Okay, here’s that mystery I told you about last week. Feel free to critique or point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Enjoy!
Absynthe attracted every finance-frat bro and wedding band-less married man on The Upper East Side. The interior – with its mahogany woodworking; shiny gold railings; and ornate chandeliers – reeked of old money. I’d only agreed to meet Ginny here because she was the event booker for the restaurant. I was more of a bordello-themed wine bar girl. I liked me some plush blood red upholstery and dimmed lighting. The color palette of a place like that flattered my warm complexion and dark hair.
I swirled the ice cubes in my high-ball glass and took a sip of my Johnnie Walker Black, a departure from my regular Cabernet. Something about the Absynthe’s masculine decor made me want to drink scotch, grab my crotch, and adjust myself. Flipping my iPhone over, I checked the time. It was twelve after seven. Ginny was late. I’d told her I couldn’t stay long. I had a late-night rendezvous planned with an online suitor I’d met last month and needed a nap. She’d been prodding me to meet Tyler for weeks and I was out of excuses. They’d been together but two months and he had already moved in. Admittedly, I only half-listened when she told me the story about Tyler’s father moving his boyfriend into their Park Avenue apartment, leaving no room for man-child Tyler to couch surf.
“Where else was he going to go, Sophia?” she’d asked. “I couldn’t let him go to some fifty-dollar a night death-trap in Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Isn’t he, like, forty?”
“He’s our age.”
“That would still make him in his late thirties, Gin.”
An investigative reporter by profession, I was skilled at sniffing out the grifters. I didn’t want my suspicions confirmed. Again. Our friendship was still rebounding from the last time I outed her new beau as a fraud. Trust-funder Ginny was a dolphin in an ocean full of sharks. Men smelled her money the moment they Googled her: sports agent father that represented Yankees, Knicks, and two Wimbledon champs; daughter-of-publishing-magnate mother. If Ginny’s net worth wasn’t clear by those stats, it was when they learned her address. Event bookers at restaurants couldn’t afford a three-bedroom apartment in a swanky Madison Avenue high-rise like the one Ginny inherited when her aunt died.
Though it was still early, sitting alone at a bar nursing a cocktail on a Saturday night made me self-conscious. A woman sitting unattended at a trendy bar was like a Bat Signal for predatory leches hoping to prey on a woman’s loneliness. Two stools away sat a youngish woman in her mid-to-late twenties. She was going old school, licking the tip if her index finger and flipping the page on her hard-cover book, a glass of Merlot in front of her. Every couple of minute I’d catch her glancing up at the perfume commercial handsome bartender. He was too distracted by his reflection in the mirrored back splash to notice.
“Where are you? It’s almost seven-fifteen.” I hit send on the text and set my phone down.
The bartender motioned his dimpled chin at my drink. “Another?” he asked.
I managed a half-hearted shrug. “Might as well.”
I picked my phone back up and scrolled through my contacts until I got to Nate’s number. “Running a little late. Make it ten-thirty?”
I knew he wouldn’t mind the change. Nate was the epitome of “laid-back and easy going”, the oft-employed descriptor included in most men’s dating profiles. A published novelist working on his third book, his coffee-fueled writing sprees that lasted until dawn were a perfect match for my schedule of four am deadlines and nights camping out in police precincts and courthouses. That didn’t leave much opportunity for romantic carriage rides through Central Park or dinners in fancy steak houses, but so far we were making it work. I’d been keeping Ginny in the dark about his existence in my life. Her rapid-fire line of questioning every time I met a man gave me heart palpitations.
How did you meet him?
What does he do?
You haven’t slept with him yet, have you?
Wide-eyed at thirty-seven, she still believed in concepts like The One and soul mates. She was The Third Date Girl, with a whole section of her walk-in closet devoted to her collection La Perla and Provocateur lingerie. And dildos. And handcuffs. And bed restraints. She made men wait weeks before she’d sleep with them, but once she did, it was game on.
The bartender placed a fresh white napkin on the bar and set down my drink.
“On the house,” he said. “It’s much better than that Johnnie Walker shit.”
I gave his long body a sweep and took a sip, recognizing the liquor’s vanilla and caramel notes. “MacCallan’s?” I asked.
He raised his manscaped eyebrows. “A woman who knows her scotch. I’m impressed.”
I ground my back molars and managed a close-lipped smiled. It never failed. A woman orders anything from the top shelf at a bar and gets the liquor mansplained to her.
Ginny hurried towards me, slowed by her five-inch black mules. Now I understood why she was so late. The closest subway stop was only five blocks away. With those shoes, a three minute walk became ten. Fifteen if the sidewalks were crowded.
She flung herself at me and wrapped me into a bear hug so tight I almost slid off my stool. For someone a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, she had freakish upper body strength. “I’m so sorry. My Uber never showed and I decided to take the train from uptown. You know how the subway confuses me.”
I didn’t, actually. All she had to do was get on the six train and get off at Seventy-Seventh Street. It was only four stops.
“I love your hair up,” I said, admiring her sherry chignon.
Ginny fingered the back of her bun. “Tyler does, too. He said wearing my hair up shows off my cheek bones.” She looked up the length of the bar. “Is he here yet?”
“No,” I said. “I thought he was coming with you.”
She took the stool next to me. “He had an audition this afternoon. He sent a text telling me it was running late.”
My Spidey Sense tingled. “This late?”
“Soph.” She threw me an “I’m not in the mood for this” look. “Don’t. Meet him first before you start doing your Nancy Drew thing. He’s on a call-back for a detective show. He can’t wait to talk to you.”
The bartender returned with a leather-bound cocktail menu. “’Sup, Gin. You back to keep me company?”
“You wish,” Ginny said with a wink. She slid the menu back towards him. “You know what I like.”
“Absolut and tonic on the rocks,” he said. “Three limes. Be right back.”
He left us to grab the vodka from the top shelf. “That’s Danny, the one I told you about. He’s hung like a horse,” Ginny whispered.
“I assumed. Guys that tall and lanky always are.”
We admired Danny’s rear view. “Good?” I asked, my eyes trained on the back of his snug black khakis.
“He lasts forever. I had to do that thing where I-“
“How’s my girl?”
We flinched in unison at the baritone voice behind us.
“Babe!” Ginny squealed. She jumped up and planted a kiss on Tyler’s mouth. “How did it go?”
Tyler took off his vintage brown leather jacket, his slender frame hidden by bell-bottom jeans and long sleeve crew-neck. “They made me read with, like, five different people. I better get it.”
“Sophie, this is Tyler.”
I stuck out my hand, which Tyler ignored. Instead he dive-bombed in to kiss my cheek. “Sorry if that’s weird. Gin talks about you so much I feel like I already know you.”
“No problem,” I said. I brushed a wave of hair behind my ear so I could discreetly wipe away the saliva left from his over-zealous greeting. Touches women without consent. Check minus.
“Don’t you love it?” Ginny gushed. She wrapped the leather jacket over the back of her chair. “I got it at a Salvation Army downtown.”
“My character is a time traveling detective from the seventies,” Tyler said to me. “I had a porn-stache and everything.”
How method. Somewhere Daniel Day Lewis was polishing his Oscars and quaking.
“They’d be insane not to cast you,” she said. “You did so much research for the role.”
Tyler took a load off his platform booted feet and sat down. “So, Soph. Ever been to a real crime scene.”
I bristled at his use of my nick name. His familiarity was breeding my contempt. “A few,” I said.
“Anything gory?” he asked. “Decapitations, double suicides, death by nail gun?”
Someone had watched Seven too many times. “I saw a guy with his tongue cut out once.”
Tyler’s eyes lit up. “A rat!” he said. “Mob hit?”
“Probably not. The wife was found two apartments down with a kitchen knife in her hand. He was cheating on her.”
The excitement on his face dimmed. “Oh,” Tyler said. “Just a domestic dispute?”
“Well,” I said. “She did slice his tongue out of his mouth. That qualifies as more than a dispute.”
Ginny covered her ears. “Enough, you two. This is gross.”
Tyler leaned over and kissed Ginny on the forehead. “Sorry, baby. I don’t want you having any more bad dreams.” Tyler ordered a Black and Tan from the bartender and got back up. “Where’s the loo in this place?”
Ginny pointed at a dimly lit doorway in the back of the dining room. “Downstairs,” she said.
Tyler teetered off, the clunky heel of his boot catching on the hem of the bell bottoms. I waited until he was out of earshot. “The loo?” I said, dipping my chin. “Really?”
She shrugged off my snark and sipped her drink. “He lived in London for a couple of years doing theater in The West End. I think it’s charming. Speaking of which,” she grabbed my forearm. “Did I tell you we figured out that we met in high school?
She had told me, but judging by the sparks in her eyes, she was dying to repeat the story. As a good friend, I would listen and pretend like I was hearing it for the first time.
“So, Browning used to have these dances and they’d invite all the sister schools. My friends and I went to one and Tyler was the one to take my ticket. He even remembered what I was wearing – pink cami, matching cardigan, and jeans. How weird is that?”
It was weird, weird as in creepy. Other than stalkers, who remembers such details? Christ, I had to learn how to turn my reporter-brain off. “That’s so cute,” I said. “Maybe it’s fate.”
“Right?!” Ginny asked. “We’ve probably been passing each other on the street for years. He used to go to Dorian’s, too.”
I shuddered, thinking of The Preppy Murder and Robert Chambers. God dammit, I’d done it again. I needed a rom-com marathon, stat. My brain was an encyclopedia of crime. I caught Danny’s eye and pointed at my water glass. Scotch made me sleepy, and I had a hot date with a best-selling novelist in a couple hours.
“Sooo,” I said, rocking my highball glass from side to side. “You’re having the dreams again?”
Ginny swatted at the air. “I had one last night. It was nothing. I’m stressed. I booked a wedding last month and the bride’s mother has been up my ass every day since.”
“From what I remember, they weren’t nothing.”
For five years, Ginny and I shared a two-bedroom apartment in Union Square. She was getting her Master’s in Psychology, paid for in full by her father. I worked days as a junior copy editor and went to school at night, pursuing my Master’s in Journalism. One night I jolted upright in bed after hearing piercing screams coming from Ginny’s bedroom. Not knowing what to expect, I grabbed the aluminum bat I used for our company softball games from my closet and ran to her room. She was sitting up in bed, her back straight as a board and eyes wide open, staring into the dark. She had no memory of it the next morning.
“Take a break, Angela Lansbury.” She gave my glass a nudge. “Finish your drink.”
Just looking at the scotch made my bladder object. “I’ll be right back,” I said. “Don’t sleep with Danny while I’m gone.”
Ginny gave me a playful push off my stool. Phone in hand out of habit, I felt a buzz in my palm. Nate had returned my message.
Okay, but I turn into a pumpkin at midnight, so I’m going to have to crash at your place.
My face lit up from within. Our first sleep over? I was more than okay with that. I’d wait at least an hour before responding, though. I didn’t want to play my cards too soon. I eased down the iron-cast spiral staircase, trying not to catch the heel of my sling- back on the steps. I got to the middle step when I heard Tyler’s voice. His back to me, he stood under the golden fluorescent light, propped against the wall outside the restroom.
“I’ll call you when she falls asleep,” he said.
My stomach went oily. He’d pronounced call as cawl. Nobody born on the Upper East Side had a Tony Soprano accent. Was he still in character? Was his time-traveling detective from New Jersey?
“She’s a lightweight. Three drinks and she’s out for night. If she knows I’m talking to you, she’ll freak.” Tyler paused while he listened to the voice on the phone. “I don’t know. I’ve only been there a week. I’ll see what I can find out. I have to go, she’s waiting for me upstairs.” With that he hung up and stuck his phone in the side pocket of his jacket.
Caught off guard by the suddenness of his good-bye, I spun around to head back upstairs, cracking my arm on the railing. I squeezed my eyes and lips shut, pain shooting from my elbow. Hearing my lack of coordination in action, Tyler clomped his way to the bottom of the staircase.
“You okay?” he asked.
I wiggled my fingers to check for nerve damage. “I think so.” Taking the rest of the steps with care not to jostle my aching arm, I met Tyler on the landing.
“Do you want me to get Gin?” he asked. “She always carries a ton of aspirin with her.”
“No,” I said. The throb dulling, I managed to stand up straight so that we were face to face. “Who were you just talking to?”
His face froze. “I wasn’t…”
Lifting my injured arm, I winced and pointed my index finger upstairs. “Either you tell me or I’ll go right back up there and tell Ginny what I just heard.”
He took my good elbow and guided me away from the steps, glancing over his shoulder to make sure we were alone. “That was Ginny’s father.”
I pulled away from him. “What the hell are you doing calling her father?”
Ginny’s relationship with her Dad was tenuous. Her mother died when she was ten. After a couple of years of living with her father in Queens she’d moved in with her aunt, an art dealer, so she could attend the ritzy Chapin school for girls. Other than a few terse phone calls to her father every semester to make sure her grad school tuition was paid, they were estranged.
“Those dreams,” he said. “They scare the fuck out of me.”
“Dreams plural? Ginny made it sound like the last dream she had was a one-off.”
“She’s had them every couple of weeks since we met. She didn’t tell you?” He bunched his brows. “She said she started having them when she was a kid so I called her Dad. I thought he might know what they’re about.”
Suspicion niggled in my gut. Ginny’s father was a celebrity by association. All Tyler needed was a last name and found him with a cursory Google search. That answers the how. The why, he’d just explained. It was the who I was trying to pin down. As in, who was this guy?
“Did she tell you anything about the nightmares?” I asked. “Who’s in them, where she is…”
“She says she doesn’t remember anything about them. Look, I know you told Ginny you think I’m some mooch…”
I folded my arms across my chest. It wasn’t the first time something uttered from my opinionated mouth got thrown in my face, but Ginny had never broken my confidence before. “I believe the exact phrase I used was Couch Hobo. She’s a trust fund kid. People take advantage.”
“I’m not one of them,” he said. His crystal blue eyes pleaded with me to believe him. “I might not have it all together, but I would never use her. She’s the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
“She is.” I gave him a prolonged once-over. “Too kind sometimes.”
Tyler jammed his hands in his coat pockets and shrugged. “Okay. You got me,” he held his hands up in mock-surrender. Fucking actors. Everything was an audition to them. “I’m a gold-digger after her money. That’s why I’m calling her father to find a way to make her nightmares stop.”
“Don’t try to make me feel guilty for looking out for my friend. You could be a con artist looking for a fat payday.”
A fat payday? Jesus, you watch too much TV. Take it down a notch. If Ginny finds out you scared away another one of her boyfriends, she’ll never forgive you.
“Look,” he said. “I wanted to meet you tonight because I don’t know what to do. My dad’s a shrink and offered to meet with her but she won’t talk to a therapist. Google’s no help. I’m out of options.”
That was a fair amount of effort for a scammer to devote to a mark. Grifters weren’t invested like that. I searched his face looking for a tell, something that would give him away. Nothing. Tyler still didn’t pass my sniff test, but he was closer than he was five minutes ago. If I was going to feel him out, I needed him to get him alone.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Ginny’s the closest thing I have to a sister—“
“Yeah, Ginny told me about what happened. I’m sorry. That must have been awful.”
My shoulders blades pinched. The details surrounding my sister’s death were inner-circle conversation. They weren’t meant for strangers. Ginny knew that.
“I…yeah,” I said. “I mean thank you.” Was he trying to throw me off balance?
“I should get back up there,” he said. “I’ll tell her you got a call.”
“Give me your number,” I said. “There’s more to her dreams than she’s telling you.”
With renewed interest, he dug into his jacket pocket for his phone. I took it and added my number to his contacts. “Don’t tell her you called her Dad,” I said.
“You don’t have to worry about that. He made it clear he wanted nothing to do with me or Ginny.”
“I can fill in some of the blanks for you.” I handed him back his phone. “Call me. There’s a lot you don’t know.”
The years leading up to Ginny’s birth were Shakespearean with all the betrayal, back-stabbing, and behind-the scenes-machinations going on. I had no intention of spilling those beans to Tyler, but I needed to leave him wanting more so he’d agree to meet. I watched him hustle up the steps then locked myself in the bathroom. Tyler and Nate were around the same age and they both went to Browning. Looks like I’d be replying to Nate’s text early than planned.
“Sounds great,” I typed back to him. “I have a favor to ask. Can you stop by your place and pick up your year book?”