A Job to Kill For
If I’d known Cassie Crawford would die, I might not have joked about wanting to kill her.
I’d been at her brand new three-million-dollar penthouse overlooking Los Angeles for almost an hour this morning, making sure all the details were perfect. Fresh calla lilies in the Steuben vase. Stainless steel Italian cappuccino machine properly filled with organic, shade-grown Sumatran ground beans. Electronic shades opened at the right angle to let in the light but not the UV rays. At 12:17, Cassie strode in, wearing a sheer white blouse, white jeans, and strappy gold high-heeled sandals, looking even blonder and slimmer than the last time I’d seen her. Our appointment stood at noon, but given the commission she was paying, seventeen minutes late counted as on-time performance.
“Is everything done?” Cassie asked anxiously. Apparently we weren’t going to bother with Hello, How are you, or even Nice to see you again. Cassie took off her Chanel sunglasses but didn’t even glance up at the hand-made Swarovski crystal chandelier that sparkled overhead, sending gleams of sunlight flickering across the foyer.
“Done,” I replied simply.
“Thank God,” Cassie said. She made a quick movement of hand against chest, and I thought at first she was crossing herself. But instead she religiously adjusted the seven-carat diamond pendant hanging just above her cleavage. As she patted it into place, the necklace clinked against her wedding band, so heavy with sapphires and diamonds that Cassie risked carpal-tunnel syndrome every time she lifted a well-manicured finger. Of course, now that she’d married Roger Crawford, she never needed to lift a finger again.
Without another word, Cassie pivoted on the four-inch heels of her Jimmy Choos and headed to the bedroom. I followed, traipsing comfortably if not quite as elegantly in my Lilly Pulitzer pink flats. If the ability to stride seamlessly on stilettos was required before you married a billionaire, I’d obviously never be so blessed.
Or maybe cursed. Despite the perfect outward appearance, Cassie seemed to be in a controlled panic as she checked out the penthouse for the first time. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she raced around the room snapping her head like a Perdue chicken. She opened and closed the storage drawers I’d cleverly tucked behind floor-to-ceiling lacquered doors, then moved quickly on.
“Do you think Roger will like the bed?” she asked, sitting tentatively on the edge of the fifteen-thousand-dollar Hypnos mattress I’d had flown in from London.
“It’s the same one Queen Elizabeth sleeps on,” I said, as if that settled it. Though who knew where Prince Philip slept.
“And the sheets?” Cassie asked, running her fingers over the linens that were so soft they made 600-thread-count sateen seem like sandpaper. “Frette?”
“Definitely not,” I said firmly. “Frette is so last year. They’re now used in some”—I lowered my voice—“hotels.”
Cassie looked briefly uncertain, but then nodded. At age twenty-eight (according to the gossip columns), she couldn’t know everything. I couldn’t either—but being older meant I knew how to sound like I did.
She sighed. “Well, I’m counting on you to get everything right. Isn’t it funny? Until I married Roger, I lived in a furnished sublet in Studio City. This is the first place I’ve ever decorated myself.”
She’d decorated this place herself? “You did a nice job,” I said encouragingly. I’d been in the business long enough to know that the person signing the check got to take credit for the success. Cassie had turned up as a new client not long ago, calling me out of the blue and asking if I could furnish the just-bought penthouse from top to bottom while she and Roger cavorted on a three-week trip to Hong Kong and Tokyo.
“It’ll be tricky with such a quick turnaround,” I’d said.
“Price isn’t a problem,” she’d insisted.
With any luck, the combination of Cassie’s bank account and my eye for style would land both of us in Architectural Digest. However difficult she turned out to be, I’d cope.
Cassie and I had met twice about the design, but when I tried to show her samples and discuss the virtues of Carrera counters versus granite, her eyes glazed over.
“Whatever you think Roger will like. That’s the only thing that matters.”
“You should like it, too,” I’d said.
“Roger has to be happy,” Cassie said firmly. “Pleasing him is my only job at the moment.” Apparently, the calendar had flicked back to 1950 when I wasn’t looking.
I’d never met Roger Crawford and Cassie happened to be his new (or at least newest) wife. But when it came to decorating, I didn’t really need her advice on how to keep him satisfied. I just turned the penthouse into a marble-and-brass version of jewel-strewn Cassie: something to help him feel sexy and young, and make it clear to anyone around just how successful he must be.
I knew Roger would admire the result. But now Cassie continued dashing around with an anxious expression. She came to a dead halt in the dining room, glancing at the gleaming onyx table and the chairs covered with zebra skin.
“The fabric’s fake,” I assured her. “A combination of silk, cashmere, and linen. Probably more expensive than importing the real thing from Africa, but ecologically better. Everything else in the room is so minimalist, I thought we could have some fun.”
“Fun,” Cassie said grimly.
She marched into the second bedroom suite and began opening and closing drawers. She peeked into every possible nook or cranny, as if hunting for lost keys.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” I asked as she walked out of the walk-in closet. I’d lined two of the walls with mirrors, and Cassie’s image reflected over and over, repeated forever. Her eyes flitted worriedly, but not a single line popped out on her forehead. Either she was genetically incapable of furrowing her brow, or she’d already had her first Botox injections.
“I don’t know, something just doesn’t feel right.”
“Doesn’t feel right?” To my eye, the place looked darn-near perfect, but my client had to be satisfied. If she wanted a Prince poster instead of the Picasso, I’d dash out to find it a fabulous frame. “Maybe you don’t like the pale green color on the wall,” I said, trying to be helpful. “To me, it feels peaceful, but if you want something brighter, we could repaint it in daffodil. Or magnolia.”
“No, it’s not that. I can’t really explain it.” She shook her head. “Something’s got me spooked. Isn’t it weird? I feel like a little kid at Halloween going into a haunted house.”
“No ghosts here,” I said.
Cassie gave a rueful laugh. “I’m Roger’s third wife. Trust me, there are ghosts everywhere.”
From what I’d read about him, Roger Crawford had variously owned a ranch in Montana, a waterfront casa in Costa Rica, a townhouse across from Buckingham Palace, and a sprawling estate in Beverly Hills. I didn’t know which of those had gone to previous wives and which were now “home” to Cassie.
“The penthouse is brand new,” I reminded her. “All yours and ghost free. You and Roger start fresh here.”
Cassie gave a little frown, then darted off. I followed her into the kitchen, where she gazed blankly at the six-burner Viking stove. She opened the door of the oven warily, as if nervous that the Pillsbury doughboy might pop out.
“Combination heat, with electric and convection currents,” I explained. “The temperature stays even, so it’s ideal for baking.”
Cassie nodded, but from the empty expression on her face, I realized she didn’t plan to be whipping up big batches of Bundt cakes. Probably the only “baking” she’d do was at the Sunless Tanning Salon in Beverly Hills.
She sauntered over to the kitchen pantry, where the smooth-glide shelves rolled out effortlessly. Since she’d asked me to take care of everything, I’d stocked the pantry with life’s necessities—from Hawaiian macadamia nuts to Macallan single-malt scotch.
“Champagne and chocolate truffles on the bottom shelf,” I said. “From my experience, that’s the solution for any marital spat.”
Cassie looked stricken. She’d been married less than a year, so maybe she couldn’t imagine a marital spat. Or maybe my friend Molly Archer was right when she told me Cassie’s marriage had veered into trouble.
As the head of Molly Archer Casting and able to influence most of the media hotshots in Hollywood, my old college pal stayed tuned in to everyone. She’d called me to report that Cassie and Roger had been seen arguing at the chic Japanese restaurant Koi a few nights earlier. After Cassie stormed out, Roger went over to the celebrity-packed Skybar, where he drowned his troubles in a martini—and later left, several sources reported, with “an amorous but unidentified redhead.”
“You realize what that means,” Molly had said ominously.
“He’s lusting after the ghost of Lucille Ball?”
“I like to think Lucy’s happily married in heaven.”
“Darling, this isn’t about passion. It’s about the prenup.” Molly had paused meaningfully. “Young Cassie gets a million bucks if she and Roger split anytime in the first year. After that, the payoff jumps to ten million.”
“He’s a billionaire. That’s not exactly a kick in the wallet.”
“He’s a businessman,” Molly corrected me. “He calculates his investments carefully.”
Now looking at Cassie, I wondered if her panic about the penthouse could be connected to the expiring prenup. Maybe she figured that if she decorated right, she could buy herself another year and a bigger payoff. No wonder she seemed nervous. Much harder to decide whether the antique rug should be Tabriz or Turkish with nine million bucks on the line.
Turning away from me, Cassie opened the Sub-Zero refrigerator and unexpectedly gave a broad smile.
“Kirin green tea!” she said. “I didn’t see this before. How did you know?”
I peeked inside the refrigerator where three green bottles with Japanese letters on them stood neatly lined up.
“It’s always been my favorite,” she said. “A little bitter, but much better than anything you can get in America.” She grabbed one of the bottles, cracked open the cap, and took a long swig. She gave a little shake of her head, then drank some more.
“Did you have this imported from Tokyo?” she asked. “I can’t believe it. You’re really the best, Lacy.”
When I didn’t answer, Cassie gave a tentative smile.
“I’ve loved this stuff since I went to Kyoto during spring break in college. This trip, I drank it all the time in Tokyo.” She took another long sip, then smiled at me, relief written all over her face. “Roger told you to get it, right?” Her smile got even wider. “He’s such a sweetheart, after all. He wanted to surprise me!”
She finished drinking, then put the bottle on the countertop. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask—including why any college kid would take spring break in Kyoto instead of Cancún—but instead, I stared at the tea. I believe in giving credit where credit was due. But in this case, I didn’t know where it was due.
I picked the bottle up, puzzled, then put it back down.
“Oh, I just remembered something,” Cassie said. “The Rothko in the study.”
She hurried down the hallway into the room that had rapidly become my favorite. I’d had the floor in Roger’s study bleached and cured to a pale maple, and tinted the angular bookshelves that lined three of the walls exactly two shades darker. A stunning brass-and-glass desk stood in the middle of the huge expanse, and the floor beneath it was accented with a checked-tile inlay. I’d provided rolling ladders so Roger could climb up to reach a book at the top of the towering shelves. Instead of the standard wooden library ladders, these were made of sinewy steel. The room felt familiar—but still fresh and modern. I liked giving a new twist to an erstwhile style.
Cassie paused and looked appreciatively at the books. I even had the feeling she’d read her share of them. But then she turned to the simple two-toned painting that would probably bring in twenty million bucks at auction at Sotheby’s. “I think there’s something wrong with the frame,” she said.
The Rothko had been in one of Roger’s other houses and I’d had it brought in. I’d used the most reputable art-trucking firm I knew. They’d never damaged anything before, and come to think of it, I’d inspected the picture carefully when it arrived. But sure enough, the lower-right-hand corner of the frame was freshly broken off.
“No damage to the picture,” I said, studying the orange and red color fields.
“Can you get it fi-fi-fixed?” asked Cassie, suddenly panting slightly. I looked over. Her forehead was sweating and she clutched her stomach. Something more than art-lover’s distress had struck her.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
She was almost doubled over now, and when she opened her mouth to speak, she seemed to be gasping for words.
“I—I have to…” Her eyes rolled toward the top of her head, and she seemed to be choking. But she grabbed for the ladder by the bookshelf and put a foot on the first rung. Swaying heavily, she started to pull herself up.
“Be careful,” I said from across the room.
“Up—up,” she said, gasping. “Have to g-g-get it.” Her voice was raspy, and her face was suddenly whiter than a geisha’s. She kept climbing, and I saw a spittle of drool dripping from the side of her mouth.
“Cassie,” I said anxiously. “I think you’re sick. You’d better come down.”
“Delta,” she said. She stumbled on one of the rungs and barely managed to catch herself. She kicked off her shoes and the Jimmy Choos flew down, landing with a thump on the ground.
“Come down, Cassie.” Worried, I took a step forward. “If you need a book, I’ll get it.”
Cassie shook her head. The penthouse ceilings soared twenty feet high, and Cassie had to be eight feet off the ground now. Suddenly she gave a shout of pain and turning, clutched at her throat with both hands. Nothing connected her to the ladder except her pedicured toes. Her head bobbed, and then she plunged forward, her arms spread wide, as if she planned to soar across the room like an angel.
But Cassie was no angel. She wasn’t even the Flying Nun.
She landed with a sickening thud, head first, on the polished floor.
“Cassie!” I screamed, rushing over.
I fell to my knees next to her. A huge gash had opened in the back of her head. Cassie gave a little moan and then turned silent.
I watched in horror as the wound began spurting, covering the floor in blood, the deep red color of a Rothko.