Dangerous minds, p.1
Dangerous Minds, p.1
Short Stories of Murder and Suspense
By Dee Ann Palmer
By Dee Ann Palmer
All rights reserved by Dee Ann Palmer.
Cover design by Lex Valentine
Published in the United States of America
For my husband, with deepest love for encouraging me to write, and for his computer expertise when I am in trouble.
“Marathon Madness by Dee Ann Palmer cleverly combines a genuine city landmark, the elegant Biltmore Hotel in downtown L. A., with a landmark yearly event, the L. A. Marathon, in the story of a shocking murder that occurs in the most open of places.” Publishers Reviews
Table of Contents
About the Author
About Killer Minds
I drummed my fingers on the counter at the concierge’s desk in the historic Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, waiting for the DASH schedule. For a small fee, the little bus shuttles people around the downtown area. For the running of the City of Los Angeles Marathon there is no charge this first weekend in March. It will carry visitors to and from their hotels to the Expo at the Convention Center, where runners will pick up their race number bibs, goodie bags, and purchase vendors’ items related to running.
While I waited, I studied the American Beauty roses on the counter. Their scent under the arch of the carved, wooden ceiling was sweet and inviting. Turning, I saw how their color picked up flecks of red in the area rug’s blend of green, gold, aqua, and blue in center of the lobby. Noticing the rug I’d just walked across made me conscious that my ragged running shoes weren’t up to such elegance, and I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t worn the new ones.
While I contemplated my shoes, someone bumped me. Glancing up, I saw that Janet Widlow, one of my least favorite persons, had backed into me. If I turned away, I wouldn’t have to speak to her, but she turned instead and spoke first.
“Oh, it’s you. You’re in my running club, right?”
Great. Now I’d have to talk to her or be rude. I watched her look at me, squinting her dark eyes, which I’d like to call beady eyes because it perfectly describes what I think of her, but they aren’t beady, so I won’t. I could see her thoughts churning as surely as if she had a glass head.
Finally, she said, “You’re—”
“Suevee Taylor.” I decided not to extend my hand.
“Oh, yes, the one with the strange name. You staying here?”
I nodded. “And you?”
“We’re in four twenty-three.” Immediately, I regretted giving out our number. The less contact I had with this unpleasant woman, the better.
“You with Marina?”
Just like that, I was dismissed. A little tinge of irritation pulled at me. My dear friend Marina Scott, tall and lean and, like Janet, built to run, had developed a stress fracture in her right foot two weeks ago. Seven months of training for a marathon, and suddenly the orthopedic surgeon, who usually advises taking ibuprofen and going ahead, said, “No running for six weeks.”
I told Janet as much.
“Good thing she’s not here. I’d beat her.”
Humility. That’s what I’ve always admired about this woman. She’s the only one in our age group in the club who’s ever beaten Marina, and then only once. The next time they raced, and Janet came in second, she’d had nothing but excuses for why she hadn’t won.
“Where you headed?” she asked.
“The Convention Center.”
“Ride with me. I’m driving a Spyder.”
Oh, sure. Wheel up in an expensive sports car, top down, so Janet could show off the car and a “friend.” Not on your life.
“Thanks, but Hal’s with me. I assume the Spyder only seats two? We’ll be taking the DASH.”
“You still with that NFL has-been?”
She wasn’t joshing me, and I recognize envy when I hear it. Me she didn’t remember; Hal she did. An image of the powerful build and rugged face of the man who was my seriously significant other, sprang to mind. I had to admit he was not a forgettable guy. Has-been, indeed. Something naughty jingled inside me. “I doubt you know any man who’s on the gridiron winning Super Bowl rings at our age, Janet, but yeah, I’m still with a man who won two of them in his day.”
As I expected, she was impervious to the sarcasm.
She shrugged, her face expressionless. “So you prefer DASH to a Maserati. Suit yourself.”
The concierge returned and handed me the schedule. At least she smiled and was pleasant. I returned the smile and thanked her.
Janet was still by my side as we left the lobby and stepped into the corridor that led to the gift shop, bar, health center, and various ballrooms. She started up the steps to the elevator landing while I looked around for the door to the stairs.
“You aren’t coming?”
“Elevators aren’t my thing.”
Scorn was written all over the carefully made-up face of this woman whose blonde hair was perfectly coiffed. I felt no compunction to explain I’d been trapped in an elevator down in Florida during a hurricane. It had been a long four hours before we were freed. Just the sight of an elevator these days makes me anxious.
“Later then.” As she moved past me she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “I’m going to beat you.”
“Yeah, well, good luck to you too,” I called cheerily. “Maybe I’ll see you at the Convention Center.” Not. I hope.
I wondered how people like Janet, who scored zilch when it came to social skills, got along in life. Regarding her remark about Hal being a has-been, Marina would have said, “Oh, that’s just her idea of humor among friends.”
I didn’t think so.
* * *
I’m Susan Valencia Taylor—Suevee to my friends—and I’m a marathoner. Female, age 50-54 division, average height for a woman but not as slender as Marina and Janet. I’ve run Walt Disney World, St. George, Las Vegas, Boston, and Portland, but there’s nothing like doing L. A.
Born and bred in a neighborhood on the north side of the Hollywood Park Racetrack, I love Los Angeles. Hal and I live inland now, deep in Orange County, but when I return to run this marathon I feel like I’m coming home. The skyline has changed since I left. They’ve built Staples Center and the multi-towered Bonaventure Hotel, but my heart, my childhood joys belong to these streets.
The Biltmore, the most famous hotel ever built in Los Angeles, offers special rates to marathoners. I adore it. I’m a walking tour guide. I can tell you that construction on the 170 foot high-rise was completed in 1923, and there are 683 guest rooms, fifty-six suites, and thirteen floors above ground.
Movies have been filmed here, celebrities have stayed here. Breathe in the air, touch the walls, walk the parquet floors, cross the carpets, and you feel the whisper of old wealth and history. It’s marvelous.
Despite my extensive information, one thing I did not know was where to find the entrance to the stairs. As I hunted for it, I saw a waiter coming out of one of the ballrooms. Through the open doorway I could see them flinging pink linens over tables and setting them with gleaming crystal and china. Lush centerpieces were added last. Busboys and waiters in black trousers, maroon cummerbunds, starched white shirts, and short black jackets were coming and going from somewhere nearby.
One of the waiters walked over to a middle-aged busboy who was dark and swarthy, and seemed to berate him for some transgression. The swarthy man scowled and turned away. The waiter moved in my direction.
“What are they setting up for?” I asked.
“Wedding reception.” He smiled. English was obviously not his first language. He looked and sounded Mexican.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
“Persian,” he answered.
“Ah, Persian.” I smiled knowingly. When I asked about the stairs, he asked for my room number and I told him.
“Then you will wish to take this staircase,” he said as he pointed to a nearby door over which the word “Stairs” appeared in small letters.
His face widened in a smile. “De nada,” he replied.
The Persian people are Caucasian, not Arab, and Persia is now Iran. I know this because I’m friends with a runner married to an Iranian. She’d told me of the wealth among the Persians in America and the fabulous weddings she’d attended. I hoped I’d get a glimpse of this reception at some point.
But now my thoughts returned to the race. This year some anonymous Mr. or Ms. Rich Pockets gave our running club the money to refund the entry fee of anyone who came in first in their age division. At sixty bucks a hit, most of us considered that a goal worth aiming for.
Marina is Janet’s toughest competitor. I usually come in third, but with Marina out of the picture, tomorrow I’m Widlow’s competition for the club money.
I finally located the door and entered the poorly lit stairwell. The door closed behind me, shutting out the sounds of the reception preparations to leave a silence that was surreal.
The deserted staircase was wide and winding, with a graceful wrought iron railing. In the Biltmore’s heyday, before its renovation in the 1980s, it must have been the grand staircase. I mounted it slowly at first, thinking the soft, mint colored carpet, a color I loved, had to be new because yarn fuzz had collected on each edge of the steps. Then I noticed a fine layer of dust coating them. The only marks were a single set of ascending footprints, large enough for a man.
The silence, the dust, and how perplexed the concierge had been when I’d asked where the stairs were— as if no one ever asked—doubled my uneasiness. A female acquaintance of mine had been attacked recently in a place like this. Suddenly feeling very vulnerable, I practically ran up the final steps to our landing. I was glad Hal and I were staying only four flights up.
Despite my claustrophobia, the elevator was looking better and better to me.
“There’s a thirty per cent chance of showers tomorrow,” Hal said as he switched off the weather channel.
“No problem.” I stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Hmm, you smell good. Let me waterproof my shoes before we go to the Expo.”
His quarterback hands encircled my waist as securely as they had handled a football, and he hugged me to him as his lips touched mine. “Just don’t spray them in here, okay?”
As tough as Hal is, he’s sensitive to odors, and waterproofing is one of the smells that turn his stomach.
I took my Brooks to a short hall that led to an outdoor landing. These were new shoes, carefully broken in, soft enough not to cause blisters but new enough to have cushioning and stability. Mine were just right. I held my breath against the acrid smell as I sprayed them and left them in the hall to dry until we returned from dinner.
Hal coaxed me into the elevator. “Just the two of us alone,” he whispered in a voice that made my mouth tingle. He nipped my ear. “I think we could figure out how to pass the time if we were stranded, don’t you?”
Despite the tight ball of anxiety in my throat, the elevator slipped smoothly to the ground floor and opened. I relaxed.
We headed for the corridor that went past the reception ballroom, but I grabbed Hal’s arm and stopped him. I’d spotted Janet talking to the swarthy busboy I’d seen the waiter scold earlier. I only saw the back of her, but she seemed tense. He in turn was waving his arms at her and glowering as he talked.
I chuckled. No doubt she’d upset the man with her imperious manner. Of course, he didn’t seem so pleasant either. I grabbed Hal’s arm. “There’s Janet. Let’s not go this way.”
“Where?” Hal had never met her.
“Arguing with that busboy, I think. I don’t want to have to introduce you. Frankly, I don’t think even you could charm that woman.”
Hal laughed, and we exited through the front entrance and caught the DASH.
* * *
Hundreds of people came and went at the Expo. It was huge, vendors hawking their wares of brightly colored runner’s clothing, energy bars and drinks, little blue and white free sample packages of anti-pain Biofreeze gel to apply to muscle injuries during the race. There must have been a hundred people ahead of me in the line to pick up bib numbers, tee shirts, and goodie bags. Hal, bless his usually impatient heart, waited patiently.
“Got your timing chip?” Hal asked when I finally turned away with my bag.
I reached inside and pulled it out along with a narrow red strip of cloth to Velcro it to my shoe. The chip’s timer wouldn’t activate until I crossed the electronic mat at the start line. It would shut down when I hit the finish line mat. Even if it took fifteen minutes to reach the starting line after the gun went off, the chip would know my actual race time from start to finish. Chips were turned in at the close of the race, but the Velcro strip was yours. Marathoners keep them on their shoes as a statement of pride: I run marathons.
* * *
When we returned to the Biltmore, the bride and groom were arriving for their reception. Her dress of white satin was covered with pearl and crystal beadwork, and her ladies in waiting were removing a frothy train that must have trailed ten feet behind her during the ceremony. She wore a heavy parure of what might be rubies and diamonds set in platinum and gold. They gleamed richly under the bright lights and complemented her dark coloring with perfection. I fantasized that the parure was an antique, a gift from the groom passed down through generations in his family. His black tuxedo mirrored his dark hair and eyes, and his snowy shirt cuff slipped up to reveal a Rolex watch I suspected had not been bought from a street vendor.
“Wow,” Hal whispered.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Everyone in that room is dressed to the nines.”
It was as my friend had said. The women wore long gowns of satin, crepe, or layered chiffon decorated with sequins and beads. Their ears, fingers, and necks dripped with what I imagined to be emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, and pearls.
I drank in the splendor of it all. It was so Biltmore, so nostalgically L. A. So very special to see.
The doors closed behind the bride and groom, and we moved to the elevator, shutting that different, glittering world out of our minds.
Back in our room I pinned my race number on my running shirt. There’s nothing worse than arriving at the start line only to discover you’ve left your race number in the hotel.
Once, Marina and I had done that very thing. We’d arrived in San Diego’s Balboa Park at four in the morning to catch the next-to-last runners bus to Fort Rosecrans for the start of a half-marathon that would end in the park. We’d scrambled back in my car and driven to the hotel, run down the hall to retrieve our bibs, then broke speed limits racing back to the park. We flagged down the final bus just as it was leaving.
Like many distance runners, I’m plagued by an irritable gut that requires I eat with care before long runs. My breakfast, taken two hours before a race, is a high protein, high carbohydrate drink. It’s safe to have a hamburger the night before a long race, and Hal was good enough to agree to a high fat meal at a corner Jack in the Box two blocks away.
I’m not good company the night before a marathon. My mind is preoccupied with race strategy and the course. I was reviewing every hill, every landmark, and calculating when to go and when to slow. Already I was trying to psyche myself up to not start too fast. Of course, that rarely works. Your adrenal glands are excreting big time.
Knowing I was bad company, I reached for Hal’s hand as soon as we were on the street just to let him know I was still connected to him. You don’t find drive-thrus in downtown L. A., and we sat down to a leisurely meal of cheeseburgers, shakes, and french fries.
Afterwards, we decided to walk uphill on Olive a block, past the hotel to the restaurants and offices on California Plaza. Small geysers spring out of the ground in the Watercourt, where children play in the summer. All of this is new since my childhood. The upper station to Angel’s Flight is there, and I wanted to ride it. This small funicular with two counterbalanced passenger cars ascending and descending the hill, was originally built at the turn of the century. Billed as the shortest railway in the world, it connected the steep drop from the posh Victorian mansions on Bunker Hill with the Broadway retail district below. After World War II, Bunker Hill became a slum. The lovely Victorian homes were razed or converted to boarding houses. In the 1960s, the area became an urban renewal project, and Angel’s Flight was dismantled with the expectation it would be rebuilt in a “couple” of years. It reopened in 1996.
Then one of the cars slipped. Seven people were injured. One person died.
I had forgotten. We stood at the archway and looked down to the one below. Once again, the cars had been removed. A few weeds had sprouted up along the deserted tracks, creating a melancholy that ruined my reverie.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” I said to Hal, as a shudder swept through me.
* * *
When we arrived at the entrance to the Biltmore, three black and whites were parked there.
“What have we here?” Hal said.
In the lobby, a uniformed officer told us the corridor leading to the bridal reception ballroom was off limits.
We turned away, but I was curious about what had happened. “Let’s ask the concierge,” I said.
She was young and her tawny hair hung long and straight in the style popular these days. Her badge read “Concierge in Training.” I was relieved because I thought the regular concierge might not have answered our questions.
Her eyes flashed with excitement as she said, “A wedding reception guest forgot to put on a very expensive necklace and earrings she’d laid out. When she realized it, she immediately left to retrieve it, but the set was gone. The wall safe in the closet had been pried open and some money was missing. We’re suggesting everyone check their rooms.”
Dangerous Minds by Dee Ann Palmer / Mystery & Detective / Romance & Love / Western have rating 4.8 out of 5 / Based on19 votes