Categories > Original > Mystery > Forbidden Fruit
Jenny Alden talked nineteen to the dozen in the backseat of Mike's jeep during the entire drive to Buxton Hall.
"How old are you Jenny?" Charlotte asked taking the opportunity using one of Jenny's brief pauses.
"Twenty-two." The same age as Callie and Eddie.
"And is this your first job working as a realtor?"
"Oh no! I've always wanted to get into the business." Jenny took great pride in her work, Charlotte was not surprised. "Miss Fanshaw's been a sort of a hero to me since I was a kid. You see, my parents have a membership to the country club through my grandparents and that's how I've watched Miss Fanshaw. Professional... ambitious... the realty's motto is 'You gotta have it!' She came up with that one. When she and her late husband Stu- that was Mr. Copeland's name- opened up the real estate agency, she didn't take to being a stay-at-home mom well at all, so she'd bring her kids to the office. She loved working with her husband, but she was never the same after he died ten years ago. Come to think of it, he died not too long after Deputy Drew's mom died."
"Drew's mother died?" That was a bit of news. It could also be the reason as to why he shied away from Leticia's advances. Then again this was Leticia after all.
"Yeah." Jenny sighed. "Drew's mom died of bone cancer, it was terrible. Bonnie was such a sweet, sweet lady. Even though back then I was really young, Drew had changed a lot because of her death. Miss Fanshaw found her husband keeled over on his desk, massive heart attack. Didn't feel a thing."
"I'm very sorry." Charlotte said. "I only saw Drew's father's very briefly, how is he?"
"Much better!" Jenny's countenance brightened considerably. "He remarried five years ago to this really cool lady, Marta. She's a hairdresser at Miss Wesley's salon. Marta moved out here to California from Newark after her husband died. What happened was she drove cross country in this shitty station wagon, and she was lucky she settled in Eden just before the jalopy itself /died. /Anyway, she really couldn't afford a new car so she had it towed to Mr. Potter's garage and that's how they met. They hit it off like right away, and for Marta's wedding present, Mr. Potter fully restored her station wagon- I mean like, cherry!"
"Do Drew and Marta get along?" Charlotte asked.
"Oh yeah, they like each other just fine. But you could tell that Drew's never going to be as happy with his stepmother." As informative as all this was, nevertheless it depressed Charlotte. She switched gears.
"So Jenny, did you get your license while you were in college, or did you take some time off after graduation?"
"Oh, I didn't go to college." Jenny laughed at Charlotte's query as if it were the stupidest thing she'd ever heard. "My parents wanted me to, but that stuff's not for me. Like I said, I always wanted to work in real estate, but after I graduated from Grant I was too young to take the exam. I worked in this clothing store in the outlet mall called Switch and I went from part-time to full-time until I was eligible to take the classes. Besides Miss Fanshaw's is teaching me every aspect of her business since I'm the only one in the office who's serious about staying in real estate... as long as I have her strawberry croissants and a large venti white mocha latte on her desk every morning." And Charlotte suspected that Jenny never got reimbursed. "But I'll admit- and please don't tell Miss Fanshaw I said this- that with the downturn things have been pretty rough in the market."
"Oh yeah," Charlotte acquiesced, "the Dems pushed a new law that saves people from getting tossed onto the street if they can't make their mortgages or are unable to sell their homes."
"I know. That's why Miss Fanshaw came up with this strategy to concentrate on the renter's market. And so far we've been doing pretty well, mostly apartments and condos. We do get a few rental homes, like yours Charlotte. And while my commission isn't as big as my superiors, I'm able to live on my own."
"Oh, where do you live Jenny?" Charlotte asked. Jenny laughed conspiratorially.
"The apartment above the office. I'm never late to work and I'm the first one at the bakery and I get to The Cavern to pick up Miss Fanshaw's caffeine fix with time to spare. My parents do help with the cable and my cell phone, but other than that it's all good. My even dad promised me an/ iPhone/ for my birthday," Jenny put a finger up to her lips. "But don't tell my mom! She'll tear him a new one!" She giggled.
The jeep stopped and Charlotte felt a little embarrassed that she forgot about Mike being there.
"Well, it's the end of the line." Mike announced. The jeep pulled off the main road onto a dirt road. Through the trees was a badly rutted deer path that went uphill. "I can't risk taking the jeep; the road is dangerous and could fuck up my shocks. But we'll have to be careful; you can break an ankle walking this." Charlotte felt for Jenny, she was wearing pumps.
"Here Jenny," Charlotte handed her the keys. "Why don't you go on up ahead since you're the realtor and all."
"Okay." Jenny brightly jumped from Mike's jeep and made her way up the slope. Charlotte waited until she disappeared through the trees and addressed Mike.
"Was she telling the truth?"
"Yeah, why?" Mike was taken aback.
"The whole hero-worship bullshit with Meg Fanshaw. I haven't met Fanshaw, but..." I get some real negative vibes just from hearing her name. "Does that poor girl honestly think she's going to inherit Copeland Realty? When in reality she will always be the gofer and the butt of water cooler jokes."
"Charlotte," Mike said gently, "I respect you as a realist, and can relate to your cynicism."
"You know what-" Mike held up his hands to calm her down.
"But please hear me out, Charlotte!" Charlotte shut her mouth and stayed quiet. "Please don't tell her that. It could kill her."
"Why didn't she go to college? Why didn't her goddamn parents just drop her off in front of Middleton, tell her she isn't stupid and that she's paid up for the fall semester and to shake her ass to registration before all the classes are filled up?!"
"They did!" Charlotte was stupefied.
"You're shitting me."
"No I'm serious. She came home in cab later that day, but she was too scared to go home so she spent the night in the bookstore."
"And then what happened?"
"And then when I couldn't convince her to go back, I went to Middleton and finagled my way into getting the Aldens money back. It's non-refundable, but I was pretty tight with someone in admin." A knight in shining armor. Charlotte hadn't had a cigarette since high school, but she cracked her knuckles hankering for a nicotine fix.
"The Aldens were lucky to have you in their corner."
"In a way." Mike shrugged. "But she's still getting Fanshaw her coffee and croissants every morning. We'd better get moving, Jenny'll get suspicious." Mike started up the deer path when Charlotte called out to him.
"Mike? Were Jenny's parents aware of her intentions to work with Meg Fanshaw?"
"Do you think they didn't want Jenny to work for Fanshaw because of the job, or Fanshaw herself?" There was a beat before Mike dispassionately answered and Charlotte had the feeling it would be another one of his mind fucks.
"I think the answer is obvious." Mike didn't wait for her and went up the path alone. Charlotte stood there for a few minutes but she wasn't frustrated, which was pretty remarkable since he had that talent for making her frustrated. That's when Charlotte remembered that Jenny's parents belonged to the Eden Oaks Country Club and more than likely were going to attend the Sunday luncheon the U.F.O. team was invited to. Naturally Meg Fanshaw would turn up as well. Charlotte wondered if Mike's sudden coolness had anything to with his strange behavior in back The Cavern.
Charlotte caught up to Mike standing by a ten foot-high rusted iron gate. He opened the gate for her and she preceded him up the overgrown walk, the fog and weeping willows pulled back to reveal an enormous Edwardian mansion. The masonry was deteriorating and nearly every window was smashed. Jenny animatedly waved to Charlotte and Mike standing atop the layer cake steps. Charlotte understood why it was called 'the murder house.'
"I just want to warn you," Jenny said unlocking one of the front double doors, "watch for falling debris. And don't be too shocked if you happen to spot any four-legged creature, they're the new owners." The three walked into the gallery, their footsteps sounded hollow and loud. There was no furnishings save for one or two Rococo mirrors hanging askew and broken. Charlotte looked at her fractured reflection in one of them; she shuddered and made her way deeper into the house. The grand staircase had holes in it either from rot or from the wood slats being removed. Charlotte didn't feel safe enough to go into the basement to see where Quentin Palmer died, so she opted for Spenser York's murder scene.
"I'm going to find the master bedroom."
"I'll go with you." Mike said.
"You don't have to." Charlotte said mounting the steps.
"I don't do anything I don't want to do." She rolled her eyes and carefully climbed the stairs. Charlotte stopped halfway up when she saw the skeleton of a huge antique Tiffany chandelier still hanging. She wondered what happened to all that priceless crystal. Mike touched her shoulder, startling her.
"Sorry," Charlotte apologized and they climbed the rest of the way. The third floor's rooms no longer had any doors, so they easily stuck their heads in looking for anything that could have been a stain glass window.
"I think I found it!" Mike called out from the end of the hall. Sure enough when Charlotte entered, the room was large enough to be considered a master bedroom and at the front of the room was a window made large enough to display stain glass.
"I wish I brought my camera." Charlotte groaned. "We'll have to come back anyway. I've seen enough." Mike followed Charlotte out the door without a word. When they reached the ground floor, Jenny was in conversation, rather just answering 'yes' over this silver outdated model Sony Ericsson phone with a collection of gaudy cell phone charms that clacked when ever she nodded.
"Yes Miss Fanshaw... yes... I'll be sure to tell him. Yes... goodbye." She tapped the end button and smiled at Charlotte and Mike. "That was my boss, she just wanted to remind me to come back to the office and not clock out when Mike drops me off.
"We're ready to go." Charlotte said. Jenny locked up behind them and handed back the keys to Charlotte when they were walking back to the jeep. "Oh Mike, Miss Fanshaw said that Mrs. La Belette called her and wanted to remind you about the Sunday luncheon at Eden Oaks."
"I remembered Jenny." Mike humored her.
"And /please /wear a tie. Everybody knows how much you hate them, but just suck it in!" Jenny turned to Charlotte. "The luncheon starts at 11:30 a.m. sharp, this is a strictly members only club and the only way non-members are allowed in is through an invitation by a member. Mrs. La Belette said that she's sending someone around to your house with your invitation. I know Eden Oaks sounds stuffy, but it's really nice. There's a golf course, pool and horseback riding. Of course no club activities are permitted during special events. Ever been to a country club before Charlotte?"
"My parents have been members of the Calabasas Country Club for God knows how long."
"Your dad golfs a lot?" Jenny asked.
"Only with his friends." Charlotte avoided Jenny's eyes and Mike knew she lied.
"Is Calabasas' club nice?"
"Put it this way, movies have been filmed there."
"Any of your movies?" Jenny asked all wide-eyed.
"No Jenny," Charlotte laughed it off. "Real film studios movies."
Charlotte was the first one home and was on her laptop in the dining room when the doorbell rang. She answered it and there stood a jowly man wearing a chauffeur's hat and black suit with a stoic expression. Charlotte looked over his shoulder and saw a silver/ Rolls/ parked in front of the house.
"My name is Bertrand." Introduced the man in a thick Alsatian accent.
"Yes?" Charlotte tried not to sound intimidated. Bertrand's arm shot up sticking an envelope in her face, like a wind-up toy soldier.
"Une invitation de Madame La Belette." Charlotte plucked it tentatively from Bertrand with her fingers.
"Merci beaucoup." Bertrand turned and left without another word. Charlotte went back inside and studied the invitation card; the embossment was black and silver with the club's insignia, a tree with golden fruit, on the heading. It was the invitation Jenny was talking about earlier. On the blank line that was provided for the addressee was 'U.F.O. Pictures Crew' in calligraphy. Charlotte took her final swig of /Bacardi /from her Old fashioned glass and frowned. She needed to find a liquor store. She was on her feet once again about to head to the kitchen for some ice when the front door blew open and Leticia flew in like the Tasmanian Devil.
"You were right about mayor Red!" Leticia trumpeted. "He's dirty, Charlie. But he's not the only one." Both women dropped to their knees around the coffee table where Leticia unfolded her copies of an Eden Courier article. "This was the only article I could find, and it was buried in the microfiche. Oh, you were also right about the library card thing. I tossed the circulation desk clerk fifty bucks for the copies... and her silence."
Charlotte scanned the front page's headline: 'SOUR GRAPES FOR MONSIEUR LA BELETTE.' "According to this, Gerard La Belette was nearly tried for defrauding the state in a land scheme. La Belette was looking to expand his vineyard in Middleton and the piece of land that he was interested in buying ran right into a federally-protected stretch of woods for a species of bird that's on the Endangered Species list. Now he could have bought the land up to the property line, but that wasn't good enough, he had to have a sizeable chunk of the woods as well if he wanted his second vineyard to be as big as the one at home. So he asked his pal Beauregard for help and he brought on a lawyer and cooked up a scheme and petitioned former Senator Cal Daly who received mucho contributions from Beauregard and La Belette... not to mention he's a big fan of the La Belette wine."
"I didn't catch the name of the lawyer. Who was it?" Leticia asked.
"Uh... Rupert Kaplan. Ring a bell?" Leticia was thoughtful for a moment before shaking her head. "I'll ask Mom," Charlotte said. "My parents know everyone on the state bar. Apparently this bill Kaplan wrote for them was a plan for a wildlife preserve that would have to cut into the woods. But if the plan was accepted they would be willing to comply with any regulation put forth by the Endangered Species Act. Either Daly was in on the scheme, or bought it hook, line and sinker we don't know but California State Senate did give the green light on the 'preserve' because the birds would be housed in the 'preserve' and it was the most politically correct deal. Not to mention the amount of money that was being offered."
"And the state would clean up big time if they charged visitors." Leticia pointed out.
"What a sweet deal- for a pile of bullshit. So when construction was set to begin one of the engineers began making some noise. This was odd because La Belette and Beauregard bought off the construction company, State Troopers, officers in the Middleton Sheriff's Department, engineers and architects. Save for this one guy."
"Maybe they didn't pay him enough."
"Maybe he didn't take money, Tish."
"Go on, Charlie."
"Apparently the whistleblower knew the equipment they brought in wasn't for building preserves and went to the /Middleton Gazette/. It created a huge mess: cops were fired, the construction company was eventually forced to file Chapter 11, most of the engineers and architects left California and Daly resigned. But in comparison, Beauregard and La Belette got a slap on the wrist! La Belette avoided a trial by selling the land back to the state- /for half/- and Beauregard put his retirement papers in earlier for Madison Savings." Charlotte's jaw dropped.
"That article is nine years old," Leticia informed her, "and Mikey's butting heads with this sonofabitch over potholes and his age? Bullshit!"
"Mike was acting strange all day, Tish. And I've got another name for you, Meg Fanshaw."
"The woman who runs the realty place?"
"Yeah. Mike became real detached when I mentioned her name to his face. Drew staying up all night filing parking tickets, Mike acting all withdrawn and there was something he said about his re-election that just bothered me."
"What did Mike say?" Leticia asked.
"He said he had a few dragons left to slay. And what's up with that town council? Half of them want to burn Mike at the stake for one reason or another! If it were me, I'd be sleeping with my eyes open. Him? It's just part of the rat race." Charlotte fell against the sofa glowering.
"Well, if the Cooper Dairy thing is important to the council I suppose I'd be up in arms too. But why would these idiots be so stupid to want to build a mall that would hurt their town?" Leticia reached for the Bacardi bottle and took its last shot. "Why?" Charlotte turned and looked out the patio doors; something just caught her attention for the first time. Their fence gate had no lock, which was how Mike entered their backyard without a problem.
"People here don't lock their doors."
"Hmm?" Leticia said.
"People in Eden don't lock their doors!" Charlotte repeated as though she had the greatest revelation.
"But we do."
"That's because we're from L.A., Tish!" Charlotte stood up and paced the room. "These people give their trust unconditionally! And even if that trust is breached, they don't ask why."
"So these council members that hate Mike, do you think they were gonna get something out of the mall that would've been built?" Leticia asked.
"Try this one on," Charlotte challenged, "let's just say there's something going on now and those same people are in on it."
"I think we'd better plan a group shopping trip to that outlet mall. We're all going to need some new duds if we're going to this luncheon."
The /Anniversary Waltz/ was heard all the way in the lobby where a uniformed greeter checked the U.F.O. crew's invitation in the guest register.
"U.F.O. Pictures? Miss Charlotte Stratemeyer?" The greeter was a Keanu Reeves look-alike that got appreciative looks from Callie, Greta and Leticia.
"That's me." Charlotte said.
"Just sign here please." He spun the brown leather book in her direction and handed her a pen. Charlotte initialized the register in the column beside 'Guests of The La Belettes.' Charlotte handed back the pen and turned the book back around. "Welcome to the Eden Oaks Country Club, and enjoy your stay." Charlotte nodded in thanks.
"Have a need for speed, you three?" She hissed as soon as they were out of an earshot. Leticia just smacked her on the shoulder.
The grand walking tour through the corridor and ballroom was unexciting. The club was a modern design mostly of gold, glass and marble with a black, brown, red and eggshell color scheme.
"Does the kitchen staff have the day off?" Chris asked as they saw the ballroom empty. On the front wall nearest to the band stage was a wooden plaque with little brass plates and on them were names and titles. The top two names jumped out at Charlotte: Red Beauregard- President; Gerard La Belette- Vice President.
"Chris! Chris!" Charlotte called to the cameraman, waving him over.
"What Boss Lady?" Chris whined pulling at his shirt collar irately.
"Give me your phone."
"Because you have a camera on it. I don't have one on mine!" Charlotte snapped. Christ threw her his black Sprint /Katana/ and Charlotte snapped two photos of the plaque.
"Why did you do that?" Leticia asked her. Charlotte handed Chris back his phone.
"It feels like the right thing to do." Greta saw a tall, oblong shadow from the narrow by the door hinges and went back outside.
"Hey guys! We're in the wrong place." They crowded around Greta as she pointed to a sign on a metal post behind the door. "'Luncheon: 11:30 a.m. on the patio.'" She read. They all ran down another corridor that pointed out where the golf course was and through a row of white glass doors was a busy patio and the band on a stage playing the waltz. There was a buffet and bar, uniformed waiters went in and out carrying trays.
"Charlotte, dear! You came!" Charlotte was ambushed by Monique. The overpowering aroma of /Chantilly /wouldn't allow her to take a breath without gagging. Monique released her embrace and airkissed Charlotte on both cheeks. "Fashionably late, but you came." Charlotte blanched and looked at her watch, it was 11:40. Charlotte tossed her head back and laughed gaily. "That's why it's called fashionable." She clasped her hand and pulled her along. "Come on Miss Director, there are people waiting to meet you." Charlotte looked over her shoulder for help from her friends, but they were as powerless as she.
Monique led her like a Pekinese to a cluster of women that all were carbon copies of one another, varying shades of blonde hair, and heroin-chic figures with designer labels sloshing around their frames. Monique's clique. Charlotte felt sixteen again, and that day in the cafeteria when the homecoming queen Nicolette Jernigan dumped a plate of spaghetti on her lap. Charlotte was wary of their little plates of dry vegetable sticks with soy-based dressing that looked like a mud masque. And she suddenly hated the outfit she took two hours choosing, a sleeveless black silk picot trimmed dress. Her vintage black leather T-strap heels were a few years old.
Monique was dressed in a Diane Von Furstenberg white military-style jacket, Armani /coffee slacks and /Gucci /chocolate guccissima leather slides. The silver charm bracelet and heart tag necklace were from /Tiffany's/. Only Leticia could compete with them, she wore ivory /Dolce & Gabbana flare-leg slacks, a Behnaz Sarafpour charmeuse cowl neck camisole and Prada camel satin pumps. Her diamond S-shaped earrings were from her second husband. The rest of the crew wasn't partial to toning it down for the luncheon, but what choice did they have? Greta wore a tight, shoulderless black cotton keyhole dress with open-toed black patent-leather pumps, Marilyn Monroe shades and an Audrey Hepburn hairstyle. Callie had to abandon her hippie look for a maroon pencil skirt, a white cotton scoop neck sweater and pink suede cap-toe ballerina flats. Her hair was as always in pigtails, a seashell bracelet was on her left wrist and on a brown leather thong was a heavy silver and turquoise pendant. Eddie Yanakis was a grunge fan but he wore khaki /Dockers/, a seersucker shirt and brown loafers. And Charlotte pitied Chris the most, suffering in his starchy clothes: black Chinos, a blue short sleeved dress shirt and black leather shoes.
Charlotte heard nothing of the conversation Monique and her little band of hench-wenches were trying to draw her into. They seemed satisfied with nods and 'Mmm-hmms.' Mike returned from the men's room looking uncomfortable in his black suit and red tie and frowned when he saw Charlotte with Monique.
"What is she doing?"
"Mike!" Leticia walked up to the mayor. "Where were you?"
"You know what they say, 'You don't drink beer, you rent it.' Why is Monique bothering Charlotte?"
"I don't know, but I think Charlotte's handling herself pretty well." Leticia replied. Charlotte was a doe caught in the headlights, but she thanked the universe when Veronica Wesley hip-swayed herself over. She wore a/ Bluemarine/ bronze silk and lace slip dress and these ostentatious jeweled champagne /Oscar de la Renta /T-strap sandals. The dress bunched up in all the wrong places.
"Monique sweets, your daddy and Red want you to stand in for some pictures." Veronica gave Charlotte a once-over and sucked her teeth.
"Oh! Sorry to have our fun cut short Charlotte." Monique apologized.
"No problem." Charlotte was quite relieved and finally exhaled when they left.
"Sorry about that."/ /She didn't hear Mike come up behind her.
"God Mike! You've got to stop with the Indian walk."
"Gotta keep in practice. Listen, you want to get a drink?" Mike pointed to the bar.
"Why not?" Charlotte didn't want to attract Monique's attention since she had actual strength in numbers, however she decided against putting up a fight since she was both mentally and physically exhausted- and she'd only been here for around 15 minutes! But before they could take one step, Violet called to her son.
"Michael!" Violet ran over to them. "Michael, Marv Rucker needs to talk to you about the upcoming ribbon cutting ceremony."
"Mom, he's just opening a/ Starbuck's/ counter in /Andy's/. It could wait a few minutes." Mike draped an arm around Charlotte's shoulder and was about to lead her to the bar when his mother clasped her son's jacket lapel restraining him, as she had done countless times when he was growing up.
"Mike, this is the first serious franchise Eden has invested in. And I don't need to tell you that your responsibilities as an elected official come before everything-/ including/ your personal life." Mike detached himself from Charlotte and went with his mother. Charlotte wasn't too upset over Mike having to uphold his civic duty and went to the bar. The wine and champagne that was set up with the buffet didn't look interesting; half of it was dominated by the La Belette label. There was plenty on tap, but she didn't drink beer. Charlotte studied the liquors on the mirrored shelves behind the bartender; there was a shitload of top-shelf stuff: Grey Goose/, /Bombay Sapphire/, /Captain Morgan's/, /Chivas Regal/, and /Courvoisier stood out the most. But she was really surprised when she spotted the Brazilian rum, /Divininha CachaÃ§a/.
"Excuse me." Charlotte said to the bartender. He looked up with a welcoming smile.
"What can I get for you today?"
"Know what a Caipirinha is?" The bartender looked at the /CachaÃ§a/.
"Yeah." He replied slyly.
"Prove it." The bartender set to work ready to answer Charlotte's challenge. In an Old Fashioned glass he put two teaspoons of sugar and lime and muddled it. Then some crushed ice, added the /CachaÃ§a/, garnished it with a lime slice that sunk to the bottom and a stalk of sugar cane for a swizzle stick. "I knew I liked you." The bartender modestly pumped a fist when a waiter approached.
"One Shirley Temple and three Blaster Bates." Somebody brought their kids, and Charlotte wondered if that was wise. Charlotte distinctly remembered the warm welcome she received from the snobs-in-training when she used to go to the Calabasas Country Club with her parents. They got the message never to bring her again back in junior high when she protested in the front garden wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and red beret with a picket sign that read: 'Â¡Ensamble la revoluciÃ³n! Â¡Muerte a todos los fascistas! Â¡EnergÃa a la gente!' /Join the revolution! Death to all fascists! Power to the people! /Her friend Mercedes Alvarez wrote the sign. Charlotte's grandmother, Oma Lisa, was the only one to applaud her. She followed the waiter with her eyes and saw him bring the fruit smoothies with elaborate fruity garnishes and paper umbrellas in PiÃ±a Colada goblets to Greg Novak's triplets. They chorused their thanks to the waiter.
With her back to the crowd sitting Indian-style on a beach chair by the pool Laurel Heller played with her white /Nintendo DS Lite/.
"One Shirley Temple for the lady." The waiter set her syrupy-sweet kiddie cocktail in a Collins glass on the ripple glass table beside her.
"Thanks." She sipped it from the black straw and grinned. Laurel was dressed in a sundress with splashes of neon colors with a bandanna that somehow matched and tan sandals with peach lip gloss.
"Fauxmosas." Someone ordered in a tone of voice Charlotte didn't like. And when saw who made the order, she nearly choked. A trio of 13 going on 25-year-old girls with hair done and faces made up to perfection posed by the bar, sour-faced. Their outfits were Vera Wang/, the freckled carrot top on the left wore a lavender tulle strapless dress and white brocade strappy mules. The brunette on the right wore a black ruffled silk taffeta tank dress with a waist bow and gold jeweled cutout sandals. And the highlighted blonde leader in the middle wore a jade mesh plunging V-neck dress with a skinny white belt around the empire waist, and Charlotte was as green as that dress when she saw a pair of /Jimmy Choo black studded Inga sandals on her size-five feet.
Silently and cautiously the bartender served them their 7 Up /and orange juice mocktails. The threesome hoisted their champagne flutes imitating models in an /Entourage club scene and strutted off.
Laurel was happily chatting on her DS when the stomp of high heels interrupted her.
"Excuse me, Lauren." Lauren non-challantly glanced over her shoulder and went back to her chatting.
"What do you want Leslie-Lea?" The girl in the jade dress sneered at Lauren for dismissing her. She quickly gathered herself and puffed out her nascent breasts.
"Members follow a dress code around here." She informed her classmate in Clara Barton. "And you're not supposed to be wearing a rag in your hair." Laurel clapped her DS shut and glared at Leslie-Lea, putting up with her at school was one thing, but now she took it too far.
"First off, I'm not a member. I was just invited. And second, if I was doing something against this stupid-ass dress code, don't you think I would've been stopped at the door? Duh!" Laurel went back to her DS and loaded up a game. Leslie-Lea was infuriated. Nobody talked like that to her! She knocked the Shirley Temple over on Laurel causing her to drop her /DS/, breaking it on the concrete. Leticia flirted with Drew relentlessly, Greta held court with several men charming them with her '50s hippie jive-talk, and Chris made a woman giggle as he was demonstrating how to pop a wheelie while Eddie and Callie stuffed their faces with petit-fours and hors d'oeuvres at the buffet. Simultaneously they developed panicked expressions and Leticia was about to open her mouth, but it was too late. The slap that came echoed around the world.
Everyone froze, even the band stopped playing. Charlotte still hand her hand mightily raised and Leslie-Lea stood in shock, her stinging cheek a bright red. A whine started low in her throat then pushed up and out of her mouth into wails looking like the child she was. Tears streamed down her face, ruining her makeup.
"Why did you hit me?" Leslie-Lea sobbed. "Mommy doesn't hit me!" She cried more from the humiliation than the pain.
"Well let me tell you something," Charlotte said putting her arm down and getting in Leslie-Lea's face. "If I ever did anything like that," she pointed to Laurel's stained dress, "my mother would've done a whole lot worse! But you know what, she never had to do that, you wanna know why? Because I learned respect and discipline. If your mommy can't teach you that, I will."
"You beatnik trash! Get away from my daughter!" A voice shrilled.
"Ah, here comes Mommy now!" A woman with peroxided hair and a puffy face in a velour kimono dress pulled her daughter protectively to her lifted breasts.
"You put one hand on my child, and I'll sue your ass off!"
"Don't threaten me lady. Your kid threw this girl's drink on her lap." Charlotte told her.
"That's a lie! People, she's drunk! This woman's a child abuser!" Charlotte made a quick study of the faces around them, and it had to be another one of Leslie-Lea's mother's melodramas. Charlotte sniffed the air around the bleached-blonde.
"What's that I smell?" Charlotte sniffed again. "JD/, /Diet Coke and... Percodan!" The U.F.O. crew whooped it up, several members, guests and the entire staff laughed and the band's drummer played a rim shot. "Did you come straight from the plastic surgeon's? Did he forget to tell you that liquor and pain killers don't mix? But I guess you're kinda used to that anyway." It was apparent that the woman's husband and their friends abandoned her and all she could do was stand silent and take Charlotte's tongue lashing. "Now if I see that kid, or any other kid that's cutting lip or getting nasty you're damn well sure I'm going to do something about it. Got that?!" Charlotte took Laurel by the hand. "We're going to the ladies room to get you cleaned up."
The ladies room on the ground floor was locked and an out of order placard hung on the knob. The men's room door opened and a maintenance woman rolling out a cart overflowing with cleansers, sponges, paper towels and a trash can emerged.
"Ladies room on second is open." She informed Charlotte.
"Thanks!" Charlotte and Laurel took the stairs. She sat Laurel in one of the white wicker chairs and wet one of the folded cloth towels on the salmon marble sink ledge. "I'm sorry that happened to you kid. I'm sorry you had to see that. And I'm sorry your game broke." Charlotte babbled. She tried to scrub out the ginger ale, orange juice and grenadine syrup stain on Laurel's dress making do with hand soap. After a bit useless scrubbing she frustratedly threw the sopping wet towel into the sink. Charlotte collapsed into another wicker chair and held her head in her hands wishing for a cigarette.
"YOU'RE SO TOTALLY WICKED!!" Charlotte almost fell over with her seat when she saw Laurel bouncing up and down. "You've got a pair of balls on you Miz S.!" Laurel was star struck, she found a new hero. "Do you know who that was?!"
"No, honey. Should I worry?" Charlotte asked suddenly worried.
"Leslie-Lea Wharton's just a wannabe, we put up with her at school all the time. But you were dead-on about her mom." Laurel checked to see if anyone was coming before cupping a hand over her mouth and whispered, "Her mom's a pillhead."
"Is that right?" Now wasn't that something.
"But it's not like everybody doesn't know." The 13-year-old shrugged. "Mr. Wharton works for his dad who owns this chain of big and tall men's stores so he's never really around. He's here today though, but he really doesn't care about what Mrs. Wharton does." Charlotte envied Laurel's indomitable sense of self and perception. She already knew who she was; these were things Charlotte's parents rallied against in favor for image. "Will you marry Uncle Mike and stay here? I wouldn't ask if people made more sense in this town." Charlotte stood up and hugged her feeling the wet spot from Laurel's dress transfer onto hers.
"If only you could come see my neighborhood." Charlotte said wistfully. "You sure you're okay?"
"Yeah. The warranty on my DS is still good. So I'll probably get it replaced for free."
"You going home?"
"I didn't want to come anyway. But Uncle Mike is the mayor so..." Laurel trailed off leaving it to Charlotte to figure the rest out. They said their farewells and Laurel skipped out of the ladies room. But not even Laurel's effervescence could bring Charlotte out of her funk; she splashed some cold water on her face and sat back down lolling her head on the backrest.
"...I'm not complaining Red..."
"...Can't be too sure about that, Herbie..."
"...I don't plan on being holed up in here..."
"...Yvonne! Keep your voice down!..."
Charlotte's ears perked up at this heated conversation that sounded relatively close to the ladies room. The angry clip-clop of heels forced Charlotte to duck into a stall fearing whoever it was coming into the bathroom. Luckily the footsteps gradually quieted until the bathroom was silent again. Charlotte crept out of the bathroom listening for the voices, they trailed from somewhere around the corner. A pair of huge imitation Ming vases on brass feet flanked an office door. When Charlotte approached it silently, the brass plaque read: 'Red Beauregard, Eden Oaks Country Club President.' Kneeling behind one of the vases making herself as small as she could Charlotte struggled to eavesdrop getting as much as the conversation through the crack in the hinge side of the door.
"...I've been trying to tell you all this for four months now. The minute I told Louise I was going to have enough to buy out Marv Rucker's shares, she goes out and decides that we needed a new kitchen. Then she wanted one of those baths with the jets in them for our bathroom. And now she went on a shopping spree and gets Barbra and the kids' summer wardrobes and herself a mink coat. I can't keep up with this!" Charlotte recognized the voice of Herb Stillman. She supposed Louise was his wife and Barbara was his daughter. "Now I don't mean any offense Gerard, but my wife's already trying to compete with yours!"
"Herb, if you needed money why didn't you come to me?" Gerard La Belette said.
"Because this one," the jealous supermarket manager growled from behind gnashed teeth pointing at Red at his desk, "is accusing me of getting cold feet. I'm no snitch, Beauregard!"
"Keep your voice down dammit!" Red fired back.
"You lookin' for a snitch, that's Tim's department!"
"That silly bastard," Gerard's cheque book was spread across his lap, "will not be givin' anybody problems... this time around." Gerard tore out a cheque. "He loves those horses more than he does his grandbabies. Now whatever you owe I guarantee, but even I have my limits. He knows that now." He was just about to hand Herb his check but pulled it back a couple of centimeters before his shaky fingers could grasp it. "And Herbert,/ I/ can't keep up with my wife. So get over yourself." He handed Herbert the cheque graciously. "Will it be enough for this month?"
Herb swallowed thickly, sweat got into his eyes. "It will." He rasped.
"Good. And don't worry about it. Soon Rucker will be a distant memory that you'll be too busy for since you'll be expanding /Andy's/." Gerard smacked him playfully on the chest. "You'd be a fool not to, what with the rapid population jump."
Charlotte's heart skipped a beat. Population jump? What in the hell was La Belette talking about? Charlotte quietly made good her escape looking over her shoulder the entire way back downstairs. She passed the ballroom and heard voices, sitting at one of the tables sat Julianne and Tom Heller their faces contorted with rage with the Whartons. Mike spoke working his magic as mediator. Mr. Wharton looked tired and bored as his wife looked as though she her mouth was full of lemon juice. Charlotte wandered back to the party she saw neither Laurel nor Leslie-Lea, it was for the best. She returned to the bar and found her drink, but when she took a sip she made a face. The ice melted and diluted the rum. She wanted to order another, but the bartender had vanished. Feeling hyper from the information she retained, Charlotte went to get some punch. Flitting about in a Vivienne Tam peach crepe dress and Oscar de la Renta pewter leather slingbacks was Yvonne La Belette. Looking like a pallbearer, Bertrand made an unexpected appearance and handed his employer something.
"Merci Bertrand." Yvonne said.
"Oui." And he left.
"He's so good you know." Yvonne bragged to one of her witch friends in a huge picture hat like the Queen Mother. "Went all the way home to get this." Yvonne waved around an object Charlotte couldn't quite see. "But he knows I can't live without my /Romeos/." Yvonne pulled out a cigarette from the white and red box and flicked her gold plated /Zippo/. Charlotte caught the aroma of the lit /Romeo Y Julieta/, a contraband Cuban gem and her mouth watered. She wondered who their connections were. Yvonne set the pack down on the buffet table and got distracted when the 'fashionable' late arrival of friends required her attention. Charlotte took advantage of the opportunity and got a closer look at the cigarettes.
"Why don't you try one?" Monique had materialized. "She won't notice, I do it all the time." Monique already flicked her platinum /Zippo/. Charlotte gave into temptation and swiftly whipped one out without disturbing the pack. Charlotte inhaled tasting the potent flavor of the Cuban tobacco. She became aware of Monique's stare and didn't like it.
"Aren't you going to have one?" Charlotte asked.
"Not my usual brand." Out of her brown leather /Juicy /purse came the familiar the checkered and gold label of /Cohiba /cigarettes. After a few silent moments of carcinogenic enjoyment, Charlotte stubbed out her cigarette in a thick crystal ashtray. "I want to apologize, for the incident." Charlotte was taken by surprise by Monique's somberness. "Young ladies like Leslie-Lea Wharton have so much to learn." She made her excuses. "We all were like that at that age."
I wasn't. Charlotte didn't say. Reflected in Monique's liquidy grey eyes was apprehension.
Kitty's got claws. /She tapped some embers from her cigarette before taking another pull. Suddenly Charlotte's /Treo rang inside her purse, cursing softly she took it from her bag but didn't bother to check who it was.
"Isn't it always?" Charlotte politely laughed along with Monique and excused herself. She let her phone ring and checked the ballroom, it was empty then she hit the talk button.
"Hello?" She heard the beep of another phone being shut off. But then Charlotte was only vaguely aware of her phone and purse falling to the floor and not being able to breathe properly. Then again, Mike did have his tongue in her mouth.
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