Smarmy personals ads. Daring declarations of love. Freelance writer Jaine Austen has penned them all. But no one needs her help more than geeky, gawky Howard Murdoch. His request is simple enough: a letter proclaiming his undying love for Stacy Lawrence, a gorgeous aerobics instructor. The fact that he's never actually met the woman gives Jaine pause—yet she soon overcomes her misgivings, and the unlikely Romeo lands a date! But his triumph is short-lived. On Valentine's Day, Howard finds Stacy bludgeoned to death with a Thigh Master—and is quickly named the prime suspect.
Jaine is shocked. Sure, Howard's awkward and eccentric. But a murderer? That's hard to believe. Especially after a little sleuthing reveals a plethora of people who harbored less-than-loving feelings towards the svelte Stacy. Now Jaine had better wrangle her clues quickly, before a crafty killer catches on—and puts a whole new spin on her ghost writing career . . .
Release date: November 14, 2013
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 239
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This Pen For Hire
I suppose I should tell you how Howard and I first met.
I’d just stepped out of the shower one unseasonably warm February day, when I heard a soft scratching at the front door, like a dog pawing to be let in. I slipped into my pink silk kimono and padded across the living room, fluffing my hair en route.
I opened the door and saw that it was not a dog, but a human being. One of my clients. A first timer. This one was a geeky guy with slicked-down hair and white socks, a veritable poster boy for pocket protectors.
He stared down at my welcome mat, clearly embarrassed.
“It’s fifty dollars an hour, right?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he mumbled.
“That’s okay,” I said, ushering him inside. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Take off your jacket and relax.”
No, I’m not a prostitute. I’m a writer, which in Los Angeles is often the same thing. My name is Jaine Austen (my mother is an Anglophile, and a bad speller), and I run a writing service out of my apartment called This Pen for Hire. Catchy, isn’t it? I used to come up with catchy names all the time back when I worked in advertising, before I woke up one morning and decided I no longer wanted to spend the rest of my life writing stories that ended in the words “void where prohibited by law.”
I write resumes. Letters. Brochures. And Personals ads. Lots of Personals ads. Maybe you’ve read my latest? “Rap Papa Seeks Acrobatic Mama.”
I don’t usually greet clients in a kimono, but Howard Murdoch was a full hour early for his appointment. He’d called me that morning, having read my ad in the Yellow Pages. He told me that he needed me to write a letter.
I left him perched on the edge of a chair in the living room while I went to change into my official work clothes: elastic-waist pants and a T-shirt.
I came out from my bedroom to find him still precariously balanced at the edge of the chair. One stiff wind and he’d be history.
“C’mon,” I said, leading him into my office suite, otherwise known as my dining room.
“Have a seat,” I said, gesturing to the dining table. Howard started for a chair, and I screeched in dismay.
“Hey! Don’t sit on my Prozac.”
I scooped my cat Prozac off the chair Howard was about to sit in and tossed her in the kitchen. She glared at me balefully, then got revenge by leaping on top of the dryer, onto a pile of freshly folded laundry.
I turned to Howard and smiled my most encouraging smile.
“So. You said over the phone that you wanted me to write a letter for you?”
He blinked, as if hearing this news for the first time.
“You did want me to write a letter, didn’t you?”
He picked at a scab on his knuckle. “That’s right.”
“What kind of letter? A consumer complaint? The airlines lose your luggage?” (I get a lot of those.)
“No.” He was staring down at my hardwood floors, avoiding my glance.
“Look, Howard. I can’t write a letter for you if you don’t tell me what it’s about.”
He mumbled something to one of the grooves in my hardwood floor. It sounded something like “luvveter.”
At last, he looked up at me.
“A love letter. I want you to write a love letter.”
The words “You have a girlfriend?” shot out of my mouth before I could stop myself. “I mean, you have a girlfriend! How nice!” I added quickly, hoping he hadn’t noticed my momentary lack of couth.
“Oh. Is it a boyfriend? Nothing wrong with that. Not at all.”
“No, no. It’s a girl. It’s just that she’s not my girlfriend. In fact, I’ve never actually spoken to her. But I know that I love her. With all my heart and soul.”
Oh, jeez. I smiled woodenly. My first stalker.
“So. Tell me. Who is she, this love of yours?”
He whipped out a ragged newspaper clipping from his wallet and thrust it at me.
“Her name,” he said reverently, “is Stacy.”
I looked down at a picture of a lethal blonde in a black leotard. The caption read, “S. Lawrence Named New Sports Club Aerobics Instructor.”
“She teaches aerobics at my gym.”
Guys are amazing, aren’t they? You take your average geeky woman. Sure, she may fantasize about Tom Cruise, but does she actually expect to wind up dating him? Of course not. She knows she’s going to wind up with a guy named Norm with love handles and hairy knuckles. Men, on the other hand, are totally delusional. I’ll bet there are thousands of short, fat, bald guys convinced they could be dating Heather Locklear if only they knew her phone number.
I looked down at the blonde in the clipping, with her hard-as-nails eyes, deep tan, and perfect body. Poor Howard didn’t stand a chance.
“Look, Howard. I’m not so sure it’s a wise idea to write a love letter to someone you don’t even know.”
“It doesn’t have to be a love letter, exactly. I want you to write her something that will make her want to date me.”
You want a miracle? I thought. Go to Lourdes.
“How about I write you a resume instead? You happy at your job?”
But he wasn’t budging. “I want you to write a letter to Stacy.”
“Okay,” I said, forcing a smile, “tell me a little about yourself.”
He stared at me blankly.
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m an insurance adjuster.”
Ouch. Not much excitement there.
“I watch TV a lot.”
“Well,” he said, obviously saving the best for last, “Mom and I collect chopsticks from Chinese restaurants.”
I sighed deeply. I knew I had to turn down the job. It wouldn’t be fair to take Howard’s money for something I knew would never work out. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my integrity.
“Look, Howard. This isn’t going to work.”
“I’ll pay you triple your usual fee.”
I reached for my pad and pen.
“Is that Stacy with a ‘y’ or an ‘ie’?”
Okay, so I was a little low on integrity that week. I had bills to pay, and a costly Frappucino habit to support.
It’s not cheap living in Beverly Hills. Not even when you live, like I do, on the wrong side of the tracks, south of Wilshire Boulevard. Wilshire is the dividing line in Beverly Hills. North of Wilshire, you’re rich. South of Wilshire, you’re not. And I’m south of Wilshire. So south, I’m practically in Mexico.
I live on a quiet tree-lined street dotted with duplexes. I’ve got a one-bedroom apartment with a working fireplace, hardwood floors, and an enviable location just up the street from a Starbucks. On the down side, there’s the rent (high), the traffic (often impossible), and my neighbor Lance Venable (always impossible).
Lance lives next to me in the front unit of our duplex. A natty dresser with a headful of tight blond curls, Lance works at Neiman Marcus, selling ladies’ shoes. I guess when you spend your days cramming bunions into Ferragamos you’re bound to be a bit cranky.
The trouble with Lance is he’s got Superman-quality hearing. The man hears sounds even dogs can’t hear. Someone flushes the toilet in Pomona, and Lance hears it. Needless to say, Lance hears just about everything I do in my apartment. He hears my phone, he hears my hair dryer, he claims he can hear Prozac meowing to be fed. The only thing he doesn’t hear are the sounds of me having sex in the bedroom. Mainly because there aren’t any. But that’s a whole other story. One I’d be glad to tell you about if I weren’t already in the middle of telling you about Howard, the lovesick goofball.
When Howard left my apartment that afternoon, I knew I was deep into Mission Impossible territory. I noodled around on my computer for a while, trying to think what I could possibly write that would lure Stacy out on a date with Howard. The best I could come up with was:
“Dear Stacy, If you go out with me, I’ll give you a million dollars. Yours sincerely, Howard Murdoch.”
And frankly, I wasn’t sure even that would work.
After an hour or two of intense thought, and seventeen trips to the refrigerator to see if anything interesting had shown up since the last time I looked, I came up with exactly nothing. So I put Howard’s file aside and went back to work on a resume I’d been writing for a recent college graduate who’d majored in Parties and was now trying to give the impression that he’d actually attended some of his classes. It wasn’t easy, but it was a damn sight easier than Howard.
At about six o’clock, I was interrupted by Prozac, wailing for her dinner. Poor darling hadn’t eaten for at least an hour. I know I shouldn’t give in to her constant demands for food, and every day I vow I’m going to limit her intake to just five meals a day, but I always wind up giving in after just a few pitiful meows.
After feeding Prozac her Savory Mackerel Feast, I hurried into the shower. I had a dinner date that night, and I wanted to look good.
I was in the middle of blow-drying my hair, trying to torture my natural curls into a sleek Jennifer Aniston do, when Lance started banging on the wall.
“Keep it down in there!”
I gritted my teeth and turned the dryer down to “low,” wondering if I could possibly afford a hit man to puncture Lance’s eardrums.
I got myself all gussied up in a pair of Ann Taylor slacks, J. Crew sweater, and K mart Control Top Pantyhose. I checked myself out in the mirror and saw that my freshly straightened hair was already beginning to frizz. In less than ten minutes, I’d gone from Jennifer Aniston to Shirley Temple. Just the look I was aiming for: a thirty-six-year-old moppet.
Oh, well. There was nothing I could do. If I didn’t hurry, I’d be late for my date. I grabbed my purse and bent down to kiss Prozac good-bye. She licked my neck hungrily, no doubt searching for cat food hidden behind my ears.
Then I headed out the door, with a spring in my step, a curl in my hair, and mackerel-scented saliva on my neck.
I walked into the trendy restaurant on Melrose. You know the kind of place: where all the waiters are actors, and the pesto flows like water. I looked around the room. A handsome guy in a black turtleneck sweater and wire-rimmed glasses waved from his table. Unfortunately, he wasn’t waving at me, but at the stunning redhead behind me.
I headed over to where Kandi was sitting, waiting for me.
Kandi Tobolowski is an ex-New Yorker with enviably straight hair and a great sense of humor (which comes in handy when you’re saddled with a name like Kandi Tobolowsky).
I guess you could say Kandi is my best friend. We met five years ago at a UCLA screenwriting class. I’d just been through a messy divorce (are there any other kind?) and was looking for a way to stretch my creative muscles. Oh, who am I kidding? I was looking for a way to get out of my apartment one night a week.
Kandi had just moved out to L.A. from New York, determined to make it in show biz. I’ve always been drawn to New Yorkers. I like their edge, their impatience, their chutzpah. Most of all, I like the fact that they never tell me to Have a Nice Day.
So when I saw Kandi in class that first night of the summer session, tapping her feet impatiently and muttering, “Jeez, it’s like a sauna in here,” I plopped down next to her.
Our instructor was a bloated man with a greasy ponytail who spent most of the semester trashing our scripts and flirting with a sexy blonde in the first row. Not that I blamed him for flirting. The blonde was one heck of a good-looking guy.
One night the instructor was energetically trashing some poor shnook’s script, something the shnook had clearly been writing and rewriting for most of his adult life. Kandi, glaring at the instructor with disgust, scribbled a note and handed it to me. It said, “Quelle asshole.”
I knew then that Kandi was Best Friend material.
I made my way across the crowded restaurant and joined Kandi at a prized table she’d staked out by the window. She jumped up and hugged me happily. “Guess what, honey? I’ve met Mr. Right.”
That’s the crazy thing about Kandi. You’d think, coming from the mean streets of New York, she’d know the score about men. You’d think she’d have figured out by now that guys are like parking spaces (all the good ones are taken). But no, each time Kandi meets a new man, she’s convinced she’s met Mr. Right.
“Didn’t you just meet Mr. Right last month?” I asked. “The crazy dentist, who took you out for dinner at the beach and then threatened to throw you off the Santa Monica pier?”
“That’s ancient history. Wait’ll you see this one. He’s perfect. Just look at his fact sheet.”
Kandi belongs to Foto-Date, one of those dating services that hands out fact sheets on prospective dates, listing all their vital statistics (none of which are verified), what they’re looking for in a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and how they like to spend their free time (forget “romantic dinners” and “moonlight strolls on the beach”—what they really want is nonstop sex and dinner at your place).
I glanced down at the fact sheet.
“See? He’s a doctor! In Beverly Hills! And look at his picture! Doesn’t he look just like Antonio Banderas?”
I blinked in disbelief. Good heavens. He did look just like Antonio Banderas.
“He sounds too good to be true, doesn’t he?”
“That should be a warning, Kandi.”
“Oh, don’t be such a worrywart. He’s taking me to dinner. To a seafood place. Right on the beach.”
“Better bring a life vest.”
If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Three years with The Blob can do that to a gal. I call my ex-husband The Blob. And that’s one of my more charitable nicknames.
I met The Blob at a coffeehouse in Santa Mon. . .
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