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Nina Reilly opened the window in her office in the Starlake Building on Highway 50. Warm air smelling of toast and dry grass drifted in to mingle with the brittle cool of air-conditioning. Outside, every shade of rust and gold shimmered in a hot October wind that rustled papers on her desk. In the distance, brightly colored sails waved against the blue backdrop of Lake Tahoe. She could sense a shift in the weather. The sultry air held a tang in it, like the end of something sweet, lemons in sugary tea.
Leaning through the opening to catch a ray of sunshine, Nina watched as a man and a woman in spotless white athletic shoes, plaid shirts tied around their waists, dropped hands so that the woman could stoop and gather some carrot-colored leaves from the ground. She held her little pieces of autumn like a bouquet, dancing a quick step or two in front of the man on the sidewalk. The man continued walking, apparently unwilling to play the game. Giving up, she resumed her place beside him, dropping her leaves one by one as they went on, like Gretel casting off a trail of crumbs.
"Way to keep this place energy efficient," Sandy said, standing in the doorway to Nina's office, hands on her womanly hips. Today she wore a fringed blouse and a shiny silver concha belt that jingled like coins when she moved, khaki pants, and cowboy boots, which made her look like an over-the-hill rodeo rider. Sandy enjoyed dressing for the office but she would never look the part of a legal secretary.
Two years earlier, she had worked as a file clerk at Jeffrey Riesner's law firm, a couple of miles west on Highway 50. In spite of Riesner's dissatisfaction with her work, her character, her looks, and her air of superiority, Nina had hired her when she had begun her solo practice in South Lake Tahoe, one of her more astute moves.
Sandy knew everyone in town and had a titanic strength of purpose that co-opted or crushed everything in its path. A lawyer starting up a practice in a new place needed to get clued in fast, and Sandy had brought in the vital first clients, organized the office, and installed herself as Nina's keeper. Nina knew law. Sandy knew business, everyone's business.
"What a day," said Nina. "Not that you'd guess it in here."
"High eighties?" Sandy said. "One of the last warm ones this year. Too nice to be inside."
"That's right. Let's blow this joint. It's four-fifteen and I can't think anymore."
"Not yet. You have a call on line two." Sandy jiggled her eyebrows significantly.
"Who is it?"
"Lindy Markov's secretary."
"Do I know Lindy Markov?"
"If you don't, you should. She wants to invite you to a party Mrs. Markov is giving this weekend."
"What kind of party?"
"She does a lot of charity work and hosts a lot of community get-togethers. This particular shindig is a birthday party for her husband, Mike Markov."
Nina closed the window, turning back to her desk. "Tell her I'm busy, Sandy. Give her my regrets."
But Sandy, a Washoe Native American whose people had practiced stubborn resistance for hundreds of years, gave no sign that she had heard. "Lindy and Mike Markov are the biggest employers in Tahoe. They live up near Emerald Bay. This is a golden opportunity."
"Why? I'm too broke to be an asset to any worthy causes."
Sandy spoke again, her deep voice measured, reminding Nina of Henry Kissinger in his glory years pushing governments around. "And that's exactly what you should be thinking about. We're in business here. And we need more money coming in. You've been tapping into your personal account to pay the office rent, haven't you?"
What could she say? The omnipotent Sandy knew all.
"Maybe they need a lawyer," Sandy said.
"I don't like going to things like that alone," Nina said.
"Paul's coming up this weekend. He called while you were in court this afternoon."
"He's back from Washington? I thought he was going to be gone longer. Anyway, what's that got to do with . . . ?"
Sandy shrugged. "I happened to mention the party. He's up for it."
"I see," said Nina.
"He'll pick you up on Friday at six. Don't be late."
"And if I still say no?"
Sandy heaved a fulsome sigh, her belt jingling slightly with the strain. "Then I'll have to go for you. Someone has to network around here. If you want to pay the rent and the Whitaker bill and Lexis, the new computer, my raise . . ."
"Which raise would that be?"
"I'll be needing a slight raise if I'm going to have to party for you."
"Okay, Sandy. You win. Which line is she on?"
"No need for you to talk to her." She turned to leave. "I'll confirm that you're on the list."
"You already told her I was going?"
"I thought you might. After you had time to think about it."
"Wait. Where is this party?"
"On the lake," said Sandy. "They're chartering the Dixie Queen. Taking off from the Ski Run Marina."
Paul picked Nina up early that Friday, treating her to a hug that bordered on the obscene. "Three weeks," he said. "God, how I've missed squeezing your cute little bum." While the words were light, she felt his scrutiny. Three weeks was just long enough for them both to feel the distance.
A good eight inches over her five feet four, blond, and forty, with two licks of gray around his temples and two marriages behind him, Paul seemed to have been in her life forever. An ex-homicide detective, he had his own business as an investigator in Carmel. They worked together sometimes. They also slept together sometimes.
She was derailed by other men, sometimes. Just a few months before, she had engaged in an intense flirtation with Collier Hallowell, the associate DA she had always respected. That had ended when Collier's personal hang-ups got in the way. So that left her and Paul, a lousy fit who grated on each other, sometimes.
But every once in a while, when they connected, they went deep down to a place that kept them coming back to each other.
As they drove to the marina, Paul quizzed her about her activities in the past few weeks. Nina talked about the house she and her son Bob had recently bought. "We're making it homey," she said. "It's just that none of us knows exactly what that means. I stockpile paper in every corner. Hitchcock has taken up residence in the ski closet and spreads kibble all over the kitchen floor. Bob rides his skateboard through the downstairs." When she turned the questions on Paul, he was uncharacteristically closemouthed. He couldn't tell her much about the Washington, D.C., job, he claimed. And what was there to say about staying in a hotel?
Paul wasn't teasing her. She sensed his preoccupation and wondered about it. Meanwhile, she could think of many things that might happen with him in a hotel and she spent at least part of the ride to the boat holding that thought, just enjoying his proximity and his big, comforting presence.
At the parking lot for the marina, not too far from Nina's office, Paul pulled his Dodge Ram van in tight beside a creamy-white Jaguar.
"This is something," Nina said, stepping down into a parking lot crammed full of gleaming metal. "Oh, boy. Look over there by the dock. It's like a convention for chauffeurs. Maybe we should have rented a limo."
"You look terrific in that slinky blue stuff," Paul said, coming up beside her. He put a hand on her leg, squeezing gently to punctuate his point. "And if it makes you more comfortable, hell, I'll be your chauffeur. Can't do much about my chariot, but I've got a baseball cap in there somewhere. Anything to make you look less like you're about to jump out of your skin."
She shimmied a little, adjusting her panty hose. "You're right, I'm nervous. I guess I'm just getting into the spirit of things, starting out with my foot in my mouth by insulting your car."
"You've talked with people before. I'm sure I've seen you do that. What are you so worried about?"
"I'm intimidated," she said honestly. "The Markovs are very wealthy. Their business is supposedly huge. They sell health aids of some kind. Mrs. Markov also raises money by the bucketful for the schools and recreation programs here."
Paul took her hand and they walked toward the dock where a white stern-wheeler trimmed in blue rocked gently in the water. From the front of the boat, where Nina and Paul boarded, two black pipes tipped in gold, shaped like medieval crowns, framed a view of the rest of the boat. Silver lights of irregular lengths dangled like icicles from two of the boat's three decks, and at the back an enormous paddle wheel, blades painted red, dripped water. On the bottom level, a wide swath of windows revealed a crowd of partyers already moving en masse to a tune Nina could not make out, bobbing between bunches of red helium balloons. The low bumping of bass traveled through the water to rumble up under their feet on the dock.
"Ever been on one of these before?" Paul asked her as they stepped onto the ramp that led to the lower deck of the boat.
"Once. I took a tour from Zephyr Cove with Bob when we first came here. He was only eleven. Very impressed by the glass bottom, even though there's not all that much to see under the lake, just sand and the occasional beer bottle."
"Did you say something about these people wanting to hire you?" he asked as they made their way to the exquisitely decorated party deck. "Because if they do, it looks like your ship has come in."
"I have no idea why we're here. It's one of Sandy's plots. Let's just enjoy ourselves."
They paused before going inside, taking a long look across the lake toward the teals and peaches just beginning to tinge the sky and water. "When I see the lake like this, so beautiful, I think about the Washoe people camping on these shores," Nina said. "It wasn't so long ago, only a hundred years or so."
"I'm sure they'd love the hash we've made of the natural landscape." Paul gestured toward the casino lights. They had begun to gleam in the fading light, under the evening glow of the mountains towering behind.
"From far away," said Nina, "I think it's pretty."
A striking woman walked toward them, smiling. Several inches taller than Nina, Lindy Markov gave the impression of even greater height. Willowy, with warm coppery hair, she had expressive brown eyes over a prominent nose and jawline. A gold collar-style Egyptian necklace adorned her neckline, dressing up the rust-colored dress she wore over a body as muscular and wiry as an exercise guru's. She might be anywhere over forty. She had reached that certain ageless age.
"Hello, Nina Reilly. I've heard so much about you. I recognize you from the paper, of course. Sarah de Beers and some other friends told me you did good work for them. Thanks for coming to join in the surprise for Mike."
"How are you going to surprise him? I mean, this boat . . ."
"Oh, he doesn't know I filled it up with friends. He just thought we were taking a dinner cruise to celebrate his birthday." She looked around. "He's going to love this. He loves surprises," she said, but she looked unconvinced, even apprehensive. Nina thought, uh-oh. Something is not right.
"I hope everybody gets here on time. Mike's due at seven." She looked anxiously toward the door as another couple arrived, relaxing as she turned her attention back to Paul. "Mr. Van Wagoner." She shook his hand, holding it for a moment before letting go. "So you're a private investigator." Her eyes probed his in the dim light. "Do you dance?"
She flashed a bright smile. Nina, who knew a stressed-out lady when she saw her, read worry verging on panic in it. "Save one for me." She turned away to look at the door again. More guests, not Mike Markov. She excused herself to meet the next crop.
Nina couldn't imagine how they could stuff more people inside. The decks were full of guests dancing, drinking, and snacking. The usual casual tour boat had been transformed--waiters in black suits dipped and posed with silver trays full of hot treats for the guests; tables with white cloths and real silver for a massive buffet dinner had been set up in the midsection of the center deck.
What must be hundreds of people murmured and milled through the scene, dreamlike in the dusk. Once her eyes adjusted, Nina said hello to a number of them; Judge Milne, who was rumored to be considering retirement, Bill Galway, the new mayor of South Lake Tahoe, and a few former clients. She stayed with the group where the judge was holding forth, and Paul wandered off. Seven o'clock came and went, and the waiters made sure no glass ever emptied, but Mike Markov didn't come and the boat sat at the dock as the lake and sky flickered with the fire of sunset.
By the time the guest of honor finally appeared, everyone, including Nina, had had too much to drink. A lookout gave an advance warning, and a hush fell over the boat.
Nina saw him come aboard. Looking like a man with a lot on his mind, he walked right into Lindy's waiting arms. He was stocky with dark skin, about the same height as Lindy. He embraced her quickly, revealing muscular forearms. "I'm sorry I'm so late," he said. "I was afraid the boat would be long gone." He looked around, puzzled. "Where is everybody?" he asked.
"Surprise!" the crowd shouted. The waiters popped another round of champagne. People poured out of the woodwork to pat him on the back.
For a moment, shock poised over his features like the shadow of Lizzie Borden's ax. Nina had time to think, God, he's having a heart attack. . . .
He shuddered. In that first second he looked only at Lindy, suppressing some unreadable emotion. Then, like magic, as he turned to his guests a cloak of good humor dropped into place. He began to stroll through the crowd accepting genuinely warm congratulations, shaking hands as he greeted people.
"My God, Mikey. Fifty-five. Whoever thought we'd get there?"
"You look damn good for such an old fella!" This said by a bald man leaning heavily on a walker, who had to be teetering toward ninety.
"Great excuse to have a helluva good time, eh, Mike? Like old times."
Lindy trailed behind for a bit, then caught up with him, taking her place by his side. Nina stayed behind as hands thumped him on the back and good wishes floated on the air.
The engine started up. The paddle wheel at the stern began to churn up water, and a mournful, low blast from the horn cut through the sound of revelry, of wind, of evening birds and insects chirping away on land.
Just as the paddle started up and the big boat began to move smoothly away from the dock, Nina saw the final guest arrive.
The young woman came onboard quietly. In her midtwenties, with black hair so long it hung almost to the hem of her dress, the girl wore strappy sandals that crept up her calves like trained ivy. Nina thought someone should say hello and show her the way to the bar. She started toward her, but after a quick glance around, the girl dropped her coat on a chair in the corner, collected champagne from a passing tray, and downed the first half of her drink, edging over to blend into a group of people standing by the door who apparently knew her. "Rachel, honey. Somehow we didn't expect to see you here tonight," a snickering, booze-laden voice called out to her.
Nina wandered off to find Paul, who was watching the great wheel make its waterfall at the back of the boat.
The enclosed main deck, a huge, dark space alive with undulant bodies, still pitched with music from a live band. Far from deflating once the honored guest had eaten his cake and endured a shower of fantastic presents, the party was heating up. Nina dragged Paul to the dance floor, where they danced and danced some more. When a moment of clearheadedness intruded on her whirling brain, she moved outside to get a breath of fresh air, losing Paul somewhere along the way.
At the front of the boat next to the staircase, she leaned unsteadily against the wall of the cabin. They had reached Emerald Bay and the boat was circling Fannette Island, the rocky islet at its center.
In the shadow of the western mountains the water was indigo streaked with green, like shot silk. Fannette rose in solitary splendor out of the bay into a tree-studded granite hill. At the top, the ruin of a rich woman's teahouse presided over the whole sweep of bay.
Nina had always wanted to visit the tiny island. The stone ruin at the top looked inviting under the fading tangerine glow of the sky. She imagined what the teahouse must have been like back in the twenties, a rustic table and chairs for furniture, candlelight, a roaring fire; and Mrs. Knight, coercing friends from the city into the steep climb, long dresses hiked up, waiters with trays and tea sets leading the way.
Someone on the deck above spilled a drink and laughed, then complained about the chill. Whoever was up there went back inside, and the night fell into the shushing of the paddle wheel and the drone of the boat's motor. Nina closed her eyes and sank into a woozy meditation on the high life, and what to do with Paul after the party. Questions swam through her mind as the night's cool air, balmy and soothing, wrapped itself around her.
The door opened and two people stepped out. They didn't see her tucked away beside the stairway. She didn't feel like starting a conversation, so she said nothing. She would be leaving in just a sec, just as soon as she adjusted her shoe around the new blister forming on her heel.
"I thought you were going to wait for me at the marina," a man said quietly. "We would have been back in another hour."
"I just couldn't wait." The voice was a young woman's, and it sounded a little defiant.
"Did you know about this crazy surprise thing?"
"No," said the girl. "Have you told her yet?"
"With all our friends around?"
"Honey, how can I? I thought we'd be out here with strangers."
"Liar!" the girl said, sounding near tears.
"I will after this is over, later tonight," murmured the man. "I promise I will." The voices stopped. Nina started to rise, then heard whispers. They were embracing, kissing. Oh, great.
Now feeling the cold herself, she waited, hoping they would pack it in soon. Then she heard a cry, and the violent crash of a glass breaking close by them.
Someone new had entered the scene.
"Oh, no. Mike. Oh, my God, no." Nina immediately recognized Lindy Markov's voice. "What is this?"
Oh, no, was right. Nina stayed out of sight behind the stairs, stuck like a fox with its leg in a trap.
"Lindy, listen," Mike said.
The first woman's voice, younger and more high-pitched than Lindy's, interrupted. "Tell her, Mike."
"Rachel?" said Lindy, in a quavering voice.
Nina peered around the corner. No one was looking her way. Markov stood next to the dark-haired girl Nina had noticed arriving late. Lindy stood about four feet away, facing him, her hand over her mouth.
"Oh, Mike. She's got to be thirty years younger than you are," Lindy Markov said.
"Mike and I are in love. Aren't we, Mike?" The girl moved to take his hand but Markov pushed her away.
"Be quiet, Rachel. This isn't the place. . . ."
"We're getting married! You're out, Lindy. We don't want to hurt you. . . ."
"Oh, shit," said Mike. "Shit."
Nina, who for all the attention they were paying to her might as well have been invisible, silently agreed with him.
"Marry you?" Lindy said, her voice shaking. Nina didn't think she had ever heard such fury contained in two words.
"That's right," said Rachel.
"What kind of crap is this? Mike? What's she talking about?"
In a high, triumphant voice, Rachel said, "Look at this. See? A ring! That's right. A big fat diamond. He never gave you a diamond, did he?"
"Get out of here before we both kick you from here to kingdom come," Lindy replied, her voice wobbling.
There was silence. "Lindy, I've tried to tell you," Mike said finally. "You just won't listen. It's over between us."
"Mike, tell her to leave so we can talk," said Lindy.
"I'm not going anywhere!"
"Calm down now, Rachel," Mike said, sounding remarkably composed, Nina thought. "Now, look at me, Lindy," Mike said. "I'm fifty-five years old tonight and I feel every minute of it. But I have a right to choose my own happiness. I didn't plan this. I'm sorry it had to happen this way . . . but maybe it's for the best."
"Five minutes alone with you, Mike. That's my right."
"We don't expect you to understand," said Rachel.
"Who are you to talk to me like this! Mike loves me!"
"Oh, now she's playing that game, where she can't see the nose on her face," Rachel continued, lifting her words over Lindy's. "This is real life, Lindy. Pay attention for once."
"Shut up!" Did only Nina notice the menace in Lindy's voice?
"You had twenty years! Five more minutes won't change anything. Mike, come on. Tell her."
But Mike apparently could think of nothing to add.
"I said shut up!" Lindy rushed toward the girl, knocking her off balance against the railing. The girl fell backward. Nina and Mike both winced at the sound of her cry, then the splash as she hit the lake.
"Lindy!" Mike said. "Jesus Christ!"
Nina searched for a float to throw to the girl. She found one, but a rope was snagged around it. She fumbled to get it loose, her fingers working clumsily at a knot.
Lindy and Mike stood by the railing, their backs to Nina, too deeply engulfed in their own private hell to care what she did. Mike leaned over the side, peering into the darkness. "Rachel can't swim!" he yelled.
"Good!" Lindy said.
"Look what you've gone and done now, Lindy! My God, you just don't think! Now, listen. You keep an eye on her. I need to get help." But before he left, he hurried back and forth along the railing calling to Rachel, reassuring her.
"What I've done?" Lindy said, standing close behind him. Nina recognized that she was beyond reason, out of control. "Look at what I've done?"
The lifesaver suddenly fell into Nina's hands.
"Mike!" Nina said, preparing to toss it the few feet between them. He knew where Rachel might be. She didn't.
Mike turned to face her, putting his arms out to catch.
And Lindy, catching him completely off guard, bent down and took his legs in her hands, heaved mightily and tipped him neatly overboard. "Go get her, then!" she yelled, and the explosion of maledictions that followed was swallowed up by the sound of a second splash.