Desert Winter
Setting the scene

Claire Gray, a renowned director, has moved from New York to the Palm Springs area of California to head the theater department of a newly built arts college. Preparing to mount the school’s first production—of the suspense classic Laura—Claire visits the aging and eccentric “king of Palm Springs decorators,” Stewart Chaffee, who agrees to lend her an antique clock for the stage setting. When Claire returns to Stewart’s estate to pick up the clock, she discovers that he has just been killed in a bizarre kitchen “accident.” The investigation is on, and Claire quickly finds herself in the middle of it. Fortunately, an old friend, Wisconsin journalist Mark Manning, is visiting the desert to see his nephew Thad’s performance in Claire’s play. When college president Glenn Yeats decides to throw a cocktail reception for Mark at his mountainside home, Claire recognizes the opportunity to recruit her clever friend’s help in analyzing some perplexing details of the murder investigation.

Excerpt from the text of Desert Winter

    Kiki Jasper-Plunkett and I hadn’t seen as much of each other in recent weeks as we would have liked. We’d been closest friends in college; then, over the subsequent decades, we’d maintained that friendship from a distance. Now, having both moved to the desert a few months earlier, living in condominiums only steps apart, we’d assumed we’d be thick again. But maybe it’s true—maybe there’s no going back. While I loved my old chum and everything we’d shared, our new lives in California had brought new passions and priorities.
    Kiki’s interests had always been chameleonlike, shifting almost as frequently as she changed clothes—several times daily.
    As for me, my life had been steered by a steady rudder, a myopic absorption with my career, but now, at fifty-four, I felt reborn. My days were filled with my work at Desert Arts College, where I believed, perhaps pretentiously, that I could shape a new generation of American actors. My nights were filled with Tanner Griffin; enough said. More often than not, my idle hours, my social times, were spent with Grant Knoll, a new neighbor whose friendship had proven instant and solid. What’s more, I’d somehow managed to become involved in a murder investigation, my second in three months. So I hadn’t found much time for Kiki.
    Wednesday evening presented a good opportunity for us to make up for lost time together. The reception for Mark Manning at the Nirvana home of Glenn Yeats was scheduled to begin early, around five, because so many of the guests, including myself, would be busy later that evening with the full, final dress rehearsal of Laura. I often rode to such events with Grant, but he was helping coordinate staff and services for the party; he would arrive early. Tanner had errands to run up valley in Palm Springs; he would arrive later, alone, in his Jeep. So I had asked Kiki if she needed a ride. Now, in the slanting light of dusk, I drove her up the mountain in my silver Beetle.
    “Are we allowed to drink?” she asked, checking her lips in a mirror behind the visor.
    With eyes on the road, I reminded her, “It’s a party. I’m sure the bar will be open.” As I rounded a final curve, the angular structure of Glenn’s home came into view, jutting dramatically against an indigo sky.
    Kiki’s bracelets jangled as she primped. “I mean, dare we drink before rehearsal?” Turning to me, she raised a single, inquiring brow.
    “Our work is done. The show is now in the hands of cast and crew. They’re on the wagon till curtain call. If you care to imbibe this evening—within moderation, of course—I’ll doubtless join you.”
    “Within moderation, of course,” she repeated with a wink in her voice. Then her tone turned serious. “Tanner will be here tonight, I assume.”
    “Later, yes.”
    “Claire, darling,” she gasped, “don’t you find it a bit awkward, juggling two suitors in the same room?”
    “They’re not ‘suitors,’” I demurred. “You make it sound so Victorian.”
    “Victorian? Hardly. I think it’s terribly modern, even commendable—if you can get away with it.” She gave me an envious scowl.
    I was tempted to defend myself, but I found it difficult to argue with her. This reticence, I realized, was itself a point that bore discussing. Now, though, was simply not the time to analyze my romantic exploits or my deeper attitudes toward them. I had a play to open. And a murder to solve.
    The Beetle groaned as I steered it up the sharp incline of Glenn’s driveway, which led to an entry court behind the house. Several other cars had already arrived, and a pair of valets scurried to greet guests, whisking their vehicles to some hidden parking facility. When Kiki and I got out of the car, it sputtered in the cool evening air like a puppy left whimpering in the night.
    We crossed the courtyard to the house, its walls of stone and glass washed by soft lighting that seemed to emanate from nowhere. Following a granite walkway, edged on one side by precious sago palms and on the other by a shallow, black reflecting pool, we passed under a huge cantilever extending from the house in utter defiance of gravity. No apparent doorway separated outside from in; the transition to interior space was subtle and artful. Yet, there we were, in a sprawling lobby that dwarfed the mingling crowd, reverberating with party chat and the bouncy strains of a distant piano.
    “Ms. Gray, Ms. Jasper-Plunkett,” said Tide Arden, Glenn’s executive secretary, stalking toward us on those long, muscular legs, “so happy to have you with us.” She made two check marks on a list attached to her acrylic clipboard. “Mr. Yeats was asking if you’d arrived.” Her wispy voice and pleasant words flowed in stark contrast to her fierce appearance. “Can we get you a drink?”
    Before Kiki or I could answer, Tide snapped her strong black fingers—a sound that could crack glass—at a passing tuxedoed waiter, who froze. “These ladies need drinks,” she informed him, somehow managing to glare at him while smiling at us.
    A bone-dry martini, brimming with shaved ice, would have suited both my uncertain mood and the sophisticated surroundings to a tee, but I had a working evening ahead of me, so I opted for something less potent, ordering kir. Kiki, who generally marches to a different drum, its beat heard only by herself, surprised me by telling the young man, “Make it two.”
    “Claire! There you are!” Glenn Yeats, the amiable billionaire himself, bustled through the shifting crowd to greet me under the daggerlike prisms of a modern, asymmetrical chandelier. Like everything in his home, the fixture was of heroic scale. Though it appeared ephemeral, a mere bauble in the soaring heights beneath the distant ceiling, it surely weighed tons.
    “Glenn”—I leaned to kiss his cheek—“you’ve outdone yourself, as usual.”
    With a modest shrug, he reminded me, “I have help.”
    “I thought we’d be early, but things seem to be rolling already.”
    “With so many of you due at the theater by seven, there seemed to be little interest in arriving fashionably late.” He gestured toward a buffet table at the far end of the hall, where a goodly number of my troupe already grazed on chilled shrimp and rare tenderloin, juggling their plates with glasses of amber-colored bubbly that I hoped was ginger ale. Among them was Thad Quatrain.
    I asked, “Has our guest of honor arrived?”
    “Indeed, just minutes ago, with his nephew. Mark is on the terrace, I believe. Grant zipped him outdoors to catch the view by twilight.”
    “I’ll bet he did,” I mused with a dry chortle.
    Kiki had a taste for meat, so she excused herself as Glenn escorted me through the living room toward the open wall to the terrace. Along the way, we stopped to chat briefly here and there. Guests drifted back and forth from the living room to the terrace, which was getting chilly in the night air. A pair of gargantuan fireplaces, festooned with pine swags, were ablaze for warmth and for seasonal effect—indoors and out.
    Near the gleaming grand piano, I noticed Atticus, the painter, and Lance Caldwell, the composer, huddled in animated conversation, thumping their chests and gesticulating broadly. Like most of the faculty present, they both wore basic, arty black. The firelight picked out and magnified the red in Atticus’s graying hair, giving the little man a tempestuous look that matched the bravado of his body language. Caldwell, lean and catlike, arched his spine, hissing something about music theory. Iesha Birch, the museum director, joined them and sided with Atticus, launching into a defense of the “plastic and graphic arts.”
    “Let’s find Mark,” I told Glenn, winking—meaning, Get me out of here.
    With easy affection, he looped an arm through mine and guided me through the invisible wall. Again, the transition from indoors to out was subtle and seamless. In an instant, the air turned cooler, the light dimmed, and the party noise seemed quiet and distant, overlaid now by the echo of a coyote’s howl. Across the pool, at the far side of the terrace, clumps of guests gathered near a stone parapet, gazing out over craggy arroyos to the valley floor some thousand feet below. The day’s last light defined peaks of a western mountain range. The purple horizon faded to black in a riot of stars overhead.
    Even in the twilight, I had no difficulty spotting Mark Manning, whose crisp tan suit defined a striking silhouette against the encroaching night. Grant Knoll stood beside him, pointing across the valley toward the lights of the main runway at the airport. Glenn and I stepped up behind them. I asked, “Does it remind you of December in Wisconsin?”
    Mark laughed, still facing the serene, dusky vista. “Not even remotely.” Then he turned to greet me with a kiss. “Good evening, Claire.”
    I returned the kiss. “Grant, I see, is giving you the grand tour.”
    “He’s been an attentive guide. Thank you, Grant.”
    “My pleasure.” Grant’s eyes slid to mine. He twitched his brows.
    I couldn’t resist asking him, “Where’s Kane tonight?”
    “Nose to the grindstone, working on the program for tomorrow’s event at the museum.”
    Mark turned to tell our host, “I’m at a loss for words, Glenn—everything’s spectacular. I can’t thank you enough for inviting me up tonight.”
    Dismissing the flattery and thanks, Glenn gestured toward our rarefied surroundings. “If it can’t be shared, it’s worth very little.”
    Continuing in this gracious vein, we were soon interrupted by the arrival of a waiter with a tray who, serving double duty, also escorted Detective Larry Knoll to the terrace.
    Glenn stepped forward, extending his hand. “Good evening, Detective. Welcome.”
    “Thanks for asking me. Nice to be back.” The last time Larry had visited Nirvana, he’d capped the evening with an arrest.
    “Since you’re not working tonight,” said Glenn, “won’t you have a drink?”
    Larry hesitated. “Maybe I will.” And he asked the waiter for bourbon, neat.
    The waiter’s tray contained my kir and Mark’s iced vodka, which was garnished with a pungent twist of orange peel; its fragrance seemed magnified in the still, chilly night. Grant already carried a flute of champagne. Glenn wasn’t drinking. As the waiter retreated to the house for Larry’s bourbon, the three of us with glasses skoaled and sipped.
    Instinctively, we drew near the open hearth of the overscale fireplace that blazed near the pool. Reflected flames skipped and twirled on the black surface of the water. Huddling against the night, we drank and talked.
    Larry’s whiskey arrived, smelling warm and wintry.
    Before long, we spoke of murder.

Click here to return to Desert Winter detail page.

Click here to return to index of novels.

Click here to return to main page.

Click here to return to index of excerpts.