An Image of Death: An Ellie Foreman Mystery #3

An Image of Death: An Ellie Foreman Mystery #3

Who knew that a career in video documentaries could lead to crime? Such is the fate of Chicago's Ellie Foreman whose shoots hook her up with misdeeds past and present. ...

About The Author

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Libby Fischer Hellmann is the award-winning author of the Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis mystery series, and Nice Girl Does ...

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

The pain rolled over her in waves, especially when air whistled through her mouth. She’d never lost a tooth before; her mouth felt curiously empty. Where had it fallen out? Had they found it? Could they use it to track her? She wouldn’t have thought so, but pain was fogging her mind. She shook her head as if to banish the thought, but the movement touched off more throbbing. She tried to breathe through her nose.

She brushed her fingers along her jaw. The last time she’d looked in a mirror, she hadn’t recognized herself. She was glad she didn’t have one now. With luck the makeup covered most of the damage. She walked up to the front door. A house. Not an office or clinic, but a house. Two stories. Brick. Surrounded by others just like it, up and down the street. All of them identical except for the color of the paint and which side the garage sat on.

She took off her dark glasses and rang the bell. They’d told her to be there at fourteen hundred, but it was well past that now. A curtain of dusk was descending, and the air was heavy with the metallic smell that precedes snow. She shivered, unfamiliar clothes scratching her skin. Her coat was too flimsy for this bitter cold, but it was all she’d been able to get. She rang the bell again.

She shoved her hands into her pockets and fingered her money. Cash only, they’d said. Dollars. Where were they? Maybe she should look. But as she started around to the back, a sudden movement startled her. Fear knifed through her.

It was just a bare branch swaying in the wind. She let out a slow breath and watched the branch rise and fall, eerily silent in the fading light. Where was the sound? Back home the wind made noise. Whether a whispering breeze or the shriek of a gale, it didn’t sneak up on you. This quiet was unnerving.

She cornered the house. A chain-link fence marked the edge of the property. Beyond it was a field with spindly clumps of grass poking through gritty snow. A tire lay on its side. The field was so flat, civilization seemed to stop at the fence line. This part of the world was like that, she recalled. Something to do with a glacier. Perhaps she would fall off the edge of the world.

She found a second door on the side of the house. She pressed her face against the glass, but a window shade blocked her view. She shifted her feet. In the thin, flat shoes she was wearing, her toes were already numb. She looked around. No movement. No sound. Nothing to indicate a human presence. She grabbed the doorknob and turned. The door opened easily, and a gust of warm air blew over her. She slipped inside, squeezing her eyes shut in pleasure. She might never have felt anything this good.

It was a plain but clean room. Wood paneling on three walls, a white linoleum floor flecked with brown. Two chairs sat beside a low table. She took off her glasses and sank into a chair, kneading her fingers. She glanced down at her wrist to check the time, momentarily forgetting she’d lost her watch. Without the thick leather band, her tattoo was plainly visible.

Looking up she saw that the fourth wall, the one that wasn’t paneled, was marred by a thick crack that snaked from floor to ceiling. It reminded her of the winding creek near her grandparents’ home. The one window in the room was covered with the same flimsy material as the door, but a thin strip of light seeped around its edges. Enough to make out a light switch on the opposite wall. She went to it and flipped it on. Shading her eyes against the glare, she saw a door cut into the wall with the crack—she hadn’t seen it before. She tried the knob; it was locked.

On the ceiling, rows of square, spongy tiles looked soft enough to punch her fist through. She tracked the squares to a corner where the ceiling and the wall met. A small black box was anchored to the wall. A camera? Here? She had heard the stories about Chicago. Al Capone. Gangs. Crime-ridden streets. Maybe there was some truth to them.

Her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten a decent meal in two days. But even if she’d had the time, how could she chew with this pain? A muffled sound escaped her throat. Where were they? They had to be expecting her. Why else leave the door unlocked?

Halloa,” she called out.

No response. If no one came soon, she would have to leave. But where would she go? The two days she’d been on the run felt like two years. She didn’t have much time; she knew they were looking for her. The woman in the airport bathroom said a man had been asking about her outside the door. He claimed to be her brother, the woman said. But Arin didn’t have a brother. She told the woman it was her husband, that she was running away from his abuse. The woman clucked sympathetically and let Arin buy her scarf to use as a disguise. Arin snuck down to the gate, her head covered, praying she wasn’t seen.

Now, she threw her coat on a chair and sat in her cotton t-shirt and jeans. She should be home with Tomas. Cooking his supper. Helping him with his studies. She should never have left home. But it hadn’t been her idea to take a vacation. And she’d never been to that part of the world. A few days in the hot sun seemed like a gift. How could she have known he would be there? That he was behind it, all of it? She held her head in her hands. She should have figured it out. But she hadn’t. Years of uneventful transactions had dulled her instincts.

A noise from outside startled her. Thumps. Footsteps. Then a whisper. Finally. They had come. She felt almost weak with relief. As the door started to open, the scalloped edge of the grimy window shade trembled in the incoming draft. A sudden image of delicate cotton doilies sprang into her mind. With embroidery around the edges. Part of her grandmother’s hope chest, she’d coveted them as a little girl. Her grandmother promised they would be hers one day.

She turned eagerly toward the door.

 

Chapter One

Ricki Feldman is the type of woman best admired from a distance—if you get too close, you might find some of your body parts missing. But here I was sitting next to her at La Maison, one of the toniest restaurants on Chicago’s North Shore.

We were seated in a private dining room with dark wood beams, stucco walls, and terra cotta floor tiles. Huge arrangements of fresh flowers—a significant feat in the middle of January—surrounded us. The occasion was a ladies’ luncheon in Ricki’s honor. The directors of WISH, Women for Interim Subsidized Housing, had organized it to thank her for a twenty- thousand-dollar donation, dollars that would help support low- cost housing for kids who’d been in foster care but couldn’t afford to live on their own.

Charity. Tzedakah. A simple act of philanthropy. Except with the Feldmans, nothing was ever simple. The daughter of a hugely successful real estate developer, Ricki had taken over the company several years ago at her father’s death, and was proving to be just as ambitious and shrewd. In fact, you got the sense that good deeds, money, even people, were just commodities to the Feldmans. Bargaining chips for some future quid pro quo. Which was why it was wise to make sure you left with everything you came in with when you dealt with them.

Two waiters hovered over her now, refilling her water glass and whisking imaginary crumbs off the white tablecloth. With silky dark hair, magnetic brown eyes, and a willowy build, Ricki was the kind of woman it was hard to look away from. Even so, her expression was always calculating, measuring, taking stock. I kept my hands in my lap and my knees pressed together.

The eight other women at the luncheon were decked out in designer finery. I spotted a Missoni label on one woman, another with a Fendi bag. Silver flashed at their necks and ears, and it was hard to find a wrinkle on any face. I felt like the hired help in my Garfield & Marx slacks. In fact, when Ricki introduced me around as the woman who produced the video about the Glen, I repressed the urge to pay fealty.

You see, Ricki and I weren’t friends. And I wasn’t a contributor to WISH. A few months ago Feldman Development had built a luxury housing project on the old naval base in Glenview, and Ricki hired me to produce a video about it. I’d had misgivings—environmentalists were trying, unsuccessfully, it turned out, to preserve the land as prairie. But she threw a lot of money at me, money I needed to make ends meet. So I took it, produced the show, and tried not to dwell on what the shortage of grasslands would do to global warming.

The Glen eventually became one of Feldman’s most successful properties, and when Ricki invited me to lunch, I thought it might be a belated thank-you, so I accepted. You might disapprove of their methods, you might not like their style, but the Feldmans were tireless. They got things done. Plus, it’s not often I get the chance to hobnob with women of wealth and privilege.

Now, though, as chatter about exotic vacations, haute couture, and the latest Hollywood scandal drifted over the table, I silently shoveled salad into my mouth, feeling just a bit overwhelmed.

The waiters cleared our plates, then brought out brandy snifters filled with sorbet. As I smiled up my thanks, I caught the waiter staring at my chest. I looked down. A dark, oily stain was spreading across my blouse. Salad dressing. And I hadn’t worn a jacket. The waiter sniffed and moved on. I propped an elbow on the table, in an effort to hide the offending spot. Resting my chin on my hand, I tried to appear thoughtful.

It was a short-lived attempt.

“You don’t like sorbet, Ellie?” Ricki asked.

“Oh, I like it.” I smiled weakly and reached for my  spoon.

As my elbow moved, Ricki’s gaze dropped to my chest. “Oh, dear. I’m sorry.”

Suddenly eight pairs of eyes were on me.

I dipped my napkin in my water glass and dabbed at the spot, but, of course, that only made it worse. My heart’s not enough—I have to wear my lunch on my sleeve, too. I dabbed some more, but it was hopeless. There was only one solution, especially with this crowd. I tossed my head, put my hands in my lap, and affected a je ne sais quoi nonchalance. Next time I’d wear a hazmat suit.

A blond woman with skin so tight it looked like stretched canvas rose and tapped a knife against her water glass. “Now, ladies.” She looked around the table, a brilliant, pasted-on smile encompassing us all. “In honor of Ricki Feldman’s generous donation to WISH, I thought we’d play a little game.”

I knew these games. A variation of a roast, someone asks silly questions about the individual being honored, and the person with the most correct answers wins a prize. I gazed around the table. During the course of producing the Glen video, I’d learned a lot about Ricki. Where she went to school, her cat’s name, her favorite movie. I stood a good chance of winning. I wondered what the prize was. I wouldn’t waste my time over perfume or candy, but a day at a spa or a gift certificate for some trendy store could be worth it. I dug out a memo pad and pen from my bag.

The game was momentarily delayed when the maitre d’ rolled the pastry cart up to the table. Leave it to a man to tease us with the foods we crave but shouldn’t eat. They’re still trying to get even for that Eve and the apple thing. One woman ordered flourless chocolate cake, and another chose a flaky apple tart.

I summoned up my willpower and tried to pretend they were laced with cyanide. Or botulism.

The lady with the face-lift stood up again. “Ready now, ladies? Oh. I almost forgot.” She looked around and grinned. “Whoever wins gets a massage and facial at North Shore Spa.” She seemed to rest her eyes on me.

Not bad, I thought, and smiled back, eagerly anticipating questions about siblings, birthdays, best friends in kindergarten.

The blond cleared her throat. “All right. First question. Who’s wearing a brand-new diamond today?”

Diamonds? The women tittered, and two hands shot into the air. Ricki fingered a diamond solitaire at her throat.

“No, no, ladies.” The blond woman waggled a finger at us. “You’re supposed to write down how many ladies you think are wearing diamonds today. And they have to be new.”

More giggles and surreptitious glances. I squirmed. Diamonds? What kind of game was this? Maybe I’d made a mistake coming. I could be at home, surfing the net or planning the important, hard-hitting documentary I would produce one day. I snuck a glance at Ricki. A confirmed workaholic, she could be making deals, building shopping centers, collecting rents. But she was smiling benevolently, as if she had nothing more pressing to do than decide between a two- or three-carat prong set ring.

It suddenly occurred to me I might not win this game.

The blond woman waited until the rest of the group had finished writing and licked her lips. “Okay…second question.” She flicked an imaginary speck off her Thierry Mugler jacket. “How many ladies are wearing a new outfit today?”

My smile felt glued to my face. These women may not have gone to Harvard, but the way they scrutinized one another, working their way up from shoes to earrings, was just as intimidating. I imagined a classroom filled with women clutching number-two pencils, filling in designer names on their SATs.

“Ready to move on?” the woman chirped. I took a sip of water.

“Now for our third and final question.” She paused dramatically, then slid her eyes toward me. “Who knows what Ellie Foreman does for a living?”

I slumped, trying to ignore the knowing looks cast my way. Now I knew why I was there. They wanted me to produce a video for WISH. Ricki must have told them all about me. Hell, she probably promised to deliver me on a platter. I was the lamb led to slaughter. The dog to the pound. And Ricki Feldman was holding the leash.

“Waiter!” I shot my hand in the air, no longer caring about the stain on my blouse. If I was going to pay for this lunch, the least I could do was order dessert.

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