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Setting the scene

The previous evening, Friday, Claire attended a cocktail party at the home of Glenn Yeats, founder of Desert Arts College, where she teaches. Also in attendance was Glenn’s ex-wife, Felicia, making a stink about terms of their settlement and even threatening to burn down an architecturally significant home built by Glenn and designed by the renowned I. T. Dirkman. Glenn tried to keep the peace, serving his ex several cocktails he mixed himself and ultimately sending the bottle of gin home with her to her hotel. Meanwhile, Claire’s friends Grant Knoll and Kane Richter have been in the final stages of planning their commitment ceremony, which will be held a week later at the same hotel, the Regal Palms. They have asked Claire to accompany them to the hotel on Saturday morning to finalize some of the arrangements, then have lunch. The excerpt picks up at the end of their meal.

Excerpt from the text of Desert Summer

An hour or so later, we considered dessert, but decided against it. Then Grant signed the check (he was there often enough that he ran a monthly account) and asked, “All set?”
      “All set,” I said, rising. “I ought to get home and see how Oralia is doing. She was preparing to clean the garage—in this heat, if you can imagine. If she finishes before I get back, I’m afraid she might retile the roof.”
      Grant and Kane rose as well. With a sigh, Grant noted, “Good help is so hard to come by, but that Oralia—she’s a peach.”
      Strolling from the dining room, I thanked Grant for lunch and told Kane how much I looked forward to their ceremony the following Saturday. Recalling the society pages I’d browsed that morning, I asked, “Think it’ll make the papers?”
      “It ought to,” said Grant, “but we’ve decided to keep the whole affair low-key and private—no press allowed.”
      With a smirk, Kane added, “As if they’d be clamoring at the door.”
      Passing by the hostess stand, Grant paused, saying he needed to confirm a reservation for an upcoming business dinner. A nicely dressed man and woman were standing with their backs to us; he was telling the hostess, “So I’m afraid we’ve been stood up. We’ll be a party of two instead of three.”
      “With pleasure.” The hostess crossed something off her list and prepared to escort them to their table.
      As the couple turned, the man stopped short. “Oh, my. What a coincidence.” It was Peverell Lamonte, director of the architecture conservancy, whom we’d met the previous evening.
      Grant and I greeted him, introducing Kane.
      Referring to the woman at his side, Peverell asked, “Does everyone know Lark Tutwiler?”
      Though she looked familiar, I was sure we hadn’t met, as her name was one not easily forgotten. Stylish and bejeweled (a bit much for a summer afternoon, to my way of thinking), she looked a few years older than Peverell, perhaps forty-five. Her frosty blond hair and creaseless features were interchangeable with those of any of the desert doyennes I’d seen in that morning’s “People” section.
      Even Grant, whose social connections were extensive, did not know the woman, so Peverell made a round of introductions, explaining, “Lark is an old friend, and it was through her that I first met Felicia Yeats.”
      Gifting each of us with a regal little handshake, a mere waggling of fingers, she told us, “Felicia and I have been running in the same circles lately, and when she mentioned her issues with the Dirkman house in Santa Barbara, I thought she might like to meet Peverell.” With a grin that was hard to read, she added, “It seems they’ve hit it off quite nicely.”
      Peverell nodded. “Which is precisely why I asked both ladies to lunch today.”
      “But,” said Lark, stiffening her spine, “can you imagine? We were stood up.”
      My head ping-ponged as they took turns with their story. Peverell took up the volley, telling us, “We’ve phoned her room several times from the lobby, but she seems to be out.”
      “That’s Felicia for you. She’s a hell of a gal, but a little scatterbrained at times. She probably just . . . forgot.
      “Either that,” suggested Peverell, “or she hasn’t crawled out of bed yet. She was a bit—shall we say—‘under the weather’ when I drove her back to the hotel last night.”
      I blurted, “She was bombed.
      “Really?” asked Lark. “Felicia? I’ve never seen her even touch a cocktail.”
      “She was touching them last night,” Grant assured her.
“Oh, well.” Lark shrugged. “Poor lamb.”
      Peverell said to her, “Speaking of cocktails, would you care for a little something to start lunch?”
      “Wonderful suggestion.” She patted his arm.
      Then they wished us farewell and, following the hostess, disappeared into the dining room.
      Walking the hall to the main lobby with Grant and Kane, I wondered aloud, “How do women like that while away their days?”
      “Shopping and drinking, I imagine,” said Grant. Offhandedly, he added, “And charity luncheons, of course.”
      “Of course.” Though we were being flip, I sensed there was a disturbing nugget of truth to Grant’s words.
      Entering the lobby, I noticed that the chair where Thad Quatrain had been sitting—reading magazines while Paige went to visit Felicia—was now empty. “Maybe Felicia went out with the kids,” I suggested.
      Kane countered, “Or maybe she and Paige never connected.”
      Suddenly curious, I noted that the same desk clerk was still on duty. As he was momentarily unoccupied, I crossed the lobby, with Grant and Kane in tow, and asked him, “Did you happen to notice the young man who was sitting in that chair? It was perhaps an hour and a half ago. He was waiting for a young lady while she went to visit a guest.”
      The clerk eyed Kane again, still interested. “Sure, I noticed him.” His grin suggested that he had found Thad as attractive as Kane.
      Clearing my throat, I recaptured the clerk’s attention, asking, “Do you recall when he left—and with whom?”
      Pausing in thought, scrunching his brows, the clerk replied, “Sorry, I don’t remember seeing him leave. I must’ve been busy on the phone or the computer. That chair has been empty for quite a while, though.”
      I asked whether “quite a while” was closer to an hour or only fifteen minutes, but he couldn’t say.
      I turned to Grant. “If you guys need to run along, feel free. Maybe I’m unconscionably nosy, but I’d like to try talking to Felicia.”
      “Uh-oh,” Grant said to Kane, “milady sniffs a plot in the works.”
      “I beg your pardon?” the clerk asked with a blank expression.
      “Nothing, just being dramatic,” Grant told him. “Could we have the room number of Felicia Yeats, please?”
      “I’m sorry, sir, but we never give out the room numbers of our guests. If you like, I could connect you with her room on the house telephone.” He gestured to a fancy French-style phone on a nearby side table.
      Pulling Grant aside, I told him, “No point in that. We know she won’t answer.”
      Then Grant pulled Kane aside. His eyes slid toward the desk clerk. “He’s hot for you.”
      “He’s ready to eat me alive.”
      “Work your charms. We’ll wait over here.” And Grant escorted me to the center of the lobby, where we perched on a settee and flipped open some magazines.
      Kane sidled back to the desk and struck up a conversation with the clerk, leaning near and laughing softly. Within two minutes, Kane turned and walked over to us, sporting a broad grin. As we stood, he told us, “Mission accomplished. Room two-sixteen.”
      Stepping into the hall that led to the guest wing, Grant told Kane, “That was quick work. What’d you promise him?”
      “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
      Grant stopped in his tracks. “As a matter of fact, I would.”
      “Actually,” I added with a chortle, “so would I.”
      Kane paused, relishing the moment before explaining, “I didn’t have to promise anything. I just batted my eyes and played dumb, asking questions about his computer, as if I’d never set fingers on a keyboard. He lapped it up and finally swung the monitor around so I could see it. Pointing to the screen, he said, ‘See? Here’s the lady your friends were asking about.’ In addition to her room number, I saw her credit card info, billing address, and a complete accounting of every cent she’s spent here.”
      “Really?” I asked eagerly, a glutton for detail.
      With a laugh, Kane raised his hands. “Hold on. All I got was a glimpse. I was lucky to decipher the room number.”
      “Good boy,” said Grant, patting his partner’s head as if rewarding a puppy for a newly learned trick.
      So we took an elevator up to the second floor, and when the doors slid open again, we followed an arrow directing us to a turn in the hall. Another set of arrows directed us to another turn. Walking this hall, we passed a cleaning cart that blocked the open door to a room where a chambermaid was busy with a vacuum, apparently finishing her duties there. With her back to us, she neither saw nor heard us.
      After a final turn of the hall, we located Felicia’s room just a few doors away. A “do not disturb” sign hung from the knob. Direct commands from authority figures have always made me bristle, so it should come as no surprise that an arbitrary command from a flimsy sheet of plastic struck me as laughably lame and meaningless. Raising my hand, I gave the door a good rap with my knuckles. Then we waited.
      Leaning near the door, trying to hear any noise within over the distant roar of the vacuum cleaner, I grew frustrated with waiting and knocked again, louder.
      Noting my scowl, Grant said, “She’s just not in. Peverell said he tried phoning several times.”
      The vacuum cleaner stopped. Then I heard the chambermaid loading her whatnot back onto the cart. With a dull thud, the door shut behind her.
      “Come on,” I said, taking the sign from Felicia’s door, slipping it into my pocket, and leading Grant and Kane back down the hall.
      When we turned the corner, the maid was trundling toward us with her cart. “Oh!” I said with a look of surprise, stopping. “I wonder if you could make up room two-sixteen, please. I’m having guests in right after lunch.”
      Grant took out his wallet and slipped her a five.
      “My pleasure,” she said in broken English, practicing her drill from the hotel phrase book.
      Thanking each other with a mutual bobbing of heads, I clarified, slowly, “Room two-one-six.”
      “Yes, ma’am.” And she pushed her cart around the bend.
      Grant, Kane, and I retreated a few steps toward the elevator hall, then waited. Craning our necks in the direction of Felicia’s room, we heard the maid’s cart creaking along, then stop. We heard the key in the lock and the squeak of the door opening. We heard the maid gather a few buckets and bottles from the cart before entering the room.
      And then we heard her scream.
      We rushed down the hall, turned the corner, pushed the cleaning cart aside, and piled into room two-sixteen, finding it to be a sizable suite. We were in the sitting room, where the chambermaid stood a few feet in front of us, hands to her mouth, trembling.
      On the wall opposite the door was a wide window with a postcard-perfect mountain view. Exuberantly floral tieback curtains fell to the sides, framing a camelback sofa upholstered in a classic silk rep bearing bold, alternating stripes of emerald and burgundy. Sprawled before us on its down-filled cushions was Felicia Yeats in a bulky bathrobe of pink chenille.
      Her face had taken on a pallid hue, as had the long expanse of her inner thigh that peeped immodestly from the robe’s slit. Emanating from her blue lips and caked on the front of her robe was a stale stream of vomit. Unless I was mistaken, it contained chunks of undigested shrimp.
      “Dios mio,” mumbled the maid.
      “Holy shit,” whispered Kane.
      With a tisk, Grant noted, “Those curtains are a fright.
      “Perhaps someone should phone nine-one-one,” I told them.
      “Sure thing, doll,” said Grant, pulling a cell phone from the inside pocket of his sport coat. Punching in the number, he added, “I hope they don’t expect me to give mouth-to-mouth.”
      Eyeing him with an impatient gaze, I said, “Call an ambulance.”
      I added, “Then call your brother.”

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