Helen blinked rapidly as she stepped out of her townhouse, her eyes opening and closing like the shutter of a camera set on rapid-fire mode. What the hell was going on across the street? Her usually quiet block was inundated with hordes of peopleteenage girls mostly, and a few women who looked old enough to be their mothers. They were standing four to five abreast in a line that snaked up along 30th Street and around the corner to 2nd Avenue.
She flashed on the movies playing at the multiplex. A few action flicks, an apocalyptic end-of-the-world film and a romantic comedy. No blockbusters that warranted this type of a crowd, dressed, as they were in what appeared to be neo-gothic splendor gone berserk.
Nearly every one of the young women in the line was covered in black from head to toe. Each seemed to be sporting what Helen imagined must be the latest look in bondage. From laced-up corsets with ribbon trim, low-cut ruffled blouses with sheer lace over heaving breasts, layered skirts and tutus, plus fishnet tights, complete with strategic tears and thigh-high platform boots, they had the look down perfectly. All of it set off with over-the-top dramatic black eye makeup, dark red lips and a blood-red flower somewhere on the outfit. Detective that she was, Helen's keen instinctsokay it was just pure nosiness-prompted her to cross the street to get a better look. Walking through the crowd she caught snatches of their conversations.
"The last one was the best ever!"
"I know. Couldn't you just die? Annika is such a great writer."
"Do you think she'll write a fourth?"
"OMG, I hope so, as long as Jean Pierre is in it. He's soooooo hot."
Annika? Annika. The name swirled around through the high-pitched din like an out-of-control tornado barreling through Iowa and plopped itself down right in the middle of Helen's brain sending it spinning off to another place and time.
Helen shuddered involuntarily, an icy chill creeping down her spine. "Annika Stone," she whispered to herself, her head snapping up as she looked around warily, sniffing the air like an antelope sensing the presence of a lion. Annika, here? My God, Helen shuddered again. She must be signing copies of her newest book at Book World around the corner.
How many years had it been since Helen had seen her? At least ten, she thought, her eyes refocusing on the crowd and her lip curling into an involuntary sneer.
Annika Stone was a big time, big deal writer, and from what Helen had heard, an even bigger big time bitch than she'd been all those years ago. Of course, then she'd still been Annette Strabenski, a self-assured junior editor at a major publishing house who was determined to make it as a writer. Well, Helen had to hand it to her; she certainly had gotten what she wanted. Helen's lip curled further nearly touching her nose. She could only imagine how many ruined careers Annika had left in her wake.
Not since J.K. Rowling had an author become so popular or written books that had sold so well. Forget those poor souls who'd penned those other vampire novels and TV dramas, Annika had done them all one better. She'd created the Vampires de Paris series, featuring the La Roche Brothers, a modern-day trio of hotter-than-hot, bi-sexual, fashion designer vamps who ruled the French couture worldand the young women and men who populated itwith as much of a killer instinct for fashion as for blood.
To say that the novels had spawned a small empire would be like saying that Louis XIV had lived in a shack. There were the moviesone out and one on the waythe DVDs and CDs, and of course, the Vampires de Paris makeup, fragrance, couture, and ready-to-wear collections and accessories, as worn by the young women waiting in line. By Helen's way of thinking, Annika was making a bloody fortune, no pun intended.
Helen wouldn't have minded Annika's success, or disliked her so intently if it hadn't been for how she'd broken Jimmy Scanlon's heart.
Jimmy and Helen had been best friends ever since kindergarten. By the time they'd reached their late twenties, she'd opened her own private investigation agency and Jimmy had already made a name as a successful hotelier. His first venture, a small and private place in Soho, had been constantly filled with high-profile celebrity guests.
Annika, who was still one of their group, had seen an opportunity to cash in on Jimmy's success. She'd convinced him they were true soul mates destined only for each other. When Helen had tried to warn him about her motivesshe'd already pulled the soul mate routine on another friendJimmy had shrugged it off as jealousy on Helen's part. They'd had a huge fight and hadn't spoken for months, not until Annika dropped Jimmy like the proverbial hot potato and had taken off with a film producer she'd met at the hotel's bar.
The whole episode came flooding back in an instant. "My God," Helen sputtered, drawing a few raised eyebrows and nasty stares from the crowd. Annika had come home to roost and there was no way on earth that she was going to miss it.
Helen made her way past Annika's adoring fans and sidled up to Book World's entrance much to the annoyance of those already waiting to enter. Ignoring icy stares and a few elbows to the ribs, she waved at Gus Andreas, the store manager who was manning the door. He opened it a crack and she slipped inside, gaping at the scene before her.
"Hey," he nodded to her as he locked the door and shook his head. "They all want in right now but we're full-up," he explained, turning away from the hostile looks of the people in line.
"You, of course are welcome anytime but don't tell me you're here for the signing with the charming Ms. Stone?" Helen didn't miss the sarcasm in his voice as he jutted his chin in direction of the center aisle, where Annika sat like a queen at court, surrounded by hundreds of loyal subjects, their commoner heads bobbing up and down like spectators at a beheading.
Helen's mouth opened in pure astonishment and she lifted herself up on her toes to peer over Gus's shoulder and get a better look at the young women waiting to approach their favorite writer. Some things really never change, she thought as she watched Annika in action.
The area had been transformed into a virtual movie set starring Annika Stone. Never one for understatement, she was dressed as bizarrely as her fans. Helen was reminded of the 1980's movie, Flash Gordon, and its character Dale Arden and the dress she'd been forced to wearin a drugged stateto her wedding to the evil Ming the Magnificent. Long and flowing, Annika's outfit was fashioned of black lace with a deep, plunging neckline and a high, spider web collar that rose around her head and framed her pulled back, gleaming black hair and overly made up face. The only touch of color was a signature red rose on the bodice. No doubt, it was one of the outfits from the Vampires de Paris couture collection.
She'd had the store construct a raised dais upon which they'd placed an elaborate throne-like chair of gilded metal and black velvet. Helen gave Gus's shoulder a squeeze in consolation at the trouble she imagined he'd gone through to find such a monstrosity and set it up. In front of Annika's throne was a table covered with the same velvet fabric piled high with artfully arranged stacks of her novel on each end. In the center, a blotter held an assortment of long quill pens and antique bottles of blood-red ink.
All this splendor was contained behind a golden silk rope and gilded poles flanked on each side by two of the main characters from the Vampires de Paris movies who stood guard, arms folded over bare chests.
In contrast to the noisy, party atmosphere outside, the area surrounding the author was as quiet as a church. Or, more like a tomb. Helen watched with incredulity as fans approached one by one.
Each entered her presence with head bowed, book clutched to bosom. Nearing the great novelist, they dared to raise their eyes toward her, waiting for a sign to proceed. Annika nodded briefly in acknowledgement and lifted a hand signaling that they might draw closer. There's that queen thing again.
Next, Annika would select one of the quills from the table and bring its feathered tip to her lips in a pose suggesting she was deep in thought creating a meaningful sentiment. Without a word, she would dip the quill's nib in the ink and sign her name with a huge flourish, then hand the pen to her assistant to discard, obviously not having actually thought of anything unique to inscribe.
Occasionally, if the supplicant had groveled appropriately, she would confer a small tight smile as they backed away, head bowed once again.
No "Hello. What's your name?" or "Thank you for buying my book."
"Give me an effing break," Helen whispered in Gus's ear.
"Yeah, she's a real piece of work, isn't she? We've never had a signing quite like this, or an author quite like her."
Helen watched the action on the dais, unable to take her eyes from the scene. Several people were standing behind the author, none of them looking remotely happy about it.
She recognized husband number four, Damian King, an aging Hollywood actor who'd amassed a fortune from producing and staring in a long line of sci-fi thrillers popular in the last decade. He'd also garnered a reputation for pursuing his hot young male co-stars although no one had come forward yet with a tabloid tell all. Helen read about Annika's marriage to Damian last year in one of the fan magazines, the subtext suggesting it was a marriage of convenience for both of them. King looked miserable playing the role of dutiful husband, his face scrunched up like a crumpled potato chips bag discarded in the trash. Helen noticed every few second he glanced toward a younger, very handsome man standing on Annika's other side.
"Who's the face? Helen asked jutting her chin toward the young man who was focused on Annika.
"Jack Masters. As I understand it, he's in line for a starring role in the next film. Ms. Stone insisted it was imperative he be here right by her side. She wanted to try him out in front of a crowd." Gus's voice was deadpan. "Our instructions were to give him anything he required. Although, I don't think she'd be too happy about what he might really want." Gus looked over toward King who was openly staring at the young star.
"I'll bet." Helen shook her head. "Looks like her assistant's having a great time, too."
"That's Megan Norwood. We spoke about fifty times yesterday to make sure everything would be exactly as Ms. Stone wanted it." Gus shook his head. "If I was that girl, I'd have killed her by now."
Helen cut her eyes toward a young woman behind the author. She was the epitome of a body in motion, disposing of the discarded pens and placing fresh quills on the blotter, constantly straightening the stack of books on the table, checking her Blackberry and generally looking like she was about to have a total breakdown.
Another woman stood slightly apart from the others, face expressionless, arms folded tight across her middle. Helen elbowed Gus. "And, who's that?"
He followed her gaze. "Aahh. The agent, Margo Smith."
Helen checked out the woman who in contrast to Annika's assistant was standing stock still watching the author go through her routine, her expression sphinx-like, eyes vacant.
"She hasn't said much since Ms. Stone ripped into her just before we started." Gus lifted his eyebrows with glee. "Man, you should have seen them. Fingers pointing. Hands flying. Books being thrown."
"Are you kidding?" Helen couldn't help grinning at the picture Gus was painting.
"Yeah," Gus hung his head ruefully, "but just about the book throwing part. Ms. Stone was pissed off royally, although she kept her voice low, so I couldn't hear what she was saying."
Maybe they'll go at it again, thought Helen, as she watched the agent's face for some sign of emotion. Nothing. Not even a blink when Annika gestured for her to approach and whispered a few words. Helen didn't miss the malicious smile on her lips or the satisfaction she showed at the agent's obvious distress. I'll bet Margo Smith works hard for her fifteen percent, thought Helen as the woman who'd been gripping table for several moments finally turned away.
"Want to meet the great author?" Gus asked. "I'll let you jump the line."
"I'd love to say hello." Helen smiled. "Although, I wouldn't want you to be attacked by a rampaging hoard of teenage Goths. You mind the crowd. I'll manage on my own." Helen started to move forward. "Ms. Stone and I are very well acquainted. We went to school together right here in the 'hood."
Helen made her way to the front of the dais and waited for Annika to look up before she waved her fingers at her. When she finally noticed Helen, a venomous look flitted across her face, but she recovered quickly and turned on a forced smile.
She waved off the young woman who'd been waiting for her to sign her book and gestured for Helen to come closer. "Well, well. Helen McCorkendale. Still hanging around, I see."
Helen pasted a smile on her face. "Annette, it's so good to see you."
"It's Annika now darling, but you know that don't you? How are you and your friend ... what was his name?"
Helen had to restrain herself from jumping over the table and strangling her on the spot. If she'd actually uttered Jimmy's name, she might have. Helen bit back her anger and answered sweetly. "Oh, he's almost as rich and famous as you are, but no adoring entourage like yours, I'm afraid." She gestured to the four people standing behind the author.
Annika swiveled at Helen's words and caught the end of a meaningful look between her husband and Jack Masters. Helen could see she was not amused. Good.
"Damian," she demanded, "get me some coffee and do it now." Then she glared at Jack who was having difficulty meeting her eyes. She turned back to Helen. "I've got to get back to work now. My fans are waiting," she declared. "Lovely seeing you." She gestured for Helen to leave.
Helen gave a little wave goodbye and made her way back to Gus who'd moved close enough to witness the exchange. He put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "You rock, girl."
They stood there for a beat, basking in the glow of the moment then brought their attention back to the dais where Annika had started signing again.
An adoring fan had just handed her a book and Annika had placed the tip of the feather pen in her mouth. Suddenly, her eyes popped open in wild surprise. She coughed violently and clutched at her throat then tried to rise. Her body moved in erratic twitches. Suddenly she pitched forward, her head knocking over the bottles of ink and coming to rest in the midst of a spreading blood-red pool, her hands now scrabbling for something to hold onto.
The fan at the table stood stock still for about two seconds, eyes rounded 'o's of horror, her mouth gaping wide in surprise. A moment later she began shrieking hysterically at the top of her teenage lungs. "Oh my God, I think she's dead!"
In a ripple effect, panic spread through the crowd. Girls started screaming and sobbing. Even though many of them could not possibly have seen what occurred, they nearly trampled each othersome in a rush to get closer to Annika, others to get out of the store.
Helen and Gus fought their way through the horror-stricken young women and halted in front of the dais. Annika's assistant was finally still, hand clamped over her mouth, stifling a scream, eyes fixed on the prostrate author.
Damian King and Jack Masters were immobilized, as well, staring at Annika as if they were watching a scene in a movie and waiting for the director to yell 'Cut."Margo Smith on the other hand had become as frantic as a whirling dervish. Eyes blazing, she ran forward scrabbling over the back of Annika's chair, grabbing the table and lifting Annika's head from the pool of ink on its surface and exposing a huge red stain on the author's cheek that set the crowd screaming even louder.
In what Helen could only describe as a frenzy of grief, she pulled Annika up from the table by her shoulders and began to shake her back and forth. Annika's head lolled from side to side like a string less marionette, but Margo Smith didn't seem to notice, or care.
Helen started toward the dais, wanting to stop the macabre scene that was unfolding.
The agent, sensing her presence, glared at her and pulled Annika to her chest, whispered in her ear, then let her body fall in a heap. Then she swept her arm across the table, sending books, pens and ink flying to the floor where Annika had finally come to rest.
Helen shuddered. She was close enough to see Annika's eyes. They were blank and lifeless. Annika Stone was dead and, unlike her Vampires de Paris, she wasn't ever coming back to life.
Hours later the Coroner and CSU team finally finished processing the scene. The police had taken statements and let everyone go, including Annika's husband, the wannabe star, her tearful assistant and her now calmer agent.
Lieutenant Alex Krauss, commander of the 13th Precinct detective squad, interviewed Helen. It was a high profile case and the first uniforms on the scene had sent for him immediately. One of them had noticed the whitish residue on Annika's lips and assumed she hadn't died of natural causes.
Helen knew Detective Krauss from several cases she'd worked. With a shake of his head, he took in the scene and turned to her.
"You saw the whole thing." He flipped open his notebook. "So run it by me again."
She did and they talked for a while longer. Finally, he released her. "Okay, I'll let you know if we need you again."
Helen returned home. She was ravenous. "I'm dying for something to eat," she mumbled as she opened her fridge, then gulped at her poor choice of words.
She pulled out a bottle of Amstel Light, some deli mustard and a potato knish. While the knish was heating she sat down at her kitchen table, flipped the cap on the beer and replayed her conversation with the detective.
The Coroner wasn't swearing to it yet, but he was pretty certain that Annika had been poisoned. Cyanide. Quick acting and fatal.
Everyone confirmed that the author hadn't eaten or drunk anything all day. The only things she'd put in her mouth were the tips of those quill pens. And, thanks to Margo Smith and her histrionics, there had been at least a hundred of them scattered around the body. They'd have to test each one. But Helen knew it wouldn't matter. Even if they found the right pen, it would be nearly impossible to prove who'd added it to the pile.
Before leaving the bookstore, Helen had asked some questions of her own. Annika's fans and the actors from the movies all told the same story. Anyone who'd been to an Annika Stone signing knew she always used the quill pens and went through the same routine. Anybody in the store could have slipped one into the bunch. The police were checking each pen for fingerprints but Helen didn't hold out much hope for that either. Whoever had planned this was probably clever enough not to leave any prints behind, or any evidence linking them to the cyanide.
And, let's face it, Helen mused, nearly everyone who'd known Annika could have had some motive for wanting her dead, including herself.
Something was off. She just couldn't put her finger on it yet. Helen couldn't rule out anyone who'd been close to the author.
She retrieved the knish from the toaster oven, dunked it into the mustard and stared off into space. Helen ran through the list of suspects she's compiled; the four people who surrounded Annika in the bookstore. As far as she could see, they all had means and opportunity, not to mention motive. The question was, who had the most to gain from Annika's death?
Knowing Annika, her husband, Damian King probably had signed a pre-nup agreement that would give him very little in the event of her death. That wouldn't be a problem unless he'd run through all of his money, which a lot of Hollywood celebs often did. It seemed to Helen that if he wanted to stay in the closet and was using Annika as his cover, it might be better to keep her alive. The same for Jack Masters, her boy toy on the brink of stardom. Could he have had enough of her overbearing demands? He had to realize the movie might not get made without Annika, even though without might be so much more appealing. As for her assistant, Megan, would she trade in a most likely substantial salary for the unemployment line just for the sheer pleasure of offing her boss? Then there was, Margo Smith, her agent, who would be losing a top client who brought in boatloads of money. Even with Annika's horrific behavior, a few hundred grand a year could make it bearable. Great. You've figured out why everyone would want to keep the money machine going, not stop it dead.
Helen popped the last bit of knish into her mouth an idea suddenly occurred to her; something she remembered reading. She left her plate sitting on the table and went to her study and powered up her computer.
If she was right, she could solve this case today. She typed a name into Google and hit enter.
"Thank you for seeing me." Helen held out a hand to Margo Smith who ignored it. "I know how distraught you are about Annika's death and I was sure you'd want to help in any way you could."
"You made it sound so urgent, how could I refuse you." Her words were laced with sarcasm. "But honestly, I don't know what else I can add to what I've already told the police." She turned and gestured for Helen to follow her into the apartment.
"I understand you were there. So I imagine you could see we were all so distraught to watch Annika pass away right in front of us. No one knows how this could possibly have happened."
Margo's apartment looked just as Helen had imagined it would. Books everywhere. Built in shelves lined the hallway and for a second, Helen had a strange sensation they might all tumble off the shelves at once.
Margo led Helen into a study that also sported overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases along three walls. The forth wall held tall French doors that opened on an enclosed patio.
The agent's desk, set in front of the doors, was covered with more books and manuscripts tagged with sticky notes protruding from their pages. A computer anchored one end and an e-reader, PDA and a Blackberry were balanced on the other. Margo was a working agent and she had the goods to prove it.
Margo cleared her throat and eyed Helen expectantly. "So, what is it you wanted to ask me?" She pointed to a visitor's chair in front of her desk and took the one behind it.
"Annika and I were close childhood friends." Okay, I'm stretching it a bit. "And, as you know I'm a private detective." Helen smiled at the woman across from her. "Given my profession and our deep friendship, I feel obligated to help catch her murderer."
Margo Smith burst out laughing startling Helen into silence. "You've known her since you were kids and you're still a friend? You don't appear to be dumb or naïve." Margo leaned forward, planting her arms on her desk. "Annika had no friends. Just people who were useful to her or not."
"Which were you?" Helen asked, regaining her composure.
"Oh, I was useful, very useful. I got her the deal that launched her career, the one for the Vampires de Paris series, and believe me it wasn't easy."
Margo leaned back in her chair and swiveled toward the garden behind. "Do you know how much editing I had to do on that first manuscript?" Margo shook her head in disbelief. "Annika was a terrible writer."
"But her books fly off the shelves. People are passionate about them. There must be something in them that sparks such fervor."
"Ah, I see the good friend hasn't read any of them." Margo smiled. "I said that Annika was a terrible writer. I didn't say she had bad ideas. To the contrary, she had fabulous ideas.
"Annika could picture the story perfectly and explain it in detail. But she couldn't write it. That's where I came in." Margo had turned back and looked directly at Helen. "And now that she'd become so famous, so rich and so very important, do you know what she was planning to do?"
"She was going to get rid of you." Helen watched as Margo's eyes glinted with surprise.
"That's right. Very good. She was going to fire me. Get a new agent. Did she think for one minute that someone else would do what I'd done for her? Rewrite her every word? Plan her every move. Launch her into the stratosphere of authordom? Stupid cow."
"She told you a few days ago, didn't she?" Helen wondered if Margo would confirm what she suspected. "Then today, she rubbed it in, revealing the name of her new agent. That's what you two were fighting about before the signing, wasn't it?"
Margo's head nodded in assent. "I begged her not to do it. Not to go with some smart-ass upstart who hardly knew the business. But she just laughed at me. Told me I'd served my purpose and that it was time for a change. Time to move on, Margo. Better for both of us." Margo mimicked Annika's voice and gestures.
"So you poisoned her." While Margo had been speaking, Helen had been looking over the books on her desk. A Guide to Poisons had been tucked under a few of the works in progress stacked there. Helen slid it out and opened it to a page with a yellow sticky note. It marked the section on cyanide.
"How did you know it was me, aside from the now obvious?" Margo jutted her chin toward the book in Helen's hand.
"I didn't. Not a first. But when I did a computer search on Annika, there was a recent blurb on Publisher's Info Sheet about her being in talks with the Maxim Abeloff Literary Agency. I put it together with the disagreement you had before the signing today, and ..."
Margo nodded in agreement. "I made her. I couldn't let her leave me. I tried to change her mind but she just laughed at me. Today, in the midst of signing all those books, she called me over and told me how pleased her new agent would be at the sales. There was nothing else I could do. With everyone so focused on Annika, it was easy to slip a poisoned pen onto the table." She smiled. "Poetic isn't it?"
Margo leaned forward and started to slide open the desk's drawer.
Helen reached out her hand. "Margo, please, don't do anything stupid."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you." She laughed as she reached inside and removed a long, feathered quill pen. "I think, I'll have an Annika moment and go out with a flourish. Jail isn't on my agenda." She lifted the quill to her mouth and put the tip inside and clamped her lips around it.
"Don't!" Helen lunged across the desk trying to grab the pen but it was too late.
Margo licked her lips and tossed the pen onto the desk. She stared at Helen for a few moments, then began to shiver and shake just as Annika had. Helen ran around the desk and grabbed the agent, calling her name. Margo looked up at her and started to laugh giddily. "Really, it's for the best," she said, her words becoming garbled now.
Helen felt powerless to help. She grabbed her cell from her purse and punched in 911, frantically asking for help. She watched as Margo's laughing turned into a gasping, ratcheting sound. Finally, the agent convulsed, then collapsed. Helen knew she was gone.
Stunned, she stared at Margo's body. Two people gone in one day. She'd always known that the book business could be hard, but she'd never thought it could be so deadly.
Copyright © 2014 Cathi Stoler.