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ELEVEN

I climbed out of the yellow taxi and paused, needing to get my emotional bearings as much as my geographical ones.

The low buildings and narrow streets of the Village were a sharp contrast to the skyscrapers around me now. Mid-towns concrete sidewalks were huge, the crowds dense and loud, the traffic a perpetual snarl of taxis, buses, limos, trucks, and luxury cars.

People were in a much bigger hurry in this part of the city and generally dressed more formally. North of St. Patricks Cathedral (where we were now) the Avenue also boasted some of the highest temples of haute couture: Gucci, Prada, Bulgari, and Tiffany.

Even though my desire to stay out of debtors prison restricted me to the less exclusive stores on these rarified blocks (i.e., Esprit, Banana Republic, the Gap), I never failed to appreciate the restoration jobs some of the more exclusive establishments had done on the older structures that housed them. Just across the avenue, for instance, was Cartier, which sold its million-dollar diamond chokers out of a converted neo-Italian brownstone, circa 1905. It sat next to a landmark turn-of-the-century town house with a stunning white marble facade, originally erected for the family of George Vanderbilt and now occupied by Italian designer Versace, whod spent a small fortune to restore it.

Even Henri Bendel was worth a stop now that the exclusive store had moved into the dignified old Coty Building. During that multimillion-dollar restoration, a priceless discovery was made in the upper story windows: more than two hundred panels of molded glass that formed a translucent tangle of stems and flowers. An architectural historian identified the work as that of Ren'e Lalique, the legendary French master of glass and jewelry design. (To view the only other example of this artisans work in the United States, Id have to fly 3,000 miles to L.A.)

Are you coming? Matt called, holding the heavy door open beneath Fens arched doorway.

Sorry!

I hustled my dawdling butt through the boutiques entrance. Matt guided me past a strapping African American security guard and across the high-ceilinged showroom. The floor was pale-ocher marble, the walls glossy white. The display cases were beveled glass with shelves dramatically lit to look like liquid gold. Hand-tooled bags, $900 shoes, gorgeous leather belts, and silk scarves were displayed with the care of rare museum artifacts.

I respected fashion design. It was as admirable an art as any other. But my own shopping excursions were usually loud, messy hunts through the jam-packed racks of crowded outlet stores. Maybe thats why the interiors of these quiet, exclusive boutiques gave made the willies-or maybe it was just my Catholic upbringing. (Put me in a large room with a vaulted ceiling, earnest whispering, and rare Italian marble, and I started looking around for the altar so I could genuflect.)

Fighting the urge to bend a knee, I scanned the vast first floor and spotted a familiar form-a rather hefty one. Food writer Roman Brio was sitting on a white leather couch, his large head bent over the latest issue of Gourmet.

In his late thirties, Roman was basically an overgrown imp with dark eyes and apple cheeks in a blanched-almond complexion. His luminous, penetrating gaze in a baby face reminded me of a young Orson Welles; and, despite his girth (which reminded me of the later Orson), Roman was almost always stylishly dressed. Today he wore a finely tailored off-white suit with a loose, open-collared linen shirt of peacock purple and a matching kerchief stuffed in the suits breast pocket. His loafers were polished into glossy leather mirrors; and, in a bold statement of Im here, Im queer, get over it, his purple socks matched his shirt.

Roman attributed his love of food to his familys live-in French cook. Sure, he was the youngest son in a prominent Boston tribe, but the kind and loving woman who looked after him in the familys kitchen was the one whod effectively raised him. As he got older, Roman accompanied his parents on their travels, and by his sixteenth birthday, hed sampled almost every major cuisine in the world.

Unfortunately for Roman, his exalted family of judges, physicians, and scientists had been appalled by his desire to make a career in restaurant work. They pressured him through four years of premed before he ditched it all and moved to New York City.

Cut off from their financial support, he couldnt afford culinary school, so he took jobs waiting tables in fine restaurants, befriended the chefs and sommeliers, and began to write chatty, flamboyant pieces on food and dining under the name Brio (a pen name made legal) for the Village Voice. Before long, glossy magazines like New York Scene and Food & Wine were publishing his work, and he was cowriting cook-books and memoirs with some of the citys most talked-about chefs.

Id first met the man last fall, during a coffee-tasting party at the Beekman Hotel, then again during my investigation of Chef Tommy Keitels death. (Roman knew New York s foodie scene better than the back of his chubby hand, so he was a valuable informant, to say the least.)

It was a stroke of luck seeing him here, since hed been friends with Breanne Summour for years. As I understood the story, shed been the very first editor to give Roman a restaurant review column in a national magazine. Hed always been grateful to her for that. And their friendship had grown over the years, going beyond the professional. The way he and Breanne spoke to each other and often acted was more like brother and sister than professional colleagues.

I tugged Matts apricot Polo shirt, or more precisely the snug-fitting sleeve above his bulging biceps. Im going to speak with Roman.

Fine. Im going into the fitting room area to find Breanne, explain the situation.

We parted, and I headed over to the white leather couch.

Hello there, Roman. Howve you been?

The food writer glanced up from his magazine. Why, Clare Cosi! Hello there, yourself. He took in my worn jeans, scuffed boots, and long-sleeved cotton jersey. Were you looking for the Gap, sweetie? Its up the street.

No, Roman. Im here on purpose to help out Breanne today.

Romans dark eyes brightened. Do tell?

Matts going to find her and explain it all. I pointed at the departing back of my ex-husband. Romans gaze followed the mans posterior with nearly as much appreciation as Sue Ellen Bass had the night before. Then he shut his magazine and patted the empty seat next to him on the couch.

Sit down, Clare. This Ive got to hear.

Roman was not unfamiliar with the history of my sleuthing, especially the cases Id solved in the Hamptons and at the Beekman, and I knew I could trust him. I told him the basics of the situation and asked him to keep my mission to himself for now. Id talk to Breanne after Matt came back.

Certainly, he said. I dont envy the job ahead of you. Breanne makes enemies on a daily basis.

Thats what Matts mother said.

Are you sure she didnt pull that trigger last night?

Almost positive.

Just then, I noticed Matt already striding back to the boutiques lobby. He was rubbing his forehead, his features displaying a look of exasperation.

Whats wrong? I asked as he approached the couch.

Breanne wont let me into her fitting room. I told her it was important, but she barred the door. Matt shook his head. She just kept shouting that its terrible luck for the groom to see the bride in her gown before the wedding day.

It is, Roman said flatly.

Its a long-standing superstition, I agreed.

Matt frowned and met my eyes. It wasnt with you.

Oh, for pitys sake. I didnt have a wedding gown, just a white sundress. Dont you remember? We were married at City Hall.

With a male grunt of exasperation, Matt whipped out his cell phone and called Bree. I could hear her ringtone jingling somewhere in the back. Tensely pacing the ocher marble, Matt spilled everything to Breanne about the shooting the night before, about his worries, about Detective Mike Quinns support of his theory that she could be in danger.

I could tell by Matts end of the conversation that Breanne was not amused, especially when she heard about the stripper at the surprise bachelor party.

Calm down, honey, Matt cooed into the phone. Yes, I know what we discussed, but it was a surprise bachelor party

Roman glanced at me. A look-alike stripper? His impish eyes danced. Soooo tacky.

I leaned toward Roman, lowered my voice. Listen, would you mind going back there and reasoning with her?

Sorry, Clare. I dont see what I can do. The poor womans been in a state for days. Brides nerves. He shrugged.

Just talk to her? In the interest of premarital peace? Matts not going to give in on this. And hes not going away until she does give in. Try telling her that.

Roman sighed. All right, Ill give it a shot- He froze. Ooooh, bad choice of words.

Good God, yes.

With a grimace, he headed off. I waited for him to move through one of four archways off the lobby, then I covertly followed.

Once out of the front showroom, the ochre marble gave way to a wide corridor holding more display cases. A thirty-ish, elegantly dressed boutique employee noticed me and asked, with a trenchant scan of my clothes, if I had an appointment.

I replied that I was a close personal friend of Ms. Summour, who was now being fitted.

Oh, of course, the woman said, her censuring tone immediately turning ingratiating. Is there anything Ms. Summour needs?

Thats what Im going to find out. If youll excuse me.

Of course! The woman instantly backed off.

Its a doggone shame, I thought, picking up Romans trail again, how well naked condescension works in some corners of this city

The fitting rooms werent far from the lobby. The corridor opened up into a spacious area, including the largest three-way mirror Id ever seen-it practically took up an entire wall.

There were lots of closed white doors flanking the mirror. Roman had approached one. He announced himself. The door opened for him, and he disappeared inside.

I stepped up to the door, pressing my ear to the thin, lacquered wood.

I spoke with Matteo outside, Roman began. Your groom is very worried about you. Its sweet that he wants Clare to look out for you. Why dont you let her?

Sweet? Ha! Is that what you call it? Breanne replied in tones of cultured acid. Well, I dont think so. And I dont buy this danger garbage. It sounds to me like Matt doesnt trust me, which is rich, given his reputation. How do I know he isnt boffing that little coffee-making ex-wife of his? The one he wants to sic on me for the day like a badly dressed Chihuahua?

Chihuahua? I thought. Thats insulting. Ive always thought of myself as a Jack Russell terrier.

Listen, honey- (Roman again.) Werent you the one who kicked him out of your apartment for the week?

For his own comfort! Im having the bedroom redone as part of an upcoming Trend design feature. The place is a complete mess.

And youre having a few little things done this week on yourself as well, right?

Well thats true, too. The treatments do leave me rather puffy in the mornings.

Translation: the man loves your sausage, but youd rather he not see how its made.

Its not just that. This wedding has a thousand details to be overseen. The last thing I need this week is Clare Cosi pretending to be a sleuth.

She doesnt have to pretend, honey. Shes already solved more than one homicide.

If you ask me, this is simply a ploy to ruin the wedding. That wannabe Bratz doll is not over Matt. Ill bet shes doing everything she can to seduce him back into her bed.

I dont think thats true at all. But if you think it is, then why not make use of the situation.

Excuse me?

What better way to find out how Clare Cosi really feels about her ex-husband than right now? This is your chance to spend a little time with the woman; find out the truth before you tie the proverbial knot with her ex.

Breanne huffed for a moment.

Well? Roman prompted.

Fine. All right. Clare Cosi can investigate this apparent threat to me. But youre the one whos going to spend time with her.

I am?

Yes. I insist. You find out how she really feels about Matteo. Talk her up and get back to me. I can barely stand to be in the same room with that moppet.

The feeling is mutual, I assure you, I thought. But I wasnt all that annoyed. Nothing Bree said was a surprise to me-except the notion of having Roman put up to the task of handling me for the day, which I considered a triumph. If Bree really did have an enemy desperate enough to murder her, Roman probably had a few clues about it.

Inside of ten minutes, the bulky food writer emerged from the fitting room again. By the time he opened the door, Id quickly slipped back to the lobby, looking expectant and clueless as he approached Matt.

Clare can stay, he said flatly. And you must leave.

Okay. Im going. Matts puppy-dog-worried eyes met mine.

Itll be fine, I told him. Then I gritted my teeth and added, Ill watch out for her. I promise.

Matt nodded. See you later, Clare. Call if you need me, okay?

Believe me. I will.

As I watched Matt stride through the boutiques front archway, I girded myself for an exceedingly long, excruciatingly boring day-and then my peripheral vision snagged on something. Or rather someone.

A Caucasian man was pacing the stores front windows. He was big, like a heavyweight boxer, but out of shape, like some of those ex-jocks and trainers my dad used to drink with-the ones who made illegal bets with insider tips.

In his midfifties at least, the mans buzz-cut hair was the color of bread crust. His prominent nose took a slight left turn as if it had been broken once and set wrong. His cheeks were florid, like hed had one too many at lunch, yet his eyes appeared switchblade sharp as they continually peered into the showroom window.

On any given sunny day, Fifth Avenue s sidewalks were jammed with all sorts of people. Today was no different. And while there was nothing unusual about a passerby gawking at something through a store window, this guy just looked wrong, as Mike might say.

His brown off-the-rack suit was snug around the belly and wincing against large shoulders. His tie was too wide and loud to be fashionable. With his military-short haircut and worn, unpolished shoes, he certainly didnt strike me as your typical customer for the steeply priced froufrou in the House of Fen.

I watched the guy for a full minute, lumbering back and forth, glancing into the exclusive boutique, then into the street, and back into the store again.

Anticipating a mug shot book, I took a step closer to the window. I wanted to see his eye color, note any scars, birth-marks, or other telling characteristics besides the ruddy cheeks and off-track nose.

But the man made me before I took a second step. He and I locked eyes for a frozen moment. His eye twitched as he looked me up and down, then he turned away, showing me his back.

I started moving toward the front door, prepared to confront him, ask if he was waiting for someone (and who that someone might be), when I heard a woman scream-and the voice sounded like Breannes.

Noooooooo!

As the blood-chilling wail echoed off the House of Fens vaulted ceiling, I raced for its fitting rooms.


| Espresso Shot | TWELVE







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