Read Skirting the Grave Online

Authors: Annette Blair

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General

Skirting the Grave

 

 

One

She wore a short skirt and a tight sweater and her figure described a set of parabolas that could cause cardiac arrest in a yak.

—WOODY ALLEN, GETTING EVEN, 1973

Eve Meyers, my BFF, a gothic fashionista with a steampunk edge, tall in her black and brass Lindi Buckle Leather Booties, invaded my vintage dress shop with mischief aforethought.

“Madeira? Did you ever tell Nick about that thermonuclear kiss you shared with Werner the night you and the detective slept together?”

Even though we were alone right now, I grew warm in my fifties Lilli Ann flared-sleeved, cinch-waisted, pencil-skirted suit. I’d purchased it at a miracle of a bargain, though a rabid collector would pay a grand for the set.

You had to love the goods you sold, which I aced, but right now, I wasn’t loving my BFF too darn much.

Eve knew she’d hit home when she turned to face my beverage buffet. “Caffeine. Gotta have more caffeine. My morning fix has left the building.” She chose a zinger of a caramel tea as black and powerful as her outfit.

From the back, her long, straight hennaed hair spilled over the stand-up collar of her cotton point textured faille jacket, same fabric as her skintight cropped pants. For contrast, I’d designed it to be worn with that boldprint girlie top—earth tones hidden among the black—a barely there ruffle flowing just below the cropped waist of her jacket. Her necklace of assorted copper gears picked up the red sheen from her hair, which she flipped as she turned back to me. “If you didn’t tell Nick,” she said, “you’re about to have your chance. I hear he’s on his way home.” She sipped her tea and eyed me with calculation over the rim of a blue Wedgwood teacup.

“Werner and I did not sleep together!” I snapped. “We were out cold, both of us concussed .

. . in the same bed. There’s a difference.”

Dropping the subject, I stacked the fifties outfits I’d sold earlier that morning, to be worn at my sister Brandy’s costume fund-raiser this coming Saturday night. “Be right back. Have to top my list of alterations with this lot.”

Eve leaned on the doorjamb at the base of my enclosed stairway sipping and watching as I climbed. “If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d think you’re ignoring me.”

What I chose to ignore, I acknowledged to myself, was the amusement in her voice. I hung the items to be altered in my work corner, boxed in by several antique sewing machines and a few of today’s finest technical wonders that did everything but wear the clothes. Back downstairs in my sales area, I switched out winter purses for summer box bags in straws, metallics, Bakelite, and Lucite, and showcased their funky shapes: rectangle, trapezoid, beehive, hatbox, lunch box, not to mention the fifties icon: the sleek single-clasp, rectangular box clutch, a purse known to endow its owner with ladylike behavior.

“You and Werner can’t escape your scorching past,” Eve warned, arms crossed, eyes bright, smile at halfmast. “Neither can you escape me.”

Atop the purse pyramid, I placed a white oval Lucite Llewellyn bag, the bottom edged with a two-inch, molded, silver floral band. “Gorgeous,” I said.

“Face it,” Eve persisted, “the kiss did happen. You and Werner couldn’t both have dreamed it. Besides, he’s the one who called it ‘thermonuclear.’ ”

“Get out, Meyers!”

Eve’s grin grew. “You didn’t tell Nick, did you?”

I huffed. “First I said I didn’t want to talk about it. Then when I tried, Nick didn’t want to hear it. So first we avoided the subject and then we avoided each other. Fact is, Nick’s been on one secret assignment or another for nearly the entire four months since.”

Eve waved a hand. “Excuses, excuses.”

“No, seriously, the FBI takes advantage of their special agents that way. Plus we took an official time-out before he left.”

“Still, on or off, you and Nick have always stayed friends. What did you do, lose his cell phone number or something?”

I sighed inwardly. “For your amusement, Meyers, I’ll admit that Nick seems to have changed his cell phone number.”

Before my eyes, she turned into a member of gossip central. “So you did try to call him?”

“Of course, I did.” Once, after a lonely six-pack of Dos Equis. Bad idea: the call and the beer. Both had come back to haunt me.

“Hah!” Eve did smug well. Probably reading me like a book. “You procrastinated beyond what was reasonable, confession-wise.” she said. “Now he’s either pouting or plain old steaming.”

I turned on the air-conditioning. “Thanks, Sherlock Poppycock. I never would have figured that out.”

“Hey.” Eve tapped her lips with a finger. “Ever think that maybe Werner told Nick about the kiss?”

I raised a brow. “Your optimistic encouragement is underwhelming.”

Her watch alarm rang. “Gotta run. If Kyle’s metallic gold, stretch Lamborghini is already sitting in my driveway, it’s giving my frugal, old-world mother a heart attack.”

“I can’t believe you’re still dating Kyle DeLong. Multibillionaires are so not your style.”

Eve swallowed, hand on the doorknob. “You’re trying to scare me to pay me back. Sure, he’s practically a record for me, but he’s just a plaything.”

“A plaything who’s buying a mansion in the town where you live.”

“Because having him stay at my house would kill my mother, literally.”

“Let’s hear it for the odd couple,” I said.

Kyle’s mother, Broadway actress Dominique DeLong, died under suspicious circumstances this winter, and when we went to the city to help find her killer, cupid struck Eve and Kyle at first sight.

“Have fun mansion shopping,” I called, waving her off. “Hey,” I added before she closed the shop door and headed for her Mini Cooper parked right outside. “Have Kyle enter the Lamborghini in Brandy’s vintage car show Saturday, as part of the Carousel of Love fund-raiser. The Nurture Kids Foundation is his mother’s kind of charity.”

“Great idea. See you around.” Eve closed her door but powered down her window. “Please don’t tell Nick about kissing Werner until I get back, ’kay? I don’t wanna miss the fun.”

I gave her a dubious look. “Payback’s a stitch.” I watched her pout as she drove away. My Out to Lunch sign and the click of the shop lock became an imperative to release my breath. I needed, at the very least, a thimbleful of control and a bit of downtime to sort some sticky issues, Nick being only one of several.

I’d barely sat when the shop phone rang. “Vintage Magic; how can I dress you?”

“Give me Isobel,” demanded a chipmunk with attitude before he/she/it demonstrated, not quite beneath its breath, an impressive and varied case of potty mouth. The obscenities ended with the same demand they’d started with: “Give me Isobel,” delivered like Darth Vader on helium, or a squirrel on steroids; take your pick.

Isobel York? I wondered. The intern I was taking under my Vintage Magic wing, despite my strong—and growing stronger—reservations?

As if sensing my angst, Dante Underhill, my shopbound ghost, appeared beside me. We couldn’t even touch, my friend the resident spirit and I, but I felt safer with him beside me. The voice, no matter how silly, carried a threat I didn’t know how to answer. “I beg your pardon? Can you repeat that?” I stalled while my heart raced.

“What time is Isobel due?” the now rabid rodent asked. While less threatening than a full-out blackhearted villain, the critter hadn’t yet mastered its audio modulation device. Panicked humor aside, I gave in to a whole-body shiver. “Who is this?” I asked.

“Her brother,” came a deeper, more cavernous voice, followed by a charged pause. “Ya hear me?” Deep Throat asked. “I’m her brother!”

So . . . I was hiring an intern I didn’t want, whose brother best aped James Earl Jones and tiny striped rodents. Fact is, his emphasis on the word “brother” made me wonder if it might not be a woman. Voice changers could easily be set to mask gender. They were computers, after all, so Eve studied them in grad school when we lived together in New York. They could make inexperienced users sound like deep-voiced, slow-talking drones or fast-talking chipmunks. This caller was all over the map.

Dante placed his hand on his heart, like he’d protect me, and he meant it, but unless Wrath Vader stepped foot in my shop—which I so did not want—I was on my own. Well. Not entirely on my own. I could call Detective Werner.

Yeah, that Werner. The one I slept with.

Not.

Two

Only the minute and the future are interesting in fashion—it it exists to be destroyed. If everybody did everything with respect, you’d go nowhere.

—KARL LAGERFELD

I placed the phone on its charger and rubbed my arms. Isobel York hadn’t started interning yet, and one of her theoretical relatives—who did not sound the least loving—had already scared the wooly knobby knits out of me.

Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. What do you know about this friend of a friend from the Peace Corps?

Typical Brandy. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve missed my sister in a lot of ways. And her self-absorption came with a generous work ethic toward helping the children of the world. But get her in range of home, and she became the six-year-old who lost her mother, expecting the world to revolve around her . . . and her causes. In the process of returning for Sherry’s baby shower, she hadn’t just talked me into taking on an intern; she’d imposed on me to do the prep work for several of her fund-raisers.

Not only did I agree to mentor a stranger in my shop, my father agreed to house the new intern, two promises that frightening phone call made me regret. True, Isobel is practically paying me to take her on. She’s giving me a huge trunk of her grandmother’s vintage clothing, which I might or might not accept, depending on Isobel’s attachment to them. That I won’t know until she arrives.

The trunk itself already complemented my art deco sitting area, teasing me with its hidden treasure, especially with the key in an old manila-type pay envelope tied to the lock with a yellow ribbon.

Looking retro but well-kept, covered in pale blue antiqued alligator, it was banded with copper strips on both sides, each topped with a molded lion head. I wanted to look inside in the worst way, but I swore it would remain closed until Isobel arrived.

I hadn’t wanted an intern, but I couldn’t wait for Isobel to open the trunk. Me, I can’t afford to get any inadvertent psychometric vibes from the vintage clothes inside—little trick I picked up, against my will, from my mother the witch. Story for another day. Neither do I want to become embroiled in Isobel York’s family secrets, which often happens with my spontaneous and unexpected visions, though that phone call had shoved me into a parallel rock and a hard place.

Yes, some vintage clothes sort of “speak” to me and take me to places they’ve been, albeit in my mind, where I see snippets of the past, a scary kind of day tripping, I can tell you. To be fair, I haven’t read a piece of vintage clothing in months. So, perhaps—hopefully—if it pleased whatever deity controlled these things—possibly Buddha, and Yoda, too—my psychometric phase had passed.

An unexpected whiff of chocolate hit me, a sign my mother’s spirit hovered, along with a clear vision of her laughing, and I sighed. Not a phase, then. In self-defense, I turned my attention from that tempting trunk to the problem at hand. Well, problems, plural: my intern for one, my psychic gift for another, and the ethical need to tell Nick, my FBI boy toy, about a kiss I shared with Werner, though, sewing circle oath, Werner and I were in a sleep-induced, half-unconscious state at the time. My only other problem would be, you guessed it: Brandy, my bohemian sister. She who set me up as neatly as if she tied me, wrists and ankles, with a fat polka-dot bow, turquoise, maybe, with big magenta dots. Gaudy and tasteless, just to rub my face in it. I could see the funky bow in my mind’s eye as if Brandy used it like a glove to slap my face. But I never could resist a challenge, baste it.

Chakra, my butterscotch striped kitty, who, since the first time I picked her up, calmed me at my jittery solar plexus, vaulted onto my lap to cuddle, so, beat by beat, my angst receded.

“Thanks, sweetie.” I stroked her behind her ears, her purr like a lullaby. “I needed that.”

With her in my arms, I tried to put my concerns into perspective. I should anticipate the adventure ahead of me with Brandy’s special events rather than dread her effect on my daily routine. After all, she hadn’t caused chaos or panic in ages. How could she, halfway across the world?

My cell phone vibrated, revealing Brandy as my caller. I answered, since she was due home at some point tonight, and I needed to pick her up at the train station.

“Mad,” she said. “Isobel and I aren’t coming in on the same train after all. Some goofy bass-toned bureaucrat called my apartment and sent me on a wild-goose chase to sign missing Peace Corps termination papers, and on my way, I got mugged. My bag got torn right off me. My neck’s killing me.”

“Oh, no. Are you all right?”

“Couple aspirin, some muscle cream, and I’ll be fine. But it was all for nothing. My termination papers weren’t missing.”

I so hoped the bass-toned bureaucrat wasn’t Isobel’s very own Wrath Vader. “What are you going to do without your purse?”

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