Annie "Halsey" Hall could get used to this—sitting around the pool in her backyard in Southern California, savoring the latest wine flights with the ladies of the Rose Avenue Wine Club: her best friend Sally, frozen yogurt shop owner Aimee, widow Peggy, and their newest member, journalist Mary Anne. Even Bardot, Halsey’s yellow lab, is in attendance, eyeing the pool as if contemplating a dive.
But the peaceful pleasure of the afternoon is soon shattered by the boom of a small plane crash at nearby Santa Monica Airport. Sometime later, a sour-faced detective shows up, holding a package of illegal drugs found on the plane—with Sally's address on it! Being suspected of drug smuggling is bad enough, but when a young mechanic who works at the airport is found murdered, the club springs into action. To get their investigation off the ground, they're going to have to wing it, but they're determined to unmask a killer . . .
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"I hope that wasn't a plane I heard crashing at the airport," Sally said.
"I heard it too as I went out to water the hibiscus," Aimee agreed, getting teary at the thought.
"Which I'm guessing you did in your baby doll nightie again? You're going to give old Keith across the street a heart attack one of these days." I laughed, knowing I was right.
"We'd have heard something by now if it was serious," Sally concluded. "Cheers!"
Ah, that magic Pavlovian word. At the sound of it, we all hoisted our glasses, looked each other in the eyes and clinked. The Rose Avenue Wine Club had begun.
We were imbibing at my house today. It was an uncharacteristically hot Thursday in June that demanded to be experienced al fresco around my pool. All the usual neighborhood suspects were in attendance. There was the aforementioned Sally, a statuesque African American woman with the long, elegant hands of a painter and the mouth, at times, of a truck driver. She is my closest Rose Avenue friend. Next up Aimee, our budding young entrepreneur and owner of the Chill Out frozen yogurt shop. Her Bambi eyes absorb the world and the people around her like a desert flower in the rain. Despite her cold workplace, she is far from being sangfroid. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, jeans, hair and just about every fiber of her being. Which is what makes her so endearing.
Peggy is pretty much her polar opposite: widowed, in her late eighties but strong-willed and quick-witted. In another century, I'm pretty sure if you walked past her house she'd be eyeing you from a porch rocking chair, clutching a shotgun resting across her knees. But she's also the great matriarch of numerous grandbabies, so a hug from her is better than hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold day. Or a fine Napa Cabernet. Wait, maybe I've gone too far.
We were also honored to welcome Mary Ann Wallis to the fermented coterie. She's been a longtime neighbor but a new convert to the club. This may have to do with her decision to cut back on her journalist duties at the Los Angeles Times and stop to smell the rosés. I'd heard she'd been a powerhouse when she worked the beat, which is an even greater phenomenon, given that she's about five-foot-one and couldn't weigh more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. She's living proof the pen is mightier than the sword.
"I'm so used to the planes now that I only hear them if something sounds off: a sputtering engine or complete silence after takeoff. That noise was neither, so maybe everything's fine," Mary Ann said as I passed around a plate of heirloom radishes lightly coated in French butter and sea salt.
Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm Halsey, and I moved here from New York City after a divorce that should never have been a marriage. But that was almost three years ago, and I am firmly assimilated into life on Rose Avenue in this small Los Angeles beach community. I'd say that having been falsely suspected of committing two murders, being kidnapped, locked up in jail and left stranded in a fifteen-foot-deep trench counts in the dues-paying department.
I make my living writing code and designing websites, and when I started my company in New York during the tech bubble, I would never have imagined that I'd later be plying my trade from a suburban house on a Chinese elm–lined street with a converted garage for an office. So it goes. In addition to Wine Club, there's a guy; there's always a guy. Oh, don't misunderstand me: Jack is a great one and we actually met because of the true love of my life, my yellow Lab, Bardot. But let's just say my prior unfortunate affaire de coeur has left me a tad commitment phobic.
Just to finish the picture, I'm five-eight, blond, okay highlighted and thirty-six-years-old. Oh, and my given name is Annie Elizabeth Hall, but for obvious reasons, the moniker I answer to is Halsey, a nickname that stuck when I was very young.
My dog is an American Field Lab; she's smaller and much leaner than the English variety and built with a Ferrari engine. She enjoys exercise in all forms, but when she's not saving my life, which she's done several times, her passion is diving. Deep underwater. Like twelve feet down.
When no one had anything further to add about a possible plane crash, we moved on to more pressing business: drinking wine and catching up on Rose Avenue news.
"How's Jimmy settling in?" I asked Sally. "And how are you and Joe adapting to sharing your pastoral love nest with a relative?"
"Ha! No kin of mine is going to interfere with our horizontal hula. Thank God we put in that second story."
"Sally's cousin just moved here from Chicago," Peggy explained to Mary Ann. "He finally got some sense in him and left the freezing winters for a chilled margarita instead. Speaking of which, who needs a refill?"
Peggy was up and pouring the Gibbs Obsidian Block Reserve Cab I'd selected, particularly because of its bacon and black licorice tastes. You could put bacon in an old sneaker stew and I'd ask for seconds.
"We've got to get Jimmy together with Charlie. They already have the love of old planes in common," Sally said, receiving a heavy pour from Peggy.
"Maybe Peggy just wants to keep her new boyfriend to herself. How long has it been since you dated? Are these Castelvetrano olives?" Aimee's food vocabulary was expanding.
"The last man I dated was Vern, and I married him when I was twenty-one. Never you mind how long ago that was."
"I'm guessing it was when the best way to start your car was with a whip." That got me a punch in the arm from Peggy.
"Charlie's flying in today, I'll send him your way, Sally, and you can introduce him to Jimmy."
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Bardot, having been unsuccessful in drawing anyone away from their wine to play with her, had started tossing some of her sinkable toys into the pool.
She's got something up her furry sleeve ...
When you enter my backyard with the pool, you'd think you'd landed in the Laki Lani Resort. It's a small tropical paradise with pink bougainvillea hanging over the water, birds of paradise and all colors of hibiscus lining the perimeter. Tiki masks hang from a covered patio area courtesy of me on a day of particularly enlightened procrastination from work.
I watched Mary Ann dial a number on her cell phone, listen and then disconnect, shaking her head.
"Something wrong?" Sally asked, launching into caregiver mode. (She's a former nurse.)
"It's probably nothing, but my husband, Jeb, left the house early this morning and I haven't heard from him since."
"Did you try calling one of his friends from work?" Peggy was now on the case.
"That's the thing, he just retired. And he was a chemist, so he mostly worked alone. These days he's always got some 'secret project' he's involved in. He's possibly been like this all along and I'm just now noticing it because I'm home more." Mary Ann seemed to be trying to convince herself of this.
Aimee's cell phone came to life with a ringtone playing Pharrell's "Happy."
"Hi honey! It's my boyfriend, Tom; he's working in the ER at St. John's Hospital," she stage-whispered to the group. "What? No! Oh my God, is he going to be okay?"
That got our undivided attention.
"Oh dear Lord, we'll be right over." She hung up and took a breath. "That was a plane crash you heard," Aimee said to Sally. "And Charlie was flying it. They just brought him into the hospital! He's awake and everything, which Tom says is a good sign. Charlie wanted Tom to pass along the news," Aimee assured Peggy.
Bardot, having tried every trick in her playbook to get attention and failing, jumped into the pool with a belly flop that sent an airborne tsunami all over us.
"Halsey? Police," I heard a voice shout from the other side of the driveway gate. "We're coming in."
I watched as our local detective walked in, accompanied by two uniforms.
"Whatever it is this time, Augie, it will have to wait. We need to get to the hospital right away to be with Charlie," I said, noticing he was carrying a package sealed in a clear plastic evidence bag. Augie and I have a history together; I always seem to find trouble and he always attempts to pin it on me. Somehow, it all gets sorted out in the end.
"This package has a Rose Avenue address on it," Augie announced, showing it to the group. "Whose house number is this?"
Peggy shifted his arm to deflect the sun, so we could all get a good look.
"That's mine," Sally said. "What'd I get?" she asked, elated.
"Is crime so slow that you've taken to helping out the post office, Augie?" I couldn't resist.
"This package was removed from the plane Charlie was flying when it crashed on the runway," Augie said, ignoring my quip. I noticed the two cops were now flanking Sally.
Not a good sign.
Augie, dressed in a no-nonsense, dark gray suit, white shirt and maroon tie, always tried to give off that Secret Service, stoic tough-guy look but kept being betrayed by his accessories. Case in point: today his belt looked to be plain black leather, but when his jacket caught the wind, I could see the sides were canvas with embroidered sea marlin hooked and suspended in midair. His boxers also didn't perpetuate the myth. I'll explain. Augie's wardrobe has not quite caught up with his middle-aged belly, so his shirts often fan out between buttons. He has no butt and skinny legs, so he must need to hike up the undergarment above his belt to keep it in place. Today, I could make out Calvin Klein printed on the royal-blue-satin waistband.
Bardot, having retrieved her last toy from the pool's bottom, had come up for air. When she saw Augie, someone she inexplicably adores, she raced out of the pool and ran toward him. She then remembered she needed to shake off the extra water and drenched his trousers.
There's going to be an extra treat in your bowl tonight, honey.
"Somebody get me a towel," Augie commanded. "As I was saying, this package was recovered from a large ice chest that was onboard, containing frozen fish. We opened it and found that it had a number of prescription drugs inside that appear to have originated in Mexico."
"I didn't order any medications from Mexico." Sally shook her head in disbelief. "Although I can see why people do; the prices here are getting ridiculous. Do you know how much my thyroid pills are? Thankfully, I'm on Joe's health plan from the university, which is excellent."
"I didn't know you had a thyroid problem. I wonder if I should get mine checked," Aimee mused.
"I heard eating asparagus was good for that," Mary Ann chimed in.
"I wasn't finished," Augie yelled.
We stared at him like he'd sprouted horns. Even Bardot was taken aback and chose to watch the proceedings from a safe distance on a chaise lounge.
"When we examined one of the fish, we discovered heroin had been hidden inside it. A quick look at a few more fish revealed the same thing. We counted two dozen such 'heroin packages' total in the ice chest."
"What kind of fish were they?" I asked out of pure curiosity.
"It doesn't matter," Augie snapped at me. "So, Sally, I have no choice but to take you in for questioning."
"What?" Peggy shouted.
"We've all got to get to the ER. Tom says Charlie is awake and talking. He'll explain everything." Aimee held up her phone to Augie to somehow indicate proof of Tom's claim.
"Have you already talked to Charlie?" I asked Augie.
"No, he was in the ambulance when we arrived at the airport."
"Don't you think you should?" I could see his wheels turning in his head.
"All right, we'll go to the hospital. But you need to ride in the car with us, so I can keep an eye on you," Augie said, nodding at the cops to escort Sally.
"I knew it." We all looked at Sally and waited for her to say what it was.
"Knew what?" we asked in unison.
"With Charlie's accident, Jeb gone missing and my address on this package. The Curse of Rose Avenue is back!"
"Well, that's a relief. I was afraid it was something bad." Everyone looked at me, but no one was laughing.
* * *
As ERs go, the one at St. John's Hospital isn't so intimidating, although I wouldn't want to be there after ten p.m. on July 4. There was a separate entrance for ambulance deliveries, so we were only subject to the walking wounded. Today's assortment included a schoolgirl who'd clearly taken a face-plant when her cleats got caught during soccer practice. Her mom looked concerned, while the girl looked bored and unable to get Wi-Fi. In another area of the room, a family of about twelve had gathered, and it took me a moment to identify the patient. I narrowed it down to the oldest man in the group with the walker and labored breathing. This was a group that clearly ate away their worries; everyone was munching on something. A brother and sister had found a cart vendor that sold fresh fruit assortments and were digging into large clamshell servings. Foot-long subs were being passed around and inspected and smelled before being accepted by a family member. The only one not consuming was the old woman, who had to be ninety. Instead, she was playing a game on her iPad.
The woman at the front desk was being adamant about not letting the seven of us back to where Charlie was being treated. We settled for sending Peggy in first, while we hatched a plan for us to sneak in. Augie went with Peggy, and the cops continued to watch Sally. All that served to do was clean out a couple of guys who were seated in the waiting area and decided their boo-boos weren't bad enough to risk police attention. Their raw knuckles and swollen faces told enough of the story.
"I have no chance of getting in there with Beavis and Butt-Head sticking to me like glue," Sally whispered to us just out of the cops' earshot. "You'll have to go in and report back what you saw."
"I don't need to go in either, I'm going to step outside and try Jeb again." Mary Ann headed for the door.
"There's Tom," Aimee said. "I'm going to walk in with him."
That left me, and because I didn't trust Augie to ask all the right questions, I wasn't about to miss a chance to talk to Charlie. I looked around the room hoping for inspiration. Beverly Baumgartner, RN, aka Nurse Ratched, at the desk, seemed to read my thoughts and was keeping a close eye on me.
You get more bees with honey, I heard my mom's voice say in my head.
"I'm going to get a water. You want anything?" I asked Sally loud enough for everyone to hear. She shook her head, looking dejected. That was all the impetus I needed to make my way to the gift shop.
When I returned, I sat back down and waited patiently. Sally looked at me, expecting more.
A few moments later, a delivery boy walked in with a half-dozen beautifully wrapped red roses. When he announced the name "Nurse Baumgartner" off the card, Nurse Ratched grew excited and signaled to him. That was my cue; I quietly slipped into the treatment area.
I found Peggy, Augie and Aimee standing outside one of the rooms. The curtain was drawn.
"He's getting x-rayed," Aimee explained.
I nodded. "How's he doing?"
"He's pretty banged up, but he's aware of everything going on and he's the same flirty Charlie that I've come to know and love. I'd be surprised if the nurses didn't file a class action suit." Peggy was using the light tone to steel her courage.
"You talk to him yet?" I asked Augie.
He shook his head. With every odd moan or sudden flurry of activity around us, he seemed to close more into himself. I started to suspect Augie wasn't a fan of sick people.
Good to know.
When they'd finally taken all the photos, blood samples, vitals and scans, we were allowed in to see Charlie.
"You always did know how to make an entrance," Peggy said, trying to tame some of his gray Irish curls. They'd first met, Sally once told me, when Peggy and her late husband, Vern, were newly married and enjoyed hosting poker night once a week with the guys from his job. That was short-lived, however, as Peggy would sit in and clean them out.
"Hey handsome, you up for telling us what happened?" I asked, noticing that Augie had his eyes firmly fixed on his shoes, I'm guessing to avoid seeing the IV needle in Charlie's arm.
Needles. Augie's Achilles' heel ...
"I landed, same as always, it's a clear, picture-perfect day so no problems whatsoever. But then, once I hit the tarmac, I felt the plane's wheels run over something and I skidded. I tried to correct for it but lost control and crashed into the hangar. Thankfully, the plane had slowed considerably by then. It could have been a lot worse, but this one's not getting away that easily." He gave Peggy a warm smile.
Peggy, in return, spooned some ice chips into his dry mouth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Name of the Rosé"
Copyright © 2018 Christine E. Blum.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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