Desert Spring
Setting the scene

It’s Sunday morning, but far from restful. The previous night, after a cast party at the Rancho Mirage home of director Claire Gray, the renowned movie producer Spencer Wallace was found dead in her swimming pool. What’s more, a remark made by Claire at the party has cast her in a suspicious light. This morning, her friend Grant Knoll, a gay real-estate broker, has taken her out to breakfast. Driving back to the house, Claire decided they should stop at the apartment of actor Tanner Griffin, her protégé and young lover, to inform him of these troubling developments. But Tanner wasn’t home, troubling Claire all the more. When she and Grant arrive at her house, she’s relieved to find that not only Tanner is already there, but also her zany old chum, costumer Kiki Jasper-Plunkett.

Excerpt from the text of Desert Spring

    When we turned off Country Club Drive onto my side street, the sight of Tanner’s Jeep in my driveway prompted a ditsy laugh of relief. I told Grant, “He’s probably beside himself, wondering where the hell I’ve been.”
    Spotting a second car in the driveway, Grant noted, “Kiki’s here too. Word spreads fast.”
    Walking through the front door with Grant, I found Tanner and Kiki at the pass-through from the kitchen, helping themselves to an impromptu breakfast they’d set up on the bar—juice, coffee, a plate of pastries. At the sound of the door, they turned, abandoned the food, and rushed toward me.
    “Claire, darling,” gasped Kiki, “what a perfectly horrid way to end a party!” She wrapped me in a fierce hug, jangling her bracelets.
    “Claire,” said Tanner, trailing behind Kiki, “I came over the minute I heard. Kiki phoned me this morning, but no one could reach you.”
    Kiki explained, “I heard it on the news. I thought maybe you’d gone to Tanner’s, so I phoned him at the apartment, but he hadn’t heard from you. Needless to say, he was shocked to learn what had happened.”
    “Shocked,” he repeated, nodding.
    Grant to the rescue: “It was my fault entirely, the lack of communication. We assumed the news hadn’t spread yet, so I took Claire out for a quiet breakfast. She didn’t want to disturb anyone so early on a Sunday.”
    I added, “Especially you, Tanner—what with your packing and all.”
    “Yeah, I was in the middle of it.” Clearly, he’d been busy. He was looking rugged and butch that morning, wearing olive-colored cargo shorts, a sweat-splotched gray T-shirt, and tan work shoes. The sight of him was enough to make me swoon, even under such vexing circumstances. He cut in on Kiki’s hug, planting a light kiss on my lips. “So considerate,” he said, “finding yourself at the center of a murder investigation and worrying about interrupting my packing.”
     Vacantly, I protested, “I’m not quite at the center of the investigation.”
    “I only meant that Wallace died here, at your home.”
    Grant asked Tanner, “Then you haven’t heard the corker?”
    “Corker?” blurted Kiki. “There’s a corker?”
    I explained how the catering maid had overheard my exaggerated threat against Spencer at the party and had later reported it to Larry Knoll.
    “Oh, dear,” said Kiki, fingering her lips. Leaning close, she asked, “You didn’t do it, did you?”
    With a laugh, Tanner answered for me, “Of course not, Kiki. Last night, when Claire said she ‘could kill Spencer Wallace,’ she was speaking to me—I remember those words verbatim. I recall their tone as well. It was obviously an empty threat.”
    “Hey!” said Grant. “Maybe the maid did it.” His tone was jocular.
    But he’d raised a valid point. “Maybe she did,” I allowed. “Or the cook, or one of the other servers—or anyone else who was here last night. Point is, the threatening words were mine, and in retrospect, they are highly incriminating. Larry made note of them.”
    Tanner said, “It’s a good thing Grant’s brother is on the case. He knows you too well to suspect you of foul play.”
    “Let’s hope so,” I said under my breath.
    “And with any luck,” said Grant, “he’ll wrap this up fast.”
    Kiki nodded, telling Grant, “When you said ‘corker,’ I assumed you meant the headline in this morning’s Trib.” She pointed to a copy of the Los Angeles paper that she’d brought over. It was on my coffee table, spread open to the interview.
    With slumped shoulders, I noted, “There were two corkers.”
“By the way, Kiki,” said Grant, trying to sound an upbeat note, “you’re looking resplendent this morning. As usual.”
    “Oh, pish, darling.” She tittered. “But thank you—I do try. Sometimes I fear I almost overdo it.” That morning, she had almost overdone it in a bizarre outfit that resembled a transparent choir robe over zebra-print leotards—her Sunday look, perhaps. “It’s a curse,” she added, “my penchant for costuming.”
    “Hardly a curse,” Tanner told her. He then asked any of us, “Can I get you something to drink?” He returned to the pass-through and picked up the glass he’d poured for himself.
    Kiki eyed his glass, horrified. “What are you drinking?”
    “Tomato juice. Can I get you some?”
    Slyly, she asked, “Nothing stronger?”
    “Everything’s put away from last night.”
    I offered, “I can find you something.”
    “Ugh!” said Kiki grandly. “Never mind. Don’t bother, love.” To Tanner, she added, “A shot of orange juice would be splendid, thank you.”
    He poured it, then handed it to Kiki, asking over his shoulder, “Claire? Grant? Something for you?”
I declined.
     Grant told Tanner, “No, thanks. Not much appetite this morning.” He failed to mention that he and I had already gorged ourselves at the Regal Palms.
    Shaking his head, Tanner commiserated, “I’m sure. Rough night, huh? I understand you played the would-be hero. Good going, Grant.”
    “Shucks, doll-cakes, it was nothing.” With exaggerated humility, Grant joined his hands in the fig-leaf position. “Duty called; I answered. Unfortunately, the poor devil died.” He heaved a big sigh. “If you’ll all excuse me, I want to make sure I didn’t forget anything in the guest room.” And he took his leave, crossing the living room to the bedroom hall.
    A brief silence fell over us. Kiki sat on the leather bench at the center of the room. Then, pensively, she muttered, “. . . murder . . .”
    “For all we know,” said Tanner with a carefree shrug, “maybe it was just a freak accident.” He sipped his tomato juice.
    I eyed him with curiosity. “I must say, Tanner—you don’t seem terribly distraught by Spencer’s death.”
    “Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound glib. But the truth is, Spencer Wallace was not the most likable of men.”
    Aside, to me, Kiki said, “I’ll tell the world.”
    Tanner asked her, “You’ve had encounters with him?”
    “That’s one way of putting it.”
    “All set!” said Grant, returning from the guest room. “Just wanted to make sure I didn’t leave my toothbrush on the sink.”
    I reminded him, “You didn’t bring a toothbrush.”
“Ah. I suppose you’re right.” He patted the patch pocket of his sport coat, which bulged with more than his slim cell phone.
    As he passed me on his way to the breakfast bar, I got a glimpse of red-striped wool protruding from his pocket. Good God—I suppressed a laugh—he had stolen Tanner’s boot socks. “Don’t tell me you’re hungry,” I said, my voice laced with innuendo.
    “Just thought I’d browse some.” Then Grant stopped short. Picking up something from the plate of pastries, he examined it curiously. “Oh? What’s this?”
    Tanner told him, “That’s a protein bar. Try it—they’re great.”
    “Yechhh!” Recoiling, Grant dropped the bar on the plate. It sounded like metal hitting glass.
    Suddenly energized, Kiki rose from the bench and rushed to Grant. “Darling, darling—no, no, no—you’ve got it all wrong!”
    Baffled, Grant asked, “You, uh . . . eat this stuff?”
    “Of course not,” she said impatiently. “But you’ve got it all wrong—the delivery, I mean.” She picked up the protein bar as Grant had, telling him, “You said, ‘Oh? What’s this?’”
    Grant eyed her warily. “Yes . . . ?”
    “But that’s so flat, so uninspired. My dear, it’s the classic discovery line from every BBC mystery that’s ever been produced. Just when things seem most perplexing, dark, and hopeless, our intrepid sleuth is examining the contents of the desk of the deceased. Then, from the corner of his eye, he notes a shred of paper, not fully burned, among the dying embers in the cold hearth. Stooping to pluck this scrap of evidence from the ashes”—Kiki demonstrated with the protein bar—“he examines it at arm’s length, like Hamlet contemplating Yorik’s skull. Finally, drawing it near, noting the few cryptic words scrawled upon it in the dead man’s hand, he wonders aloud, and I quote, ‘Aowww? Hwat’s this?’”
    Having hung on Kiki’s every word, Grant declared, “I like it.”
    Matter-of-factly, Kiki told him, “Of course you do, darling. It’s fabulous. Now, give it a try.”
Grant cleared his throat. He took the protein bar from Kiki and gazed upon it as if studying Yorik’s skull. “Aow? What’s this?”
    “Yes, yes. Much better,” Kiki encouraged him. “After me: Aowww . . . ?”
    He tried it again. “Aowww . . . ?”
    “That’s it, darling,” she said rapidly. “Think of a cat, a sickly cat: Aowww . . . ?”
    “Aowww . . . ?”
    “Yes!” She flailed her arms. “Perfect! Now the rest: Hwat’s this?”
    Grant cleared his throat again. “What’s this?”
    Kiki shook her head and wagged a finger. “No, pet. Not ‘what,’ but ‘hwat.’ Hear the difference? You have to invert the w and the h. Very British, don’t you know—very theatrical. Put the h first: hwat. Try it now, very crisply: Hwat’s this?”
    Grant paused. Then: “Hwat’s this?”
    “Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!” Kiki twirled ecstatically.
    With bravura, Grant asked, “Aowww? Hwat’s this?”
Dryly, Tanner told me, “I think he’s got it.”
    “By George, he’s got it!” Kiki grabbed Grant and flung him through a quick, elaborate swing-style dance step.
    With crossed arms, I noted, “Not quite the scene I expected to find in my living room on the morning after a murder.” I sat on the bench.
    The others turned to me, instantly sobered. Kiki dumped Grant, midstride, and moved to me. “Sorry, Claire. Guess we got carried away.” She sat next to me on the bench. “But cheer up, darling. I mean, we don’t actually know that Wallace was murdered, do we?”
    Staring at a void on the opposite wall, I said, “The circumstances of his death are highly suspicious, at best. And let’s not forget—that mousy maid overheard me tell Tanner that I ‘could kill Spencer Wallace.’ Ugh.”
    “But you didn’t,” Kiki said flatly.
    “I might as well have. The words, in retrospect, are highly incriminating—Larry made note of them. Topping things off, I was quoted with a similar threat in this morning’s paper.”
    My grim summation cast a momentary pall over my friends. Noticing that Tanner’s glass was empty, I rose and, with a soft smile, told him, “Let me get you some more juice.”
    “I’m fine.” He set down the glass and crossed to me. “But I’m concerned about you, Claire. We all are.”
    “Of course, love,” said Kiki.
    Grant chimed, “We’re here for you.”
    “Look,” I said reasonably, “it’s been upsetting, but I’ll deal with it.” Then a frown colored my expression. I took Tanner’s hand. “I just remembered—your movie.”
    “What of it?”
    “I do hope Spencer’s death doesn’t throw a wrench in things. This picture is important to you; it’ll launch your career.”
    Tanner’s tone was distinctly carefree as he recounted, “The screenplay is finished. All the production contracts are complete, and I’ve heard that the funding is secure. Wallace wasn’t directing, you know—that’s Gabe Arlington’s job. As far as I know, filming of Photo Flash will begin next week, on schedule.”
    I recalled Gabe’s comment from earlier that morning—“the show must go on.” Apparently he and Tanner were similarly philosophical and unruffled by Spencer’s death. Neither seemed to be mourning the loss.
    “In fact,” Tanner continued with a trace of laughter, “the buzz about the murder is bound to heighten publicity. So don’t worry about my career. The untimely death of Spencer Wallace can only help it, not hurt it.”
    The same, I thought, could be said for Gabe Arlington’s career.
    “Ahhh,” said Grant wistfully, strolling from the breakfast bar to the bench, “the silver lining.”
    I turned to him. “That seems rather cold.”
    “Sorry.” His offhand apology lacked any depth of contrition.
    Tanner added, “Just trying to be practical.”
    Then Kiki: “As we were just saying, dear—Spencer Wallace was not a particularly likable person.” She punctuated her statement with a sharp, knowing nod, to which both Grant and Tanner responded with nods of agreement.
    “Well, I liked him.” Crossing to the fireplace, I studied the framed photos that hung above the mantel. “He taught me things—and showed me new insights—and shared his knowledge. He was a friend.”
    Grant stepped up behind me. Coyly, he asked, “Like me?”
    “No, Grant,” I told him through a soft laugh, “not at all like you. You’re my best friend.”
    Kiki stood. “I thought I was your best friend.” Her tone conveyed humor, but a touch of offense as well.
    “Well . . . ,” I answered sweetly, sincerely, “you’re my oldest friend.”
    “Thanks,” she said, her voice dry as sand. Then she crossed toward the kitchen with her glass of orange juice.
    I asked, “Need something?”
    “Yes.” She turned from the kitchen doorway. “A real drink.” And she disappeared in search of alcohol.
    Tanner stepped to me at the fireplace, then took my hands, studying me. “You’ll be okay?”
    “I certainly hope so.” My tone was pragmatic, with no sense of foreboding.
    “Then I think I’ll run along. Just wanted to check in on you, but I’ve got lots to do today.”
    “I know you do.” Taking his arm, I walked him to the front door. “It was sweet of you to pop over. Will I see you tonight—as promised?”
    “Of course—as promised.” Arriving at the door, he gave me a kiss. “Will that hold you for a while?”
    “Mm-hm.” I sounded like a woozy, doe-eyed schoolgirl. “Bye, love.”
    “Bye.” He opened the door, but turned back to tell Grant, “See you later.”
    Grant beamed. “So long, Tanner. Don’t work too hard.” Suggestively, he added, “If you need any help, you know how to reach me.”
    Ignoring Grant, Tanner called to the kitchen, “I’m leaving, Kiki. Have a good day.”
    “Farewell, darling,” she warbled from the other room. “Toodle-oo!” Her voice wafted over the sounds of stirring, pouring, and the clanging of ice.
    Tanner paused to tweak my cheek, then left. I closed the door behind him.
    “He’s such a delight,” said Grant, moving from the fireplace. Noticing Kiki’s purse on the bench, he sat down, picked up the purse, and fingered the latch.
    I agreed with a smile, “Isn’t he?” Then I frowned. “I just wish Tanner felt a smidgen of remorse over Spencer’s death. He’s an actor—he could fake it.”
    “He’s a man—men can’t fake it.” Grant peeped inside the purse, reacting with mock horror.
I thought aloud, “But Spencer gave Tanner his big break.”
    “No, Claire dear,” said Kiki, entering from the kitchen with a sizable pink-hued cocktail. It looked like a cosmopolitan, lavishly garnished with fruit and such—she’d even found a paper umbrella in the back of a drawer, something the previous owner of the house had neglected to throw away. Stopping behind Grant at the bench, she told me, “You gave Tanner his big break. You found him; you taught him; you introduced him to the all-powerful Spencer Wallace.”
    “May he rest in peace,” said Grant with sarcastic humor, turning to look at Kiki over his shoulder. He’d been pulling things from her purse—keys, makeup, breath spray.
    “Yeah, right,” agreed Kiki with a cynical snort. Seeing but not caring that Grant was rifling her purse, she crossed to the fireplace and stood elegantly with her drink at the mantel.
    Sitting on the bench, I began taking things from Grant and returning them to Kiki’s purse. I told both of them, “I really do think you should try to muster at least a pretense of respect for the man’s memory.”
    “Very well, darling,” said Kiki, practicing her pose, “as you wish.” One arm rested on the mantel with her drink. Her other hand was poised languidly in the air, fingers splayed, as if holding a cigarette. “Oh, God,” she said, noting her empty hand with disgust, “I should never have quit smoking.”
    “That”—Grant barked with delight—“and a few other bad habits!”
    “Yeah, yeah . . .” Kiki slurped her cocktail.
    With kindly admonition, I told her, “Easy on the booze, love. It’s early.”
    “It’s the one vice I have left.” She slurped again. Then she sighed and set her glass on the mantel. Glancing at the photos, she found something of interest and turned to examine them more closely.
    “Your life is much better now.” Earnestly, I added, “Much better.”
    “Yes, dear. You’re right, of course.” Her vacant tone conveyed that she was barely listening.
    Grant told her, “Didn’t mean to be flippant, Keeks. We’re proud of you.”
    “I’m sure you are, dear, but don’t be patronizing. It’s so—” She stopped short, picking up the one framed photo that was not hung on the wall, but propped on the mantel. “Aowww? Hwat’s this?”
    Grant and I exchanged a glance, then rose from the bench and joined Kiki at the fireplace, flanking her. Bewildered, Grant asked, “Hwat?”
    Kiki displayed the photo for us. “This picture—do you know what it is?”
    “It was a gift,” I said. “Spencer brought it to the party last night.”
    “Yes, darling. But I’m asking if you recognize what’s depicted in the photo.”

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