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Murder Under Cover

Excerpt

Murder Under Cover

"You're having sex!" my best friend Robin cried as soon as I opened the door. "I mean, not currently, thank God, but recently. Oh, I'm so happy for you!"

"Say it a little louder, why don't you?" I yanked her into my apartment and quickly shut the door behind her. "I don't think they heard you up in Petaluma."

She dropped her bags on my worktable and pulled me into a hug. "Your closest neighbors are two lesbians. Do you really think they'll judge?"

"It's nobody's business," I grumbled. "I'm not even going to ask how you can tell."

"It's a gift." She patted my cheek. "Besides, just look at you. You're glowing."

"Don't be ridiculous," I said, feeling my cheeks warm up. So maybe she was right, maybe I was glowing. Did she have to point it out to the world?

Robin Tully had been my BFF for years, ever since we were eight years old and our parents joined the same spiritual commune in the hills of Sonoma County. We first bonded over Barbie dolls, Johnny Depp, and a mutual disgust of dirt. Now, all that dirt has transformed itself into the upscale town of Dharma, a wine country destination spot for Bay Area foodies. But back in the day, it was backwoods enough to make two fastidious little girls go berserk.

Robin grinned, amused by my reaction. Then she scooped up her bags from the table. "I brought wine and presents."

"I ordered pizza," I said, leading the way down the short hall to my living area.

"I'd kill for pizza."

"No need. I'll share." I pulled two wine glasses from the kitchen shelf and set them on the smooth wood surface of the bar that separated my kitchen from the living room. "I missed you a lot. How was India?"

"India was exotic and wonderful and smoggy, and I missed you, too." She pulled the bottle of wine from one of her bags and handed it to me to open. "And I missed showers. And ice cream. And hamburgers."

"The pizza's got sausage and pepperoni."

"Oh God, meat." She closed her eyes and sighed. "It sounds like heaven."

"I have ice cream, too."

"I love you, have I told you lately?"

With a laugh, I poured the wine and handed her the glass. "Welcome home."

"Thanks." We clicked glasses and she took a good long drink. "You have no idea how happy I am to be back."

The doorbell rang and I ran to pay the pizza delivery man. After piling pizza and salad onto plates and pouring more wine, we sat at my dining room table to eat.

Besides Robin's work as a sculptor, she owned a small travel company that specialized in tours of sacred and mystical destinations all over the world. In the beginning, she had catered mainly to fellow commune members, but her client base was growing. It seemed there were more and more people interested in stone circles, pyramids, Gothic cathedrals, and harmonic power centers. And who better to guide them than my friendly and gifted pal, Robin? Her tours catered to the adventurous seeker of esoteric knowledge who had tons of cash to throw her way. She had just returned from leading a group of four couples on a three week tour of India.

So for three long weeks I'd been gnashing my teeth, unable to share my exciting news—specifically, the news about me and my mysterious British boyfriend—with my closest friend. And Robin had guessed it the very first second she saw me. I supposed that's what the whole BFF thing was all about.

We opened another bottle of wine as she regaled me with the highlights of her India trip and I filled her in on all the news about me and Derek Stone, the hunky British security expert I'd met a few months back during a murder investigation. Yes, we'd done the deed, as she'd shouted to the world earlier. And yes, he was opening a San Francisco branch of Stone Security. And yes, our relationship was so new that I still tingled every time I thought of him, and yes, I'd boldly offered him a place to stay with me until he found a home in San Francisco. So yes, he was staying with me, but no, he wasn't home at the moment. Right now, he was flying back from Kuala Lumpur where he'd provided security for an installation of priceless artwork from the Louvre.

And yes, I'd been threatened by another vicious killer. Robin had been packing to leave for India at the time and wasn't around to hear the entire story, so I filled her in on all the gory details. The killer was safely tucked away in jail now. And that was my last three weeks in a nutshell.

As we cleared the dishes, I figured it was time to ask Robin the burning question I'd avoided long enough.

"So, did you see your mother?" I asked cautiously.

Robin scowled. "And we were having such a lovely evening."

"Sorry."

"Not your fault," she said with a sigh. "Yes, I saw her. I left my group in New Delhi and flew down to Varanasi to spend some time with her. And yes, she's just as annoying as ever."

That was no big surprise. She and her mother, Shiva Quinn, had always had issues.

Shiva's real name was Myra Tully and she was raised by missionaries. Suffice to say, Myra had a real savior complex from the get-go. In the 1970's, Myra had accompanied the Beatles to India to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While there, she changed her name to Shiva Quinn. No one was sure where Quinn came from. As for Shiva, Robin always thought it was telling that her mother had named herself after the supreme god of Hinduism.

When Robin was really irritated with Shiva, she'd call her Myra.

It didn't help that her mother was tall, glamorous and model thin. She was also sophisticated and interesting and everyone loved to be around her. Her missionary upbringing gave her an awareness of the world and its problems, which led her to become the spokesperson for a humanitarian organization called Feed the World.

By the time Robin was ten years old, her mother was traveling constantly, returning home every few months for only a day or so. But that was okay with me, because when Shiva left the commune, Robin would stay at my house. We had a slumber party every night. I would've been happy if Shiva stayed away permanently, but I could never say that to Robin.

"How long did you visit with her?" I asked as I started the dishwasher.

"Three excruciating days." Robin laughed drily. "She's such a drama queen. She couldn't settle in London or Paris. No, she had to go live in Varanasi. I swear she thinks she's Mother Theresa in Prada. She shows up at the marketplace and women beg for her advice on everything from childcare to fashion. Childcare. Are you kidding me?"

"That's a little surprising."

"You think?" Robin shook her head. "But you know she loves it all. Never mind. I promised myself I wouldn't bitch about her, but it's always so tempting. Anyway, the city of Varanasi itself was awesome. I'll probably return with a tour group sometime. I saw the Monkey Temple and walked for hours along the Ghats overlooking the Ganges. It was amazing. I took lots of photos. I'll send you the link."

The Ghats were the flights of steps that ran for miles along the Ganges River. "It all sounds fascinating."

"It was. And I have a surprise for you from my mother."

"For me?"

"Yes." She held up one of the bags she'd brought with her. "Do you want to see it?"

"Of course I do."

"Let's go to your workroom."

My curiosity piqued, I picked up our wine glasses and followed her to the front room of my loft where I did my bookbinding work. We pulled two tall chairs close together and sat at my worktable. Robin turned the shopping bag on its side and slid the contents out onto the surface. It was a worn leather satchel, made in the style of a courier bag with a long, wide shoulder strap, but it had to be decades old.

"It's ... a bag," I said. "How thoughtful."

Robin chuckled. "Wait for it. You know my mother. We must build the suspense."

She unbuckled the satchel and pulled out something wrapped in a wadded old swath of Indian print material.

"Um, is it a scarf?" I said, touching the faded, scratchy woven fabric. Once, it might've been dark green with burgundy and orange swirls of paisley, but it was faded now. Colorful beads, tiny brass animals and chunks of mirrored glass were woven into the fabric and tied into the braided fringe at each end. "Is this really for me?"

"Hell, no." Robin wrinkled her nose at the matted material. "That's my mother's idea of wrapping paper, I guess."

"Ah."

"She told me I could keep it and wear it. She just doesn't get me. Never did." Resigned, she flicked one of the silvery beads.

"No, she never did." The threadbare fabric had an ethnic style that was intriguing, but I knew Robin wouldn't be caught dead in it. I stroked the worn leather of the satchel. "This bag is nice."

"I suppose it is, if you're a camel driver."

I laughed, then fingered the old scarf again. "Maybe Shiva's been in India a little too long."

"You think?" She shook her head as she gingerly unwrapped the cloth. "Okay, get ready." She pulled the last of the fabric away. "This is for you."

"Oh, my God," I whispered.

It was a book. The most exquisite jeweled book I'd ever seen. And possibly the oldest. It was large, about twelve inches tall by nine inches wide, and almost three inches thick. I suppressed the urge to whip out my metal ruler.

The heavily padded leather binding was decorated with intricate gilding and precious gems. Teardrop-shaped rubies were affixed to each corner. Small, round sapphires lined the circular center where a gilded peacock spread its tail feathers. Tiny diamonds, emeralds and rubies were encrusted in the feathers. The thickly gilded borders of the cover and turn-ins were reminiscent of the patterns used by royal French bookbinders of the eighteenth century. Some of the gold had flaked off and the red leather was rubbed and faded in spots.

"Peacocks are the national bird of India," Robin said. "Did you know that?"

"I had no idea." I picked up the book and studied the foredge. With the book closed, the pages were deckled, or untrimmed, for a ragged effect. I could tell that the paper itself was thick vellum.

I checked the spine. It read Vatsyayana. I looked at Robin. "What is this?"

"Open it and find out."

"I'm almost afraid." But I lifted the front cover and turned to the title page. "You're kidding."

"Nope."

"The Kama Sutra?"

"Yes." Robin grinned.

"From your mother?"

Now she laughed. "It actually belongs to one of Mom's friends who's been wanting to have it refurbished for a long time. Mom insisted there was no one better for the job than you."

"That's so sweet."

"I thought so." Robin sipped her wine as she watched me ogle the book.

"Who's her friend?" I asked.

"His name is Rajiv Mizra and she's known him forever. Nice man. Wealthier than sin, naturally, or why would Mom hang out with him? I think he's been in love with her for ages but she always says they're just good friends."

"Very interesting."

"Yeah, I wonder if maybe they'll get together eventually. Anyway, he wrote a letter of authorization and tucked it inside the book. That's to let you know he's consented to let you do whatever is necessary to make it sparkle and shine. So, you think you can clean it up?"

"I can take it apart?"

She laughed. "I guess, but you don't have to sound so excited about it."

"Are you serious? I live for that."

"Good times." She took another sip of wine.

"It is for me." I stroked the corded spine, counting the ribs.

"Once it's cleaned up, they'd also like you to have it appraised."

"Sure." Opening the cover, I studied the dentelles, the lacy patterns of gold that were worked into the leather borders. Some dentelles were so intricate and unique, they were as good as a bookbinder's signature. I couldn't wait to study this pattern more closely. "I wonder why your mom recommended me to do the work."

"Apparently, Abraham visited her a few years ago and talked you up."

"Really?" I smiled softly. "Isn't that nice?" Abraham had been my bookbinding teacher for years. He'd died a few months back and I still missed him every day. I turned another page with care, unwilling to disturb the binding too much. The book was at least two hundred years old and I was amazed to see that it was written in French.

I turned to a page near the middle of the book and saw a hand-painted illustration of a couple having sex in a most fascinating style. I closed it quickly. Then I couldn't help but sneak another peek.

"Wow, it's painted by hand," I said after clearing my throat. "Isn't that interesting?"

"Yeah, it's all about the strokes." She snickered. "Paint strokes, I mean. Beautiful."

We both began to giggle. It must've been the wine.

© Kate Carlisle


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