Death Was the Other Woman
by Linda L. Richards
Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books
288 pages, 2008
With writing so sharp you can almost taste the bootleg whiskey, feel the green baize of the gaming tables and the Detroit-steel pull of a car so big, you’d be tempted to sail it to Catalina, Death Was the Other Woman introduces a new heroine of the hardboiled: Kitty Pangborn.
HE’S DRESSED WELL, the dying man. Sharply, one would say. He’s wearing a good suit. Dark and of a wool so fine it would feel soft to the touch. The suit has a pale pinstripe; it’s barely discernible. And he’s wearing the suit well -- he wore it well -- except for the dying part.
He’s standing there, his lifeblood draining from him, the look on his face showing surprise as much as horror. He hadn’t planned on dying today. Had, in fact, planned on being the one doing the killing. Killing is part of his job. Not dying. There’s not enough money in L.A. -- or the world for that matter -- to get a man to give us his life as easily as that.
The man is standing. I can see him as clearly as if I were there, though of course I was not. But I understand things now. Things I had no hope of understanding at the time. I can re-create them in my mind and know what the details mean.
His hat is fashionable, well shaped, well made, and for the moment it’s worn at a good angle. His features are as well cut as his suit. Dark like the suit as well. He’d be handsome if he weren’t presently concerned about the end he can see so clearly.
Another man is there, similarly dressed, but the look on his face is different. No surprise. No pain. He’s in control. He’s always in control. The gun in his hand tells that story.
The woman is barely in the room, but she doesn’t look away. That shocks me somehow. She shouldn’t watch. Why would she watch? What profit will her witness bring?
She’s exquisite. That shocks me as well. Her shoulders are broad and smooth. Her legs long and well defined. Her hair, her features, soft and lovely. And the look on her face … that shocks me most of all. Not pleasure, no. But not distress either. To her, this scene is correct. The only proper conclusion to a story she helped write.
But all of this is later. Much later. It makes sense to me now. But then? Not then. At the time I found him, it made no sense at all.
DEX IS TALL AND DREAMY. Oh, sure, he’s a mook, but he’s the kind of mook that can heat a girl’s socks, if you follow my drift. The kind that can get your lipstick melting.
It’s never going to happen for me and Dex. Most days I don’t really want it to anyway. Dex is my boss, first and foremost. The work is easy, and most weeks Dex remembers to cut me a check. That’s important; a girl’s gotta eat. And there are worse to make a living. A lot worse.
Take Rita Heppelwaite, for instance. I had her figured before she even settled down in the chair across from my desk. It’s just a little space, and when no one is listening Dex and I call it our waiting room. It’s a joke because Dex isn’t the busiest P.I. in L.A., and that’s no understatement. And anyway, to be a waiting room it would have to be a room, and that little space between my desk and the door to the office is more like a steamer trunk without all the legroom.
So Rita Heppelwaite breezes into the office nice as you please, the scent of violets following her like a mob. She looks haughty, like she thinks I don’t know what she does for a living. Like Dex hadn’t already spilled his guts about everything he knows. Though to be honest, at that point he didn’t know much.
Rita, Dex told me, was a “lady of the night,” which was his attempt at polite talk “in front of the kid” -- which is me -- for saying that what Rita does for a living, she does on her back. From the looks of her, she probably gets paid a damned sight better than I do. Probably doesn’t have to answer the phone or bring coffee either.
The first thing I notice is her coat. It’s a pretty hard thing not to notice. Even in October, Los Angeles just doesn’t get that kind of cold, so a fur coat hits you right off. And this was one you’d mark in any room, at any time of the year. Anywhere. Black lamb’s wool, all curly and fine, and a jaunty little hat to match, perched on her head just so. I wouldn’t have hated her just for the coat though. I’ve never been a girl who dreamed about furs.
There were other reasons to hate her. The dark red hair that poured over her shoulders, for starters. Dusky flames that seemed to make her lips even redder. Her eyes were the color of the ocean at midnight. A green so dark you’d swear it was black until the light shifted; then you had to look again. She was beautiful enough that you might have taken her for a movie star. Until you looked into those eyes. Then you saw something else.
“Mr. Theroux will be with you in a moment,” I told her, when she showed up five minutes ahead of her appointment. “Please have a seat and I’ll let him know you’re here.”
She settled into the “waiting room” chair so meekly, I should have suspected a trick, but I just didn’t see it coming. Who would have thought anyone in heels so high could be so quiet?
So when I opened Dex’s door to let myself in, I didn’t expect her to follow right behind me, catching Dex kicked back in his chair before he could stuff the sports pages and his usual glass of whiskey into the top drawer of his desk.
I expected a curt word from him. Dex doesn’t like it when clients barge into his office before I have a chance to announce them. He says it’s unseemly. And I mostly agree. I like it when my paychecks aren’t made of rubber, and I’ve discovered that the best way to avoid that is to do everything I can to keep Dex’s clients from running in the other direction when they first get a load of him.
Like I said, Dex is kind of dreamy. But the way I figure it, seeing a detective hitting the sauce before noon and greeting you with bleary eyes and not a lot of other customers lined up in front of you isn’t the most inspiring thing in the world. There’s gotten to be a lot of detectives in the city. Most of them better at it than my boss.
So I expected Dex to bawl me out for letting this broad sail into his office like nobody’s business. But one look at his face gawping at Rita Heppelwaite told me that wasn’t going to happen. I glanced back at her to see what he was seeing, and I understood.
She stood framed in the doorway, doing her best damsel-in-distress. Her coat was open, and the dress beneath it was as red and tight as the skin on an apple. Did she practice all that bosom heaving in front of a mirror? I figured she’d have to. If I tried a stunt like that, I’d look like I had just run a block to catch a bus. And the sight of me wouldn’t have caused Dex Theroux’s jaw to go all slack and his eyes to lose focus either. As things were, I wanted to cross the room and slap some sense into him. What kind of client, I wondered, would want to hire a detective who looked at her the way a dog looks at meat?
I didn’t slap him though. Instead I just said, “Let me know if you need anything, Boss.” Then I breezed past Rita, who was now leaving the doorway and taking a seat, uninvited, in front of Dex’s desk.
As I closed the door, I heard her say, “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Mr. Theroux.” A smoky voice, filled with experience and promise. A combination that startled. And another reason to hate her. | January 2008
Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Richards
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Death Was the Other Woman is her fourth novel.