As many of you know, I’ve been hard at work on the next Sophie book, CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. I think I’ve been working on it for about a century, give or take or take a few years. Seriously though, there’s been a lot going on. Since I started working on this manuscript I’ve also wrote my first movie screenplay (an adaption of the amazing Julia Heaberlin’s BLACK EYED SUSANS). And I’ve been steeped in all the things that come with your child being in his senior year of high school and searching and choosing a college. I’ve been involved in various little ways in a few of my husband’s other Hollywood projects. And of course I’ve been ridiculously distracted and unnerved by the chaos that’s taking place in this country. But excuses aside, I am nearing the completion of this Sophie novel. It’s been a pleasure becoming acquainted with the character that broke me into publishing with her starring role in my debut novel, SEX, MURDER & A DOUBLE LATTE . And while I continue to work on it, I wanted to share the first few unedited pages of my manuscript with you. Just a tiny little something to hold you over. And until I actually finish this thing I will continue to post a little more each week. It’s the least I can do for making you wait so long. Hope you enjoy it and I really hope you forgive the typos you’ll find (and I feel fairly confident they’re there.
So without further ado, heeere’s Sophie!
“I have a tendency to self-medicate. If I don’t I suffer from extended periods of debilitating sanity.”
–Dying To Laugh
“Well?” Anatoly asked, as I stood in the middle of his new office, absorbing the room.
I turned, lifting my chin, seeing a shadowy reflection of myself in his dark brown eyes. He hadn’t shaved that morning. There were strands of grey mixed in with the course black hair dotting his chin. It made him look more rugged than old. His arms were crossed against his black t-shirt and his legs crossed at the ankles as he leaned back against his new, but used, desk. Even when relaxed he looked a little dangerous. He served in both the Russian and Israeli army before moving here. I learned not long ago that he had also done some work for the Russian mafia during the years of his reckless youth, although he assured me he wasn’t truly part of the organization. More of a 1099 employee. He never killed for them which is not the same thing as saying he never killed.
You’d think that last part would be a problem for my family but my sister, Leah, thought someone as temperamental and incautious as me should be grateful to be able to hold onto any man and my mother was so happy I was finally sharing my bed with a fellow Jew she was willing to overlook a few unreported felonies. People are always surprised to hear of her biases since my African American father wasn’t Jewish, but then he did change his name from Christianson to Katz just to appeal to my mother’s sense of cultural identity. As nuns change their names when they take a vow to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience my father changed his name when he vowed to live a life defined by matrimony, family and general insanity. He died eighteen years ago yet the wound still stings whenever I allow my mind to touch it.
The muffled sound of a honking horn from the street below brought me back to the moment. Anatoly was waiting for my response and as patient as he was, he didn’t actually like to wait.
“Do you really want to hear this?” My fingers moved from my bag to my black and white eternity scarf.
His jaw tightened ever so slightly. “Stop the games,” he demanded, his Russian accent becoming a bit more pronounced.
I nodded and took a deep breath. “It’s…cute.”
The aggressiveness of the silence that followed was a little frightening.
“Cute,” he eventually repeated, drawing out the word, making it sound like the venomous insult he perceived it to be.
I hesitated a moment before blurting out, “Oh my God, Anatoly, it’s more than cute. It’s fucking adorable. You’re office is adorable.”
“It’s not adorable,” he snapped. “It’s conveniently located, it gets natural light, it has its own attached bathroom, it’s a sophisticated space–”
“Weeeellll,” I hedged as my eyes moved from the light yellow walls to the white painted trim of the paned windows. “It’s sophisticated in a Simply Hello Kitty kind of way. But I do like it. The way they integrated the seashells and daisies into the crown molding…it’s really…”
“Don’t say it.”
“It’s so cute!”
He slammed his hand down on the desk and turned his glare to the window. “I’m getting a new office.”
“You just signed a lease. Did it come with these furnishings?” I gestured to the only furniture in the room, a desk, a brown, tufted leather office chair and two cushioned, wicker armchairs. “They absolutely fit the space. Totally charming.”
“I’ll paint the walls black.”
“Then it’ll just be adorably goth.” I opened the door to what I assumed was a closet. It was a half bath with an old fashioned, pedestal sink that looked like it was plucked right out of a Victorian doll house. I got my smile in check before turning and walking over and perching myself on the edge of his desk, dangling my legs in his direction. “You know,” I said in my most soothing tone, “you can be a pretty intimidating guy.”
Anatoly made a noise that sounded like a halfhearted growl. He was nowhere near mollified.
“You can be,” I insisted. “You have a mean glare when you’re mad. You’re like a hot James Bond villain.” I shrugged off my purse from my shoulder. “It can be a problem.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you hire a P.I. you have to share a few secrets with him,” I pointed out. “Open up the door to some of the more private areas of your life. It’s hard to do that with an intimidating, tough guy. You need to take it down a notch. And you know how you do that?”
“I think I know where you’re going with this.”
“You need a super cute office,” I continued with a nod. “When prospective clients come through that door they’ll say, okay, so he looks like he could kill me but those crown moldings of his are simply delightful!”
He let his chin drop to his chest, his neck bent from the burden of my indictment.
“Who’s the first client who gets to be enchanted by this place?” I asked.
“It’s a new one,” he grumbled. “He wants me to help him track down his stalker.”
“A stalker case? You haven’t had one of those in a while. Is the stalker a woman or a man?”
“He doesn’t actually know.” I tried not to giggle as I watched Anatoly’s eyes wander up to the crown moldings and then dart away in shame. “He says someone put a miniature tracking device on his car. A very high-tech piece.”
“Really?” Not many people would have the capability to do something like that. “Does he think the person who planted it is dangerous?”
I let that sink in as I pushed myself to my feet and walked over to the window. The office was on the second floor of a classic three story San Francisco Edwardian. It had been converted to accommodate ground floor boutiques fitting of the recently gentrified little shopping area. From where I stood I could see the pedestrians wandering in and out of an organic, twelve-dollar-a-drink juice bar, an art gallery selling $5000 sculptures made of recycled paint cans and a jewelry store that advertised conflict-free diamonds. Excess and apology all neatly wrapped up in one pretty little bow. Two years ago I had turned in a manuscript; Dying to Laugh, the final installment of my Alicia Bright murder mystery series, set on these very streets. My publisher packaged it, slapped a virtual bow on it and I sat back and watched as it ascended to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. It was the sixth time an Alicia Bright mystery had reached the number one spot.
I had loved writing the series but it was time to move on. I needed to challenge myself, write new characters, prove to the world I could do more.
Except I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t written a word in seventeen months. There was something wrong with me.
From the corner of my eye I noted a figure standing a little too still, maybe looking up in my direction, but when I turned my head I saw that it was just a man in a baseball cap, looking down at his phone, not up. He quickly turned and walked away, head still bent toward his device. Why were all these tech guys bothering to move to such a beautiful city if they were incapable of dragging their attention away from their screens?
“Does he have any idea who would want to stalk him?” I asked Anatoly, keeping us on a less depressing subject. “Or what they might hope to gain from it?”
“I think he does, but he didn’t want to talk about it on the phone.”
“Oh?” I ran my finger over the white painted wood that supported the squares of glass. “Because he thought someone might be listening in on the call?”
“That was the impression I got, yes.”
I turned back to Anatoly. “That’s a very interesting case.”
“Yes,” he said, finally breaking into a smile. “It’s been a while since I’ve had one of those.”
It had been. Over the last few years Anatoly has been offered an increasingly steady stream of cases dealing with insurance fraud, identity theft and wayward spouses. Well paying, low risk cases. There was nothing to complain about. He was doing great.
We were doing great too, despite my writer’s block (which I had purposely kept him in the dark about). From the moment we became a couple Anatoly and I had either been on the precipice of a breakup or basking in the postcoital glow of reconciliation. His flaws have always scratched against mine in just the right way, igniting the most beautiful firework displays our city had ever seen. It all sort of came to a head in a chaotic, messy weekend in Vegas about two and a half years ago. We almost killed each other on that trip. But then some cartel chick named Margarita tried to kill me. Then a grudge baring Russian dude named Alex Kinsky helped Anatoly save me from Margarita but also threatened to kill Anatoly and, well…it was just really complicated. After a rapid succession of near-death experiences Anatoly and I decided that peacefully loving each other was better than strangling one another.
Shortly after finding our way out of danger we reached this place in our relationship that was just…different. We’ve fallen into a routine. A good routine. One that involves a lot of classic movie nights, reading the morning paper over cappuccino, the occasional ride along the beach on his Harley, glorious home-cooked meals (prepared exclusively by him) and great sex…although the latter wasn’t happening as frequently as it used to and sometimes it seemed the intensity wasn’t quite as, well, intense…but that was probably my imagination and it was still better than anything I’d had with anyone else by a lot. For the first time in over a decade I had no deadlines hanging over my head, no conflicts, no drama, no chaos. This must be what all those fairytales were talking about when they said they lived happily ever after.
But then, maybe not. I was hardly an expert on fairytales. Only the dark ones interested me.
I smiled up at Anatoly and clasped my hands behind my back, the picture of innocence. “When’s he coming?”
“In less than forty minutes and I believe you have a hair appointment in an hour. So if you’re done insulting my office–” He gallantly gestured to the door.
“That’s tomorrow.” I self consciously pulled at my hair. The fact that Anatoly remembered I had a salon appointment at all was an indication of how out of control my hair had gotten since my last one. “Today’s my lunch with Dena.”
“Great, say hello for me.”
“Can I help?”
He hesitated, his jaw tightening ever so slightly. “Help with what?”
“Can I sit in on your meeting? You could say I’m your secretary. I could take notes.”
His sigh was almost heavy enough to squash my hopes. Almost. “You’re not my secretary, so no.”
“Oh come on, I’ll keep everything confidential. And maybe I’ll have some good insights that can help you. I mean, I do have some experience with this kind of thing.”
“Experience?” He shook his head and stuck his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans. “Stumbling upon a few crime scenes doesn’t make you an investigator. It makes you unlucky and accident prone.”
I sat down in the chair behind his desk, swiveling it back and forth as I kept my eyes firmly on his. “I solved those crimes that I stumbled upon. I might just be a black Veronica Mars in the making.”
“Yes, except you haven’t solved a crime since that show was canceled. And wasn’t Veronica Mars supposed to be eighteen?”
“So I’m a little older than that,” I said, coolly.
“Yes, by almost twenty ye–”
“Don’t.” I snapped. I rested my elbows on his desk and my chin in my hands. “Come on, let me be your secretary, just for the length of one meeting. Or even your assistant! It would be fun! Every Sherlock needs a Watson.”
“You’re not my Watson. And you have other plans this afternoon.”
“I’ll text Dena and tell her I’m going to be late. Come on, it’ll be like old times.”
“Please, Anatoly.” But my tone had changed against my wishes. I had wanted to sound teasing but persuasive. I hadn’t meant for that note of desperation to sneak in there.
Anatoly heard it. I could tell by the way he shifted his weight back on his heels and tilted his head half an inch to the side. He was going to ask me one of those horribly generic questions that people ask their lovers like: What’s going on with you? Or Is everything okay?
I didn’t know what was going on with me even though I felt the weight of it. I couldn’t explain and I really, really didn’t want to try.
And then, like a reprieve from God, there was a knock on the door. A giant grin spread slowly across my face. “Think our client’s early?” Before Anatoly could respond I was out of my seat, across the room and flinging open the door.
Before me stood a fifty-something man only three inches taller than me. His blond, white streaked hair was unkempt and hung limp around his hollowed cheeked face. Everything he was wearing from his slightly-too-big Brooks Brothers chinos to his Tom Ford horned rimmed glasses implied a certain degree of wealth even as the missing shirt button and coffee stains that decorated the slightly frayed designer fabric projected something very different.
“I’m looking for Anatoly Darinsky?” He said, somewhat uncertainly.
“That would be the guy behind me. I’m Sophie Katz, his assistant.” I caught a glimpse of Anatoly’s expression over my shoulder and quickly amended. “Administrative assistant. Kind of like the Google assistant on Android? I keep track of things, take notes, make sure we get all the information we need to help you out. Please come in!”
“I’m early.” He stepped forward, hesitantly. Anatoly offered him his hand but he refused it.
“My hands are sweaty,” he said, his voice shaking slightly. “Is there somewhere I can wash them?”
“Right through here,” Anatoly opened the door to the bathroom for him and the man excused himself briefly. We both listened while the water ran. I went over to Anatoly’s desk and found a notepad and pen. Anatoly shot me a look a mouthed You’re unbelievable. To which I responded by mouthing, I know. Although to be fair, this was the first time in, like, a year that I had done anything that was even remotely unbelievable.
But this wraith of a man in Anatoly’s new, cutesy bathroom had me feeling oddly hopeful. Like I was perversely elevated by the promise of sharing in another’s turmoil. I smiled broadly at Anatoly as he frowned, knowing I was pressing his buttons. Hoping that maybe, just maybe, this would be the first step to becoming truly unbelievable again.