Excerpt

Appraise Her

Paula Priamos

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Appraise Her,by Paula Priamos. In the following passage, a real estate appraisal expert finds herself on a luxury yacht surrounded by badly behaved titans of industry.

The woman with whom I’d spent most of my morning is the third story on the evening news. She’s behind the black smoke of a big rig explosion shutting down all northbound lanes of the 101 Freeway and a water main break on Sunset Boulevard. She is my new client, an old childhood friend, and she is missing.

Things don’t quite add up.

How does one make it on the local news if gone for only a few short hours? She could’ve run out of gas and found her cell phone had lost its charge or signal for that matter. She could’ve just gone for a drive to clear her head and forgotten about the time.

Elise is not someone people would recognize, a losable face in the crowd, hard to spot in any convenience store surveillance tape, but that doesn’t mean she’s just anyone. She is the daughter of Hollywood royalty, the black and white Rat Pack kind, the reclusive Carson Davis, a legendary actor, eighty-one, three or four Oscars earned and countless nominations. A man who’s never been caught in anything more casual than a golfing polo and trousers out on the green. The rest of the time he’s been photographed either at dinner in a double-breasted suit or an awards event in a tux.

His handsome face fills the screen, upstaging his daughter even now when she is the subject the reporter is speaking about. Up until today when I met with his daughter to appraise some property, I too believed the reports that claimed he’s been spending the last year or so retired in a whitewashed villa off the coast of Spain. Word of mouth and a home in Carson’s name with high stucco walls to keep out paparazzi is all it took for the rumor to realize into truth.

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But I saw with my own eyes.

The hospital bed. The ventilator. The body. The pump and hiss of air being forced into the motionless man’s lungs is with me now, in my head, like the sounds of a large city or a noisy casino a day after you’ve left it. Spain was, at the very least, a lie.

From the family room I hear a pot skid on a burner in the kitchen and I smell the meal my fiancé is preparing the two of us for dinner. Something Italian with sausage, spices and tomatoes. Typically, on Monday nights Hugh gets here after nine and we forgo this part of domestic life. We might go out for coffee at Starbucks or stay in and catch a movie before heading upstairs for sex and sleep. The rest of the work week he stays at his studio apartment in Santa Monica. As a contractor, with a complicated multi-level beach house that he’s working on in Malibu, it only makes sense.

We will be each other’s second marriage. Hugh is a widower. I’m a divorcee’. There’s a difference of loss and failure between us. Even though we’ve been engaged for close to two months, I still can’t bring myself to ask him to move in with me.

The reporter is saying something more about Elise. How a shoe has been found in the driveway of her home, a suede beige kitten heel she’d worn when she showed me around her father’s mansion in Bel Air earlier today. Hardly enough evidence to call it an abduction. Some women choose to drive in their bare feet.

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Yet it was proof enough to determine once she’d realized one shoe was gone why hadn’t she come back for it? I’d complimented her on those two-inch heels, not because I’d wanted a pair for myself. I wanted to make a lasting impression. She might refer wealthy people she knew to me, people who frequently bought and sold property almost like a sport and who always needed an appraiser to help them turn a profit.

Elise and I had been childhood friends, but we’d lost touch with each other as far back as middle school. For a few years, before Carson decided to uproot his family to Malibu, they lived less than three blocks away in a neighborhood in Toluca Lake, an eclectic mix of middle-class families and wealthier ones, not far from the TV and movie studios. Instead of a three-bedroom custom built home like mine, the Davis Family lived in a much bigger spread with a wrought iron fence and swinging ten foot gates.

As kids we’d been fierce competitors on the tetherball courts, playing until the recess bell rang and the teacher threatened us with detention if we didn’t come inside. I still have the calluses just under the surface of my palms. We were each other’s first real challenge and maybe that was why she remembered me after all these years.

As adults we’ve reached out to each other now and then. She was in attendance for my first marriage, showing up briefly at the reception and generously gifting my new husband and me with a weekend stay at a five star resort in Rancho Mirage, just outside of Palm Springs. I send her Christmas and birthday cards and she thanks me through friendly enough emails. We tenuously stay in each other’s lives because there is a tie between us that cannot be broken nor can it be tended to very often.

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Or maybe what she and I share runs deeper and has to do with how well she knows I can keep a secret, letting it become part of me like bone and blood. Maybe asking me to do the appraisal is a way of reminding me of that fact.

When I asked how she’d heard I was an appraiser she said it was through a friend of a friend, brushing it off as if I’d asked her something so trivial she’d never bother answering. And maybe she was right that it didn’t matter. I get calls from real estate agents, loan workers from banks, and homeowners who find me in the yellow pages.

I’m about to head into the kitchen to tell Hugh about my personal connection to the woman who’s just made the news. Hugh will listen intently, then call it a coincidence. I’m expecting to feel slightly deflated. Practical people take the energy out of any conversation.

“Dammit,” I hear Hugh say.

At first, I think he’s burned something, but there are muffled words after. He must be on his cell disputing something with his foreman about not enough sheet rock being delivered or a permit that has not come through.

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Possibly he could’ve lost the connection given the throng of trees that line either side of my property. Sometimes they

block out the sun as well as the nearest cell phone tower which is why I still keep a landline number.

I decide to go outside and get the mail, the way I always

do right before the sun is about to set. The metal box is a few yards from the porch. My small two-bedroom home is located in a quiet part of Laurel Canyon, off the curve of a narrow paved road that turns into gravel and heads deep into thick live oak, shrubs and eucalyptus trees.

If I were to appraise my own home, it would sell for 1.2 million. But I have no intentions of ever moving. Technically I’m in the woods yet not so far away from the city that I can’t hear the traffic, commuters on the boulevard who use this steep cut-off to get from the Valley to West Hollywood.

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In early fall, the air is cooler and the sky gets darker sooner yet it still feels like a shock. From the mailbox I pull out a couple of household bills, a postcard from my mother who refuses to learn about the conveniences of social media and post pictures of her travels online. This one is stamped in Vienna. My mother travels alone, though she doesn’t usually stay that way for the duration of her trip.

She calls her male travel companions she picks up along the way “adventures.” At sixty-five, she reasons, she is too old to be called a slut. The photo on the card is of an empty black gondola bobbing on green water.

She uses my full name Catia on the card because she finds it insulting how everyone lops off the first syllable and simply call me Tia. “Your name is beautifully Greek,” she reminds me. “Like you. This nickname makes you sound like you should be in a bikini somewhere drenched in sun tan oil.” Because of my background as a former handwriting expert, she must assume a picture of herself in front of a landmark would reveal very little.

I’m able to detect much more about her trip by reading her script instead of her smile. But it doesn’t exactly work that way; there’s more to it and besides, I’m really out of practice. I want to be out of practice. That has not been what I do as an occupation for some time. I’m an appraiser now.

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On my way back to the house I spot what looks like the corner of a flyer left under the front door mat. Another house painter looking for work or a teenager advertising yard work service. It wasn’t here when I came home a little over an hour before. I pull out the flyer that is actually a sheet of white copy paper, folded in half. One line is written in black felt tip on the crease.

He’s here early.

***

I don’t tell Hugh about the note. If I had it would’ve cut short the rest of our plans for the evening. Dinner would be put off while he took a look around outside, the fragrant red sauce simmering on the stove turned off, going cold and pasta sticking together as it drained dry in the colander.

A waste of time, of course. Whoever it was wouldn’t be just lingering on my property, waiting to get caught.

Hugh is intimidating enough, at six feet tall, with dark blond hair, graying at the temples, and lean muscled arms. He is weathered strong like so many beach homes he either restores back to sturdy shape or builds from the concrete foundation to the vaulted wood beams and tile rooftops. He’d question me about who I thought would do such a thing. A neighbor with a crush? A creepy client? What about my ex-husband, Kyle?

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No surprise that Hugh doesn’t like Kyle. Most new fiancés don’t like the former ex-husband, all that shared intimate history to compete with that only time, a deeper love and better, more emotionally connected sex will fade away.

A satisfying second marriage is a slow, hard-earned win.

My divorce from Kyle is only eleven months fresh. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully get over what he and I lost because at times we’d been so happy. I could feel it off him too, when he held me close and repeated faintly like breath between us that I was his “Tia” as if my name alone meant more than any other words he could possibly come up with. We could be in a room full of people and it didn’t matter. It was always just him and me. Call it a lapse in judgment, but it had been a contentment I didn’t think twice about. There hadn’t been another woman that broke us up. It had been a far bigger prospect of a person, a baby. Kyle doesn’t want children and I do. Not children in the plural.

One child is all I’d asked for and we talked and talked about it until I finally grew too frustrated to continue. In the end, making a family was asking too much of my ex and his DNA.

Not quite touching forty, he’s one of the youngest Associate History professors at UCLA. He’s the type who prides himself on looking more like one of his students than part of the faculty. Kyle also moonlights as a real estate agent on the weekends. Saturdays are spent driving around LA in his leased brand new silver Mercedes Coupe, showing the kind of extravagant properties where the monthly mortgage alone is approximately his yearly professor’s salary. His ability to seek out valuable properties and get them for a relatively rock-bottom price helped us snatch up the two-bedroom in Laurel Canyon before it hit the market, a fixer-upper, with a chunk of money I came into after I turned twenty-five and was given the portion of the life insurance policy my father left me in his will. Later, after a particularly sizeable commission came in, Kyle was able to buy another property, a condo in a high-rise near the ocean.

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I should be grateful Kyle loves being around so much money. Agreeing not to take part of his real estate business in the divorce is what gave me the home in Laurel Canyon and half interest in the condo in Marina Del Rey.

My sister thinks I’ve made the kind of profound mistake I can’t take back. Hugh is too old for me. To her, a man barely in his fifties somehow substitutes boxers with Depends and gulps down grainy glasses of Metamucil at every meal. It’s all about the numbers with Laney. She’s a mother of three young boys, her husband, a minor league baseball coach is her same age, thirty-eight. They live in a four-bedroom home in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. Each of their children is roughly two years apart. “If only you’d just thought about it and stopped taking the pill,” she’d recently said on the phone with me. “Women are expected to deceive their husbands when they’re spooked about becoming fathers. Kyle would’ve learned to live with it. How do you think I got pregnant with Wyatt?” she asks me. “Dan wanted to stop at two. He loves them all. You’ve heard him. He balances the boys on his lap and calls them his Three Little Bench Warmers.”

But Hugh doesn’t need to be tricked. He already enjoys being a father to his eighteen-year-old daughter, a freshman at Washington State University in Seattle. Since his wife died nearly five years before, he’s proven he can be enough of a parent to be the only parent.

If I’d shown Hugh the cryptic message I’d found on the front porch, he’d make me worry about something that is probably just a stupid prank. I wouldn’t be lying in bed in the dark right after sex the way I always do now with my knees bent as he settles on to his side and snores slightly beside me. I wouldn’t be lying here in this same position in the hopes that this time he and I are finally forming a connection in my womb. We’ve been trying for sixteen weeks, not enough time to suspect something is wrong with either of us but enough time to feel the possibility strengthen in my throat like a silent scream.

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***

The twin screw diesel yacht had six bedrooms, a large Jacuzzi on deck that could accommodate an entire cheerleading squad, a dining room that seated twelve and a half staircase that lead down to a lower level sitting room that overlooked the stern of the ship. A monstrous water craft easily worth nineteen million. And it was docked temporarily at a small wedge of a marina at Dana Point in Orange County.

The owner, a sixty-eight-year old oil tycoon celebrating

the one-year anniversary to his fourth wife, was throwing one hell of a bash, a party that began mid-afternoon, only to pick up even more energy by dusk.

Trays of top shelf champagne and neatly crafted hors d’oeuvres sliders made with corn muffins and shredded barbecue beef were generously passed around, a skinned swine was cooked and impaled on a spit in the corner of the deck. A waiter dressed all in black stood nearby with a sharp blade to slice long pieces of flesh from the animal for hungry guests.

Everyone connected to the Texan mogul was invited, from members of the city council, to the mayor of Los Angeles who made a brief appearance and fellow business investors, bank workers, and me.

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Over the last few years I’d appraised several homes for him in the LA area, raising the numbers, and, as a consequence, more than doubled his profits on several of them. Some appraisers didn’t do enough groundwork. They assessed the home and the two or so near it.

But I did much more.

There were the dynamics of the affluent neighborhoods to consider, the low crime rates, and the fact that there were virtually no foreclosures in the immediate area to drive prices down. Many times, a wealthy neighbor would hear of an owner getting behind in payments and purchase the home outright just to avoid it going up for auction. I’d factor in years of market stability in my assessments.

By sunset the spacious luxury yacht became more cramped with drunks. Most of the people I knew were clearing out. Even on the deck the smell of alcohol overpowered the salty ocean breeze. Girls that barely looked eighteen in string bikinis were climbing into the Jacuzzi. I spotted wife number four in a red thong, playfully splashing another woman’s wet chest.

Things were about to get out of hand.

It was time for me to leave.

That was when Hugh approached me with his teenage daughter.

He was dark blond and attractive in a way that most men I came across weren’t. If the deep-nicked wrinkles at the corners of his light blue eyes were any indication, he was a middle-aged man who’d spent his life showing his expressions, not keeping them in. His skin was tan, thickened from the sun, so I immediately pegged him as in construction even before he told me what he did for a living. But he cleaned up nicely, standing before me in a button down white shirt, jeans and charcoal gray sports jacket, ostrich cowboy boots. He had a man’s build, unlike Kyle who never seemed to grow out of his boy’s body.

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Hugh introduced himself and his seventeen-year-old daughter Ashley, then apologized for approaching me in the first place.

The girls crowding into the Jacuzzi just a few feet away didn’t turn him on. They alarmed him.

Would I mind staying with his daughter while he made the rounds and said his goodbyes? In the face of asking him why he’d bring his young daughter to such a party he was obviously upset by his own bad judgment. The party was quickly degrading into a rich man’s fantasy.

Ashley looked nothing like her father, her eyes narrower than his, more focused on her surroundings, focused on me, and they were dark brown, not blue. When I asked her about where she planned on going to school she told me Washington State because her mother would want her to go there. It was her alma mater. She spoke of her mother in the past tense with a calmness I assumed was just a cover because the grief was still too fresh to share. The way she was acting along with her father having her tag along with him to a business gathering on a yacht made me think that her mother must’ve recently passed.

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When Hugh returned he thanked me, then walked us both out to the parking lot, and while his daughter waited for him in the front seat of his truck, he handed me a business card. On the back he’d written another phone number along with the letter “H” either to abbreviate the first letter of his name or for the word home.

He didn’t even try to get my number.

Instead he left it up to me and when I called the next evening we spoke for at least an hour. We talked on the phone every day for an entire week before we agreed to meet for dinner.

The business card with Hugh’s writing on it I’ve since thrown out, but I remember the capital letter H, how large and neat it was, a perfectly block letter, how it overshadowed the numbers next to it that were much smaller in size.

I remember thinking it revealed he might be at the worst deceitful or at best putting up a front of self-assurance. Not knowing which kept me from calling him that night. So the next day I wrote Hugh’s number down again in my own hand, then threw out his business card.

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Even though I’d stopped doing it as a job, reading people’s handwriting had become as reflexive as a first impression. The truth was I was lonely and I liked him, this widower and father of a sad young daughter about to go off to college. And I wasn’t going to allow the broad interpretations of one capital letter prevent me from seeing him again.

***

Hugh is gone before daybreak, a construction site’s most productive time being the morning hours before heat and hunger set in among the workers. A pot of coffee is brewed. Hugh is conscientious enough to bus his own mug and place it in the dish washer.

I pour myself a cup, in no rush. My morning is free. I’d planned on finishing up the paperwork on the Davis estate. The story on the news about Elise’s disappearance is another thing I’ve kept from Hugh, though it hardly seems relevant when she most likely has already returned home by now.

It simply doesn’t seem possible that something could’ve happened to her. I remember the confident man’s handshake she’d given me when I arrived before suddenly moving to the delicate hug most women do when they see one another, as if it slipped her mind she was with an old friend. Everything, including my shock at seeing her father unable to breathe on his own, seemed to be under Elise’s control yesterday.

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Like the reporter had said, she had worn the tan suede pumps and a navy silk pantsuit with a plunging neckline to detract from the extra twenty pounds at her mid-section. If I’m honest, she looked old, a good ten to fifteen years more than myself, and I wonder if it’s the secret knowledge of her father’s fragile condition that has aged her so quickly. With the press teeming in aggressive packs along Robertson Boulevard and other celebrity hot spots not so many miles away from the estate, it certainly couldn’t be easy to keep them off the scent of her ailing, immobile father.

In typical Elise-style, there had been no housekeeper or gardener on the grounds when I arrived at the Davis estate, though I am certain the family employs both. Possibly learning this maneuver from her screen icon of a father who’s always safeguarded his private life, Elise, too, knows what it takes to keep prying eyes from seeing what she doesn’t want them to see.

***

Shortly after Elise’s mother passed, I remember Carson in a dark mood, talking to a scrawny man with a nervous tick in his shoulders, a movie person, either an agent or an assistant, someone who was about to obediently follow orders. They were both in black suits, white shirts, black ties and a pink rose on the lapel, Elise’s mother’s favorite flower. The cut of Carson’s suit hung perfectly while the man he was speaking to whose suit could have been just as expensive and well-tailored, next to Carson Davis just looked rumpled and cheap. A small group of us, my mother and me included, were at the house about to go to the closed casket viewing at the mortuary. Carson was persistent with my mother that I attend in order to provide his daughter a sense of comfort. No regard, on his behalf, for what the sight of confronting death in the form of another coffin might trigger in me at my young age, considering all that I’d recently been through. I was fatherless. In the past several months the brutal knowledge floated invisibly in front of me, behind me, trailing me everywhere. I couldn’t get away from the pain. Elise’s father wouldn’t let up until my mother finally caved, the way most people did when it came to Carson convincing them of anything, and only agreed on the condition she went with me too.

“This is how you handle the media.” Carson held up a fist to the scrawny guy. It was practically as big as a tough-skinned grapefruit, the hand with his wedding band on his ring finger. “You show them something flashy in this one,” he said, before turning his wrist, showing the fist was empty. Then his middle finger shot up from the other hand, flipping off the guy who stood before him waiting on instructions for what Carson wanted him to do next.

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Carson’s smile that afternoon was not charismatic, it was dangerous.

I remembered Elise telling me her father grew up poor, in a cramped clapboard home that always reeked of cigarettes and boiled cabbage in South Boston. He was the only child of young alcoholic parents who couldn’t stand one another and had trouble keeping the lights on and milk in the refrigerator. Sometimes Carson boxed bare fisted in the alleys with some of the older boys for a little extra cash—a coffee can they all contributed change and soft bills in, including some of the gruff male small owner merchants who’d once served as sailors or marines and now operated bars, laundromats and would pay top dollar to remember the rules-free street fights of their youth. They’d toss in five and ten dollar bills to make the pot worth a split lip, a finger permanently bent the wrong way or an eye swollen shut for a week.

Carson may’ve lost the Massachusetts accent, but he didn’t lose the tough talk of the neighborhood where he came from, nor did he lose the edge that outsmarted his opponents and always left him the last man standing.

The guy with Carson appeared stunned to be on the receiving end of such a rude gesture from one of the most powerful men in Hollywood who was no longer thinking like a celebrity, but only of his heartbroken family, his two young children who’d just lost their mother. “Then,” Carson continued still referring to his middle finger, “they miss you’re really doing this to all of them. You stupid sons of bitches just let the big fucking story get away.”

Later I would learn while the paparazzi followed along behind our line of cars, taking the most obvious route from the Malibu house to the mortuary for the viewing, what Carson was really cheating them out of—hard proof in the form of Mrs. Davis’s damning toxicology report. It was officially being replaced on file with a clean one, putting to rest the questions his wife was anything but sober at the time of the car accident that killed her and the innocent driver she hit head on.

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***

The forms I’d filled out yesterday of the Davis estate high up in the hills of Bel Air are in my bag and I pull them out. Among the ten thousand square feet of living space, the two granite fireplaces, the spiral handcrafted mahogany spiral staircase, chef’s kitchen with marble countertops flown in from Italy, is the nine-foot-deep pool, a guest house and a half acre of green lawn. From there, the view extends beyond the rooftops of the residences beneath his, all the way to the tennis courts on the UCLA campus. Easily the property is worth thirty million.

I’m not lawfully supposed to be an advocate for any client.

No predetermined value set on a property, not even a hint to the seller. But is that the silent agreement made when Elise hired me instead of someone she already had worked with? She did not necessarily live off her father’s money.

She’d made more with the money he’d given her on her thirtieth birthday five years before. In less than eighteen months she’d doubled her trust by investing in a software startup company with two twenty-year-old computer geeks as well as becoming a partner in a set of indoor shopping malls in the Midwest that touted a working water park twelve months out of the year. “Who doesn’t want to have their wet hair smell of chlorine and order an ice cream cone in a bathing suit in subzero temperatures?”

Elise had said this right when we were still chatting

in the foyer, before I headed upstairs, before I saw what I did and thought differently of her.

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Was she really so cold as to sell her father’s home literally right out from under his hospital bed? Was the pressure of what she was about to do too much? Is that why she was missing; she needed to rethink things?

How easily it could’ve been for Elise to keep me from seeing her father, the eerie stillness of his body beneath the thin woven blanket and crisp white sheet. His eyes were closed, but with the tube from the ventilator taped to his mouth he hardly appeared at peace. Technically appraisers don’t have to see and take pictures of every single room, especially a home of such a grand scale.

I’d been ahead of Elise on the staircase. A technical question about the appraisal process could’ve stopped me on those steps and bought her time. Not far from the top of the staircase the door to Carson’s room had been left open. A woman with short dark hair was seated in a chair near the bed, a hardback spread spine-up across her lap. She’d looked up at me with an expression of casual disinterest, before returning to what she’d been reading. No nurse’s uniform, the woman was in a sweater and expensive dress pants I guessed had to be dry-cleaned. A private doctor?

“I’m sorry,” I stumbled, “I didn’t know.”

The woman remained quietly reading as if I’d already gone away.

Elise touched my shoulder, guiding me deeper down the hallway. She would be doing all the talking.

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“Most don’t, Catia,” she’d said using my real name.

Unlike my mother, it wasn’t because Elise felt my nickname “Tia” didn’t suit me. It was because she liked the sound of my birth name off her tongue.

“But I think, I know, I can trust you not to betray me or my father by telling anyone about the change in his medical condition.”

“A change” Elise had said like she was breezily referring

to a change of scenery, not the difference between being conscious and in a coma.

My cell phone vibrates on the kitchen table. After my trip to the Davis estate I’d neglected to turn the ringer back on. I have three recent calls and two messages. One is a hang-up, the next is from my ex-husband reminding me I’m supposed to meet him later this afternoon and the last call, the one I’ve just missed, is from a detective. He wants to speak with me about Elise. His voice sounds professional, also a little irritated that I hadn’t picked up and he could finish with me in one phone call.

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Maybe I’d been wrong about Elise.

I see her struggle with her assailant, the fear in her eyes at being ambushed in her own driveway, a place where she naturally let her guard down, a place where she felt safe. She’s dragged from behind, kicking out to free herself, losing a shoe as she’s forced back into her car and driven to some drastic end.

My name has come up to trace her last hours.

***

The last thing I want is to be part of another investigation. With the flurried advancements of technology, people rarely put much down on paper. Except for our signatures, we’ve become a virtual stranger to our own hand. It’s one of the reasons why I chose another line of work.

There is no intimacy of the written word anymore. Thoughts and to-do lists are stored in smart phones or iPads. Most people rely on an electronic book with a screen that fakes a type written page of a paperback or hardback rather than carry around the real thing with pages that still smell of the printing. Directions are fed into a computer built into every new car and spoken back to the driver using a mechanical female voice.

But if pressed I could assess whether someone is egotistical or shy or holding something back just by taking a look at something as inconsequential as their grocery list. And I still spot people clutching those, wandering down the bread or produce aisle of a store with a scrap of paper filled with their messy, revealing words.

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I once accurately predicted a young fifteen-year-old

Japanese boy had falsely confessed to killing his own mother in the kitchen of their home. She was brutally struck several times in the temple with an object that was square and solid as a brick but had never been recovered. The boy’s words, as I studied them, “I  hit  her  with  something  hard”  were spaced far apart like he’d needed time to think of his lie. The emphasis on certain words like “bled out so much” and “her eyes wouldn’t shut,” phrases that were much darker in lead pencil than the rest of his confession made it clear to me he was just as traumatized as he was scared. He’d seen who had left his mother in a pool of her own blood on the kitchen linoleum.

Through several meetings with a court appointed counselor it was later determined the boy was petrified of his stepfather, a cruel man who repeatedly abused both his wife and her son, blackening eyes, breaking bones. Because the boy feared no one would believe him if he pointed the finger at the right person, he would prefer a life behind bars to living with his mother’s murderer.

I call the detective back on my cell while weaving in and out of college students on the UCLA campus. It’s a sunny afternoon, still warm enough in early October for shorts and t-shirts. Most of the students I pass are walking slow, humped over, texting on their phones. Kyle wants to meet at Kerckhoff’s Coffeehouse, his convenience, not mine, but somewhere I nevertheless agreed to.

“You’ve reached Detective Antonio Ramirez,” the message starts. He’s a tired sounding man no matter how professional he tries to come off, probably at the job longer than he should be.

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I wait for the beep and give him information he already has, my name and number. I, too, want to get this conversation over with. I can’t provide much information on Elise except for maybe spilling the fact her father lay in the last stage before death upstairs in his home in Bel Air. Would the media be camped at the Davis estate by now? Would the empty house in

Spain be swarmed too? Had Elise’s secret already been found out?

The coffeehouse is on the second floor of Kerckhoff Hall and has a glass display case of sugary fruit pastries and a menu of deli sandwiches stacked high with lunch meats.

Kyle is seated at a table in the front by a window, reading a book as thick as the Bible. The cover is visible, a black and white photo of an older man with wire rimmed glasses, standing at a podium, his mouth open in mid-speech. It’s about former President Harry Truman, a scholarly biography Kyle has probably read before but is doing again to keep his knowledge intact. He doesn’t like to slip-up during his lectures. He prides himself on instantly supplying, as if by natural reflex, the right answers to a student’s questions.

He’s in the common casual professor’s look of a long sleeve button down, tucked into jeans, and he’s let his hair grow

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longer, a more youthful look to go with his new twenty-something

girlfriend, a graduate student named Becca.

Not Rebecca. Becca. Apparently, she’s even dropped her last name because it gives her bad memories. Becca likes to be in relationships with both men and women and her last entanglement before Kyle was with a woman who clearly left her in knots.

Things only straightened out once her former lover got a restraining order out on Becca, something that was none of my business yet my ex-husband informed me of anyway. “Passion got the better of her,” he explained. “Most break-ups don’t end as reasonably as ours.” Clearly that had been a slight at me. That I didn’t go crazy when he walked out or had I kicked him out? Either way, it hadn’t mattered. He still left. Mourning the loss of our marriage through crushing sadness, tears and sleepless nights doesn’t cut it for my ex-husband. I was supposed to slit open the crotches of his four tailored suits, then slice across the veins on the whites of my wrists and call him, begging for a second chance as I slipped into a lukewarm bath. The fact is, Kyle has sought out the kind of chaos and drama in his life that a bright, seemingly imbalanced, yet probably seductive younger woman can give him.

As I stand across the room from him, it hits me again, the force of it so strong I feel like I might fall over.

My ex-husband has found somebody else.

He doesn’t want me.

Kyle raises a full palm to me, a slight smile. His other hand is holding onto a spoonful of chili. As I reach the table, I see he’s ordered me a toasted club sandwich, something he must know I won’t eat and he can take it in a to-go container to have later. This isn’t a lunch date. I don’t plan to stay very long.

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“You look good, Tia,” he says.

I’m in a jean skirt, sandals and a navy t-shirt and my light brown hair is still in a wavy bob that Kyle used to like on me. He said it showed off my best feature, my green eyes, not as rare of a feature for Greeks as some might think. But I haven’t kept the hairstyle for him. It’s something I like too.

His compliment shouldn’t do something inside me but it does. In time I remind myself again, this man who broke my heart will have no physical effect on me. For now, though, a part of me hates that I’m still flattered he notices me in that way.

I’m not one of those embittered people who had to sell off the matrimonial bed or his prized juicer that he made fresh orange juice with every morning or the dinner table and chairs where we sat and talked, we laughed and, towards the end, we stubbornly remained silent. I wrote him a fair check for his share of the furnishings. The juicer was one of the first things I sent him once he settled into his new apartment in West Hollywood. The pulp used to get stuck in my front teeth anyway.

I’m hoping Kyle isn’t fishing for a compliment about his long rock star bangs. “Thanks. So what do you need to tell me?”

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“It’s about our condo at the marina.”

“You could’ve told me over the phone. Unless,” I add, “that it’s burned down.”

Kyle chuckles. A cute couple in workout clothes call out to him from line. The girl looks like she’s just come from yoga and the guy from a sweaty run.

“Hey, Professor Wilkins.”

Kyle looks over at them and holds up the peace sign.

I roll my eyes. I imagine he probably gets stoned on the weekends with his students and shows off his historical trivia, about the sixties, Woodstock and free love. I’m sure he exaggerates about how much money he makes as a part-time real estate agent to the rich.

My ex-husband has always tried too hard to be liked. Some might find this charming while I see it as a shortcoming.

“I think we should hold off on listing it.”

“But we agreed…”

“I know, Tia,” he says. “But you know as well as anyone the market is down right now.”

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A female employee is clearing the dirty plates off a nearby table and I get her attention, mouthing the words “to-go box, please.” Suddenly I’m hungry and I’m not about to leave here empty handed. I’m taking this huge sandwich Kyle doesn’t think I’ll eat home with me. Maybe I’ll toss the contents on the side of the road close to home and let the coyotes feast on it.

I face him.

“The market is actually stabilizing.”

Kyle reaches across the table for me, but I lean back. He settles the flat of his hand on the space in the middle next to the salt, pepper and red pepper shakers.

For the nearly ten years we were married it was Kyle’s way to rush me, even bully me into making decisions that benefited him too, like when he pressured me into buying a boxy pre-owned Prius because one of us had to look environmentally friendly or the last time when he heartlessly tried to talk me out of wanting a baby.

“Listen, let’s make a few renovations on the place. New carpeting in the two bedrooms, a fresh coat of paint on the walls. Switch out the kitchen linoleum and front room with hardwood. We could list it by next summer and double our profit.”

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This relatively small fifteen hundred square feet of coveted property by the water is the last tie he and I have with each other. In the divorce papers we stipulated we’d sell it as soon as possible. Now it seems Kyle is dragging his feet.

“Is there a reason why you need the extra money?” I have to ask. While he’s always known how to pick a real estate bargain, Kyle also knows how to overextend himself, living a three-hundred-dollars a bottle of wine for dinner life that surpasses the salary of a college professor. Commissions from his sales can be few and far between in the market he works in where a potential client’s credit gets checked before he even agrees to meet and show that person any properties so he doesn’t waste his time. I imagine the new young girlfriend wants to be entertained and has him zeroing out his bank account every month, racking up his credit cards.

Kyle looks uncomfortable like I’ve hit a nerve.

“Nothing I can’t handle. I have a couple of opportunities about to pan out.”

“Well, Hugh and I have plans next summer.”

“I get it,” Kyle interrupts. “You’ve set a date.”

It’s the first sign of agitation he’s shown me since before the divorce. In our Los Angeles real estate circle, we sometimes run into each other and so far we’ve always remained kiss-on-the-cheek civil. That’s how I found out about Becca. He wanted me to hear it from him first.

“That’s practically a year away, Tia. How long have you been seeing him, five, six months?”

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I don’t like what he’s getting at.

“Ten,” I correct him. “Engaged for eight of them.”

But even as I say it, I realize Kyle is openly suggesting Hugh is my rebound which he most definitely is not. I will myself not to take the bait.

“You’re saying Hugh and I won’t make it till then?”

Kyles shakes his head. Secretly he’s pleased with himself for making me sound defensive which is not the same as confident and he knows it.

“It takes a while to get to know someone, that’s all.”

“Thanks for the lecture, Professor Wilkins.”

The employee returns with my to-go container, a signal Kyle is running out of time.

“Just think about it, Tia. I’ll call you in a couple days.”

I’m not sure if he’s referring to what he’s said about Hugh or the condo.

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A young woman in a button down shirt dress, a wide belt, and slip on tennis shoes zeroes in on us from across the room.

There is no doubt her focus is on me.

Her hazel eyes are practically yellow under the light. She’s carrying a canvas book bag. The buttons of her dress are undone enough for me to see the plastic front clasp of her lace bra, the pushed-up mounds of her breasts. This must be Becca. Her peroxide hair is frizzy, evenly parted right down the middle. Bright red lipstick and fake eyelashes, she is not the natural beauty I’d pictured, more like a woman dressed in a bad disguise. She is no fresh-faced young college student, though she is, in her own way, alluring, a nearly complete puzzle with a couple of key pieces missing.

I imagine she’s closer to thirty than twenty-five. I don’t see how my ex-husband doesn’t see it too.

From behind Kyle, she puts both hands firmly on his shoulders. He doesn’t flinch at her touch. Obviously, this isn’t the first time she’s sneaked up on him. Her forearms are covered in matching black and purple paisley patterned tattoos, her clipped nails are painted a cloudy white.

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“I thought you’d be done with your ex by now,” she says.

What she’s suggesting hangs in the air. Rude, yes, but not entirely inaccurate.

“I thought so too,” I answer as I get up to leave.

Let Kyle talk his way out of inviting me to lunch to his new girlfriend who already sounds unhinged enough to have a protective order filed against her. Had he told her he’d be here with me and she’s just gotten out of class and decided to drop by or has she been watching us this whole time? I think of the note left on my doorstep the day before.

     He’s here early.

Before leaving the two of them at the table, I glance down at Becca’s book bag curious if she’s in possession of a black felt tip pen.

 

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From APPRAISE HER, by Paula Priamos. Used with the permission of the publisher, Power Punch Publishing. Copyright © 2022 by Paula Priamos.




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