Speak Now: A Charley Fairfax Mystery #1

Speak Now: A Charley Fairfax Mystery #1

2003 - CWA Debut Dagger, Highly Commended Charley Van Leeuwen can tell by a man's kiss whether he's been drinking Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot. Not that she kisses many men, ...

About The Author

Margaret Dumas

Margaret Dumas is a technical writer and computer software executive. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she ...

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Chapter 1

Okay, here’s the stereotype: A woman will date a serial killer because he has cute eyes and she’s the only one in the world who truly understands him. A man will dump a supermodel who holds a Ph.D. in physics because she gets a hangnail.

Right. Well it’s safe to say I’ve never been the kind of girl who fits that profile. In fact, there are more than a few men who might say I start looking for the exit signs on about the third date. And it’s true I once broke up with a senior partner at Goldman Sachs because he used the word “surreptitiously” when he meant “vicariously”—and this man had won a George Clooney look-alike contest.

It’s not that I haven’t wanted a relationship, really. It’s just that I seem to have looked for any excuse not to be in one. I mean, why bother? The whole concept of needing someone to take care of me has always rubbed me the wrong way. I have friends for all my emotional needs, and enough money to meet the financial needs of a small country. As for sex—well, just being in a relationship isn’t any guarantee, is it?

So I’ve been called commitment-phobic. Okay, I’ve been called worse. My friends have concluded that I’m the most romantically-challenged woman in the Western Hemisphere. Which was going to make it a little awkward to explain how I came to be sitting in the first-class compartment of the British Airways flight from London to San Francisco beside my new husband.

My very new husband. I checked my watch and realized we’d passed the forty-eight-hour point. I think they say the first two days are the hardest. I looked over at Jack’s sleeping profile. He didn’t seem to be suffering. Neither was I.

I’d known him six weeks if you count the humiliating incident at the Victoria and Albert museum. He’d been living in London and working as a liaison to the Royal Navy while waiting for his discharge papers from the U.S. Navy. He was thirty-eight and a Commander, which I gathered was a fairly impressive rank. I think James Bond was a Commander.

I’d been in London for the theater. I’d spent the past year working as an intern for one of the oldest true repertory companies working in the English language. Admittedly, at thirty-four I was a little over the hill to be an intern, and as I ran my own non-profit rep company in San Francisco, it hadn’t exactly been an upward career move. But what I’d learned had been priceless. And, of course, if I hadn’t done it I’d never have met the man sleeping in Seat 4A.

Jack was a meteorologist. He looked at weather maps and computer screens and told the fleet when they’d run into fog and things. I’d yawned when he’d first explained this to me. Mistake. He’d shown up the next day with that movie where the fishing boat gets lost in the huge storm.

“It’s about weather,” he’d said, his eyes flashing.

I’d watched it and thought it was more about the noble futility of man’s struggle against nature. But then I tend to be dramatic. And anyway, I hadn’t been interested in the movie. I had been interested in the man with the flashing eyes. Jack Fairfax.

Now, stretched out in the comfortable airline seat, I studied Jack, willing him to wake up. Tall and lean, with a jawline sharp enough to cut diamonds, he was chiseled without being all muscles. To me he looked like Gregory Peck in his prime. Roman Holiday Gregory Peck. It would be nice if I could say I looked like Audrey Hepburn, but I’m not delusional.

Actually, I’m more the Isabella Rossellini type. Curvy. Earthy. Dark-eyed and full-lipped. Unless you catch me on a bad day, in which case I’m fifteen pounds overweight and in need of a brow wax. It’s all in the attitude.

One dark curl had flopped onto Jack’s forehead, making him appear unexpectedly vulnerable, a look I couldn’t imagine on him when awake. There was something powerful and self- contained about him. He was, among other things, the most secure person I’d ever met.

He’d need that when we got to San Francisco. I could predict fairly well how my friends and family would react to my marrying a man I’d known for only six weeks. My uncle Harry, who had taken over-protectiveness to an extreme ever since becoming my guardian twenty years ago, would assemble a team of private investigators to turn over every rock they could find in hopes of something filthy crawling out of Jack’s background. That would be if he liked Jack.

My friends, on the other hand, would be surprised but supportive. Then they’d start placing bets on how long it would last.

The flight attendant noticed I was awake and sprang into action. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Fairfax.” Mrs. Fairfax. After a lifetime of being Charley Van Leeuwen I hadn’t actually decided to change my name yet. “Would you care for a drink? Tea? A biscuit?” She was English, and had that desperately concerned way of looking at you with wide eyes until you let her do something for you.

“Tea would be great,” I said, trying and failing to return  my seat to an upright position. I would miss English tea. San Francisco is a coffee town.

I turned on my side to face Jack. I knew the questions everyone would ask. Why him? Why now? Why so fast? Why marry at all? And I knew the only way I’d be able to answer them would be to point to Exhibit A, the man in question. I considered rehearsing some sort of secretive smile that would keep people guessing.

Jack interrupted my train of thought. “Charley, you know I can’t sleep with you gazing at me adoringly.” He smiled, his eyes still closed. “Stop it right now or I’ll have to do something about it.”

“Oh good, you’re awake!” I leaned over and wrapped my arm around his.

“Apparently,” he said, finally opening his eyes. “Did you miss me?”

“While I was sleeping?” He cleared his throat. “No, Pumpkin, I’ve trained myself to dream of you so even when I’m sleeping you’re always there.” He looked at me in total seriousness.

I grinned. “I do appreciate a good line of bullshit.” And I kissed him.

“Why else would you have married me? Where are we?” He glanced at the TV monitor that showed a little cartoon airplane following a dotted line all the way to San Francisco, just like in the Indiana Jones movies. Jack yawned and pulled me closer. “How long until we land?”

“A while yet.” I yawned too. “Don’t worry, tea’s on the way.” But by the time the flight attendant came back we must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew she was shaking me gently and asking us to prepare for landing. We were home.

# # #

I had sold my North Beach flat when I’d moved to London, so Jack and I were planning on staying at a hotel until we found someplace together. I wasn’t even sure what hotel. I had left everything up to my friend Eileen. She’d even arranged for the car that picked us up.

“Where are we going?” I asked the driver. “The Mark Hopkins, ma’am.”

Jack looked at me. “Good choice for a honeymoon?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that this was our honeymoon. I had just thought of it as going home. “It’s great,” I said. “Although Eileen wouldn’t have known to book the honeymoon suite.”

“You really didn’t tell her?” Jack asked, pulling me across the seat towards him.

“Not her. Not anyone.” I made the universal locking-my-lips-and-throwing-away-the-key gesture.

“Won’t your friends be mad?”

“Probably. Probably furious.” I thought about it. “Eileen will be upset because of the spontaneity. Here was a fabulous opportunity for her to plan something gigantic and I didn’t let her.” Eileen lived to organize things. She was a hugely successful financial manager, and had once confessed—after several tequilas—that her secret hobby was alphabetizing.

“What about your other friends?” Jack hadn’t asked much about my San Francisco friends before. He’d been kept pretty busy trying to sort out who was who in the London set.

“Brenda will be…worried, I think, more than upset. She made me promise once that I’d never get serious about a man until she’d done a Tarot card reading on him.” Jack raised his eyebrows. “She’s not a flake,” I rushed to protest. “She’s just… she went to Berkeley, and then she taught at U.C. Santa Cruz, and…she’s very open to alternative ways of thinking.”

“She sounds fascinating,” he said dryly.

I punched his arm. “Don’t mock her. She’s one of my best friends.”

Jack held up his hands. “I’m prepared to be nuts about her.” “You’d better be.” I stroked his jacket sleeve where I’d punched him. “Did I hurt you?”

He grinned. “I’m tougher than you think.”

I resumed counting off my friends. “Then there’s the gang from the theater, Simon and Chip and Paris and Martha…I can’t wait for you to meet everyone.” I meant it. I wanted to show him off and I wanted him to love all my friends. The gang from the Rep—the repertory theater that I’d established and run before I’d gone to London—could be a little rowdy, and more than a little catty, but I was sure Jack could hold his own.

We turned up Nob Hill toward the hotel. “What about your family?”

He’d asked about my family before, and I’d always successfully dodged the questions. I wasn’t about to break that streak now. “Look, there’s the hotel!” I pointed. “We’re here!” I kissed him quickly to stop him from replying. “God, I can’t wait to get into a hot bath!”

# # #

There are newer hotels in San Francisco, and swankier hotels. But the Mark Hopkins has the distinction of being the place where Brenda, Eileen, and I had wound up after ditching our dates during a particularly hideous high school dance. We’d produced fake IDs and gotten first silly and then deadly serious over several bottles of mediocre champagne. Sixteen years had passed since then, but we still had a tradition of returning to the Mark for celebrations.

The suite was reserved in my name. After we registered it took a swarm of bellmen led by an intrepid concierge to escort us to our room.

As soon as we stepped through the door Jack summed up the place. “It looks like a duke’s drawing room.”

At the far end was an elaborate green marble fireplace with an overstuffed couch and two comfy chairs in front of  it. Bookshelves lined either side of the mantle. There was a huge armoire which I assumed would discreetly contain a huge television. A round table big enough to seat six was off to the side, buried under a pile of gift baskets, champagne bottles, and flowers. Apparently word of my return had gotten out.

The most spectacular thing about the room was the view. I pulled Jack over to the window and swept my arm out theatrically. A classic, fog-free, pink and orange evening on the bay. Alcatraz island formed a black silhouette on the purple water. The buildings spilling down the hills to the bay were blushing with embarrassment at being so well-lit. “There it is. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

He looked from the window to me and back out the window again. His mouth twitched with a suppressed smile. “I suppose it’ll do.”

A polite cough interrupted us. We turned to find the bellmen gone and the concierge waiting to give us the grand tour. There were two bedrooms, one on either side of the main room. I’d told Eileen I was bringing a friend from London, and apparently she had assumed it was a separate-bedroom sort of friend, or at least she’d wanted to give me the option.

“Never mind,” I told the concierge. “I’m sure we can find everything. Right now all I want is a long hot bath.”

Jack tipped the man and closed the door behind him. Then he caught my arm and pulled me towards him. “Are you sure all you want is a bath?”

Tempting. I wrestled with my options as Jack flicked his tongue down my neck. But didn’t someone once say marriage was about compromise? “I know,” I said, backing away slowly and hooking my finger in his belt. “How about we both take a bath?”

Jack grinned and started unbuttoning. “I knew it wasn’t a mistake to marry a smart woman.”

I turned and went through the bedroom. It had a massive bed, a walk-in closet, and assorted chaises, benches, and chairs. None of which interested me at the moment.

“How do you feel about bubbles?” I asked, flipping the bathroom switch.

The light was bright on the white tile floor and shining fixtures. At first I blinked, not really understanding what I was looking at.

And then I screamed.

# # #

Jack pulled me away from the door, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Off her.

She was about my age, with dark curls half-hiding her face. She was in the bathtub, her left arm hanging over the side. She was naked. She wasn’t moving.

“Jack, is she—”

“Don’t look. And don’t go in there.” He put his arm around me as I took a step towards her.

“Jack, her eyes are open. She might—” I struggled to break his hold on me. There had to be something I could do.

He pulled back. “Charley—” he spun me around to face him. “She’s dead.”

I realized I was holding my hands over my mouth. Part of my mind registered this as a hopelessly theatrical gesture, while the other part knew it was necessary to keep from screaming again. Jack moved me away from the door.

“Just breathe,” he said, walking me slowly back to the living room.

He called the police and the hotel manager. The manager, a man with the look of a former high-school jock and an attitude that implied we must have been mistaken about a naked dead woman in our room, was there in roughly seventeen seconds. He made I’m-sure-this-is-just-a-misunderstanding noises until he was joined by the head of hotel security. Then he said “In there?” and gestured in the direction of the bathroom. Jack nodded grimly.

When they came back, the manager had lost his reassuring look. The security man was the first to speak. “You’ve called 911?”

“Yes,” Jack said.

The man nodded, then asked the question that would be repeated at least a hundred times in the next several hours. “Who is she?”

# # #

The police came. There seemed to be dozens of them, but only a few actually went into the bathroom. “They must be the crime scene people,” I said to Jack, having watched enough television to figure that much out. We’d been waiting and watching and answering the same questions for long enough that the immediate horror of what we’d seen was fading. I was trying to focus on the activities of the police, hoping if I concentrated hard enough I’d stop seeing the image of that pale white skin in clear still water.

The hotel manager was speaking to a policeman. At least I assumed the man was with the police, because he was making the manager nervous. He was Asian and looked about fifteen years old. He wasn’t in uniform. In fact, dressed as he was in a stylishly tailored dark gray suit with a narrow cream pinstripe, he looked like he’d been paged from some ultra-hip club. I nudged Jack. “Who do you think he is?”

The two men turned to look at us. “I think we’re about to find out.”

They approached, the manager speaking first. “Mr. Fairfax, Miss Van Leeuwen, this is Inspector Yahata. He’s in charge of the investigation.”

So he probably wasn’t fifteen. “Hi,” I said.

“I understand you’ve already given statements to the uni- formed officer,” Yahata said briskly. He gave us each a slight smile. “I hope you don’t mind going over it all again for me.”

I didn’t imagine it would make much difference if we did mind. The detective seemed to be operating on his own electrical current. He buzzed with energy, from the quick movement with which he produced and opened a small sleek notebook to the overtly curious way his quick gaze shifted from Jack’s face to mine. He raised his eyebrows expectantly and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a spark fly up from his tousled, spiky hair.

Jack spoke. “We checked in, we told the concierge it wouldn’t be necessary for him to give us the tour, we decided to freshen up, and we found her.”

The detective blinked. “You didn’t enter the bathroom?” “Not more than a step or two,” I said. “Then Jack stopped me. It was obvious…” I hesitated.

“Quite,” the detective said crisply. He was taking notes, writing with a thin silver pen while maintaining eye contact with us. I couldn’t help but wonder if that level of multitasking was entirely human. “And you say you don’t know the woman?” he asked.

“We don’t,” Jack said firmly.

“No,” I agreed. “Do you know who she is?”

I think the question startled him. “Not yet. And you didn’t take anything from the room? From any of the rooms?”

“No,” Jack said. “The bellmen took our luggage to another room, but we hadn’t opened anything yet.”

The detective nodded and noted.

“What would we have taken?” I asked. “Is something missing? Do you think she might have been robbed?”

Again Yahata registered surprise. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to ask him questions. Nobody had ever told me the etiquette of being interrogated. After appearing to think about it for a second, he answered. “Everything is missing.”

“Her clothes,” the hotel manager supplied. “There aren’t any. She must have walked down the hotel hallway naked before she…” he trailed off, looking over his shoulder towards the bedroom door.

“So you think it was a suicide,” Jack said. “Oh, well—” the manager began.

“We don’t think anything, yet,” Yahata said.

“Are there security cameras in the hallway?” I asked.

A look of annoyance flashed across the hotel manager’s face. “Yes, but—”

“That will be all for now,” Yahata interrupted him. “Will we be able to reach you at the hotel if we have further questions?” “Please,” the manager rushed before we could reply. “Accept my deepest apologies for this…inconvenience. The management would like to express its gratitude for your understanding, and discretion, by insisting that your stay with us be entirely complimentary.”

Call me cynical, but I think the key word in all of that was “discretion.” The if-you-don’t-go-running-to-the-papers-with- this-thing-we’ll-pick-up-your-hotel-tab kind of discretion. It was probably the man’s job to handle damage control, but I was a little miffed that he assumed we’d need a bribe to keep from dashing off to the nearest media outlet.

“Thanks,” I said. “We’re just moving to the area, and it might be a couple of months before we find a house.” I gave him a charming smile. “Let alone go through all the paperwork of buying one. You’re very generous.”

The poor guy looked like he was reliving some fateful moment of his youth when he’d dropped the ball in front of the whole town during the big game. At around three thousand dollars a night, he’d just offered to comp us to the tune of at least $180,000. And that was before the damage we could do with room service. His left eye began to twitch.

Oh, hell. I can only torture someone for so long. “Never mind,” I patted his arm. “It wasn’t your fault. Let’s just forget the whole thing.” I looked toward the bedroom door. “Or try to.” Yahata  shut his notebook with a snap. The manager and I both jumped. Jack extended his hand. “Inspector, if there’s anything we can do.”

“Thank you,” the detective replied. He turned to me. “I hope you find a suitable home, Mrs. Fairfax.” He stressed my married name slightly. It may just have been a random bolt of electricity, but I think his eyes sparked.

# # #

Jack installed me on the sofa in our new suite and poured me a large Glenfiddich on the rocks. I drank it gratefully and watched him pour another for himself. “Jack, have you ever seen a dead person before?”

His face remained neutral as he sat next to me. “Yes.”

I’d thought so. He’d been too calm back there for this to have been his first. “How? I mean, under what circumstances?”

“Sad,” he said evenly. “Sad circumstances.”

I leaned my head back on his arm and didn’t say anything for a while. “I’m glad this room is a little different from the other one. It won’t seem so…” I couldn’t think of a word that didn’t seem melodramatic, so I gave up.

Jack wrapped his arms around me. “Still a nice view, though.”

The room was pretty much the same in layout. A central living room with two bed/bath combinations, one on either side. But the color scheme was different, various shades of blue, and the furniture was more chic townhouse than gentlemen’s club.

“This wasn’t exactly the welcome home I’d imagined.”

“Aren’t bad starts supposed to be good luck?” Jack asked. “I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere.”

“You’re such a good liar.” I craned my head around to look at the pile of presents that had been transferred to our new room after a thorough examination by the police. “Are you hungry? It looks like there’s something to eat.” I got up to investigate.

There was the inevitable fruit basket from the hotel management, and a bottle of Tattinger on now-melted ice from Eileen. A bunch of roses was from the gang at the theater. A gorgeous orchid had a note from my friend Brenda. A cheerful bouquet of brightly decorated cookies on stems filled a flower pot. I opened the card that was stuck in among them.


I expect you and your husband for brunch on Sunday.

A car will pick you up at 11:00.

Suddenly the whisky hit and I felt the floor go out from under me. The note was from my Uncle Harry. It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t have to be. Harry was the only person I knew who could make a brunch date sound as casual as a mandatory court appearance. It wasn’t an invitation—it was a command.


I felt Jack approach me from behind and I took a deep breath. “Want a cookie?” I asked, tucking the note away and hoping my voice wasn’t too tight.

He slipped his hands around my waist. “No.” “How about some warm champagne?”

He pulled me closer. “Not now.”

I leaned back against him and closed my eyes. “To hell with him,” I murmured.

“To hell with who?” Jack asked, exploring my earlobe with his tongue.

“Never mind.” To hell with Harry, I thought. And his investigators. And while I was at it, to hell with dead bodies, electric-shock detectives, insecure hotel managers, and everything else except Jack’s slow swaying motion.

We stayed like that for a while, then Jack lifted me up, carried me to one of the bedrooms, and did his damnedest to make me forget the past few hours.

It nearly worked. At one point I actually heard bells. How bridal, I thought absently. They were persistent, though, and after a while began to be irritating.

“Jack,” I whispered. “Jack!” “Hmrft?”

“Do you hear bells?”

He paused, breathing heavily. “It’s the doorbell. Someone won’t go away.”

The ringing started again, this time accompanied by voices. Voices I recognized. “Hey!” I tried to disentangle myself from my husband and the bedclothes.

“Pumpkin…wait…no…” Jack protested. “Jack, I know them. They won’t go away until the cops come.”

The ringing and calling was now accompanied by heavy banging on the door. I grabbed a hotel robe off a hook in the closet. “And I’ve had enough cops today. Besides,” I threw another robe at him. “Don’t you want to meet my friends?”

Reviews of

Speak Now: A Charley Fairfax Mystery #1

“…a modern day Nick and Nora Charles…head an engaging cast in this witty, suspenseful first adventure—may there be many more!”

Donna Andrews, author of the Meg Langslow mysteries

“Comic cozy meets crazed spy thriller in this debut novel short-listed for Britain’s 2003 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger award.”


“Stock characters abound: the queeny, bisexual artistic director of her theater; the no-nonsense, sometimes tactless financial manager; the uptight, shy women’s studies professor. At times Charley comes across as little more than a collection of references to designer labels and expensive champagne, but her engaging voice (‘It would be nice if I could say I look like Aubrey Hepburn, but I’m not delusional’) will keep readers turning the pages.”

Publishers Weekly