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-town’s 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. Patrick’s 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 debtor’s 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, who’d 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 artisan’s work in the United States, I’d have to fly 3,000 miles to L.A.)
“Are you coming?” Matt called, holding the heavy door open beneath Fen’s arched doorway.
I hustled my dawdling butt through the boutique’s 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 that’s 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 suit’s breast pocket. His loafers were polished into glossy leather mirrors; and, in a bold statement of I’m here, I’m queer, get over it, his purple socks matched his shirt.
Roman attributed his love of food to his family’s 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 family’s kitchen was the one who’d effectively raised him. As he got older, Roman accompanied his parents on their travels, and by his sixteenth birthday, he’d 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 couldn’t 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 city’s most talked-about chefs.
I’d first met the man last fall, during a coffee-tasting party at the Beekman Hotel, then again during my investigation of Chef Tommy Keitel’s 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 he’d been friends with Breanne Summour for years. As I understood the story, she’d been the very first editor to give Roman a restaurant review column in a national magazine. He’d 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 Matt’s apricot Polo shirt, or more precisely the snug-fitting sleeve above his bulging biceps. “I’m going to speak with Roman.”
“Fine. I’m 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. How’ve 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? It’s up the street.”
“No, Roman. I’m here on purpose to… help out Breanne today.”
Roman’s dark eyes brightened. “Do tell?”
“Matt’s going to find her and explain it all.” I pointed at the departing back of my ex-husband. Roman’s gaze followed the man’s 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 I’ve got to hear.”
Roman was not unfamiliar with the history of my sleuthing, especially the cases I’d 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. I’d talk to Breanne after Matt came back.
“Certainly,” he said. “I don’t envy the job ahead of you. Breanne makes enemies on a daily basis.”
“That’s what Matt’s mother said.”
“Are you sure she didn’t pull that trigger last night?”
Just then, I noticed Matt already striding back to the boutique’s lobby. He was rubbing his forehead, his features displaying a look of exasperation.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as he approached the couch.
“Breanne won’t 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 it’s terrible luck for the groom to see the bride in her gown before the wedding day.”
“It is,” Roman said flatly.
“It’s a long-standing superstition,” I agreed.
Matt frowned and met my eyes. “It wasn’t with you.”
Oh, for pity’s sake. “I didn’t have a wedding gown, just a white sundress. Don’t 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 Quinn’s support of his theory that she could be in danger.
I could tell by Matt’s 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 don’t see what I can do. The poor woman’s been in a state for days. Bride’s nerves.” He shrugged.
“Just talk to her? In the interest of premarital peace? Matt’s not going to give in on this. And he’s not going away until she does give in. Try telling her that.”
Roman sighed. “All right, I’ll 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?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out. If you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course!” The woman instantly backed off.
It’s a doggone shame, I thought, picking up Roman’s trail again, how well naked condescension works in some corners of this city…
The fitting rooms weren’t far from the lobby. The corridor opened up into a spacious area, including the largest three-way mirror I’d 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. It’s sweet that he wants Clare to look out for you. Why don’t you let her?”
“Sweet? Ha! Is that what you call it?” Breanne replied in tones of cultured acid. “Well, I don’t think so. And I don’t buy this ‘danger’ garbage. It sounds to me like Matt doesn’t trust me, which is rich, given his reputation. How do I know he isn’t 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. That’s insulting. I’ve always thought of myself as a Jack Russell terrier.
“Listen, honey-” (Roman again.) “Weren’t you the one who kicked him out of your apartment for the week?”
“For his own comfort! I’m having the bedroom redone as part of an upcoming Trend design feature. The place is a complete mess.”
“And you’re having a few little things ‘done’ this week on yourself as well, right?”
“Well… that’s true, too. The treatments do leave me rather puffy in the mornings.”
“Translation: the man loves your sausage, but you’d rather he not see how it’s made.”
“It’s 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 doesn’t have to pretend, honey. She’s 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. I’ll bet she’s doing everything she can to seduce him back into her bed.”
“I don’t think that’s true at all. But if you think it is, then why not make use of the situation.”
“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 you’re the one who’s going to spend time with her.”
“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 wasn’t 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, I’d 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. I’m going.” Matt’s puppy-dog-worried eyes met mine.
“It’ll be fine,” I told him. Then I gritted my teeth and added, “I’ll 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 boutique’s 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 store’s 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 man’s 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 Breanne’s.
As the blood-chilling wail echoed off the House of Fen’s vaulted ceiling, I raced for its fitting rooms.