31

“You look different today somehow, Victor,” said Velma Takahashi when she entered my office after I purposely made her wait in front of my secretary’s desk for a number of minutes. “Much more forceful. Did you get a haircut?”

“No,” I said.

“A facial?”

“No.”

“But you’re positively glowing.” Her puffy lips twisted into a smile as she sat before my desk. “Maybe it’s like that commercial. Have you had your Viagra prescription filled, is that it?”

“No prescription, I’m still au naturel, but thank you for the compliment.” I brushed flat my new yellow tie. “Can we maybe get down to business?”

“I brought your retainer. Your second retainer.” She leaned forward to hand me something. It was all I could do to tear my gaze from her suddenly exposed, perfectly synthetic breasts to the envelope she was holding out for me.

“Excellent,” I said. And I was pretty pleased with the check, too.

Velma was dressed for tennis, a low-cut white blouse, a short pleated skirt, peds barely exposed above her sneakers, with delicious little navy-blue balls at the heels waiting to be plucked like ripe blueberries on the bush. I’m no fan of tennis, I would rather watch a rotisserie infomercial than tennis on TV, and yet, with Velma in my office, in that outfit, I suddenly began to appreciate the sport’s finer points.

“You play much?” I said idly as I opened the envelope and examined the check.

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Tennis, I mean.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I notice, Mrs. Takahashi, that there is no address on this check. Is this a new account?”

“It will clear, don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried. I’m just wondering when you’re going to tell your husband that you are financing Fran?ois Dub?’s defense with his money.”

“The terms of our marriage are not your concern. But have no doubt that my husband is getting good value for his money.”

“My rates are rather reasonable, aren’t they?”

She almost smiled and then thought better of it. “If that’s everything?” she said. “I have an appointment.”

“No, not quite everything. I’m a little curious about a few matters. Where did Fran?ois meet his wife?”

“Somewhere, I suppose.”

“He said a bar.”

“Then a bar it was.”

“Were you there?”

“Maybe.”

“Why don’t you tell me about it?”

“It was at a bar. I was with Leesa. Fran?ois showed up. The owner introduced the two of us to him. What else do you want?”

“What bar?”

“The upstairs bar at Marrakech.”

“And it was Geoffrey Sunshine who introduced you?”

“That’s right.”

“Who did Fran?ois go home with that night?”

“Is this important?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because the fun is over, Mrs. Takahashi. I’m now responsible for a man’s life. The prime reason Fran?ois went down the first time was that there were no other suspects to Leesa’s murder. I need to find one.”

“And since I’m sitting here in front of you, I’m convenient, is that it?”

“Yes, that’s pretty much it. Why are you paying for Fran?ois’s defense?”

“I told you that already. It has to do with my friendship with Leesa.”

“And I didn’t believe you the first time you told me. Who did Fran?ois go home with that first night? You?”

“Yes.”

“Was Leesa upset?”

“No.”

“She didn’t feel left out?”

“She wasn’t.”

I cocked my head, Velma Takahashi laughed. It took me perhaps a moment too long to figure it out. Fran?ois Dub?, that little devil.

“Is that all?” she said, arching one plucked brow.

“So how did lucky Leesa end up with him?”

“She fell in love, that was how. Victor, you have to understand, we weren’t your usual sit-at-the-bar-and-hope-someone-notices-us type of girls. We were buccaneers when we were out together, in search of fun and profit. When we liked something, we went after it. When we both liked it, we shared. None of our victims complained, as far as I remember. And in the end, like good buccaneers, we divvied up what goods we plundered. Most of the men we tossed overboard, but Fran?ois had certain talents, which Leesa found attractive. He never had enough money to suit my tastes, so I let her have him. At the time I was already being wooed by my husband.”

“Did he know you were three-waying with Fran?ois while he was courting you?”

“He knew what he was getting, and he couldn’t wait.”

“And Fran?ois didn’t mind you two women deciding his future?”

“He didn’t have much choice, did he? But he was the fool who decided to get married. He told Leesa he wanted to save her from my bad influence. We laughed over that one, Leesa and I, but he did everything he could to separate us. And finally, after they married, he succeeded.”

“So that’s why you don’t like him much.”

“That’s right.”

“But it still doesn’t explain why you put flowers on her grave every week.”

“I need to go,” she said, standing, pulling down the hem of her tennis blouse.

“Why do you feel guilty about Leesa Dub?’s death, Mrs. Takahashi?”

“You’ll let me know when you need more money.”

“Count on it.”

“Good day, Victor.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“Your powers of observation, Victor, never fail to amaze me.” And then she was gone, out of my office, down the hall, gone.

I leaned over to my window, saw her leave the building and wait impatiently until her limousine pulled up to the curb. The driver bounded out, opened the door. She slipped past him into the car, pulled her shapely legs in behind her. I waited there until the limousine drove off, and then I rushed out to my secretary.

“Did you get them, Ellie?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Any good?”

“Not quite picture postcards,” she said, “but not bad.”

“Let me see.”

Ellie handed me her cell phone. I paged through the photographs on her color screen. Velma Takahashi in her tennis outfit, sitting, legs crossed, looking off impatiently. Velma Takahashi talking on her own cell phone. Velma Takahashi in close-up, staring straight ahead.

“Did she know you were taking them?” I said.

“I don’t think so. She doesn’t seem the type to take much notice of the hired help.”

“You’re right about that,” I said. “Can you get some prints made at a photo shop?”

“Why, Mr. Carl? To hang on your wall like a pinup?”

“Absolutely. But first I need to see a guy about a dog.”

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