When you write a mystery series over a 12 year time span (SEX, MURDER & A DOUBLE LATTE was originally published in 2005) you are faced with the challenge of not just conveying the ways the characters change (and don’t) over the years but also conveying how the primary character has changed. No, I’m not talking about Sophie Katz, I’m talking about San Francisco. When I first imagined Sophie it was 2002. Silicon Valley was already established and becoming a mega-force. But San Francisco wasn’t considered an offshoot of Silicon Valley. It was still a town defined by it’s bohemians, it’ off-beat individualism, its eclectic cultures, its proud embrace of the mystical and the weird. Egalitarianism was the prevailing philosophy even if it wasn’t the practiced reality. Those days are gone. There are now exclusive clubs in San Francisco that require huge membership fees to join. There was even a (failed) attempt to rent out sections of grass in a popular San Francisco public park for private use. In case you’re not grasping that, people were being asked to rent grass on public land for the right to sit on it. And of course the biggest change has been the demographics. Tye-dye has been replaced with Mark-Zuckerberg-style hoodies.Diversity has dramatically decreased.
All cities change and not all changes are bad. There is a lot to say for the tech industry and the opportunities, innovations and wealth it has brought to the Bay Area. But it’s also true that dramatic change is emotional and it has winners and losers. San Francisco arguably now has the highest rent prices in the world. And people who have lived in San Francisco for decades are feeling a sense of loss, not to mention and hefty dose of resentment.
My upcoming Sophie novel, CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE isn’t about this internal struggle for the city’s soul. But I can’t ignore it either. San Francisco has been too important of a character in this series for me to brush aside its dramatic shifts and changing vibe. I’ve tried to integrate the struggles of the city in subtle ways. Not moralizing it, just seeing it all through Sophie’s eyes. Sophie has never been a radical or even a socialist. And yet she can’t help but note the loss of the home she knew as a child with a certain amount of chagrin and bewilderment. Again, it’s a subtle motif throughout the book. None of my characters have ever been stagnant. Their relationships change and progress as does their own sense of self. It makes sense that the changes of the city they live in should mirror that development. For better and worse.
I hope you enjoy this next chapter of CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. Remember, if you’re not caught up, please click here to read all the chapters that proceed it. This chapter is also the first that we get to become reacquainted with another favorite character, Marcus!
“Everyone is beautiful in their own way…but it really helps when they use good hair products.”
–Dying For Laughs
My whole office was flooded with morning sun. Anatoly was gone but I was still in my nightshirt, my hair an ill shaped frizzy halo. I had an appointment with Marcus that afternoon so I had zero incentive to try to do anything with it. But then, I hadn’t really done much with it for some time now.
I ran my bare foot over Ms. Dogz back, letting her fur tickle my sole. To her left was Mr. Katz, giving her a hardcore kitty glare. Still, his proximity to our newest resident was progress.
My laptop sat before me and was open to Microsoft Word. Microsoft called their software Word because that was its raison d’être; to hold words. And my raison d’être was to create words. I should have been looking at a page filled with my words. Words that carved images into readers minds, gave life to new adventures, words that created colorful characters, pain, hilarity and love. But the only thing on my screen was a bleak, empty page and a cursor blinking at me accusingly.
I ran my fingers over the keys, once, then twice.
Once upon a time…
I let out a wry laugh and hit the delete button. I looked down at my furry friends. “I have never wanted to be an accountant,” I told them. “But there are many days when I’ve wanted to want to be an accountant.”
Ms. Dogz tilted her head in a manner that was clearly doggie language for explain. Mr. Katz blinked his eyes which was kitty language for, you don’t have to explain. I get it.
“If you’re an accountant you just do your job,” I went on, for Ms. Dogz’ sake. “You don’t need to be inspired. You don’t have to create a new world every year. You just do what you know how to do. But being a author, you have to relearn your craft with each friggin’ book.” I looked back at the computer screen. The grey borders on either side of an unadulterated, white document. My imagination was failing me. I had become as dull and empty as the screen.
“I’m lost,” I whispered. “I need help.”
Mr. Katz looked up at me and blinked his eyes once. Kitty language for, “No shit.”
Three hours later Marcus was studying my hair, his mouth curved down as he reached out to touch one of my frizzier curls. We were in his salon and the music of Prince was intermingling with the sounds of confidences being exchanged between patrons and their stylists. The exposed brick walls made the place seem both elitist and rustic. Marcus was also a mix of those two sensibilities. His short dreads and muscular form denoted a man who didn’t need to spend time primping in the morning, but his AX Armani t-shirt paired with his fitted white jeans said that he did anyway.
“You haven’t been using your product,” he growled.
I sighed, my mind elsewhere.
“It’s like you’ve been taking styling lessons from Don King.”
“Oh come on, it’s not that bad,” I snapped, the insult bringing me back to the here and now. “I ran out of product a few days ago. I was going to pick some more up yesterday but things got hectic.”
“Did we have a nuclear holocaust that I missed?” he asked. “Because short of that, there’s no excuse for going days without product. We live in a civilized society, Sophie. This,” he held out my curls so that they formed wings on either side of my head, “is not civilized.”
“What is your problem today?”
“My problem?” He leaned back on his heels and stroked his chin, pretending to ponder the question. “Well it starts with my assistant calling in sick this morning with an upset stomach…too much vodka will do that to a person. So I rescheduled the client whose appointment layered over the end of yours for another day, and then my next three clients, three, cancelled on me.”
“Three?” I repeated, surprised. Marcus’s services were always in high demand. Most people had to wait months for an appointment. It was hard to imagine three of them cancelling at the last minute. “What’s going on?”
“One of them has some sort of work emergency and her boss won’t let her leave until it’s handled. Another just found out that her son’s about to be expelled from his elite private school so she’s running over there with an endowment check and an accompanying plea for leniency. And the last just found out this morning that her husband has been screwing their dog trainer.” He spit out the last sentence with particular vehemence. The stylist working nearest us cast a bemused look in our direction before pointing her hair dryer at her client’s head. “I understand why you might have to cancel a hair appointment in order to save your job or your kid,” Marcus said, raising his voice to be heard over the dryer, “but if you find out you’re being cheated on the first thing you should do is fix you damn hair! What, you’re going to confront your husband and his mistress on a bad hair day? Who does that?”
“It does seem like an ill conceived plan,” I agreed.
“And then to top it all off, you come in here looking like you just went skipping through a thunderstorm with a lightning rod all because you can’t be bothered to get your butt over to Target to buy some product!”
“Oh for…” I shook my head, already bored with my role as a temporary punching bag. “Look,” I said, steadily, “I’m here, aren’t I? Or is all this too much for you to handle?” I patted my hair protectively. “Because there’s a new salon on Maiden Lane that supposedly specializes in miracles.”
Marcus made eye contact with me through the mirror. “Oh touché.” He stepped back and examined my hair even more carefully. I stared pointedly at the blown up Rolling Stones covers that decorated the walls. Much better than seeing Marcus’ perfect nose wrinkle in distaste.
“All right,” he finally grumbled. “I’ve vented, I’m calmer and I’ve formulated a plan of attack.”
I gave him a small smile. “You still love me?”
“Always and forever,” he said with a sigh. “Okay, let’s Beyoncé you out.”
He stepped forward and started combing through the disaster, his eyes narrowed with focus. “I’d like to do some color but if we do you have to promise me you’ll deep condition once a week. Your hair’s going to start getting drier now that the grey’s coming in and—“
“The grey’s coming in?” I leaped to my feet and faced him. “Is that supposed to be some kind of sick joke?”
The patrons in the chairs nearest me all jumped, surprised by my outburst and then quickly started whispering to their respective stylists.
Marcus gave me a withering stare. “We all go grey sometime, honey. Anderson Cooper went silver fox before he hit thirty.”
“But that’s not me!” I insisted, banging my hand against the revolving chair. “I’m not going to go grey for another decade! I don’t have a single strand of—ow!”
Marcus had reached over and yanked out one of my hairs from the back of my head and held it up for my inspection. “What color would you say that is?”
I bit down on my lower lip and glared at the hair. “Slate.”
The corners of Marcus’ mouth twitched. “It’s a little light for slate. You might have to amend to silver.”
“Fine.” I dropped back down in my chair, disgusted.
“It’s really not a big deal,” he assured me, my own outburst calming his mood.
“Whatever.” I sounded like a petulant teenager. Did London’s daughter sound like that? How was she doing? “Are there a lot of hairs…like that back there?”
He hesitated a little too long before replying. “Have you been stressed lately?”
“No! Not unless I grew this within the last twenty-four hours! With the major exception of yesterday, everything has been smooth as silk. I have no deadlines. Excluding last night, Anatoly and I haven’t had an argument about anything in like, a year. Every one I care about is doing well. Financially I’m totally fine. My family has been acting suspiciously sane. Mr. Katz is thriving. I have absolutely zero to be stressed about.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
I turned my head so I could figure out what the hell he was talking about but he firmly turned it back toward the mirror. “Artist at work. Stay still.” He started working through a particularly stubborn tangle with the business end of a comb. “The good news is that with me on your team you never have to go…slate. You’ll only get blonder with age.”
I started to nod in appreciation then remembered myself and went into mannequin-challenge mode, only allowing my eyes to wander around the room. I noticed for the first time that, with the exception of the Eurasian receptionist, Marcus and I were the only people of color in the salon. Thanks to Silicon Valley and sky rocketing rents the whole city was becoming blonder with age. We used to be vanilla, chocolate chip ice cream with caramel swirls. Now the chips and swirls were becoming a little more sparse. If we kept it up we might morph into plane ol’ vanilla.
Until yesterday, your life had become a bit vanilla too.
I blanched and cast my eyes down. I didn’t know where that little voice had come from but it was wrong. As wrong as the silver hairs on my head.
“All right,” he sighed once the knots were gone and my hair was divided up into several different sections. “Stay here while I go mix some color. When I get back you can tell me about the last twenty-four hours that were…less than smooth?”
“They weren’t even in the vicinity of smooth.”
“Oh goody. I’m crossing my fingers for scandalous. Be right back, love.”
He turned and disappeared into a back room where all the chemicals were kept. I lifted my eyes again to see my reflection in the mirror. I looked ridiculous, a black, nylon styling cape drawn tightly around my neck, covering my clothes, my hair divided into a multitude of sections with Marcus’ clips and sticking out every which way. The salon’s receptionist stopped by to ask me if I wanted coffee, or maybe a glass of champagne. I had been coming to this place long enough to know the champagne was cheap and the coffee was not so I opted for the caffeine. As she walked away I thought I noted, through the picture windows, a man in a black baseball hat standing outside, across the street from the salon, staring at me. But when I turned my head to look he was walking swiftly away. I was imagining things. At least I hoped I was. It would be super embarrassing if I scared off a stalker by looking like a crazed, greying circus clown.
But there was something about the way he walked as he disappear out of my line of sight…why did he seem familiar to me?
“So tell me about yesterday.”
The sound of Marcus’ voice startled me. I hadn’t heard him approach. “Yesterday was not a good day,” I insisted as he began to paint each hair section with a thick goo of white, then sandwich it between tinfoil.
“Uh-huh. Tell me about it anyway.”
I sighed and laid out the whole story. London, his manic warnings and fears, his collapse, his apartment, the text, the Zipcar, the business cards, Anita, Catherine, Ms. Dogz…although I left out the part about Ms. Dogz’ given name.
“London,” he said, thoughtfully. “I like that. We would all sound so much more sophisticated if we were named after two syllable cities. Paris, London, Florence, Milan—“
“Okay, maybe it’s a European phenomenon.” He painted another section of hair. “So you don’t actually know if London’s married to that woman?”
“I’m pretty sure he was. I mean, he had a wedding ring so he was married to someone. I tried looking her up online before I came in today, same with London but, you know, they don’t exactly have uncommon names, or at least not uncommon enough. I couldn’t find her daughter either although I did discover that there is a Catherine St. in London, so you know there’s that.”
“But it was Catherine who called to give you the news, right?” He asked tapping his foot along with the Bruno Mars song that had just come on. “So you have her number.”
“When I call it rings once and then goes directly to Voicemail. I tried last night and again on my way over here. I texted her too but haven’t heard back.”
“She’s probably blocked you,” he said matter-of-factly.
“When you block someone on your iPhone it rings once and then goes to voicemail.” He painted another section of hair. “Only thing is, the person who’s done the blocking never gets the voicemails, or the texts of the caller. Remember that guy I went out with, the one who lasered off his pubic hair so he could put lily and daisy tattoos on his pelvic area?”
“Flower boy!” I cried out, entertained by the memory. “You dropped him right after he gave you a glimpse of his…er…pruned garden, right?”
“Yep. And when he wouldn’t stop calling I blocked him. The bartender who introduced us told me he’s been getting the one ring ever since.”
“Huh. Well I hope she is getting the messages because in them I pointed out once again that I only met her dad yesterday. In other words I’m not, not, not his girlfriend.” I paused for a moment before adding, “If she wasn’t his daughter I’d be embarrassed that she didn’t think I could do better.”
“The state of your hair probably threw her off.”
“Okay, okay.” He ran his gloved fingers over another section of hair. “So once again, the fates have aligned and a real life murder mystery has been dropped into your lap. What are you going to do?”
I chewed on my lower lip and rubbed the nylon fabric of my black cape between my fingers. “Nothing,” I eventually answered.
Marcus shifted his weight back on his heels and met my eyes in the mirror. “Say what?”
“I’m not going to do anything,” I explained. “Initially I was tempted. To you know, poke around, see if I could turn up anything suspicious. But then Anatoly weighed in. He definitely thinks pursuing this whole supposed mystery is ill advised and I have to admit he has a point.” I paused as the patron next to me squealed with delight as she tossed her newly purple and blue hair. “Dena and Mary Ann think I should leave it alone too. Hell, even London’s dog seems skeptical of my foul-play theories. And you know what? I’m finally grown up enough to listen to other people’s opinions.” I sighed and shook my head. “Plus London’s daughter clearly doesn’t want me anywhere near this thing. I really think I need to respect the daughter’s wishes, don’t you?”
Marcus went silent, allowing the chitchat and the music of the room fill the space between us as he studied my reflection. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, “Marcus?”
“No?” I repeated.
“Hell no! That child’s mother might be a murderer! She may actually need your help, whether she wants it or not.”
“But Occam’s razor says Aaron London killed Aaron London.” I protested. “I don’t have any compelling reason to believe it was a homicide. Just a text and a hunch.” I glanced up at Janis Joplin who was sticking her tongue out at me from a 26 x 38 inch Rolling Stones cover.
“Something hasn’t been quite right with you lately,” he said, slowly.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I muttered.
“Yes, you do.” He put his brush down with a sigh and checked the clock. “For one thing, the Sophie I know would never go days without hair products.”
“Oh, come on.”
“When is the last time you got any writing done?”
“Hello non sequitur,” I forced a laugh. My gaze slid from the poster to my feet.
I shrugged noncommittally and ventured a glance at Marcus’ reflection. He looked firm but also concerned. Mostly he looked like he wasn’t going to take a shrug for an answer. “Ok, fine,” I said, throwing up my hands. “I haven’t written a word since I turned in my last manuscript almost two years ago, but it’s not my fault! All those years of writing Alicia Bright and now that’s done and…and it’s hard just coming up with something new.”
“Oh, you think that’s it?” he asked, flatly.
“I want it to come to me organically,” I explained, self-consciously, “like it did when I came up with my Alicia Bright series.”
“You came up with the Alicia Bright series while you were going through a chaotic divorce from an infuriating man,” Marcus pointed out. “That’s what motivates you.”
“Craziness!” He put his hands on his hips. “Drama! Big giant messes! I have news for you, girlfriend, you are not wired like the rest of us. Throw you into a stormy sea and you’ll swim like an Olympian. Drop you in a glassy lake and you’ll sink like a Jimmy Hoffa.”
“I am not sinking!”
“Really? Tell that to your follicles!” he retorted.
A large truck passed the salon making the ground rumble beneath me as I angrily gripped the armrests of my chair. “Just a few minutes ago I was telling you how great things were going for me!”
“You told me how smooth things were. Totally different. And I bet things don’t feel quite the same between you and Anatoly these days either!”
“Don’t be ridiculous! We’re absolutely in love!”
“Oh, go put it in a Hallmark card. Like I said, you’ve been off lately. But when you came in today, you seemed a little better, and that’s because of the craziness of yesterday.”
“This is ridiculous,” I muttered. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Uh-huh. You once told me you and Anatoly could survive anything except decaf and boredom and you are bored out of your frizzy haired skull.”
I glanced around the bustling room. No one was looking at us now which was odd because I felt like Marcus had just busted open my whole psyche and laid it out on the floor. I shook my head, causing the many bits of tinfoil in my hair to brush against each other. “I guess I’ve been feeling kind of…numb lately.” The words burned my throat, scorching me with humiliation. “I am happy a lot, but, I don’t know, I’m missing…I guess I’m missing my spark. And things have just been weird. Every once in a while I’ll think someone’s watching me, and then I look and no one’s there and rather than be relieved I’m like, disappointed because if someone was spying on me at least that would be interesting. Which is crazy. I’m crazy.”
“All the most interesting people are,” Marcus countered.
“Yeah, but that’s not…I mean, oh, I don’t know, Marcus…I guess I’m embarrassed.” I hung my head, letting the tinfoil crinkle. “I’m embarrassed that I’m struggling to fully be the person everybody knows me to be. I can’t write, Marcus. What do I do?”
“Two things,” he said, solemnly.
I looked up at him, ready to take his words as soul-saving commandments. Whatever advice came out of his mouth would be my new gospel.
“Are you ready for this?”
“I’m ready,” I replied, almost meekly.
“All right. Number one,” he held up one finger, dramatically, “deep condition.”
“Oh for God’s sake.” I had never punched Marcus before but I was tempted.
“Two,” Marcus continued, “solve a real life murder mystery…again.”
“I don’t get it. You’ve always counseled me to behave…well, reasonably. And now you want me to slip on my gumshoes in order to investigate the marginally suspicious death of a total stranger.”
“Because that is reasonable for you.” He gently swiveled my chair around so I was facing him directly. “It’s not that you’re a drama queen–”
“It’s that you’re a drama goddess. You have a sacred duty to follow drama wherever you see it, and you see it now. Nobody dies of pneumonia these days.”
“Actually, pneumonia kills over 50,000 thousand people per—“
“Don’t bore me with statistics,” Marcus said, theatrically. “Follow the breadcrumbs, jump in and ride the breaker. Make sense of it. It’s what you do, Sophie.”
“This is insane,” I said with a laugh.
“Exactly!” Marcus replied. “Trust me, Sophie, If you let a little crazy seep back into your life and a little moisture seep back into your head your life will be the glorious mess you need it to be. And your hair,” he added with a sniff, “will just be glorious.”