”

“Charity…your assistant,” I said, stumbling a bit as I tried to put the many pieces together. “Yes, um, that would be great if you can make the time.”

“Of course! I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled that Tereza only wanted to speak on the phone. I communicate better in person. I do have some time tomorrow if you’re free.”

“Um,” I looked toward my closed bedroom door. Anatoly had put on some music and the sound of Bruce Springsteen became the backdrop to my conversation.

“Ms. Katz? Are you still there?”

“Yes, yes, I’m here…tomorrow’s good. What time?”

“Shall we say 8am?”

I thought about all the wonderful things Anatoly might do to my body once we had finished our meal. It could be a late night. “10am?” I countered.

“I can move some things around for 10 to work,” he accommodated. “I assume Tereza will be there as well?”

“Um, I’m not sure she’ll be able to make it,” I hedged.

“Oh…is that…typical? This is primarily her story, yes?”

“We’re working on it in tandem,” I adlibbed. “That way we can both get our own unique perspectives, compare our notes and ensure that the biases of one of us doesn’t color the tone of the article. It’s a Woodward and Bernstein thing.” I literally had no idea what I was talking about.

“Oh, that’s…that’s an interesting approach,” he said, sounding every bit as confused as I felt. “Well, whatever works for you. You’ll be here at ten then? At our Ceaser Chavez office, just like last time?”

Suddenly the door to my room opened, Anatoly was there, with Ms. Dogz by his side. “You never close the door…oh, I didn’t realize you were on the pone.”

“Yep,” I said, directing my comment to Gundrun. “Absolutely, that’ll work. Bye!” I hung up and beamed a smile. “Hi.”

Anatoly narrowed his eyes. “Who was that?”

“That was Jason.”

“Dena’s Jason?” Anatoly asked skeptically. Ms. Dogz muzzled past him and started sniffing around the room.

“He wants to throw Dena a surprise party and asked if I would help.”

Anatoly crossed his arms over his chest. “Dena’s birthday is four months away.”

“Yep, he’s a planner. Such a good boyfriend…or primary boyfriend. I’m not sure what the right term is. Anyway, did you want something?”

Anatoly’s eyes were still pretty narrow. He wasn’t an idiot. “I’m opening a bottle of red to go with our meal and I wanted to know if you had a preference, Opus or Stage’s Leap.”

“Either’s good. I’ll just get myself cleaned up.” I jumped to my feet and went into our master-bath, closing the door behind me. I held my breath until I could hear Anatoly’s footsteps moving further away, down the hall. I had no doubt he was going to ply me with alcohol tonight in the hopes of loosening my lips. But it wouldn’t work.

Secrets were funny things. They could destroy people and their relationships.

Unless of course you trusted your partner enough to know they would never betray you; if you know in your heart that their secrets could be both explosive and impersonal. Those were the kinds of secrets that could be more tantalizing than damaging. I hoped our secrets fit into that category because at that moment, I was enjoying the hell out of them.

Conspiracies, Suspicions & An Unfortunate Bit Of Truth

So now that I look at the second half of chapter 11 it’s obvious to me…this has to be its own chapter. I have no idea why I ever thought otherwise.

Anyway, it is in this chapter of CHAOS , DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE  that Jason readers are re-introduced to Jason. I created Jason for my first Sophie novel, SEX, MURDER AND A DOUBLE LATTE. He’s Dena’s on-again-off again boyfriend. At the time of his creation it occurred to me that he might be a one-book character. He was funny but I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep him around. But the interesting (maybe disturbing?) thing about Jason is he’s become more relevant and contemporary with time. Back when readers first met him in 2005 he seemed soooo out there with his outrageous conspiracy theories, his deep suspicion of government and corporate America and his willingness to believe truly outrageous stories about vampires and whatnot. But now? Everyone seems to believe in one conspiracy theory or another. Be it the people on the extreme right who are freaking out over the “New World Order” or the people on the let’s-all-be-natural-left who won’t inoculate their kids against the measles because they think the vaccines cause autism.

And the thing is, over the last few years a lot of the crazy conspiracy theories have been proven to have some merit. That makes people even more prone to believing crazy stuff. There’s even a growing number of people who believe the earth is flat. Compared to that, how crazy is it to think vampires might exist, as Jason once speculated? My craziest character has a place in 2017.

What’s weird is that, as I write this character now…well, I don’t agree with him on anything but I think I understand him better than I did at his conception. He’s not completely crazy. He examines the evidence, looks at the facts and draws conclusions. They’re not the right conclusions but they’re not entirely illogical either. Think about it: only a few years ago we were taught that fat in food was bad…maybe even evil. Then we’re told fat is fine. And then we learn that the sugar industry paid scientists to shift blame for heart disease from sugar (the real culprit) to saturated fat. Now if you know that, are you stupid to be distrustful of scientific studies? Obviously good science, real science, has a lot to teach us. But as I force myself to inhabit Jason’s mind I can see why he is so distrustful of scientifically proven facts and why he is sure industries are conspiring against the public’s best interests. Which means I can also see why so many others share his distrust. It’s not exactly comfortable for me. I know the value of science and it really bothers me how the scientific community has been increasingly vilified and seen so many of its findings dismissed by both private citizens and public officials alike. But I created Jason…so I can’t pretend that I don’t understand anymore. I can’t blame people for being skeptical after they’ve been lied to again and again by politicians, industry and a handful of scientists who have sold out to serve them.

I don’t want to get it.  But Jason won’t let me pretend otherwise.

And with that, here is what is now chapter 12 in CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. If you haven’t been keeping up, you can read the earlier chapters here!

CHAPTER 12

“Yesterday’s insanities are today’s prophesies.”

–Dying To Laugh

 

 

Dena was not thrilled when I told her what I wanted but Jason leaped at the opportunity to explain his conspiracy theories to a captive audience. At his request we were to meet in Sutro Heights Park at 5:30pm and since Marcus didn’t have any more clients and Ms. Dogz needed a walk I decided to take both of them along.

“Why are we meeting in a park again?” Marcus asked as I struggled to fit my Audi into a parallel spot relatively near our destination. Ms. Dogz was skidding from one side of the backseat to the other as she tried unsuccessfully to squeeze her muzzle through the cracked windows.

“Not enough privacy in a café,” I said, reciting what Jason had told me.

“We could have met at your place,” he said.

“You remember that time when someone bugged my house?” I asked as I finally got my car correctly positioned.

“That was eons ago,” Marcus complained.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Jason just thought the park was better.”

“The wind is picking up and I just did your hair!” He snapped as I turned off the ignition.

I swiveled in my seat so I could face him. “Marcus, this meeting is about life and death.” I paused a beat before adding, “and the blow out looks so cool when it’s flowing in the breeze.”

Marcus grunted his disapproval as he got out of the car. I leashed up Ms. Dogz and we trekked over to the main entrance of the park. Jason was already there, standing between the two stone lions. The looks carved into the feline faces had always struck me as both bemused and sort of judgey, expressions that seemed out of place here, in this seaside park built on the grounds of the ruined Sutro Mansion. But Jason, with his blonde goatee, camouflage pants, red flannel shirt and black printed t-shirt gave their bemused judgment a needed bit of context.

“How are you?” I asked as Jason stepped in to give me a hug. Ms. Dogz eagerly sniffed his pant leg.

“I’m as well anyone living in a corrupt Capitalist dystopia can expect to be,” he answered cheerily. He gave Marcus a quick bro hug before turning back to me. “Like the hair.”

“Thank you,” Marcus and I said simultaneously. I reached up to run my fingers through it but Marcus slapped my hand away. “Mess with it and I cut you,” he growled.

Jason crouched down so he was eye-level with the dog. “So this is Sophie?”

“Wait, what?” Marcus asked, surprised. “Her name’s–”

“Ms. Dogz,” I snapped. “That’s what we’re calling her.”

“Got it, sorry,” Jason smiled. He started to stand again but then suddenly stopped short. “Is that my leash?”

“Wait, what?” Marcus said again.

I felt my face heating up to about a thousand degrees. “Oh, yeah,” I stammered. “Um, Dena lent it to me. I’d give it back now but, well,” I gestured to the dog who clearly needed to be leashed.

“No, no it’s okay,” Jason said, a little uncertainly. “We have more.”

“You’re serious?” Marcus asked. “This is serious?”

“I did like that one though,” Jason noted, taking no mind of Marcus. “It’s a good length.”

It was possible this was the worst conversation these lions had ever been cursed to overhear. “In all the chaos of last night I forgot this was the leash Dena used on you,” I explained. “Only a death and a stolen dog could distract me from something like that but there it is. So now we’re both just going to have to pretend that you have never ever been attached to this thing. It is very important to me that we both go into immediate states of denial. Can you do that?”

Jason rolled his eyes and scratched at the back of his neck. “You don’t have to get puritanical about it. Dena and I just have a different way of expressing sexual affection–”

“That is not denial!” I shouted. “I swear to God, Jason I will walk out of here–”

“Okay, okay,” He laughed holding up his hands in surrender. “Come on, let’s walk and talk…” he hesitated and then lowered his voice, “about what we came here to talk about.”

Marcus and I gave each other looks. There was no need to speak in code or whispers. We were entering magic hour. The picnickers had all packed up. The few tourists still here were busy trying to rub away goosebumps as they made their way back to their cars. That left us and a handful of locals, identifiable by their pragmatic layered clothing and shaggy eternity scarves, milling about, sneaking in a few moments of solitude in this sanctuary that was allowed to grow over the cracked foundation of a fallen estate.

We followed Jason as he led us down the dirt path that had once been a curving driveway. “Dena filled me in on everything as soon as she got home from your break in last night,” Jason explained, kicking a small stone out of the way with his Doc Martins.

“It was not a break-in,” I protested. Ms. Dogz was zig-zagging all over the place. First there was something she had to smell to her left, then her right. It took both attention and skill to keep from tripping on the notorious leash. “I had a key,” I went on. “The neighbor let me into the building.”

“Yeah, but the neighbor let you in after you lied to him, right?” Jason asked, with a small smile. “Not judging. You did what needed to be done. Tell me what London was afraid of. Who or what did he think was after him?”

“Everything?” I laughed then caught myself. It was bad luck to make fun of the dead. “He was going on about the New World Order, our government and institutionalized racism or something like that. And then he was ranting about the pharmaceutical industry, I remember he mentioned Rispolex and oh what was the other one…Thilodeen? Thiophene? I can’t be sure.”

“Thalidomide,” Jason said, in a slightly hushed voice.

I blinked in surprise. “Yeah, that’s it.”

“It is?” Marcus asked, then stopped briefly to disentangle himself from the leash. “How’d you know the name of the drug, Jason?”

“There have been class action lawsuits against both the makers of Rispolex and Thalidomide,” Jason explained. We passed a cluster of evergreens and the marble stones that once formed a pillar. “Both drugs caused the users to alter their bodies in really bad ways. Rispolex caused heart murmurs and sometimes caused serious damage to the heart valves of people taking the drug. And Thalidomide caused deformities in the babies of the mothers who took the drug. Rispolex was such a fuck-up the company that developed it went under.”

“London didn’t have any deformities,” I said as I thought back to the waif of a man I had met only a day ago. “And from what I saw, I don’t think London had a heart attack. Were either of those drugs made by Nolan Volz?”

“Never heard of Nolan-Volz. Why?” Jason asked.

“It’s a pharmaceutical development company. Aaron London used to be an executive there. V.P. of R&D.”

Jason stopped in his tracks. “A dude who worked for a money-hungry, industrial, blood-sucking drug pusher claims he’s being poisoned, then keels over in the street and you’re confused about what’s going on?”

“Ooh, I see where you’re going with this,” Marcus chimed in. “Maybe somebody at Nolan Volz was skimming off the top or, oh, I know! Maybe they were stealing the company drugs and dealing them to addicts! Profiting off the opioid epidemic!”

“No,” Jason said sullenly. “That’s not what happened.”

“It could have,” Marcus said, a bit defensively.

“You’re not thinking big enough,” Jason insisted. “It wasn’t an individual at the corporation who offed him. It was the corporation itself! I bet you anything this guy’s death was a corporate decision.”

“You mean like they discussed it at the board meeting?” Marcus asked, dryly. “Agenda item number one, How to increase market share, item two, how to assassinate former employees, item three research and development–”

“These companies are evil! They make poison!” Jason sputtered. “They convince parents to medicate their kids in order to fit them into a broken educational system! They push their speed on college kids using the guise of treating their supposed ADHD!”

“Speed treats ADHD?” Marcus asked, but Jason was on a roll.

“They give us heart medication that destroys our livers, liver medication that destroys our hearts, they literally inject cancer patients with artificial toxins and call it treatment. They try to squash news and research proving the benefits of homeopathic medicine, like Gaba, Ox bile and medical marijuana! What this country needs is homeopathic weed, not pharmaceutical speed!”

“Ox bile?” I asked weakly. “People take, like, actual ox bile?”

“And speaking of weed,” Marcus chimed in, “have you been smoking, honey? Because you’re sounding a little paranoid.”

“There’s a difference between being paranoid and being clear eyed,” Jason replied, almost petulantly. “That’s why you asked to pick my brain. I’m clear eyed. And ox bile is fucking awesome. Does great things for your digestion. But you wouldn’t know that because Big Pharma won’t let you know that!”

I sent up a silent message of thanks to Big Pharma for protecting me from ox bile propaganda. Ms. Dogz was pulling me toward a different trail and I gestured for the guys to come along as I let her take the lead. The small victory seemed to cheer her and she trotted in front of us, ears flapping joyfully in the air. “London also said something about a medical ethics professor at NYU exposing some issues with pharmaceutical testing,” I said, as I tried to replay my whole conversation with London in my head.

“Several years back a that professor he was talking about found that there were a lot of companies who weren’t disclosing the results of their trial studies before getting FDA approval to put new drugs on the market,” Jason explained. “She went public about it, talking to anyone who would interview her and sending her study out to as many publications as possible. She became a real hero to those of us who are trying to stand up to Big Pharma. But did the FDA listen to her? Do they care that they’re being deceived? No. They don’t give two fucks. They did nothing to address the problems she brought to light. The guys in the FDA are just putting in their time until one of the pharmaceutical companies their supposed to be regulating offers them a big-pay-check job at their firm.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” Marcus asked, articulating what I as thinking.

“Because I’m woke.”

“The thing is,” I jumped in, before Marcus had a chance to comment on how totally awkward it was to hear a thirty-something year old white man who spends his nights on a leash use the word woke, “a lot of what London said really was pretty out there, even by…er…clear eyed standards.”

“I doubt that,” Jason sniffed.

“It wasn’t all about pharmaceuticals,” I continued. “He was freaking out about the entire medical establishment. He thought hospitals were doing unnecessary procedures on homeless people. I mean even you’d have to agree, that’s nuts.”

Once again, Jason came to an abrupt stop. Marcus followed suit, I tried to follow suit but it took a little tugging on Ms. Dogz before she agreed to let me stand still.

“Jason?” Marcus asked. “Is everything okay?”

But Jason was busy with his phone, his fingers tapping away at the screen until he found what he was looking for. He held up the phone so we could all see the archived L.A. Times article. The headline read: 3 Hospitals Accused Of Using Homeless For Fraud.

I grabbed the phone out of his hand and started reading.

“Three hospitals were exposed for literally searching for homeless people on the street,” Jason summarized even as I read the words for myself. “They offered them a couple of bucks to come stay at their facilities for a few days, gave them a false medical diagnosis and then did tests and procedures on them so they could bill Medicare.”

“Wait a minute, what?” Marcus put his hand against his chest as if grasping at his heart. “That can’t be true.”

“It was on MSNBC,” Jason continued. “Just your typical predatory, corporate, Machiavellian behavior. They managed to bilk the system for something like sixteen mil. One more reason to hate L.A., right?”

Marcus was turning a little green. “Did they…hurt anyone?”

“They didn’t kill anyone but they fucked a few people up, yeah.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Marcus muttered.

“Then you should be getting sick every day,” Jason said, enthusiastically. “If we were all paying better attention it would be a non-stop vomit fest! Come on, my brother, you gotta get yourself woke!”

Marcus held up his hand in a Stop-In-The-Name-Of-Love like gesture. “Try not to get all Rachel Dolezal on me.” He studied Jason for a second before adding, “I will admit, you’re quite a fountain of knowledge when it comes to bizarre news stories. You never even met the man and yet you seem to be a regular Aaron London cryptographer.”

“This happened,” I said softly, still staring at the article. “He wasn’t just making things up.”

“What else did he talk about?” Jason asked eagerly.

“Um, the New World Order?” I offered. “LSD…something about Nazis. He was definitely upset about Nazis which…now that I think about it, might not be so unreasonable these days.”

“MkUltra!”

I looked at him blankly as he took the phone back from me and started walking again, as if too amped to stand still. Marcus, Ms. Dogz and I dutifully followed.

“What’s MkUltra?” I asked.

“The American government hired Nazi doctors,” he explained, “some of whom were accused of war crimes, to help them develop chemical weapons and design ways the drugs could be tested on unsuspecting civilians. New moms who went in for post partum depression, unsuspecting military personnel, individuals who were considered undesirable, those are the people that were considered fair game by our government. They dropped acid in people’s drinks and fucked with their heads. And they got Nazis to help them do that. Nazis. You don’t believe me? Google that shit. MkUltra.”

“But…London was crazy,” I said weakly as Ms. Dogz yanked me toward a spot of grass with an apparently interesting smell. “He was a mess. He was manic. He was—“

“Being poisoned,” Jason said, finishing the sentence for me. “Look, you may not believe all the so-called conspiracy theories you hear about Big Pharma or the government, or corporations and modern-day robber barons plotting for world domination but there’s a reason so many of us do. Years ago, if someone told you the government was monitoring your emails and phone calls you’d assume they had a tinfoil hat in their closet. Now you’d just assume they read the latest New York Times article about the NSA.”

“Okay, I get it.” I stopped at a dry well house, resting my weight against the only in-tact structure of the crumbled estate. My head was beginning to pound. “What about Zip Cars? Or the practice of putting invisible tracking devices on cars? Can you make sense out of all that too?”

Jason crossed his arms across his chest and stared down at the grass, his forehead scrunched up like he was pondering a particularly difficult math equation. “Maybe…maybe not. What we really need to do is break into the apartment again,” he finally said.

“Um, no. Nuh-uh!” I raised my hands in protest. “I had an excuse last time. I had to rescue this girl.” I gestured to Ms. Dogz who had begun grazing on long blades of grass. “I have no valid reason to go into there again and if I’m caught it could be bad.”

“Then let’s not get caught!” Marcus suggested.

I looked over at him, stunned. “You can’t possibly think this is a good idea.”

“Well like you said, you have the key,” Marcus leaned up against the well with me and offered his most encouraging smile. “It does seem like a good place to start.”

“I already started there!” I protested. “I’m not going in there again! It’s illegal and more importantly, I don’t own a hazmat suit! Seriously, the air inside that place was…was crunchy.”

Marcus wrinkled up his nose in disgust. “Crunchy?”

“Yes,” I said stubbornly. “The air in there felt crunchy. Like it was so stale it had texture. I’m not going back.”

“Dena said there were papers in there,” Jason said, authoritatively. “She thought they might be print outs of articles? Maybe blogs? We need to read what he was reading. We need to know what he was researching. Whatever it was, he was killed for it.”

“Not necessarily!” I shot back.

“Yeah, it could have been the wife,” Marcus said with a nod. “It’s always the wife, or the husband, or the butler in the library with a candle stick. Always one of those three”

“This is serious, Marcus!” Jason said, plaintively. “This really could be the work of The New World Order. You can’t be joking about butlers.”

I sighed and let them continue to argue about who the most likely suspect was as my eyes scanned the park. It was one of my favorite places in San Francisco and yet I hadn’t been here in years. Why was that? What keeps us from doing the easy things that brighten our lives? I couldn’t claim to be too busy. I wasn’t. And are you ever really to busy to just take a half hour every week or so and…

My thoughts floated away as my eyes rested on the very outskirt of the park where there was a man, standing very still, looking in my direction.

He was wearing a black baseball cap.

Slowly, I pushed myself off the well. Marcus and Jason were too busy debating useless things to pay any attention to me. I took a step forward, in the direction of the man. Ms. Dogz looked up at me curiously and then followed my gaze as I watched him. I took another step. Then another.

The man in the hat turned and started walking away.

“Come back here,” I said under my breath. Ms. Dogz looked up at me, the only one of my companions who had actually heard me.

“Come back here!” I yelled.

“What?” Marcus said and Jason added something along the lines of “Are you talking to me?”

There was too much distance between me and the man in the black hat for him to have possibly heard me.

And yet he broke into a jog, toward the street.

He was running away from me.

And then I broke into a run too. Dragging Ms. Dogz at first before she quickly overtook me and started dragging me. The man was moving faster now but so was I…too fast. Ms. Dogz was going too fast.

“Whoa!” I cried out, grasping at the first animal command that popped into my head to absolutely no effect. And the man was still running.

I tried to increase my pace to better match Ms. Dogz as I watched the man leave the park and turned onto the sidewalk. He was not going to get away.

And that’s when it happened.

A squirrel.

A friggin’ squirrel ran across our path toward a tree and Ms. Dogz completely Lost. Her. Mind.

With a bark, she did a ninety degree turn to chase her new furry target. “Stop!” I cried half a second before I fell face first into the grass as Ms. Dogz yanked away from me, running to the tree trunk where the squirrel had scampered up, barking at her like a she was a police dog cornering a drug dealer.

There was grass in my mouth. Dirt in my nose. My knee was stinging

“What the hell was that about?”

I looked up to see Jason, out of breath, standing over me. I turned my head to the street where the man had been. He was gone.

“What did you see?” Jason pressed

I scanned the street to the left and right. Nothing.

In my peripheral vision I could see that Marcus had managed to get the dog back and was dragging her my way “I saw a man.” I put my hand up to my hair, wondering how badly I had managed to mess up Marcus’ work. “A man in a black hat.”

“As in a cowboy hat?” Marcus asked. He had caught up with us just in time to hear my last remark. “Was he riding a horse?”

I shook my head and got to my feet, pulling a few blades of grass off my face. My jeans were torn and I could see drops of blood on my kneecap, but other than that I was fine. Ms. Dogz was wagging her tail stub, cocking her head to the side, looking deceptively innocent.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Marcus asked. I could tell the question was meant to pertain to both my physical and mental state.

I blinked at him and then looked back out at the street. “Yeah, I’m okay.” I brushed some dirt off of my clothes. “When will you be available to help me go through London’s apartment?”

Jason’s eyebrows jumped up into his hairline and then he gave me a slow, Cheshire-cat grin. “Hell yeah!”

 

Short Chapters, Long Chapters & Everything In Between

Editors, or at least all the genre fiction editors I’ve worked with, do not like extremely short chapters. To a lesser degree they dislike really long chapters too. And what they really hate is a book that has chapters of significantly different lengths. I have no idea why. I read books of all different genres including a lot of literary fiction. Books like Anthony Doer’s All The Light We Cannot See, Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton,  and Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives Of Poets are fairly fast reads not because they’re fluffy light weight reading, they’re not. They’re fast reading because so many of (but not all of) the chapters in those novels are so short. Readers don’t like to put books down in the middle of a chapter. But if a chapter is short and leaves you with a what’s-going-to-happen-next feeling you’re more likely to read to the next chapter and if that chapter’s short you might read to the next and the next all in one sitting. When done well, short chapters create fast pacing. And if you have a very short chapter amidst a bunch of medium length chapters the short chapter will have a different emphasis. You can create emphasis with structure as well as with prose.

I’m self-publishing CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE so I get to decide how long the chapters will be. In the back of my mind I can hear all my old editors telling me to keep the chapters of uniform length, not too short, not too long. I’m not doing that. It doesn’t feel natural. And yet when it comes to the chapter below…I just don’t know. I think what I’m posting below is one half of one chapter. But it IS possible I’ll make it a chapter all its own. More action and humor takes place in the second part of the chapter that isn’t included here and I’m not sure if the end of this segment of the chapter is enough of a hook to keep you from putting the book down if it’s your bedtime (every author wants to hear you stayed up all night reading). And yet if I keep the chapter long (as it is in my current manuscript) it…well, it may be too long. The length of the chapter might screw with the pacing. I’m just not sure and I probably won’t be sure for another week or so.

Regardless, this is what I’m posting today. I’ll post the next part next week. Also, I’m nearing having this book done. Hopefully by next week I’ll be able to give you an approximate release date and other news. Stay tuned!*

 

*Also, if you haven’t read the earlier chapters of CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE you can find them here!

CHAPTER 11

“People used to call me stubborn and anal-retentive. Now that I have a few million in the bank, they call me determined and detail oriented. Too often the things we’re told are flaws are the very things that we need for our success.”

–Dying To Laugh

 

 

Hours later I sat in my car with beautiful hair and a troubled mind. I was still in my parking spot, five city blocks from Marcus’ salon which, in San Francisco, is considered a convenient spot (any parking spot in San Francisco that is close enough to your destination not to require hiking boots is worth celebrating). To my left and right were Victorians and Edwardians all converted into apartments and condos and in my hand was a business card. The Nolan Volz business card that I had been carrying around with me since I found it in London’s apartment last night.

In my head I could hear Anatoly telling me to toss it. I could see Dena rolling her eyes at the very idea that there was something significant about this thing.

And I could hear Marcus’ voice, Drop you in a glassy lake and you’ll sink like a Jimmy Hoffa.

Images of Anita, sitting in the hospital waiting room, anger and fear in her eyes as she ordered me to leave. Sounds of her daughter’s voice as she coolly told me her father had died, told me her mother never wanted to speak to me.

Follow the breadcrumbs, jump in and ride the breaker. Make sense of it. It’s what you do, Sophie

I pulled my phone out of my bag and dialed the number on the card.

“Nolan-Volz, Gundrun Volz office, may I help you?” A woman asked She had the kind of voice that sounded sexy, bored and vexed all at the same time. I could imagine her doing phone sex for men who got off on being demeaned by hot chicks.

“Yes, um…I was hoping to reach Gundrun Volz.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, which was nice. She could have easily come back at me with no shit. I’m sure that’s what Mr. Katz would do if he was a receptionist. “And this is pertaining to?” she pressed.

“Aaron London?” I asked uncertainly, clueless as to how to proceed. “I’m not sure–”

“He doesn’t work here anymore,” the voice interrupted.

I hesitated a moment. “Come again?”

“Aaron London left the company almost six months ago. He is no longer associated with Nolan-Volz.”

I continued the hold the phone to my ear. I was pinching the business card so hard my fingertips had gone white. “I…okay,” I tried again, but words were failing me now. What the hell could Aaron London have done for Nolan Volz? “Could you tell me who holds his position now?”

“The position of Sr. V.P. of R and D? That would be–”

I hung up.

“Oh my God.” My heart was thrumming against my chest with so much force you’d think it was being operated by a hardcore techno DJ. This whole thing was getting weirder and weirder and a lot more suspicious. Even Anatoly would have to see that now.

Speaking of which…

Smiling I called him up, eager to hear his voice as he realized that there really was something odd about London’s death and maybe just a little excited to hear him say, wow, maybe you were right!

“Hey,” he said. His Russian accent was a little more pronounced this afternoon, something that happened when he was irritated, turned on or not properly caffeinated.

“Hey you. Have you managed to track down Anita London yet?” I asked. “About the dog?”

“Not yet, I’ve been swamped. But I’m about to start working on it.”

“Uh-huh.” A large moth landed on my windshield, resting it’s little insect legs against the glass. “I just found out Aaron London was a V.P. for Nolan-Volz.”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line.

“Anatoly?” I asked. “Are you still there?”

“Are you sure?” he finally asked.

“I just called the company. I’m sure.”

“Why did you call the company?”

“That’s what you’re focused on?” The moth took off to eavesdrop on somebody else. “He was a Sr. V.P. of R and D. He left a little less than six months ago. I don’t know if he was fired or if he quit but when he was going off on that company, I mean, that wasn’t random. He wasn’t talking out of his ass. He actually knew how they operate.”

Again, there was silence on the other end of the line. He was probably in shock. “So?” I pressed, when I couldn’t take it any longer. “What do you think?”

I could picture him sitting in his office chair, slowly getting to his feet as he took in the implications of this news. I leaned forward, almost pressing against the steering wheel, waiting for one of his Russian curses followed by an admission that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. “I think,” he finally said, drawing out the words, “that London was a disgruntled employee who had a breakdown.”

So that was not the reaction I was hoping for. “But…don’t you think it’s possible he was a whistle blower?” I asked.

“If he was a whistle blower he would have gone to the press or a government official. He wouldn’t have come to us. The man who walked into my office yesterday may have been sane six months ago, or at least sane enough to hold down a corporate job, but clearly something happened to him.”

“You mean like, he was poisoned?” I didn’t like the zeal that was in my voice. A woman and her three toy poodles walked past, all four of them projecting a cartoonish air of wealth and disdain.

“No, I mean like he started drinking, or taking drugs or maybe it’s the reverse. Maybe he stopped taking the medication that was stabilizing him. Regardless, it’s not our business.”

I slumped back in my seat. “But don’t you think things are kind of adding up?” I asked, my tone sounding a little pleading now. “A woman claiming to be his wife showing up at the hospital. His neighbor saying he didn’t have a wife…”

“Yes, it’s adding up,” Anatoly admitted. “He used to be a stable man. Then he lost his job, his wife and then, finally, he went into a downward spiral.”

I stared down at the business card, the super villain name glaring back at me in bold, black ink.

“I’ll try to track down Anita London this afternoon to ask her if she wants the dog,” Anatoly was saying. “and…oh, I’m sorry, I have another call coming in. A client.”

“Yeah, sure of course, you should take that,I said, distractedly.

“Don’t over think this, Sophie. Let this one go.”

I stayed on the line long enough to hear the line go dead.

And then I pulled the phone away from my ear and dialed up Gundrun Volz office once more.

“Nolan-Volz, Gundrun Volz’ office, can I help you?”

“I’m sorry, we were disconnected before. My name’s Sophie Katz and I’m doing a freelance piece for the San Francisco Chronicle.”

“Oh, yes, do you have follow up questions for Mr. Volz?” the woman repeated, still sounding bored-sexy.

Follow-up questions? What the hell was she talking about? “Yes,” I said, working hard to keep the question mark out of my voice.

“If you’d like to leave your name and number I’ll pass along your request to Mr. Volz.”

I mechanically recited my information as I tried to figure out what exactly was going on.

“The article is running in four days, yes?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I said, deciding that sticking to the one syllable word was probably my best strategy.

“So you’ll need to hear from him soon,” she reasoned. “Are you requesting an in person meeting or will another phone call suffice?”

“In person is probably best,” I said, a little doubtfully.

“I’ll see what I can do.” I gave her my information, hung up, got out of my car and half walked, half ran back to the salon. I got there just as Marcus was walking out the door, a shiny, tan windbreaker pulled over his broad shoulders.

“You’re back,” he noted as I approached breathless and smiling.

“If I was going to investigate London’s death,” I asked, “where do you think I should start?’

Marcus’ lips curled up until his smile matched my own. “Well, let’s see, you claimed you weren’t able follow most of what London said to you in Anatoly’s office , right? That it just sounded like the fragmented ramblings of a conspiracy theorist?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Do you think you might have understood him better if you were a conspiracy theorist?” he asked, slipping his hands into his jacket pocket.

“Maybe, but I’m not.”

“Do you know any?”

My brow creased as I tried to figure out where I could find a conspiracy theorist who could decode London’s words for me. In the distance there was the sound of angry honking from multiple cars, above me somewhere the sound of a low flying plane.

And then it hit me. I glanced up at Marcus to see from the look on his face that he had thought of someone too.

Together we said, “Jason.”

Sophie, Techies & A Whole New San Francisco

When you write a mystery series over a 12 year time span (SEX, MURDER & A DOUBLE LATTE was originally published in 2005) you are faced with the challenge of not just conveying the ways the characters change (and don’t) over the years but also conveying how the primary character has changed. No, I’m not talking about Sophie Katz, I’m talking about San Francisco. When I first imagined Sophie it was 2002. Silicon Valley was already established and becoming a mega-force. But San Francisco wasn’t considered an offshoot of Silicon Valley. It was still a town defined by it’s bohemians, it’ off-beat individualism, its eclectic cultures, its proud embrace of the mystical and the weird. Egalitarianism was the prevailing philosophy even if it wasn’t the practiced reality. Those days are gone. There are now exclusive clubs in San Francisco that require huge membership fees to join. There was even a (failed) attempt to rent out sections of grass in a popular San Francisco public park for private use. In case you’re not grasping that, people were being asked to rent grass on public land for the right to sit on it. And of course the biggest change has been the demographics. Tye-dye has been replaced with Mark-Zuckerberg-style hoodies.Diversity has dramatically decreased.

All cities change and not all changes are bad. There is a lot to say for the tech industry and the opportunities, innovations and wealth it has brought to the Bay Area. But it’s also true that dramatic change is emotional and it has winners and losers. San Francisco arguably now has the highest rent prices in the world.  And people who have lived in San Francisco for decades are feeling a sense of loss, not to mention and hefty dose of resentment.

My upcoming Sophie novel, CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE isn’t about this internal struggle for the city’s soul. But I can’t ignore it either. San Francisco has been too important of a character in this series for me to brush aside its dramatic shifts and changing vibe. I’ve tried to integrate the struggles of the city in subtle ways. Not moralizing it, just seeing it all through Sophie’s eyes. Sophie has never been a radical or even a socialist. And yet she can’t help but note the loss of the home she knew as a child with a certain amount of chagrin and bewilderment. Again, it’s a subtle motif throughout the book. None of my characters have ever been stagnant. Their relationships change and progress as does their own sense of self. It makes sense that the changes of the city they live in should mirror that development. For better and  worse.

I hope you enjoy this next chapter of CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. Remember, if you’re not caught up, please click here to read all the chapters that proceed it. This chapter is also the first that we get to become reacquainted with another favorite character, Marcus!

Chapter 10

“Everyone is beautiful in their own way…but it really helps when they use good hair products.”

–Dying For Laughs

 

 

 

My whole office was flooded with morning sun. Anatoly was gone but I was still in my nightshirt, my hair an ill shaped frizzy halo. I had an appointment with Marcus that afternoon so I had zero incentive to try to do anything with it. But then, I hadn’t really done much with it for some time now.

I ran my bare foot over Ms. Dogz back, letting her fur tickle my sole. To her left was Mr. Katz, giving her a hardcore kitty glare. Still, his proximity to our newest resident was progress.

My laptop sat before me and was open to Microsoft Word. Microsoft called their software Word because that was its raison d’être; to hold words. And my raison d’être was to create words. I should have been looking at a page filled with my words. Words that carved images into readers minds, gave life to new adventures, words that created colorful characters, pain, hilarity and love. But the only thing on my screen was a bleak, empty page and a cursor blinking at me accusingly.

I ran my fingers over the keys, once, then twice.

 

Once upon a time…

 

I let out a wry laugh and hit the delete button. I looked down at my furry friends. “I have never wanted to be an accountant,” I told them. “But there are many days when I’ve wanted to want to be an accountant.”

Ms. Dogz tilted her head in a manner that was clearly doggie language for explain. Mr. Katz blinked his eyes which was kitty language for, you don’t have to explain. I get it.

“If you’re an accountant you just do your job,” I went on, for Ms. Dogz’ sake. “You don’t need to be inspired. You don’t have to create a new world every year. You just do what you know how to do. But being a author, you have to relearn your craft with each friggin’ book.” I looked back at the computer screen. The grey borders on either side of an unadulterated, white document. My imagination was failing me. I had become as dull and empty as the screen.

“I’m lost,” I whispered. “I need help.”

Mr. Katz looked up at me and blinked his eyes once. Kitty language for, “No shit.”

***

 

Three hours later Marcus was studying my hair, his mouth curved down as he reached out to touch one of my frizzier curls. We were in his salon and the music of Prince was intermingling with the sounds of confidences being exchanged between patrons and their stylists. The exposed brick walls made the place seem both elitist and rustic. Marcus was also a mix of those two sensibilities. His short dreads and muscular form denoted a man who didn’t need to spend time primping in the morning, but his AX Armani t-shirt paired with his fitted white jeans said that he did anyway.

“You haven’t been using your product,” he growled.

I sighed, my mind elsewhere.

“It’s like you’ve been taking styling lessons from Don King.”

“Oh come on, it’s not that bad,” I snapped, the insult bringing me back to the here and now. “I ran out of product a few days ago. I was going to pick some more up yesterday but things got hectic.”

“Did we have a nuclear holocaust that I missed?” he asked. “Because short of that, there’s no excuse for going days without product. We live in a civilized society, Sophie. This,” he held out my curls so that they formed wings on either side of my head, “is not civilized.”

“What is your problem today?”

“My problem?” He leaned back on his heels and stroked his chin, pretending to ponder the question. “Well it starts with my assistant calling in sick this morning with an upset stomach…too much vodka will do that to a person. So I rescheduled the client whose appointment layered over the end of yours for another day, and then my next three clients, three, cancelled on me.

“Three?” I repeated, surprised. Marcus’s services were always in high demand. Most people had to wait months for an appointment. It was hard to imagine three of them cancelling at the last minute. “What’s going on?”

“One of them has some sort of work emergency and her boss won’t let her leave until it’s handled. Another just found out that her son’s about to be expelled from his elite private school so she’s running over there with an endowment check and an accompanying plea for leniency. And the last just found out this morning that her husband has been screwing their dog trainer.” He spit out the last sentence with particular vehemence. The stylist working nearest us cast a bemused look in our direction before pointing her hair dryer at her client’s head. “I understand why you might have to cancel a hair appointment in order to save your job or your kid,” Marcus said, raising his voice to be heard over the dryer, “but if you find out you’re being cheated on the first thing you should do is fix you damn hair! What, you’re going to confront your husband and his mistress on a bad hair day? Who does that?”

“It does seem like an ill conceived plan,” I agreed.

“And then to top it all off, you come in here looking like you just went skipping through a thunderstorm with a lightning rod all because you can’t be bothered to get your butt over to Target to buy some product!”

“Oh for…” I shook my head, already bored with my role as a temporary punching bag. “Look,” I said, steadily, “I’m here, aren’t I? Or is all this too much for you to handle?” I patted my hair protectively. “Because there’s a new salon on Maiden Lane that supposedly specializes in miracles.”

Marcus made eye contact with me through the mirror. “Oh touché.” He stepped back and examined my hair even more carefully. I stared pointedly at the blown up Rolling Stones covers that decorated the walls. Much better than seeing Marcus’ perfect nose wrinkle in distaste.

“All right,” he finally grumbled. “I’ve vented, I’m calmer and I’ve formulated a plan of attack.”

I gave him a small smile. “You still love me?”

“Always and forever,” he said with a sigh. “Okay, let’s Beyoncé you out.”

He stepped forward and started combing through the disaster, his eyes narrowed with focus. “I’d like to do some color but if we do you have to promise me you’ll deep condition once a week. Your hair’s going to start getting drier now that the grey’s coming in and—“

“The grey’s coming in?” I leaped to my feet and faced him. “Is that supposed to be some kind of sick joke?”

The patrons in the chairs nearest me all jumped, surprised by my outburst and then quickly started whispering to their respective stylists.

Marcus gave me a withering stare. “We all go grey sometime, honey. Anderson Cooper went silver fox before he hit thirty.”

“But that’s not me!” I insisted, banging my hand against the revolving chair. “I’m not going to go grey for another decade! I don’t have a single strand of—ow!”

Marcus had reached over and yanked out one of my hairs from the back of my head and held it up for my inspection. “What color would you say that is?”

I bit down on my lower lip and glared at the hair. “Slate.”

The corners of Marcus’ mouth twitched. “It’s a little light for slate. You might have to amend to silver.”

“Fuck.”

“Sit.”

“Fine.” I dropped back down in my chair, disgusted.

“It’s really not a big deal,” he assured me, my own outburst calming his mood.

“Whatever.” I sounded like a petulant teenager. Did London’s daughter sound like that? How was she doing? “Are there a lot of hairs…like that back there?”

He hesitated a little too long before replying. “Have you been stressed lately?”

“No! Not unless I grew this within the last twenty-four hours! With the major exception of yesterday, everything has been smooth as silk. I have no deadlines. Excluding last night, Anatoly and I haven’t had an argument about anything in like, a year. Every one I care about is doing well. Financially I’m totally fine. My family has been acting suspiciously sane. Mr. Katz is thriving. I have absolutely zero to be stressed about.”

“Ah, that explains it.”

I turned my head so I could figure out what the hell he was talking about but he firmly turned it back toward the mirror. “Artist at work. Stay still.” He started working through a particularly stubborn tangle with the business end of a comb. “The good news is that with me on your team you never have to go…slate. You’ll only get blonder with age.”

I started to nod in appreciation then remembered myself and went into mannequin-challenge mode, only allowing my eyes to wander around the room. I noticed for the first time that, with the exception of the Eurasian receptionist, Marcus and I were the only people of color in the salon. Thanks to Silicon Valley and sky rocketing rents the whole city was becoming blonder with age. We used to be vanilla, chocolate chip ice cream with caramel swirls. Now the chips and swirls were becoming a little more sparse. If we kept it up we might morph into plane ol’ vanilla.

Until yesterday, your life had become a bit vanilla too.

I blanched and cast my eyes down. I didn’t know where that little voice had come from but it was wrong. As wrong as the silver hairs on my head.

“All right,” he sighed once the knots were gone and my hair was divided up into several different sections. “Stay here while I go mix some color. When I get back you can tell me about the last twenty-four hours that were…less than smooth?”

“They weren’t even in the vicinity of smooth.”

“Oh goody. I’m crossing my fingers for scandalous. Be right back, love.”

He turned and disappeared into a back room where all the chemicals were kept. I lifted my eyes again to see my reflection in the mirror. I looked ridiculous, a black, nylon styling cape drawn tightly around my neck, covering my clothes, my hair divided into a multitude of sections with Marcus’ clips and sticking out every which way. The salon’s receptionist stopped by to ask me if I wanted coffee, or maybe a glass of champagne. I had been coming to this place long enough to know the champagne was cheap and the coffee was not so I opted for the caffeine. As she walked away I thought I noted, through the picture windows, a man in a black baseball hat standing outside, across the street from the salon, staring at me. But when I turned my head to look he was walking swiftly away. I was imagining things. At least I hoped I was. It would be super embarrassing if I scared off a stalker by looking like a crazed, greying circus clown.

But there was something about the way he walked as he disappear out of my line of sight…why did he seem familiar to me?

“So tell me about yesterday.”

The sound of Marcus’ voice startled me. I hadn’t heard him approach. “Yesterday was not a good day,” I insisted as he began to paint each hair section with a thick goo of white, then sandwich it between tinfoil.

“Uh-huh. Tell me about it anyway.”

I sighed and laid out the whole story. London, his manic warnings and fears, his collapse, his apartment, the text, the Zipcar, the business cards, Anita, Catherine, Ms. Dogz…although I left out the part about Ms. Dogz’ given name.

“London,” he said, thoughtfully. “I like that. We would all sound so much more sophisticated if we were named after two syllable cities. Paris, London, Florence, Milan—“

“New York?”

“Okay, maybe it’s a European phenomenon.” He painted another section of hair. “So you don’t actually know if London’s married to that woman?”

“I’m pretty sure he was. I mean, he had a wedding ring so he was married to someone. I tried looking her up online before I came in today, same with London but, you know, they don’t exactly have uncommon names, or at least not uncommon enough. I couldn’t find her daughter either although I did discover that there is a Catherine St. in London, so you know there’s that.”

“But it was Catherine who called to give you the news, right?” He asked tapping his foot along with the Bruno Mars song that had just come on. “So you have her number.”

“When I call it rings once and then goes directly to Voicemail. I tried last night and again on my way over here. I texted her too but haven’t heard back.”

“She’s probably blocked you,” he said matter-of-factly.

“You think?”

“When you block someone on your iPhone it rings once and then goes to voicemail.” He painted another section of hair. “Only thing is, the person who’s done the blocking never gets the voicemails, or the texts of the caller. Remember that guy I went out with, the one who lasered off his pubic hair so he could put lily and daisy tattoos on his pelvic area?”

“Flower boy!” I cried out, entertained by the memory. “You dropped him right after he gave you a glimpse of his…er…pruned garden, right?”

“Yep. And when he wouldn’t stop calling I blocked him. The bartender who introduced us told me he’s been getting the one ring ever since.”

“Huh. Well I hope she is getting the messages because in them I pointed out once again that I only met her dad yesterday. In other words I’m not, not, not his girlfriend.” I paused for a moment before adding, “If she wasn’t his daughter I’d be embarrassed that she didn’t think I could do better.”

“The state of your hair probably threw her off.”

“Marcus.”

“Okay, okay.” He ran his gloved fingers over another section of hair. “So once again, the fates have aligned and a real life murder mystery has been dropped into your lap. What are you going to do?”

I chewed on my lower lip and rubbed the nylon fabric of my black cape between my fingers. “Nothing,” I eventually answered.

Marcus shifted his weight back on his heels and met my eyes in the mirror. “Say what?”

“I’m not going to do anything,” I explained. “Initially I was tempted. To you know, poke around, see if I could turn up anything suspicious. But then Anatoly weighed in. He definitely thinks pursuing this whole supposed mystery is ill advised and I have to admit he has a point.” I paused as the patron next to me squealed with delight as she tossed her newly purple and blue hair. “Dena and Mary Ann think I should leave it alone too. Hell, even London’s dog seems skeptical of my foul-play theories. And you know what? I’m finally grown up enough to listen to other people’s opinions.” I sighed and shook my head. “Plus London’s daughter clearly doesn’t want me anywhere near this thing. I really think I need to respect the daughter’s wishes, don’t you?”

Marcus went silent, allowing the chitchat and the music of the room fill the space between us as he studied my reflection. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, “Marcus?”

“No.”

“No?” I repeated.

Hell no! That child’s mother might be a murderer! She may actually need your help, whether she wants it or not.”

“But Occam’s razor says Aaron London killed Aaron London.” I protested. “I don’t have any compelling reason to believe it was a homicide. Just a text and a hunch.” I glanced up at Janis Joplin who was sticking her tongue out at me from a 26 x 38 inch Rolling Stones cover.

“Something hasn’t been quite right with you lately,” he said, slowly.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I muttered.

“Yes, you do.” He put his brush down with a sigh and checked the clock. “For one thing, the Sophie I know would never go days without hair products.”

“Oh, come on.”

“When is the last time you got any writing done?”

“Hello non sequitur,” I forced a laugh. My gaze slid from the poster to my feet.

“When Sophie?”

I shrugged noncommittally and ventured a glance at Marcus’ reflection. He looked firm but also concerned. Mostly he looked like he wasn’t going to take a shrug for an answer. “Ok, fine,” I said, throwing up my hands. “I haven’t written a word since I turned in my last manuscript almost two years ago, but it’s not my fault! All those years of writing Alicia Bright and now that’s done and…and it’s hard just coming up with something new.”

“Oh, you think that’s it?” he asked, flatly.

“I want it to come to me organically,” I explained, self-consciously, “like it did when I came up with my Alicia Bright series.”

“You came up with the Alicia Bright series while you were going through a chaotic divorce from an infuriating man,” Marcus pointed out. “That’s what motivates you.”

“Divorce?”

“Craziness!” He put his hands on his hips. “Drama! Big giant messes! I have news for you, girlfriend, you are not wired like the rest of us. Throw you into a stormy sea and you’ll swim like an Olympian. Drop you in a glassy lake and you’ll sink like a Jimmy Hoffa.”

“I am not sinking!”

“Really? Tell that to your follicles!” he retorted.

A large truck passed the salon making the ground rumble beneath me as I angrily gripped the armrests of my chair. “Just a few minutes ago I was telling you how great things were going for me!”

“You told me how smooth things were. Totally different. And I bet things don’t feel quite the same between you and Anatoly these days either!”

“Don’t be ridiculous! We’re absolutely in love!”

“Oh, go put it in a Hallmark card. Like I said, you’ve been off lately. But when you came in today, you seemed a little better, and that’s because of the craziness of yesterday.”

“This is ridiculous,” I muttered. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Uh-huh. You once told me you and Anatoly could survive anything except decaf and boredom and you are bored out of your frizzy haired skull.”

I glanced around the bustling room. No one was looking at us now which was odd because I felt like Marcus had just busted open my whole psyche and laid it out on the floor. I shook my head, causing the many bits of tinfoil in my hair to brush against each other. “I guess I’ve been feeling kind of…numb lately.” The words burned my throat, scorching me with humiliation. “I am happy a lot, but, I don’t know, I’m missing…I guess I’m missing my spark. And things have just been weird. Every once in a while I’ll think someone’s watching me, and then I look and no one’s there and rather than be relieved I’m like, disappointed because if someone was spying on me at least that would be interesting. Which is crazy. I’m crazy.”

“All the most interesting people are,” Marcus countered.

“Yeah, but that’s not…I mean, oh, I don’t know, Marcus…I guess I’m embarrassed.” I hung my head, letting the tinfoil crinkle. “I’m embarrassed that I’m struggling to fully be the person everybody knows me to be. I can’t write, Marcus. What do I do?”

“Two things,” he said, solemnly.

I looked up at him, ready to take his words as soul-saving commandments. Whatever advice came out of his mouth would be my new gospel.

“Are you ready for this?”

“I’m ready,” I replied, almost meekly.

“All right. Number one,” he held up one finger, dramatically, “deep condition.”

“Oh for God’s sake.” I had never punched Marcus before but I was tempted.

“Two,” Marcus continued, “solve a real life murder mystery…again.”

“I don’t get it. You’ve always counseled me to behave…well, reasonably. And now you want me to slip on my gumshoes in order to investigate the marginally suspicious death of a total stranger.”

“Because that is reasonable for you.” He gently swiveled my chair around so I was facing him directly. “It’s not that you’re a drama queen–”

“Gee, thanks.”

“It’s that you’re a drama goddess. You have a sacred duty to follow drama wherever you see it, and you see it now. Nobody dies of pneumonia these days.”

“Actually, pneumonia kills over 50,000 thousand people per—“

“Don’t bore me with statistics,” Marcus said, theatrically. “Follow the breadcrumbs, jump in and ride the breaker. Make sense of it. It’s what you do, Sophie.”

“This is insane,” I said with a laugh.

“Exactly!” Marcus replied. “Trust me, Sophie, If you let a little crazy seep back into your life and a little moisture seep back into your head your life will be the glorious mess you need it to be. And your hair,” he added with a sniff, “will just be glorious.”

 

 

More Sophie and Some Outlining Angst

When I dined with George R.R. Martin a few weeks back I picked his brain in regards to his process. He confessed that he doesn’t outline. He just follows where the characters take him. I found that answer startling. Yes, it’s a very common answer for fiction writers to give but most writers have one or two protagonists, not twelve or more as is the case with the Game Of Thrones series. Compare that to mystery novelist Elizabeth George who often speaks of her intensive outlining process. By the time she sits down to actually write the story she knows exactly what is going to happen in every scene.

I’m jealous of Elizabeth George. Knowing what you’re going to write before you write it just seems so much easier. Yes, in many ways I’d love to emulate George R.R. Martin in many ways but he’s never pretended to be a “fast” writer and I assume that his process, which is clearly right for him, has something to do with that. Characters are like real people, they’re complicated and sometimes clueless. If you follow them they may lead you in a good direction, or they may lead you around in a circle which means you have to go back, retrace your steps and rewrite a bunch of chapters. Of course when they lead you in the right direction it can be a glorious, but always bumpy, journey.

try to outline. But my characters just aren’t interested in my plans for them. I have tossed out every single outline I have ever written by the time I’m half way through my manuscript. What that means is that I end up doing a lot of rewriting. I don’t want to do a lot of rewriting but that’s just how it works out. I fumble through a rough draft and before i’m done with it I start rereading some of it a little writing spirit will lean in and whisper, “I think this scene comes a little too early on, don’t you?” or “Now that we know this character better, wouldn’t he be doing Y instead of X here?” And that’s when the tweaks come along with the more significant changes and deleted pages. Soooo many deleted pages. It’s frustrating. But the weird thing is, by the time it’s done, it’s clear that as messy and chaotic as my process is, it does eventually get me to where I want to go.

So what I’m trying to say is I’ve been doing some rewriting and while all the major changes happen later in the book I have had to make a few tweaks in the chapters I’ve already published here. I’ve updated them so if you read them now they’re up to date. For those who don’t want to re-read what you’ve already read, just know, when Sophie first meets London, one of the things he rants about is a drug called Rispolex. Later, when she goes into London’s apartment the business card she finds there now reads:

Gundrun Volz

Nolan-Volz

Co-Founder, CEO

Those are the only changes you really need to know about so far. I hope you don’t mind being involved in the chaos of my process. I can’t help it. My characters are just chaotic people.

Speaking of which, here’s the next (VERY short) chapter from CHAOS, DECEIT & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE, giving you a glimpse into the chaos of Sophie’s own inner turmoil. Enjoy!

 

Chapter 9

“There’s a reason I’m afraid of the dark. When I can’t see the tangled mess that surrounds me, I start thinking about the tangled mess that is me.”

–Dying To Laugh

 

I woke up to the quiet whine of Ms. Dogz. Anatoly’s arm draped over my stomach, his breathing deep and steady, his body completely relaxed into sleep. I felt the weight of Mr. Katz, curled up above the covers. There was just enough light for me to see Ms. Dogz outline on the makeshift bed of spare blankets we had set-up for her. Her head was on her paws, her eyes too black to make out. But her whining…steady, mournful, rhythmic, it was heartbreaking.

Such a whirlwind of emotions. The ecstasy of the evening that topped off a day filled with confusion, daring, thrills, loss and guilt.

All fun aside I still felt so much guilt.

“There’s nothing I could have done,” I whispered aloud, to the dark, to London’s dog. Even if we had agreed to help him, we still wouldn’t have been able to save his life. It’s not our fault.

But the last few moments of his life…those could have been filled with hope. Anatoly and I filled them with disappointment. Now, with nothing around to distract me, I couldn’t escape that truth.

Anatoly mumbled something incoherent and turned to face the other wall, dragging his warmth away.

Carefully I pulled my feet out from underneath my cat. With practiced stealth, I managed to creep out from beneath the blankets without waking either of my bedmates. I crouched down by Ms. Dogz and ran my hand over the top of her head and back. She smelled cleaner than I felt. “You’re going to be OK,” I assured her.

How many people had said that to me after I lost my own father at nineteen? And, assuming she really was his daughter, how many people must have said that to Cat London within the last ten hours? All those people were right of course. But in an odd way they were totally wrong too. When you loose someone who is that central to your being you have to change the definition of what it means to be OK.

Ms. Dogz’ whining was getting softer with my touch, less plaintive. The quiet gave new amplification to the thoughts forming in my exhausted mind:

Maybe Anatoly’s right.

London was probably separated from his wife, which didn’t mean there still wasn’t love there. Not necessarily. Yes, he was clearly in the middle of a breakdown but if she was the mother of his child, Anita was his family.

If London’s family wanted my help, I would owe it to them. But they quite clearly didn’t. Would London want me to upset his family? Now, just as they had begun to grieve?

Yes, yes he would if it meant uncovering the truth.

But it was hard to figure out if that was the voice of reason or that of my own stubbornness. There was no question that I was incredibly tempted to pursue this. To investigate and see if I could solve a murder or at the very least prove that it was a murder. But why? What would be the point? No matter what I discovered, London would still be gone. His last moments on this earth would still be defined by disappointment. The latter’s my fault but I couldn’t change what was done. I couldn’t help him.

But I could still make it worse. I could hurt his daughter.

So if I did pursue this, who would I be doing it for? Me? Today should have been purely awful. And it was awful…except…it was also so much fun. I had felt…energized. More so than I had in a while. Even the resulting conflict with Anatoly had ended up amplifying our lust. What was wrong with me that I could get an endorphin kick from something so dark and twisted?

I removed my hand from Ms. Dogz back and sat quietly by her side. “It’s possible I’m a monster,” I murmured. Ms. Dogz tilted her head, looking up at me with eyes that were still perfectly camouflaged by the darkness. Then she shifted her weight and put her head on my lap.

I loved this dog.

I would have to think about what I’d needed to do to deserve her.

 

 

Cemeteries, Fireworks, & A Little Love For Sophie

I spent the 4th of July in the liveliest cemetery in the world. Yes, I’m talking about the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Home to Johnny Ramone, Douglass Fairbanks, Chris Cornell and venue for indie rock concerts, movie screenings and more. Last night we went to see the screening of Jurassic Park followed by a fireworks display choreographed to everything from Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now to the theme song of South Park’s creator’s movie, Team America: World Police. It. Was. A. Blast.

Is it weird to be partying among a bunch of graves and screening a movie against the wall of a mausoleum? A little. Some may wonder why they would want to be buried in a known party spot. Well, maybe they want to be part of the party. Or maybe Chris Cornell wanted to be buried next to Johnny Ramone (he is). But I’d like to think that maybe he wanted both. I think the people who are buried there want to be eternally part of the Los Angeles experience. They want to be within listening distance to the up and coming artists who play at the cemetery’s venues   and to rest under a sky that will occasionally be filled with fireworks.

And when you think about it that way, who wouldn’t want that? If you have to die why not be laid to rest in a place that is perpetually filled with joy, laughter and life?

Now, as for Sophie. I expect to have a rough release date by this time next week. But in the interim, enjoy these rough pages of CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. If you haven’t read the pervious chapters, catch up by clicking here!

 

Chapter 8

“If you play tennis like a pro, it’s not fun to play with amateurs. By the same logic, I refuse to sleep with virgins.

–Dying To Laugh

 

 

 

By the time I got home I was sober enough to drive but exhausted enough to pass out. Still, I had managed to retrieve my car, drive to a 24 hour CVS, load up on dog food, poop bags and the like. Ms. Dogz, as I was now calling her, was calm enough, but occasionally she would let out a whine and once, when I looked back at her while at a stoplight, I noticed she was shaking.

When Ms. Dogz and I finally stumbled up my front steps and sort of fell through the door of my Victorian, Anatoly had already been home for hours. He was waiting for me in the living room, reading some WWII book on our leather couch, one foot propped up on the dark wood coffee table. “I thought you were going to call and have me come get you,” he said, not looking up quite yet as he marked his place in the book. Mr. Katz was snuggled up by his side but when my feline saw what I had brought with me, he was immediately on his feet, back arched.

Anatoly noticed and followed Mr. Katz’ glare. “You got a dog?” he asked, incredulously.

“Not exactly,” I hedged. “She needs a bath.”

Ms. Dogz managed to wiggle away from me but once her freedom was obtained she didn’t exactly go wild. Instead she carefully sniffed the area rug covering the recently re-polished hardwood floors, then the chair closest to her. Finally she approached Anatoly and Mr. Katz.

“You’re beautiful,” Anatoly told her, appreciatively. “But she’s right. You are in dire need of a bath.”

Mr. Katz leaned forward and swapped his claws across Ms. Dogz’ nose.

Ms. Dogz looked stunned and took several steps back as Anatoly swiftly picked up Mr. Katz, ignoring his flailing attempts to try to strike once more at his new adversary. “Looks like she needs a bath and a Band-Aid now. What’s her name?”

“I’m calling her Ms. Dogz. We’re just fostering her until I can figure out if she belongs to someone,” I said, side-stepping the question. I went up and examined Ms. Dogz’ nose. Only a minor scratch. Still, it was ironic that I had thought Mr. Katz would be the one who would need protection. Mr. Katz was the Lion King of Ashbury Heights.

Anatoly nodded and walked back to our only downstairs bedroom, otherwise known as my office, and shut Mr. Katz in there.

“I don’t want him to think he’s being replaced,” I said, urgently.

“He can stay in the office until he calms down. Where did you find her?”

“She was trapped,” I hedged. “Want to help me bathe her?”

He gave me a quizzical look.

“I don’t know if she has fleas,” I said, quickly, not wanting to give him a chance to ask too many questions, “but I bought some Dawn dish soap because apparently Dawn kills fleas. Did you know that? Isn’t that weird?”

“Why don’t you want me to know where you found her?” Anatoly asked, flatly.

“I told you, she was trapped…inside.” I shifted my weight back onto my heels. “I really think we should wash her.”

“Inside where?”

I bit my lip and looked over at the dog.

“Inside where, Sophie?”

Immediately Ms. Dogz ears perked up and she trotted over to Anatoly’s side. It brought a small smile to his lips. He was such a sucker for dogs. He leaned down to look at her tags and then burst out laughing.

“I know what it says. We’re still calling her Ms. Dogz,” I said with a little smile.

“Have you called the number on the tag?” He asked.

“I have, but the person at that number…isn’t available.”

He shot me another look and then slowly straightened back to standing. “Why so cryptic tonight? Where exactly was she trapped?”

I swallowed hard, and then mumbled, “Inside an apartment.”

There was at least five seconds of silence. “You want to try that again?”

I held up my hands in a request for patience and understanding. “I didn’t do anything significantly illegal.”

Anatoly’s eyebrows shot up and then he muttered some Russian curse.

“Look, I can explain everything while we wash the dog.” I pulled out the Dawn and held it out for him as if the dish-soap would clarify everything. “We have to get rid of the theoretical fleas.”

***

In the upstairs hall bathroom, Anatoly and I were both on our knees, wet. This was the first time we had been in this position together when sex wasn’t involved. Although Anatoly did look like sex on a stick. He had removed his shoes, his socks, his shirt, so now it was just him in his jeans and a perfectly chiseled torso all wet from our efforts to clean this mutt. I was probably looking a little less enticing in bleach-stained yoga pants and a Race For A Cure 2012 t-shirt.

Mr. Katz had been freed from my office and was now sulking in our bedroom. Ms. Dogz was before us, in a tub full of soapy bubbles looking extremely unhappy. Almost as unhappy as Anatoly. I had told him the whole story. From beginning to end. As stories go, it wasn’t his favorite.

“This isn’t the big mystery you think it is,” Anatoly insisted as he massaged some of the soap into the dogs fur. “Anita and Aaron London are probably separated. He might not have even been wearing the ring, just carrying it around while they figured things out.”

“And he dropped it in the sink from his pocket?” I asked incredulously. Although the more I thought about it, the more and more likely it seemed that the couple had been separated. At the hospital Cat London had asked me why I hadn’t taken her father to the hospital sooner. I had assumed she meant sooner in the day, but now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure she meant that at all. It was more than likely she meant I should have taken him earlier in the week, maybe even earlier in the month. Because if she had seen him recently surely she or Anita would have been the ones to take him to the hospital.

I scrubbed some more soap into Ms. Dogz neck. She gave me a look similar to the one my sister gave me when I set the table using paper napkins. It was a why-are-you-doing-this-to-me look. “Maybe London died of natural causes and Anita’s on the up and up,” I said. “But it’s also possible you’re wrong, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into that?”

“No.”

“No?” I balked. “You don’t believe there’s even the slightest chance your wrong?”

“It’s highly unlikely,” he amended. “But now, thanks to you, I have to track this woman down anyway and figure out how to explain to her why we have her husband’s dog. You know what you did was reckless, right? You could have called the SPCA.”

“I didn’t need to call anyone. I had a key.”. And it had been fun being reckless again.

“You understand we’re going to have to return her, yes?” I might have been mistaken, but I thought I heard just a tinge of regret in Anatoly’s voice. He had been wanting a dog for a while but I had been hesitant to impose something like that on Mr. Katz. It wasn’t an unrealistic concern. I could tell by the look Mr. Katz gave Ms. Dogz as she came out of the office that a dogicide was being plotted.

“Maybe not. I mean, yes, if London had the dog before their supposed split, Anita will want her back,” I reasoned as I moved on to Ms. Dogz back. There were soapsuds clinging to Anatoly’s bicep and I was trying really, really hard not to stare. “On the other hand, if Ms. Dogz was Anita’s replacement…” I let my voice trail off, allowing Anatoly to fill in the blanks.

Anatoly reached for the hand shower, his arm brushing up against mine as he did although neither of us looked at one another. Ms. Dogz treated Anatoly to a baleful stare. I wondered how much she understood. If she was waiting for London to come knocking on the door and rescue her from this water torture.

“Anyway, you can’t say there isn’t any reason to at least consider the possibility that London sorta, kinda knew what he was talking about,” I pressed. “That maybe someone was out to get him. That he was being poisoned. He is dead, after all.”

“It wasn’t that long ago that you tried to convince me that Alex Kinsky sorta, kinda knew what he was talking about.” He turned on the stream and started rinsing the suds off Ms. Dogz. “But he was conning you. He almost ended up killing both of us.”

“First off, that has literally absolutely nothing to do with this,” I snapped. “Alex is a man with mafia-ties who offered to help me through criminal means. London was an individual who asked us for help through legal means. Secondly, Alex didn’t exactly con me. It’s just that he only gave me part of the story. Maybe that’s what London did.”

“London didn’t give us any story,” Anatoly corrected as he got off the last of the soap. I leaned over and drained the tub. My shirt was drenched and clinging to me in all sorts of inconvenient places. It might have been construed as an invitation if Anatoly bothered to take his eyes off the dog for one flippin’ second. “Ranting and raving is very different from story telling.”

I angrily swiped at a wet curl that was sticking to my cheek. “Why are you so resistant to even considering the possible veracity of the facts of this case?”

“What case?” Anatoly put the hand shower back with much more force than necessary. “For it to be a case, there has to be a client. London didn’t hire me–”

“Because you wouldn’t let him!” I jumped to my feet and grabbed a towel throwing it over a now confused-looking-but-fresh-smelling Ms. Dogz. She was probably wondering what new kind of mad house she had wandered into.

“I think we can both agree he won’t be paying me,” Anatoly continued as he vigorously dried her. “This isn’t our business. No one wants us involved and there’s no upside in forcing the issue. There most likely isn’t an issue to force.” He carefully helped Ms. Dogz out of the tub. She immediately shook herself off, splattering us both and making a mockery out of our attempts at drying. “We have no solid reason to believe that anyone poisoned or even stalked London. This is over. At least it would be if you hadn’t broken into his apartment and stolen his dog!”

Saved. I saved his dog!” I turned on my heel and stomped out of the bathroom. Ms. Dogz was right behind me, then in front of me, then behind me again as she sprinted up and down the hall in a burst of energy, shaking herself every two or three seconds, making sure the whole second floor shared in her bathing experience. I threw open our bedroom door with the energy of unbridled frustration. Ms. Dogz rushed into the room, startling Mr. Katz who had been curled up on the bed. He looked at the expression on my face, then at the wet dog and jumped to the floor, storming out of the room just as Anatoly stormed in.

“We have an obligation,” I said in a voice that wasn’t quite a yell, but loud enough to let the world know I wasn’t messing around.

“To whom?” Anatoly asked, coolly.

“To London.”

“He’s dead.”

“So what?” I snapped. Ms. Dogz had stopped running around, undoubtedly captivated by the strength of my argument. “That doesn’t change the fact that he asked us for help! It doesn’t mean we didn’t screw up when we blew him off! And it doesn’t mean we get to turn our backs on his dog!”

“Again, all you had to do was call the SPCA! Or you could have called the police and told them there’s a dog stuck in a dead man’s apartment! That’s what you do. What you don’t do is break into a man’s house! If you had been caught you could have ended up in jail or worse!”

“But I wasn’t caught!” I took a step closer, glaring up into his eyes. “An animal was in trouble and so I did what needed to be done. It’s called being responsible.”

“Are you suggesting that I’m being irresponsible?”

“I’m suggesting that you’re being an asshole.”

“Careful, Sophie.”

Ms. Dogz perked up her ears. That animal’s insistence on responding to my name drove my agitation up to the next level.

“Or what?” I challenged, my hands now clenched into fists.

Anatoly stared down into my eyes, letting the silence stretch. I had forgotten how forceful his silences could be. He could infuse them with tension and threat…

…and sex. Anatoly could do with a silence what Otis Redding could do with a moan. Goosebumps were prickling my arms as my breath quickened. I was fully aware of the rhythm with which his uncovered chest was moving and yet my eyes were locked on his, absolutely unable to look anywhere else.

“Anatoly,” I whispered “I–”

But I didn’t get a chance to continue. In an instant I was up against the wall, my arms pinned above my head as his lips found my neck and his body pressed against mine. His mouth found that spot that made me positively squirm and I let out a little squeak as I was suddenly unable to speak. His lips moved up to my ear and as his teeth scraped gently against the lobe. When he released my arms he lifted me up so that I was still pressed against the wall. My legs wrapped themselves around his waist as my arms encircled his neck. I can’t remember the last time I wanted him this badly.

He crushed his mouth against mine, parting my lips with his tongue as I let my fingers run through his short, coarse hair. I bit down onto his lower lip, my nails digging into his flesh. There was an energy to this that had been missing lately. A whirl of excitement was spiraling up from my stomach through my ribcage, making my heart beat too fast and my breathing too shallow.

I loved it.

He moved me from the wall and half carried, half threw me on the bed. He was on top of me in an instant and my fingers immediately traveled to the button of his jeans, reaching into his pants, feeling the proof of his desire as my other hand greedily ran down his shoulders, his back, his beautiful biceps.

“Sophie,” he said in a growl as he began to lower his face toward mine.

Except our lips never touched because the dog shoved her face between ours, causing me to accidently press my mouth against black fur.

“Whaat da ferk!” I sputtered as I spit out wet fur. Anatoly busted out laughing, harder than he had in ages. I looked at him, looked at the dog, who looked back with innocent enthusiasm and in an instant I was giggling too, then laughing, then pretty much breathless with hysterics. Anatoly and I were both laughing like hyenas as Ms. Dogz pranced back and forth, periodically leaning in to lick one of our faces as she rejoiced in the commotion she’d caused.

“You might have to take a nickname,” Anatoly said as he sat up, wiping both dog slobber and tears from his face.

I scooted myself up, pressing my back against the headboard as I attempted to catch my breath. “I already gave her an alias,” I reminded him. “Ms. Dogz.”

“I’m not talking to the dog, I’m talking to you.”

I should take a nickname?” I balked, although I could feel the giggles threatening an encore. “I’m not giving up my name for a dog, not even if we get to keep her.”

“Well the dog clearly isn’t giving up her name for anyone,” Anatoly chuckled. “I could call you baby.”

Baby? What is this, a 1970s porno? Millennials use the word, Bae.”

“We’re too old to be Millennials.”

“Oh my God, there you go again, being all realistic and honest about our age.” I moved forward and straddled him, using my left hand to push him flat on the bed and my right hand to cover his mouth. “If you stop talking, I think we can make this work.”

I could feel his smile against my palm and then, without another word, he reached up, unhooking my bra, slowly pulling it off me so the straps tickled my skin, tossing it to the floor where, with a little luck, it wouldn’t become a chew toy.

He cupped my breasts, his thumbs moving slowly over my nipples until they reached for him. His eyes moved steadily up and down my body before finally, they once again locked with mine.

Without saying a word, he told me I was beautiful.

Anatoly really could do wonderful things with silence.