Cat Jones was the kind of woman who not only got everything in the world that she wanted—in her case a fabulous job as editor in chief of one of the biggest women's magazines, a gorgeous town house in Manhattan, and a hot-looking husband with a big career of his own—but over the years also managed to get plenty of what other women wanted: like their fabulous jobs and their hot-looking husbands. It was hard not to hate her. So when her perfect world began to unravel, I might have been tempted to turn my face into my pillow at night and go, "Hee hee hee." But I didn't. I took no pleasure in her misery, as I'm sure plenty of other people did, and instead I jetted to her rescue. Why? Because she helped pay my bills, because she was my friend in a weird sort of way, and most of all because as a writer of true crime articles I've always been sucked in by stories that start with a corpse and lead to crushing heartache.
There's no way I could forget the moment when all the Sturm und Drang began. It was just after eight on a Sunday morning, a Sunday in early May. I was lying under the covers of my queen-size bed in a spoon position with thirty-four-year-old Kyle Conner McConaughy, investment banker and sailing fanatic, feeling him growing hard and hoping I wouldn't do anything to mess up the delicate ecosystem of the moment. It was our sixth date and only the second time we'd been to bed, and though dinner had been nice and last night's sex had been even better than the first time, I had a pit in my stomach—the kind that develops when you find yourself gaga over a guy you've begun to sense is as skittish as an alpine goat. All it would take was the wrong remark from me—a suggestion, for instance, that we plan a weekend at a charming inn in the Berkshires—and he'd burn rubber on his way out the door.
The phone rang just as I felt his hand close around my right breast. I glanced instinctively at the clock. God, it was only 8:09. The machine would pick it up, regardless of what idiot had decided to call at this hour. It was too early for my mother, traipsing around Tuscany, and too late for old boyfriends, who did their drunk dialing at two A.M. from pay phones in bars below 14th Street. Maybe it was the super. It would be just like him to get in touch at this hour with some pathetic complaint, like my bike was leaning up against the wrong wall in the basement.
"Do you need to get that?" K.C. asked, his hand pausing in its pursuit.
"The machine will," I said. Had I remembered, I wondered, to turn the volume all the way down? The fourth ring was cut off abruptly and a woman's voice came booming into the room from the small office directly across from my bedroom. No, I hadn't.
"Bailey? . . . Bailey? . . . Please pick up if you're there. It's Cat . . . I need your help. . . . Bailey, are you there?"
"I better grab this," I said, wriggling out from under the white comforter. I propped myself up on my elbow and reached for the phone on the bedside table.
"Hi," I said, clearing my throat. "I'm here."
"Oh, thank God," Cat Jones said. "Look, something's wrong here and I'm going insane. I need your help."
"Okay, tell me," I said calmly. If I wasn't responding with a huge degree of concern, it was because I'd known Cat Jones for seven years and I'd seen her freak when the dry cleaners pressed the seams wrong in her pants.
"It's my nanny—you know, Heidi."
"This one quit, too?"
"Please don't be funny. There's something the matter. She won't answer the door down in her apartment."
"You're sure she's there?"
"Yes. I mean, I talked to her yesterday and she promised to be here this morning."
"Christ, it's only eight o'clock, Cat," I protested. "She's probably dead asleep. Or she's got a guy with her and she's embarrassed to answer the door." K.C.'s hand, which had been fondling my breast only seconds ago, had now lost much of its enthusiasm.
"But she'd never just ignore me," Cat said. Of course not. Few people would have the nerve to do that.
"Maybe she's not even in there. Maybe she spent the night at somebody else's place."
"She said she was staying in last night. I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Can't you let yourself in? You've got a key, right?"
"I'm scared to go in alone. What if there's something the matter in there?"
"Well, what about Jeff ?" I asked, referring to her husband.
"He's up in the country for the weekend with Tyler. I had something to do here," she added almost defensively.
"And there's no one closer? A neighbor?"
"No. No one I trust."
She paused then in that famous way of hers, which had started out as a trick to make people rush to fill the void and divulge their most sacred secrets to her, but which now had become a kind of unintentional mannerism, the way some people bite the side of their thumb as they think. I waited her out, listening to the sound of K.C.'s breathing.
"Bailey, you've got to come up here," she said finally.
"Now?" I exclaimed. "Cat, it's eight-eleven on a Sunday morning. Why not wait a bit longer? I bet she spent the night at some guy's place and she's trying to flag down a cab right now."
"But what if that's not the case? What if something happened to her in there?"
"What are you suggesting? That she's passed out from a bender—or she's hung herself from the door frame?"
"No. I don't know. It just seems weird—and I'm scared."
I could see now that this was bigger than a dry-cleaning snafu, that she had her knickers in a twist and was serious about wanting me there, uptown on 91st Street, now.
"Okay, okay," I said. "It's going to take me at least thirty minutes to get dressed and get up there."
"Just hurry, all right?" She hung up the phone without even saying good-bye.
By now there didn't seem to be much lust left in my dashing Lothario. He'd let his hand slip away and had rolled from the spoon position onto his back. I'd once heard someone say that Cat Jones was so intimidating that she had made some of the men she went to bed with temporarily impotent, but even I, who had never underestimated her, was impressed that she'd managed to do that from about eighty blocks to a man I was in bed with.
"Look, K.C., I'm really sorry," I said, rolling over and facing him. He had lots of Irish blood in his veins, and it showed—dark brown, nearly black eyes, coarse dark brown hair, pale skin, front teeth that overlapped ever so slightly. "This woman I work for has a live-in nanny and she thinks she's in some kind of trouble. I've got to go up to her place and help her out."
"Is that Cat, the one you work for at Gloss ?"
"Yeah. The beautiful but easily bothered Cat Jones. You're welcome to hang around here till I get back."
What I wanted to add was, "And when I get back I'll do things to your body that you've never even imagined before," but at that moment I wasn't feeling very nervy.
"No, I should go," he said. "Can I make a preemptive strike on the bathroom? It'll be quick."
"Sure. I'm gonna make coffee. Do you want something to eat—a bagel?"
"Not necessary," he said, pulling his arm out from under me so he could swing out of bed. He leaned over the side, reaching for his boxers, and then padded off to the bathroom. Great. There'd been the tiniest hint of snippiness in the "Not necessary," as if he suspected I'd found an excuse to blow him off. Or maybe he was relieved. This way there'd be no awkwardness about how long he was supposed to stay at my place or whether he should take me out for French toast and mimosas.
I forced myself out of bed and stole a look in the mirror above my dresser. I'm fairly attractive, I guess you could say, but lookswise the morning has never been my finest hour. I'd gotten all my makeup off last night, so there was none of that streaky "Bride of Chucky" horror, but my short blondish brown hair was bunched up on top of my head and it looked as though I had a hedgehog sitting there. I swiped at it with a brush a few times until it lay flat and then pulled on a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black cotton cardigan.
As I headed toward the kitchen I could hear K.C. splashing water in the bathroom. I put on the teakettle (I make my coffee in a French press) and walked from the living room out onto my terrace to see what the weather had in mind today. I live in the Village, Greenwich Village, at the very east end of it before it becomes the shabbier East Village, and my view is to the west, toward an unseen Hudson River blocked by gray-and red- and sand-colored buildings and nineteen shingled water towers scattered over the rooftops. It was cool, and the sky was smudged with gray.
"How'd you get this place again?"
K.C. was standing in the doorway, all dressed, ready to split. There was something downright roguish about him, a quality that was kept almost at bay when he dressed in one of his navy banker suits, but came through loud and clear as he stood there in slacks and a shirt rumpled from having been tossed in a heap on the floor in my bedroom. I was torn between the desire to swoon and the urge to heed a tiny voice in my head that was going, "Run, Bambi, run."
"I got divorced, and this was part of the consolation prize."
He took three steps toward me. "I used your toothbrush, Miss Weggins."
"Then I look forward to using it next," I said. I nearly cringed at the sound of myself saying it. I'd once written an article about a woman with fourteen personalities, including an adolescent boy named Danny who liked to set five-alarm ware-house fires. Maybe that's what was going on with me.
But he smiled for the first time that morning and leaned forward and kissed me hard on the mouth.
"Have a good day."
"Oh, I'm sure I will. I'll be scouring New York for the no-show nanny."
"I hope she's worth it," he said.
"You want to come along?" I asked in a burst of imagination or stupidity.
"Can't," he said. "I'm supposed to go sailing today."
I walked him to the front of the apartment, flipped the locks on the door, and opened it. He spotted The New York Times lying on the mat and picked it up for me. Then he flashed me this tight little smile with raised eyebrows and turned to go. No "Call you later." No "That was the most awesome sex I've ever had." I felt a momentary urge to hurl the newspaper at the back of his head, but I just closed the door and begged the gods to keep me from falling hard for him.
Twelve minutes later I was in a cab heading uptown. I'd brushed my teeth, made coffee, and then poured it into a Styrofoam cup. I'd tried sipping it in the taxi, but the driver was going too fast, so now I had the cup on the floor, squeezed between my shoes.
There didn't seem to be anyone on the sidewalks at this hour, just people walking their dogs, and cabbies hurrying out of delis with blue-and-white disposable coffee cups. The last time I'd been outside on a Sunday this early was about a year ago and I'd been coming home, doing the walk of shame in a black cocktail dress. At 23rd Street we turned right, drove all the way to the end, and picked up the FDR Drive. As we sped alongside the East River, the sun burned a small hole through the clouds, making the river water gleam like steel.
I tried to read the front page of the paper, but I couldn't concentrate. I kept wondering if I'd totally blown things with K.C. by tossing him out for the sake of some silly nanny who'd most likely spent the night in a shagathon and would soon be returning home with a major case of beard burn. I'd actually met Heidi on several occasions. She was a stunningly pretty and aloof girl from Minnesota or Indiana who'd been imported to take care of Cat's two-year-old son, Tyler. In fact, I had just seen her on Thursday night when I'd been at Cat's house for a party and she'd appeared briefly in the front hallway to rifle through a closet, searching for Tyler's jacket. She had looked through me as if we'd never met before. I was certain that by the time I got to Cat's house Heidi would have surfaced and I'd be back in a taxi, spending another $15 on a ride home.
The only consolation was that I was getting an early start on the day. Besides, I really didn't have much choice but to indulge Cat on this one. She was not only my friend, but also partly responsible for the fantastic little career I had today, at the age of thirty-three. She'd made me a contributing writer to her magazine, Gloss, one of the so-called Seven Sister magazines, which had once specialized in running recipes for chicken dishes made with cream of mushroom soup and profiles of women who'd spent the best parts of their lives trying to get toxic dump sites removed from their towns, but under Cat had metamorphosed into something worthy of its name—a juicy, glossy thing with sexy fashion portfolios, down-and-dirty guides to making your husband moan in the rack, and fascinating crime stories and human dramas. And I got to write those stories. Not the make-him-moan ones—but the crime stories and human-interest dramas, tales about serial killers and vanishing wives and coeds killed and stuffed in fifty-gallon drums by the professors they'd been having affairs with.
I was grateful to Cat, but it was fair to say she got her money's worth. I was good at what I did, and my stories pulled in readers and won awards, and a book publisher just recently decided to package twelve of them together as an anthology.
Cat and I met seven years ago, at a little downtown magazine called Get, circulation seventy-five thousand, which focused on New York City happenings—the arts, culture, society, scandal, and crime, not necessarily in that order. Up until then I'd been at newspapers, starting, after college at Brown, on the police beat at the Albany Times Union and moving on to the Bergen County Record in New Jersey. I loved anything to do with crime, though I'm not sure why. My father died when I was only twelve, and my ex-husband once suggested that my fascination with the macabre was born then. I'm more inclined to think it stems from an experience I had as a high school freshman. Someone began leaving nasty notes for me in my desk and in my locker, and rather than just take it, I methodically figured out who the sender was (a girl), and the thrill that came from solving that mystery was totally empowering. Eventually I realized that magazines would offer me more stylistic freedom than newspapers, and I found my way to New York City and the newly created Get.
I met Cat, known as Catherine then, the first day on the job. She was deputy editor, four years older than me, and though she supervised mostly the celeb and arts stuff, not the gritty pieces I wrote, I got to see her strut her stuff in meetings. She took a liking to me, maybe because I didn't fawn over her like so many people, and over time she began coming into my little office, closing the door and confiding in me about office politics and the complications that came from dating several men at the same time, including a married one with two kids. She had recognized me as a secret keeper, a rare breed in New York. Once, I even flew to Barbados with her because she wanted to keep Jeff, whom she'd been dating for four months, hot and bothered. What did I get out of the relationship? I was totally dazzled by her, by her ambition and total self-assurance and the fearless way she asked for what she wanted.
After I'd been at Get for just a year, the editor in chief resigned in a major snit because the owner was pressuring him to kill a snarky story about a friend. The ten of us remaining on staff stood around in the hall that afternoon, wondering what the hell we should do, until Cat suggested we should all quit, too, in a show of solidarity. And so we did. That night we gathered in a bar with the editor, who bought us rounds of drinks and told us we'd be talked about in journalism schools for years to come. I wanted to feel giddy and important, but all I could do was wonder if I still had dental insurance, since I was only halfway through a very nasty root canal treatment. Cat, on the other hand, looked preternaturally calm, leaning against the bar with her martini and a cigarette. Three days later it was announced that she was the new editor in chief of Get.
I didn't speak to her for five months. Eventually she wooed me back, with some explanation about a magazine being more important than the people who ran it and by giving me the chance to write even bigger stories. Catherine had become Cat by then, the editor who could seduce any writer into working for her and knew if an article was good, as someone once wrote in a profile of her, if her nipples got hard when she read it. She became an It girl in the media world, and just over two years into her tenure, the owner of Gloss used an electric cattle prod to force Dolores Wilder, the sixty-seven-year-old editor in chief, to "gracefully" retire, naming Cat as her hot new replacement. Each of the Seven Sister magazines, which included Women's Home Journal and Best Home, was close to one hundred years old—or long in the tooth, in the opinion of some—and if they were going to survive, they needed fresh blood like Cat. She'd extracted a promise from the owner that she could turn the magazine on its head in order to modernize it. Within days she had offered me a contract to write eight to ten human-interest or crime stories a year as a freelance writer and had even given me a tiny office on the premises. I could still write for other places, including travel magazines, a sideline of mine. I'd been yearning for the freedom a freelance gig would offer over a staff job, and the arrangement thrilled me.
We'd kept the friendship up, though like I said it was a kind of weird one. Occasionally I'd be tempted to keep my distance, when the selfish bitch part of her personality reared its ugly head. But then she'd do something fun and amazing, like leave a bag on my desk with an ice pack and a thirty-gram jar of caviar.
By now the taxi had exited the FDR Drive at 96th Street, and from there we headed down Second Avenue and then west on 91st Street to Cat's block between Park and Madison, a neighborhood known as Carnegie Hill. It was an elegant, tree-lined block of mostly town houses, some brownstone, some brick, one painted a soft shade of pink. Catty-corner from Cat's house was an exclusive private lower school, where children were often delivered and picked up in black Lincoln Town Cars. I paid the driver and climbed out of the cab, careful with my coffee cup. The street was empty except for a man wearing a yellow mack and walking a pudgy Westie in the direction of Central Park. A cool light wind began to blow out of nowhere and there was suddenly a snowfall of pink blossoms from a tree on the edge of the sidewalk. Petals landed on my sweater, my shoes, even in my hair.
As I brushed them away, I scanned Cat's town house, looking for signs of life. It was a four-story white brick building with black shutters, erected, she once told me, in the 1880s. The main entrance of the house was on the second floor, through a double set of black painted doors at the top of the stoop. On the first floor under the stoop was a separate entrance to the nanny apartment, which you reached by going down several steps from the sidewalk and walking across a small flagstone courtyard. There was a seven-foot wrought-iron gate that opened to a vestibule under the stoop and the door to the apartment. I stepped closer to the house, leaning against the wrought-iron fence in front of the steps to the courtyard area. From there I could see a faint glow coming from the two front windows of Heidi's apartment, creeping out from around the edges of the closed wooden shutters. Ahhh, so all was well after all. Obviously, the hung-over Heidi had been jarred from her slumber while I was being bounced over the potholes of Manhattan. I wondered if I'd at least be offered a croissant before I was sent on my way.
Excerpted from IF LOOKS COULD KILL © Copyright 2002 by Kate White. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights reserved.