I couldn't be happier about the kinds words left in the comments to this week's story, "Lily in Blue." Thanks to all who stopped by.
I tried something new by using something old, and it appears to have worked. The Lily in the story first appeared in an as-yet unpublished novel I wrote several years ago, part of what I still hope will be a series of Nick Forte stories. Lily's mother, Sheila, provided the inciting incident for the book, and is the primary supporting character. Since folks seemed to like Forte, and wanted to know more about Lily and Sheila, I'm posted below the first chapter from the story they both appear in, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.
A Handsome Woman
There was a time when Sheila O'Donoghue would have been described as a handsome woman. The vestiges of the beauty she must once have considered her birthright were visible, but that's all that was left. She guarded them the way a drunk protects his last bottle of gin.
Her methods were paying off. I couldn't guess how many hours on the Stair Master kept her legs in the condition she managed to show at every opportunity. Her eyes were aquamarine and barely possible to avoid staring at. She had a disconcerting habit of making eye contact without looking at me straight on, always showing a slight left profile. Must have been her good side.
She sat in the chair across the desk not looking any more comfortable than anyone else who sat there. It's wasn't a bad chair. Getting comfortable shouldn't be a problem. Maybe it was me. Good thing I'm not insecure.
"Are you familiar with the name Russell Arbuthnot, Mr. Forte?" she asked in a resonant voice that must have given great phone.
"No, sorry. Are you familiar with the name Larry Conway?"
I got a hard look for a few seconds before a smile snuck up on her. She let it have its way and I got a tease of what she might have looked like twenty years ago. Anyone would fight to keep looks like that.
"I'm sorry," she said. "That was business-like to the point of coldness, wasn't it? May we start over?"
"No apology necessary. I understand that no one really wants to come here to see me, so I never hold first impressions against anyone. I didn't help matters by being a smartass. Now that we really are even, why don't you tell me why you're here?"
She smiled a mouthful of even white teeth and let her posture relax. "Thank you, I suppose I am a little nervous. I'm a theatrical agent. Russell Arbuthnot is one of my clients. I thought a man in your profession would be familiar with his one-man show. It opens at the Goodman Theater the day after tomorrow."
"Now that you mention it, it does ring a bell. Isn't he doing that Maltese falcon show, what's it called, The Black Bird? Is that him?"
"Yes. He lives in Chicago. The Goodman performances are the beginning of a national tour."
"I know. I read good things about it. I'm hoping to get tickets for next week."
"Would backstage passes be all right? Of course you'd be working, but you could see every performance." She sat forward, smoothing the skirt of her suit as she did it, directing my attention to her legs without seeming to.
"What's the gig?"
"Threats have been made." She waited until she had eye contact before continuing. "Nothing specific, just some notes and a couple of phone calls."
"As I said, they're very vague. 'Don't sleep too soundly' was one. 'I want what's mine.' Things like that."
"Do you know of anyone who'd want to hurt him?"
She shifted in the chair and I got to see how well her suit fit her. It matched her eyes perfectly. Sheila O'Donoghue didn't just throw on any old thing when she left the house.
"Russell has quite a taste for women, and his position and charm allow him to indulge himself regularly. He is not always as discrete as he might be."
"Anyone in particular?"
"I'm his agent. We're close, but I'm not privy to his extracurricular trysts," she said in a disapproving tone. I couldn't tell if she disapproved of the trysts or of not knowing the details.
"Have you seen any of the notes?"
"No. Russell destroyed them as soon as he read them."
"Why? They could be useful to the police."
"He doesn't seem to take the threats seriously."
"He took them seriously enough to tell you."
"We've been together for over twenty years. There's very little either of us doesn't know about the other."
"Except for his extracurricular trysts." She gave me a look I should have expected. Someday I'll learn to think of that before I say whatever it is I shouldn't have said to prompt that reaction. "You took the threats seriously enough to come to me. Why?"
"Because I'm worried, and because I know Russell wants me to." I gestured with my hand for her to continue. "Russell's self-image won't let him show any concern over something like this, even if he has some. By telling me, he's tacitly admitting he's worried enough to allow something to be done."
I didn't answer right away and made myself look away from her eyes. My attention wound up on her knees, crossed demurely enough to deny any other purpose, even if we both knew better.
"What do you want done?"
"I want you to be Russell's bodyguard. Make sure no one carries out any threats until he leaves for his national tour in two weeks."
"We're making arrangements with a national firm to provide security while he travels. We want someone local until then."
"Why me? I'm just a one-man operation. A firm that could handle him on tour could just as easily do it locally."
"Don't you want the job?"
"I didn't say that. I'm just curious. What can I offer that they can't? I can't give him twenty-four by seven protection. I have to sleep and go to the bathroom once in a while."
"Russell isn't comfortable with the idea of a bodyguard. I'm hoping you'll hit it off and get him used to having someone with him every waking minute. That should make everything more bearable for the four months he'll be on the road."
"What makes you think we'll bond?"
She smiled without separating her lips. The victory of showing yet another man he had underestimated her was in her eyes. "I've done my homework. Your background as a musician should make you better able to deal with an artistic temperament. At least that's what I'm hoping."
"He wants a pansy for a bodyguard?"
She looked at me intently. Her eyes were going to be a problem, she knew exactly how to use them. "Your adventure with Frankie Calabra was hardly the work of a pansy."
"Ah," I said, like it meant something. We played coy with each other for a few seconds. She let me go first.
"He's on the road for four months. Then what?"
"Then nothing, I hope. The threats can't last forever."
"Depends on whether you're dealing with a crank or someone with an obsession."
"You don't seem very enthusiastic about this."
"I don't like to disappoint clients. I'm not sure I can deliver what you're looking for."
"Would ten thousand dollars make you any more sure?"
It took considerable self-control to keep from sitting up too quickly and breaking a knee on the desk. "For two weeks' work?" I don't like protection work. It's as tedious as a stakeout and you have to put up with the subject, but my fifteen minutes of fame from saving Frankie Calabra were over and bills had to be paid. Five grand a week relieves a lot of tedium.
"Yes." She showed the same smile, but less of it. The full treatment would have looked smug. "I asked around and then talked to Russell. We think you'd be uniquely suited to ease his discomfort about having what he refers to as a 'strong-arm man' at his side."
"Is that another fruity musician reference? You don't think I can do strong-arm?"
There were teeth in this smile. "Not at all. From what I can see, you seem admirably suited for it." A lesser man would have blushed.
"When do I start?"
"You have to meet Russell first."
"When and where?"
"Right now, at his home." She stood and pretended to smooth her skirt again. That appeared to be her move, the way Michael Jordan liked to go right. When she turned for the door I saw a small lift scar under her jaw on the side she kept turned away. "He has a condo on Michigan Avenue near the theater. We're expected."
Confidence is an attractive trait in a woman. I gave Sharon a few calls to return, some reports to file, and the usual instructions bosses leave with secretaries. Then Sheila and I left to meet my new client and his ten thousand dollars.