“I’m glad you’ve thought this through,” I said tersely, “but here’s the thing. I found an article—”
The doors to the Borderline opened. A fresh wave of heat, carrying the smell of limes and cilantro, swirled out at us, along with the sound of a mariachi band playing through the speakers.
“Welcome to the Borderline,” a hostess greeted us. “Just the two of you tonight?”
Elliot was standing behind her inside the dimmed foyer. We saw each other at the same moment. His mouth smiled but his eyes did not.
“Ladies,” he said, sanding his hands together as he walked over. “Looking magnificent, as always.”
My skin prickled.
“Where’s your partner in crime?” Vee asked, glancing around the foyer. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, and a mural of a Mexican pueblo spanned two walls. The waiting benches were filled to capacity. There was no sign of Jules.
“Bad news,” said Elliot. “The man is sick. You’re going to have to settle for me.”
“Sick?” Vee demanded. “How sick? What kind of excuse is sick?”
“Sick as in it’s coming out both ends.”
Vee scrunched her nose. “Too much information.”
I was still having a difficult time grasping the idea that something was going on between Vee and Jules.
Jules came across sullen, brooding, and completely disinterested in Vee’s company or anyone else’s.
Not one part of me felt comfortable with the idea of Vee spending time alone with Jules. Not necessarily because of how unpleasant he was or how little I knew about him, but because of the one thing I did know: He was close friends with Elliot.
The hostess plucked three menus out of a slotted cubbyhole and led us to a booth so close to the kitchen I could feel the fire of the ovens coming through the walls. To our left was the salsa bar. To our right glass doors moist with condensation led out to a patio. My poplin blouse was already clinging to my back. My sweat might have had more to do with the news about Vee and Jules than with the heat, however.
“Is this good?” the hostess asked, gesturing at the booth.
“It’s great,” Elliot said, shrugging out of his bomber jacket. “I love this place. If the room doesn’t make you sweat, the food will.”
The hostess’s smile lit up. “You’ve been here before. Can I start you with chips and our newest jalapeño salsa? It’s our hottest yet.”
“I like things hot,” said Elliot.
I was pretty sure he was being slimy. I’d been way too generous in thinking he wasn’t as low as Marcie.
I’d been way too generous about his character, period. Especially now that I knew he had a murder investigation hiding along with who knew how many other skeletons in his closet.
The hostess swept him an appraising onceover. “I’ll be right back with chips and salsa. Your waitress will be here shortly to take your orders.”
Vee plopped into the booth first. I slid in beside her, and Elliot took the seat across from me. Our eyes connected, and there was a fleck of something dark in his. Very likely resentment. Maybe even hostility.
I wondered if he knew I’d seen the article.
“Purple is your color, Nora,” he said, nodding at my scarf as I loosened it from my neck and tied it around the handle of my handbag. “Brightens your eyes.”
Vee nudged my foot. She actually thought he meant it as a compliment.
“So,” I said to Elliot with an artificial smile, “why don’t you tell us about Kinghorn Prep?”
“Yeah,” Vee chimed in. “Are there secret societies there? Like in the movies?”
“What’s to tell?” Elliot said. “Great school. End of story.” He picked up his menu and scanned it.
“Anyone interested in an appetizer? My treat.”
“If it’s so great, why did you transfer?” I met his eyes and held them. Ever so slightly, I arched my eyebrows, challenging.
A muscle in Elliot’s jaw jumped just before he cracked a smile. “The girls. I heard they were a lot finer around these parts. The rumor proved true.” He winked at me, and an icecold feeling shot from my head to my toes.
“Why didn’t Jules transfer too?” asked Vee. “We could have been the fabulous four, only with a lot more punch. The phenomenal four.”
“Jules’s parents are obsessed with his education. Intense doesn’t begin to cover it. I swear on my life, he’s going all the way to the top. The guy can’t be stopped. I mean, I confess, I do okay in school.
Better than most. But nobody tops Jules. He’s an academic god.”
The dreamy look returned to Vee’s eyes. “I’ve never met his parents,” she said. “Both times I’ve gone over, they’re either out of town or working.”
“They work a lot,” Elliot agreed, returning his eyes to the menu, making it hard for me to read anything in them.
“Where do they work?” I asked.
Elliot took a long drink of his water. It seemed to me like he was buying time while he devised an answer. “Diamonds. They spend a lot of time in Africa and Australia.”
“I didn’t know Australia was big in the diamond business,” I said.
“Yeah, neither did I,” said Vee.
In fact, I was pretty sure Australia had no diamonds. Period.
“Why are they living in Maine?” I asked. “Why not Africa?”
Elliot studied his menu more intensely. “What are you both having? I’m thinking the steak fajitas look good.”
“If Jules’s parents are in the diamond business, I bet they know a lot about choosing the perfect engagement ring,” Vee said. “I’ve always wanted an emeraldcut solitaire.”
I kicked Vee under the table. She jabbed me with her fork.
“Oww! ” I said.
Our waitress paused at the end of the table long enough to ask, “Anything to drink?”
Elliot looked over the top of his menu, first at me, then at Vee.
“Diet Coke,” Vee said.
“Water with lime wedges, please,” I said.
The waitress returned amazingly quickly with our drinks. Her return was my cue to leave the table and initiate step one of the Plan, and Vee reminded me with a second underthetable prod from her fork.
“Vee,” I said through my teeth, “would you like to accompany me to the ladies’ room?” I suddenly didn’t want to go through with the Plan. I didn’t want to leave Vee alone with Elliot. What I did want was to drag her out, tell her about the murder investigation, then find some way to make both Elliot and Jules disappear from our lives.
“Why don’t you go alone?” said Vee. “I think that would be a better plan.” She jerked her head at the bar and mouthed Go, while making discreet shooing motions below the table.
“I was planning on going alone, but I’d really like you to join me.”
“What is it with girls?” Elliot said, splitting a smile between us. “I swear, I’ve never known a girl who could go to the bathroom alone.” He leaned forward and grinned conspiratorially. “Let me in on the secret. Seriously. I’ll pay you five bucks each.” He reached for his back pocket. “Ten, if I can come along and see what the big deal is.”
Vee flashed a grin. “Pervert. Don’t forget these,” she told me, stuffing the 7Eleven sacks into my arms.
Elliot’s eyebrows lifted.
“Trash,” Vee explained to him with a touch of snark. “Our garbage can is full. My mom asked if I could throw these away since I was going out.”
Elliot didn’t look like he believed her, and Vee didn’t look like she cared. I got up, my arms loaded with costume gear, and swallowed my burning frustration.
Weaving through the tables, I took the hall leading back to the restrooms. The hall was painted terracotta and was decorated with maracas, straw hats, and wooden dolls. It was hotter back here, and I wiped my forehead. The Plan now was to get this over with as quickly as possible. As soon as I was back at the table, I’d formulate an excuse about needing to leave, and haul Vee out. With or without her consent.
After peeking below the three stalls in the ladies’ room and confirming I was alone, I locked the main door and dumped the contents of the 7Eleven sacks onto the counter. One platinum blond wig, one purple pushup bra, one black tube top, one sequined miniskirt, hot pink fishnet tights, and one pair of size eight and a half sharkskin stiletto heels.
I stuffed the bra, the tube top and the tights back inside the sacks. After sloughing off my jeans, I pulled on the miniskirt. I tucked my hair under the wig and applied the lipstick. I topped it off with a generous coat of highshine lip gloss.
“You can do this,” I told my reflection, snapping the cap back on the gloss and blotting my lips together. “You can pull a Marcie Millar. Seduce men for secrets. How hard can it be?”
I kicked off my driving mocs, stuffed them into a sack along with my jeans, then pushed the sack under the counter, out of sight. “Besides,” I continued, “there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing a little pride for the sake of intelligence. If you want to approach this with a morbid outlook, you could even say if you don’t get answers, you could wind up dead. Because like it or not, someone out there means you harm.”
I dangled the sharkskin heels in my line of vision. They weren’t the ugliest things I’d ever seen. In fact, they could be considered sexy. Jaws meets Coldwater, Maine. I strapped myself into them and practiced walking across the bathroom several times.
Two minutes later I eased myself on top of a bar stool at the bar.
The bartender eyed me. “Sixteen?” he guessed. “Seventeen?”
He looked about ten years older than me and had receding brown hair that he wore shaved close. A silver hoop hung from his right earlobe. White Tshirt and Levi’s. Not bad looking … not great, either.
“I’m not an underage drinker,” I called loudly above the music and surrounding conversation. “I’m waiting for a friend. I’ve got a great view of the doors here.” I retrieved the list of questions from my handbag and covertly positioned the paper under a glass salt shaker.
“What’s that?” the bartender asked, wiping his hands on a towel and nodding at the list.
I slid the list farther under the salt shaker. “Nothing,” I said, all innocence.
He raised an eyebrow.
I decided to be loose with the truth. “It’s a … shopping list. I have to pick up some groceries for my mom on the way home.” What happened to flirting? I asked myself. What happened to Marcie Millar?
He gave me a scrutinizing look that I decided wasn’t all negative. “After working this job for five years, I’m pretty good at spotting liars.”
“I’m not a liar,” I said. “Maybe I was lying a moment ago, but it was just one lie. One little lie doesn’t make a liar.”
“You look like a reporter,” he said.
“I work for my high school’s eZine.” I wanted to shake myself. Reporters didn’t instill trust in people.