Sophie Redesigned Redesignd

No, it is not a typo. I am rewriting my first Sophie George novel, now one in five completed for a series I call Moxie Cosmos Mysteries.

Here’s the opening:

The Floater

Friday, June 12, 1998

To beat the jogging crowd (more like trotting at our age), I start my two-mile walk around Dorado Circle by about 5:30 a.m.  Today, at 6:25, I saw a strange car backing out of the driveway at Deborah Conyers’ house on Dorado Place, my neighboring cul de sac, and hugged the shrubbery to let it pass.  It was shiny black, with tinted windows, and as long as a hearse. A cold shiver ran along my arms at that thought.  Just a few months ago we buried Hank, Deborah’s latest beau, perhaps her one true love.  Gossips insisted she had become withdrawn and wondered if she could survive without him.  When the car turned the corner I walked closer, thinking how few women our age would be sending off secret visitors so early in the morning, although Deborah was a man’s kind of woman and I could imagine . . .

Her front door was wide open.  I then realized I should have looked at that car’s license plate.

I stepped onto her porch intending to knock lightly before walking in to investigate. To my relief, Deborah was standing just inside in front of a long oval mirror that was the centerpiece in her tiny foyer.  I stood there mutely as she switched on the wall sconces at either side of the mirror and leaned forward to scrutinize her face.  She arched her carefully plucked eyebrows under her pink visor to examine her eyeliner.  She backed up and, turning sideways, pulled the waist tie tighter on her sweats.  That’s when she saw me.

“Sophie!  For goodness sake,” she cried.  “Are you all right?”

“I was just wondering…” but I couldn’t say I was wondering, because of the car, the same about her.  She would think I was snooping.  “I just wondered if you had time to drink a cup of coffee with me.  But it looks like you have plans.  Playing tennis?”

“No.”  She laughed lightly, perhaps a tad falsely.  “Not me.  You caught me trying on my new look.  I’ll be 68 tomorrow.  I was just wondering if I could pass for 60, or possibly 58.”  The truth was she didn’t have a bad body, but what could I say about the bleached hair, pulled back into a ponytail and stuffed over the band at the back of her visor?

“Of course,” I replied.  “Younger, even.”  Like sixteen.

We live in Bridgewater Village, a condo development for retirees and snowbirds, bungalows built around a recreation center.  Nearly every woman here – and some men – try going blonde at some point.  It seems to be a late-life rite of passage.

“I owe my skin to Angela Della Santa’s grandmother,” Deborah now said.  I must have looked puzzled because she laughed and filled me in.  “Fifty years ago, this wrinkled old Italian crone told us girls to use olive oil to keep our beauty.  Do you want that cup of coffee?”

“How about a quick cup of tea?”

She beckoned me into her kitchen where I could see she didn’t have a coffee maker going anyway, and no kettle. She used the microwave to heat my tea.  I also saw that she had a gin bottle on the counter and a half-filled – or half-empty – glass beside it.  Perhaps sensing my wandering eyes, Deborah slid the glass back between the breadbox and a bowl of bananas.

“I like your sporty outfit,” I commented encouragingly.  “It’s definitely a new you.”  Until Hank appeared, she had been known in Bridgewater Village as “Madam Chairman,” an attractive recent retiree who wore tailored suits to preside over meetings of our Home Owners Association.  She seemed to enjoy her reputation as a professional tough cookie, someone too busy for chitchat, like the hard-edged, veteran, real estate agent in our midst who spoke kindly only to residents on the verge of moving to assisted living.  Most people disliked Deborah’s abrupt, take-charge manner and were relieved when her term was up.

Then someone spotted her at the Yacht Club with a handsome stranger, and reported in shock that Deborah had appeared uncharacteristically soft and feminine, almost kittenish, in shorts and halter.  A couple of months later she appeared on the society pages in a group shot of millionaire babes in satin décolletage. That led to speculation about who Deborah’s escort might be and what they were up to.  I try to keep out of these conversations, but I definitely would say she had shown two sides to her personality.

“This is my new uniform,” Deborah said, handing me the mug of tea.

“Uniform?  Do you have a job at a country club?”

“No.  I just mean that I took all my Madam Chairman suits back to Second Look when I finished my term on the board and traded them for things like this instead.  ‘Guess that will leave a few mouths wide open.”  So, she knew about the cruel talk.  “From now on it will be Nike outlet style for me, because our Bridgewater recreation center is going to be my only social life. I also plan to sell my Hank wardrobe.”  My own mouth fell open at this quirky but revealing remark.  Maybe she was over her grieving, putting the past behind her, and moving on with her life, but she sure sounded superficial.

“What do you mean by your Hank wardrobe?” I asked.

“All that glamour. A foolish dream. Hank’s idea of a ‘close and lasting’ friendship was all about ‘let’s pretend.’  Haven’t you heard? That fortune he inherited from an aunt was a total fiction.  The status house he ‘owned’ wasn’t his.  He barely was able to keep up his club memberships.  I spent my lifetime savings on those clothes to look good for him. They were from MM! Now I need the money.”

I didn’t know what to say. MM stood for Millie’s Modes, a fashion boutique in old Dorado Bay, lingering since the 1950s. Deborah looked at me and must have seen that I needed a clearer explanation.

“I hung on to them awhile after he died.  But when the weather warmed up again, and my date book was still empty, I decided that ….”  She paused, apparently thinking how to continue.  I could have finished her sentence.  None of his pals was going to pick up where he had left off.  Deborah never really had been part of the Yacht Club crowd. And by then everyone in that crowd knew Hank had not really been one of them either.  He had been a charming fraud.

“I have been wondering how you are getting along.”

“Is that why you came over?”

“I saw that black car drive away.  It scared me.  I thought perhaps there was a, well, problem here.”

There was a long silence, and I wasn’t sure whether to jump into it with some inane observation about village security, or change the subject. I couldn’t just get up and leave. Then she spoke again, very sober and deliberate.

“Sophie.  Can I tell you something strange and maybe good that just happened?  Will you promise not to tell anyone?”  Everyone knew I kept my word.  Often I was called upon for advice.  Not that I’m bragging.  It’s a double-edged sword. So I nodded.

“I was offered a part time job.  But it’s a little mysterious.”

“Tell me more,” I said with mixed feelings.

“That car you saw — but let me start at the beginning.”  She dropped to a chair, feet flat, elbows out, fingers tightly intertwined.  “I couldn’t sleep last night, so finally I got up and just for kicks tried on these new sports outfits.  I went to the mirror in the hall to see how I looked.  I confess I had chosen Capri-length sweat pants to show off the better part of my legs and the scoop-necked t-shirt to show just a bit of cleavage.  I was thinking it covered my waistline, but…” She pinched herself on two sides of her middle. “Just about one year ago, a month before I found him dead, Hank offered to pay for liposuction.  I’m ashamed to say that this morning I was wishing I had taken him up on that.  But life goes on, I said to myself, with all its imperfections.  I turned sideways to see how bad it was and whether I had bulges in back.  We don’t usually see our backs.”

At this point I shifted on the hard kitchen chair, put my mug down, and rumpled my paper napkin.  Where was this unnecessarily detailed self-assessment headed?  I began to suspect she had been drinking gin since she got out of bed.

“I decided to have a look bare naked, lifted my shirt over my head and threw it on the floor,” she continued.  “I was down to my underpants when the headlights strafed the living room walls through the front window.”

“That car I saw?”  She nodded.

“It turned into my drive!  It was five in the morning! I switched off the light, kicked off the sweats and headed back into the hallway, feeling my way along the walls.  After counting to ten and nothing more happened, I ran toward my bedroom, but the curtains were open there. I could see the car was in the driveway with its lights off.  I ducked into the hall bathroom and waited.  I heard a car door slam and two men with low voices talking as they moved toward the front porch.  They didn’t sound like anyone I knew.  In another few seconds there was a rap-rap that rattled the screen door.  What could I do?  I grabbed my clothes, pulled them on, then tiptoed to the front door to check through the peephole.  There were two men out there on the porch, one short and puffy-looking, and the other slim and suave with a little bit of a moustache.  They both were wearing black leather jackets.  At first I thought they were policemen — trouble in the neighborhood — and I put my hand on the knob.  Just in time I noticed they were wearing blue jeans.  I was not going to just open the door and let them in.  I asked who they were.

“Who were they?”

“They said they were friends of my neighbor across the street.”

“Roland Urquhart?”

“Yes.  I asked them, ‘What’s the problem?’ The suave one answered, ‘He’s not there.  We were supposed to go fishing.  We’re wondering if you noticed his car leaving this morning.’”

“I guess men get up early to fish,” I said lamely, but this was beginning to sound like a shaggy dog story.

“Then the suave guy pulled open the screen door!  Then the short one put his hand on the doorknob.  I tried to fasten the safety chain, but was too slow.  They pushed their way in and were looking me right in the face.”

“Good grief, Deborah.  You should have a panic button.  That was a break-in.”

“Yes.  But they weren’t burglars.  They just wanted information. Of course, I didn’t want them there.  They smelled like goats in their cheap leather, and also cheap cologne.  They filled the whole entryway with their big fake shoulders and yucky odors.”

“So, what happened?”

“The puff-ball glanced around the living room like Roland might be hiding behind my curtains.  ‘Did you see him last night?’ he asked.  I shook my head, but they both stepped around in there and kept looking.”

“What did you do?”

“I tried not to look scared.  I just said, ‘I beg your pardon?  Why do you think I should know where he is?’  Like that.”  She did her best to look snooty.

“Did you ask them why they had come to you?”

“Yes.  They said they saw my light on.  And they claimed Roland had told them I was his friend.”

“Are you?”  This would be interesting.  No one else in the neighborhood had been able to break down the barrier Roland Urquhart erected around his life.  He was civil, sometimes exchanged pleasantries, but did not go out of his way.

“When I said I seldom ever saw him, the suave one got a little, well, insistent.  He said, ‘We know he talks to you.’  I said I hadn’t seen him at all this week, which was absolutely true. By then they were wandering in and out of the other rooms, opening closets in the bedrooms, even the pantry in my kitchen.  They seemed to be sure that I was hiding him somewhere in my house.  I tried to reason with them.  I asked them why he would have changed his mind about fishing without letting them know. ‘That’s what we wonder,’ puff-ball said.”

“Why didn’t you tell them to leave?” I asked her.

“I was going to.  Or get out of there myself.  The suave one saw me looking at the door.  He stepped closer to me and I backed away until I was up against that narrow table where I pile my mail – I was stuck there.  I did think about those ads for a call button necklace for old ladies living alone.  I even thought about assisted living.”  Deborah paused.  If she was waiting for laughter from me, it was pointless.  I couldn’t imagine Deborah in assisted living unless she was running the place. I thought about the gin again, but she seemed perfectly lucid as she continued her story.  “It was getting to be daylight.  I was now hoping that someone would walk into the cul de sac – like you did –see the fancy car and be a little nosy.”

I could imagine other neighbors being nosy, but not brave enough to walk over to check out the situation.  Bridgewater didn’t have much hero material.  In fact, other than Roland Urquhart, I’m Deborah’s closest year-round neighbor, and most of the time I mind my own business, too.

“Puffy walked to the window and looked across at Roland’s house.  He accused me: ‘I bet he told you not to tell anyone where he was going.’  I looked him in the eye and said, ‘He isn’t friendly with his neighbors.  No one keeps track of him.’  But, Sophie, my mind was racing over the only conversation I had with Roland recently.  It raised questions in my mind.”

“What questions?” I asked her.

“We don’t usually chat when we see each other; we just wave.  And I usually see him when he is walking his dog.  But one day last week I noticed him standing like a statue out in his driveway. I was really a little bit puzzled about something I’d seen at his house earlier, so I went across to talk to him.”  Deborah squeezed her eyes tight shut as if trying to remember word for word.

“And…?”

“Well, one day when I had just pulled into my garage, a delivery van pulled up to his.  I wasn’t sure he was home, so I thought they might come and drop a package off for him at my house.  Anyway, I stayed in my car with the garage door lifted, and watched in my rearview mirror as they removed some cartons from a side door in their truck – about a dozen, all the same size.  Then Roland’s garage door opened and he came out. It was obvious he was expecting them.  I had no excuse to keep watching, but I was concerned. Maybe he would need more storage space, and since, I don’t have a car, I could lend him my garage.”

I thought Deborah’s neighborliness was a little excessive.  Nearly everybody has something big delivered sometime. Maybe not a dozen things alike, but it was none of her business.

“So, when I spotted him last week I went across and said, ‘It looks like you’re starting a new business.’  He tilted his head at me and I described what I had seen and offered to take deliveries for him.”

“Did he explain?”

“No!  He was rude.  He said he had to walk the dog and turned away from me.”

“That wasn’t exactly rude.”

“Maybe not, Sophie, but when I think back on it, I believe it was those same men who delivered those packages who came over here this morning.  And it didn’t look like fishing equipment.”

“You didn’t tell me what finally happened to them this morning.  How did you get them to leave?”

“The sound of another car got them excited.  I hoped it was Mr. Urquhart returning.  I said a little prayer, in fact.  But the car circled in the cul de sac and went away.  That’s when they asked me if I would do them a favor.  Puff-ball said, ‘Okay, Miz Conyers.  We believe you.’ They knew my name!  Roland must have told them.”

I noted that they hadn’t told Deborah their names, and wondered why.

“Puffy sat down on my sofa, looked real friendly, and asked if I would like to make a little pin money.  Suave kept looking out the window, his greasy hand on my clean curtain.”

“A favor?”

“He explained that if I agreed to keep my eyes on that house across the street, day and night, they would pay me two-hundred and fifty dollars a week, five-hundred in advance.  He said they need to know every time a person I didn’t recognize comes to Mr. Urquhart’s house, what car he drives, what license plate, and how long he stays.  Day or night.  And most important, if he unloads anything or picks anything up.”

“What did you say to Puff Ball?” I asked, now seriously doubting the verity of this comic sketch.

“Well, I said I wasn’t sure how I could stay awake to keep an eye on the house night and day.”

“And…?”

“He said to use an alarm clock and check every two hours.  Then his greasy pal had a better idea.  He said they could install a wire in Roland’s driveway that would ring a bell in my house.  They would call me every couple of days to find out what I saw.”

“And you agreed to do it?”

“They told me I could think it over until noon.  I asked them to repeat what they wanted so I could write everything down, that I needed to weigh the pros and cons.”

“You would be willing to give up your freedom to become their watchdog?”

“They said it could take months.  Think about it.  A steady income.  A thousand a month.”  She showed me her notes.

“Didn’t you think this was a strange request from men who claimed to be your neighbor’s friends?  And what about Mr. Urquhart’s right to privacy?”

“But since he is so strange himself, how do I know if Roland is a good guy or a bad guy?  I thought I might be helping an investigation.”

“But now you think these very same men unloaded those cartons at Roland’s house.”

Deborah just shrugged her shoulders.  She wasn’t sure what she saw.  I was a little taken aback to think she wanted the money badly enough to risk getting mixed up in this funny business without being sure what it was all about.  On the other hand, if she bought and sold her clothes at second hand stores, the money probably was a major attraction.  Maybe this wasn’t any worse than becoming a baby sitter or a home health care worker.  These two characters didn’t sound too nice to work for, but neither are some whiney children or cranky old folks.

As if reading my mind, Deborah went over to her piano and picked up a double photo frame.  One picture was of Hank from the shoulders up in a white uniform of some kind.  The other was the two of them seated at a table in a restaurant.  They looked tanned and healthy, and somehow right for one another.

“He looks like a movie star.”

“Yes.  He was charming — but gutless.  When the bank took his boat, then his car, and started foreclosure on his Cliffside house, he snuffed himself.”

I nearly choked on my second cup of tea, but it wasn’t that I was shocked by the news, because it wasn’t fresh; it was just her way of telling it.  The aforementioned gossips of Bridgewater Village already had tittle-tattled when one of them somehow found out what had happened.  He’d drugged himself to death.  Some pitied Deborah.  Others who thought she was opportunistic — or who were jealous of her looks — said she had it coming; they were happy to see her go down.  Officially, though, no one ever said a word to her about it.  In Bridgewater society, Deborah Conyers had always been outré.  Even in the suits, her sexuality showed, which just wasn’t the Bridgewater way.  Has she learned anything, I now wondered.  Because here she was in sports clothes trying to look like she belonged at the center of the Bridgewater “court” society, ready for a new and younger partner.

“Why don’t I happen to be here for lunch when they come back at noon, Sweetie,” I offered.  I don’t usually call people Sweetie, but I was anxious to protect her from herself.

“Oh, no, Sophie.  I couldn’t let that happen.  They told me that I could not under any circumstances let anyone else know anything about this.  The person or persons they were expecting might find out through the grapevine the house was being watched.  That would endanger Mr. Urquhart.  They called him Mister Urquhart.  Very respectful.  I am thinking now maybe he’s somebody important, and that’s why he doesn’t talk to us.”

I nodded, but I could see she still wasn’t comfortable about accepting their offer.  She stood without expression for a moment as if expecting me to comment, or maybe argue.  All I could do was throw up my hands.

“Your choice,” I said.  “I’ll be here if you need me.”

As I walked toward my own house on Dorado Circle I wondered how bad off she was, if she saw herself as a charity case if she did not find a way to supplement her income.  She did have the condo, and it was nicer than mine.  That made me feel a little better because she could always look into leasing it if things became desperate.  Too bad Bridgewater Village didn’t let widows take in roomers, although, truth be told, that’s what some of these late life “romances” were all about.

Whatever this job offer was, it came at a bad time for Deborah Conyers to be making clear decisions.  In her situation . . . well, it’s a matter of how much trouble one can get into, isn’t it?  She didn’t even know if Roland Urquhart was in danger or a gangster.  But if it involved sticking close to the house, I personally couldn’t do it.

By the time I took a shower and had a real cup of tea, I had decided it might be okay for Deborah.  As long as she let the mysterious nature of their offer be of no importance — none of her business — and as long as she kept her head down and mouth shut, act like a normal woman in a grieving period, she could make enough money to make ends meet for a while, long enough to think of something else.

The teeny-tiny, niggling doubt in my mind centered on the fact that she did not know if these men actually were friends of Roland or not.  They said they were, but in my mind, their behavior suggested otherwise.  And, anyway, she was absolutely right:  Why would Roland skip out on a fishing expedition?

 

***

 

 

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