The societal context for the novel I am now finishing has completely changed from the day it was conceived. The Sophie mysteries are light escapism. If there was any doubt about my intent to keep the tone consistent with that principal, just look to the title: CHAOS, DESIRE & A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE. This is a book filled with humor, friendship, madcap adventures and at times, tantalizing sexual tension.
But escapist or not, what does it mean to have a black, Jewish protagonist in a time when Nazis and Klan members are marching through the streets? Suddenly Sophie’s very existence feels almost subversive…which means my existence feels a bit subversive too. People who would deny the right of everyone on my Jewish mother’s side of the family and everyone on my black father’s side to exist are feeling empowered and excused by the President of the United States. That affects me. It affects my world view. It affects how safe I feel when I go outside of Los Angeles…or even in certain areas inside Los Angeles. It affects my feelings about sending my eighteen year old son into the the rural areas of this country as he goes off to serve Americorps. It affects my daily interactions. Case in point: I’ve been getting my nails done since I was a teenager but this Saturday was the first time I found myself listening to the whispered fears of my manicurist who wanted to know where I thought it would be safe for her and her immigrant family to travel to within the United States. I know why she chose me specifically to ask her questions to. She saw my skin color and knew that while she was Vietnamese and I was black, the two of us were now facing the same enemy and my experiences and survival strategies could help her navigate the hate that is bubbling up through the cracks in this country. Getting my nails done has always been a light-hearted, girlish-fun kind of activity…kind of like reading a Sophie book. It’s still light-hearted fun, but complete compartmentalization of that experience or ANY experience from the more serious world is no longer possible.
So what about my black-Jewish Sophie? And what about the fact that, in chapter two, I have a man ranting about Nazis…a scene I originally put in because, when I wrote it, Nazis were so removed from our modern day world that having this character rant about them would clearly alert the reader to the fact that he was crazy. But being afraid of Nazis doesn’t sound so crazy anymore. The scene reads very differently now.
So what to do? I want to give you an escapist read. After all, if there was ever a time when we need escapism it’s now. We all need a break from the anger and fear and vitriol. But Sophie has always been a creature of her time. I can’t really change that either.
I had to think long and hard about this one, but in the end I decided not to change too much. I’m currently making a few minor adjustments. The humor and levity is still there, the mystery is still fun, the sex is still hot. But I’ve also made Sophie a tiny bit more aware of the fact that she is a minority. There’s simply no way around that. She notes when she is the only black woman in the room even if she doesn’t dwell on it. Because I can tell you from personal experience, in this climate you do notice those things. It’s not that it stops us from getting on with our lives it’s just that we all have to be a little bit more on alert.
In order to get the copyeditor and formatter I want, it looks like I won’t be able to get this book to you until September 18th. In the meantime I’ll re-release the sixth Sophie book, VANITY, VENGEANCE & A WEEKEND IN VEGAS for free by the end of this month because I want to make the escapist world of Sophie as accessible as possible to everyone who may need her right now. And I hope that her very humanity reminds you of how similar we all are even as a bigoted and vocal minority of this country tries to tear us apart. I hope the aspects of CHAOS, DESIRE that are unintentionally well suited for the challenges of our times makes you think. And I hope her banter makes you laugh.
And I hope we all get through this…whatever this insanity is that we’re going through right now. I hope we find a way to come together again and to speak forcefully, with one voice, against racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia and just evil in general. I hope that people will soon reach for my books because they want an escape, not because they need one.
Below is the last chapter I will publish on my blog before the official release. Please enjoy, please stay strong and please be kind to those you know and meet. Like escapism, kindness is something we all need a little bit more of these days.
“I share so much more with my phone than I do with my husband.”
–Dying To Laugh
Jason had the next two days off from the medical marijuana store he worked at so he declared he would spend the first of those days casing London’s apartment, seeing if anyone matching Anita or Catherine’s description came in or out of there. He’d also try to gauge when the lowest traffic times were for the building and the area as a whole. Then we’d use that information to plan our entry into London’s apartment the day after that.
The very term “casing,” sounded so…well, criminal. Spontaneity never felt criminal. I had initially entered London’s apartment on a whim. I happened to have had the key to his place and so I used it. Surely that wasn’t so bad. But casing the apartment building…now I was going deep. I could get in real trouble. That should have worried me.
But as I drove home from Sutro Heights I realized, it really didn’t. If anything I found the very idea of the risk…energizing.
I had just pulled into my driveway when I heard Anatoly’s Harley pulling in after me. I stepped out of my car, headlights still reflecting off the closed garage door just as he was removing his helmet. His eyes widened slightly as he took in my torn, grass stained jeans and shirt. “What happened?”
I pulled Ms. Dogz out of the back seat by her leash. “There was a squirrel. Ms. Dogz doesn’t like squirrels.”
Anatoly’s mouth twitched at the corner. “I see. Who won?”
“The squirrel gets to live another day.” I looked down at my pants. “My jeans do not.” My headlights switched off automatically, leaving us only the faint glow of a distant streetlight.
“Your hair looks great,” he said, kindly.
“There is that,” I conceded.
Ms. Dogz’ stub of a tail was wiggling like crazy as she strained at her leash to get to Anatoly. He bent down to give her some love. “Need a drink?” he asked. I presumed he was talking to me even though it was the dog that seemed to have his attention.
He straightened up, tucked his helmet under one arm and draped the other over my shoulder as the three of us walked up the front steps to our home.
“Any luck tracking down Anita?” I asked.
A slight flicker of concern, maybe irritation, but then Anatoly’s face was smooth and happy again. “She’s been quite good about protecting her privacy. I’m not finding much of anything on her online.”
“Not much of anything would imply you’ve found a little of something,” I noted as he held the door for us. Mr. Katz strolled out of the living room to greet us, took one look at Ms. Dogz and did a 180, flicking his tail in disgust.
“All right, I didn’t find anything,” Anatoly admitted. “But I did track down the number for London’s landlord’s cell phone.”
“Oh?” He wasn’t able to find any information on this woman? The man was a private detective for God’s sake. Something was very wrong here.
I freed Ms. Dogz from the dreaded leash and tossed it in the corner. “Has the landlord, um, been in that apartment today?”
“No, he hasn’t been in there since London moved in,” he said, putting his helmet down and walked through the dinning room to the kitchen. I trailed after him, my concerns momentarily pushed aside by the joy of seeing him take out a chilled bottle of white. “That was nine months ago.”
“But now that London’s dead–” I began.
He placed the wine on the counter with a certain degree of ceremony. “He didn’t know London was dead until I called.”
“Anita didn’t call him?”
“He’s never heard of Anita,” he replied with what seemed like deliberate casualness.
I sank down onto one of the stools by the kitchen island. Never heard of her? “He wasn’t married,” I said, almost more to myself than to Anatoly. “Anita London doesn’t exist.”
“No, I’m sure he was and I’m sure she does. You’re not required to disclose marital status on a rental agreement or credit check.” He took out two wine glasses and a bottle opener. “All we know is he didn’t volunteer the information about Anita, and why would he?”
“But you do think it’s weird, right?” I pressed. “That neither his landlord nor his neighbor knew he had a wife and kid? And that you can’t find any information on her?”
“No, I don’t.” The splash of wine sounded lovely as it filled the glasses. “As we’ve already determined, the two of them appear to have been separated. Anita will probably get around to calling London’s landlord eventually. And the truth is, I didn’t try too hard to find Anita. Just a Google search and an attempt at a very basic background check. I didn’t file any requests with the records office. I didn’t call in any favors with my contacts at the DMV.”
“Buy why?” I asked, baffled. I had never known Anatoly to be half hazard about anything…except maybe housekeeping.
“There’s no need to do more,” he said simply. His tone was so nonchalant. But his shoulders seemed stiff, his jaw set. The contradictions had me completely baffled. “All we need to do was find out if she wanted this dog and make sure she doesn’t charge you with breaking an entry in order to kidnap her.”
“I assume you mean kidnap the dog, not Anita.”
Anatoly allowed himself a small smile at the quip. “I had a good talk with the landlord,” he went on. “I told him London had given you the key to the apartment and you had taken Soph…Ms. Dogz to care for her. I left him our number and gave him permission to pass it on to any of London’s next of kin if they express interest in making further arrangements for his pet. So now, even if Anita finds out you were there, she won’t be able to spin it as a breaking-an-entry. She will also have a way to contact us if that’s what she wants to do.”
I chewed on my lower lip as Anatoly handed me a filled glass. “Will the landlord be clearing out the apartment tonight then?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even. “Or will he wait until tomorrow?”
“Neither. I reached him while he was in New York. He won’t be home for another three days. He’ll take a look at the place then….What’s that smile about?” Anatoly asked as he leaned against the kitchen island.
“Hmm?” I sipped my wine, looked away.
“You’ve got this mischievous smile on your face. The kind you get right before you’re about to do something you know you shouldn’t do.”
I waved my hand dismissively. “That’s silly.”
“I haven’t seen that smile for a while,” he admitted. “Makes it all the more suspicious now.”
“I’m smiling because I like the wine.” I stepped forward and lifted myself on my tiptoes in order to give Anatoly a light kiss.
He pulled away and studied me for a moment, then gave me his own grin and shook his head. “I’m going to throw together dinner.”
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“Something simple…maybe lamb loin chops with Dijon and fresh herbs along with an arugula salad. Take me about twenty minutes.”
I laughed and shook my head in awe. “Yeah, that sounds acceptable.” Anatoly was the only one I knew who could whip together a gourmet meal in a half hour or less.
“I’m going to have to spend tomorrow night tailing a man who may or may not be faking a workplace injury in order to bilk his employer,” He stepped forward and linked his finger around my belt, pulling me forward so there was only half an inch of space between us. “So let’s not allow tonight to go to waste. Go upstairs, clean yourself up, put a little Neosporin on that knee and let me use the rest of the evening to take care of you.”
“You’re going to make me feel better?”
“To start, yes.” He leaned down and touched his lips to the nape of my neck, tasting my skin, sending a little shiver through me. “I’m going to serve you a meal that will make you want to scream with pleasure. And while we eat,” his hand moved to the small of my back, pulling me even closer so my body was pressed tightly against his, “you’re going to tell me every detail about your day.”
“Am I?” I murmured, my pulse rate rising steadily.
“You are. And then,” his mouth was at my ear now, his tongue flicking at the lobe, “after our meal I’m going to make you feel more than better. I’m going to make your whole body sing.” His voice, which had already gone to a low growl, slid into a whisper. “I’m going to make you lose control.”
I bit down hard on my lower lip. Slowly he released me, bringing his own glass of wine to his lips as his eyes ran over me one more time until they settled on my hair. “I do like this style,” he mused. “It makes me want to pull it, arching your neck back for me to kiss.”
It took a second to find my voice. “Oh baby,” I said, softly, “over Marcus’ dead body.” His eyebrows went up and I saw the corners of his mouth twitch. “Anyway,” I went on, placing my palm briefly against his chest. “there are better uses for your fingers.” I turned and walked out of the kitchen, wine glass in hand, as his soft laughter followed me. I headed upstairs to our bedroom and, more importantly, to the Neosporin.
There was no doubt in my mind that Anatoly knew I was keeping things from him. The intensity of his seduction was designed to seduce my secrets from me, but perhaps also to distract himself from…something. Something he didn’t want to share with me maybe?
My cell started vibrating in my purse and I pulled it out as I reached the top of the stairs. It was a number I didn’t recognize. “Hello?” I answered as I made my way to my bedroom.
“Ms. Katz,” said sexy-bored lady. “I have Gundrun Volz on the line for you.”
I froze, right in the middle of the hallway.
“Ms. Katz, are you there?”
“Yes, um, yes of course,” I managed, now talking in a hushed voice.
“I think you’re fading out,” the woman noted. “Am I losing you?”
“No, no,” I quickly made it to my room and closed the door behind me, leaning my back against it. “I’m here,” I said in a slightly louder voice now.
“Good, I’ll connect you now.”
I swallowed hard and walked further from the door. I could hear Anatoly banging around in he kitchen. The sound insolation in this place was not as good as it should be.
“Ms. Katz?” A man’s voice this time. I sat down on the corner of my bed. “It’s Gundrun Volz. How are you?”
“I’m…good?” I should have thought this through more thoroughly. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be interviewing him about. “Thank you so much for getting back to me so quickly,” I said, stalling for time.
“Of course! As I told Tereza last Friday, I’m happy to answer any additional questions you may have. Charity said you wanted to meet in person?”
“Charity…your assistant,” I said, stumbling a bit as I tried to put the many pieces together. “Yes, um, that would be great if you can make the time.”
“Of course! I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled that Tereza only wanted to speak on the phone. I communicate better in person. I do have some time tomorrow if you’re free.”
“Um,” I looked toward my closed bedroom door. Anatoly had put on some music and the sound of Bruce Springsteen became the backdrop to my conversation.
“Ms. Katz? Are you still there?”
“Yes, yes, I’m here…tomorrow’s good. What time?”
“Shall we say 8am?”
I thought about all the wonderful things Anatoly might do to my body once we had finished our meal. It could be a late night. “10am?” I countered.
“I can move some things around for 10 to work,” he accommodated. “I assume Tereza will be there as well?”
“Um, I’m not sure she’ll be able to make it,” I hedged.
“Oh…is that…typical? This is primarily her story, yes?”
“We’re working on it in tandem,” I adlibbed. “That way we can both get our own unique perspectives, compare our notes and ensure that the biases of one of us doesn’t color the tone of the article. It’s a Woodward and Bernstein thing.” I literally had no idea what I was talking about.
“Oh, that’s…that’s an interesting approach,” he said, sounding every bit as confused as I felt. “Well, whatever works for you. You’ll be here at ten then? At our Ceaser Chavez office, just like last time?”
Suddenly the door to my room opened, Anatoly was there, with Ms. Dogz by his side. “You never close the door…oh, I didn’t realize you were on the pone.”
“Yep,” I said, directing my comment to Gundrun. “Absolutely, that’ll work. Bye!” I hung up and beamed a smile. “Hi.”
Anatoly narrowed his eyes. “Who was that?”
“That was Jason.”
“Dena’s Jason?” Anatoly asked skeptically. Ms. Dogz muzzled past him and started sniffing around the room.
“He wants to throw Dena a surprise party and asked if I would help.”
Anatoly crossed his arms over his chest. “Dena’s birthday is four months away.”
“Yep, he’s a planner. Such a good boyfriend…or primary boyfriend. I’m not sure what the right term is. Anyway, did you want something?”
Anatoly’s eyes were still pretty narrow. He wasn’t an idiot. “I’m opening a bottle of red to go with our meal and I wanted to know if you had a preference, Opus or Stage’s Leap.”
“Either’s good. I’ll just get myself cleaned up.” I jumped to my feet and went into our master-bath, closing the door behind me. I held my breath until I could hear Anatoly’s footsteps moving further away, down the hall. I had no doubt he was going to ply me with alcohol tonight in the hopes of loosening my lips. But it wouldn’t work.
Secrets were funny things. They could destroy people and their relationships.
Unless of course you trusted your partner enough to know they would never betray you; if you know in your heart that their secrets could be both explosive and impersonal. Those were the kinds of secrets that could be more tantalizing than damaging. I hoped our secrets fit into that category because at that moment, I was enjoying the hell out of them.