THE FIRST TIME she said her name on the phone that January night, I couldn't place her --- though there was something vaguely familiar about the voice. It had a snooty, trust fundy tone, as if she were announcing, "I own a Marc Jacobs bag and you don't."
"Ashley Hanes," she said once more, this time with exaggerated emphasis and irritation, the way American tourists sometimes speak to foreigners who don't understand them. "We met at Peyton Cross's wedding. I was a bridesmaid, remember?"
Ohh, right. We had been introduced late last April in Greenwich, Connecticut, during the infamous Cross-Slavin wedding weekend. Ashley had graduated from the same exclusive private high school as the bride and was now working, if my memory was correct, as an interior decorator in Greenwich --- though working was apparently something she chose rather than had to do. An image of her began to loosen from my memory: long, chestnut-colored hair, slim as a French baguette, and haughty as hell, just like the voice. She was the kind of woman who would meet you at a party and look right through you, as if you were a potted palm.
"Oh, right, I'm so sorry," I said. "I'm in a little bit of a fog at the moment. How are you, anyway?"
I was pretty sure what was coming next. Since I'm a contributing writer for Gloss magazine, I often get phone calls from people I've met asking for fashion- or publishing-related favors. But I write gritty, true crime and human-interest stories for the magazine, and I'm not connected to the glittery, glossy stuff. My name is Bailey Weggins, by the way, and just for the record, I am categorically unable to help someone become a Ford model, gain admittance to a Chanel sample sale, or publish a confessional article on how a liposuction procedure left ugly scars along her buttocks.
"I need your help," she said.
"Okay," I said. "Though if it's --- "
"There's a very serious situation, and I have to talk to you about it."
"Serious" to someone like Ashley could mean her hair stylist was out of town for the week, but the alarm in her voice sounded real enough that I was concerned.
"Is it about Peyton?" I asked. Though I had spoken to Peyton on the phone once last summer, I had not laid eyes on her in nine months --- not since she had dazzled a room of five hundred guests in a satin Vera Wang wedding dress with a low-cut, crumb-catcher bodice. From there she had headed off for a cruise of the Greek islands with her new, older husband, David, who'd made a fortune in the world of finance --- whatever that means.
"No. Well, indirectly, yes. Look, it's not something I want to get into on the phone. Can you meet me to talk about this?"
"All right. Tell me when --- and where. Are you still living up in Greenwich?"
"Yes, but I'm in New York tonight. At the Four Seasons Hotel. Could you come by here for a drink?"
"Tonight?" I exclaimed. It had started to snow a few hours earlier, and as I glanced across the room toward the terrace of my fourteenth-story apartment, I could see it was coming down harder now --- in big, crazy swirls. I live at the very eastern end of Greenwich Village, on the corner of 9th Street and Broadway, and it would be a bitch getting a cab up to 57th Street in this weather --- and an even bigger bitch getting one back.
"It's urgent," she said. "When you hear what I have to say, you'll understand why I need to see you immediately."
It didn't seem that I had much choice but to acquiesce. She sounded about as eager to hear me say no as she would be to travel by Greyhound, and besides, if the situation really did involve Peyton Cross, even indirectly, I was curious to know what it was. I explained to Ashley that it might take me forty-five minutes to get there. We agreed that I would ring her on the hotel house phone when I arrived and she'd come down to the bar in the lobby.
I'd been reading a book when she called, dressed in bagged-out sweatpants and drinking a cup of instant hot cocoa in honor of the snowstorm, and now I was going to have to head out into the mess. Several months ago I'd moved into a steady relationship with a guy named Jack Herlihy, but because he taught psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., we saw each other on weekends. Some nights I'd see a movie or have dinner out with friends, but more weeknights than not, I was holed up in my apartment, either alone or chatting with my seventy-year-old next-door neighbor, Landon. Though I looked forward to my weekends with Jack, the rest of my nights had become about as scintillating as C-SPAN. Landon had told me lately that he was worried that I might start adopting stray cats.
I changed into a pair of tight dark jeans, a black turtleneck sweater, silver hoop earrings (in an attempt to look a little dressier), and my snow boots, which I found after foraging through my closet for five minutes. It was actually the first time this winter that we'd had more than flurries in Manhattan.
I was surprised when I stepped outside to see that about two inches of snow had already stuck to the ground, and you could tell by the swollen look of the sky that more was on the way. I opted for the subway, the number 6 train at Astor Place. It would be faster than hunting for a cab --- and it would take me to within a few blocks of the hotel.
As the train hurtled through the tunnel, its floor sopping wet with melted snow, I had time to consider what trouble might be brewing for the captivating Peyton Cross. From all reports, her life couldn't have been going better. In her early thirties like me, she'd recently been dubbed the next Martha Stewart --- or "Martha Stewart wannabe" --- in the eyes of the people who envied her so much they couldn't stand it. She ran a combination cooking school, successful catering business, and gourmet kitchen and food shop out of an old farmhouse and barn --- known as Ivy Hill Farm --- on the outskirts of Greenwich. Her first cookbook was due out sometime this year, and she was a frequent guest on the Food Network. The last I'd heard, her new husband was funding the construction of a TV studio on her farm so she could produce her own show.
As they say, I knew her when --- she was my roommate freshman year at Brown. She was extremely vivacious, pretty in that kind of scrubbed-face, not overly sophisticated preppy way, and, from what I could tell, afraid of absolutely nothing. Though some guys were totally intimidated by her, more than her share were mesmerized, and she generally had several in a lather at any given time. Her taste ran toward hunky, bad-boy types, the kind of men who often left women emotionally bruised, but for the most part Peyton outsmarted them.
Life as her roommate was entertaining but also exasperating. That's because she could be selfish and rude. She'd ask me to meet her at dinner and then make me wait for an hour in the cafeteria, or she'd borrow my best shirt and then leave it balled up with the dust bunnies under her bed. Over time I figured out how to avoid situations with her that could end in me cursing under my breath. The trick for surviving, I learned, was to keep my expectations low and enjoy the show.
We both got singles sophomore year, and though we were friendly and occasionally grabbed a beer together, we didn't see a huge amount of each other. I bonded with several women who, unlike Peyton, seemed to carry the good-girlfriend gene. After college Peyton and I stayed in touch by e-mail, though infrequently. After gigs as a reporter for the Albany Times Union and the Bergen County Record I headed for Manhattan, hoping to break into magazines. I called her for some insight. At the time she was working for Food & Wine, developing recipes. She promised to introduce me to a few people in the business, and to my surprise she actually came through. She also invited me to Greenwich several times for parties she was throwing as part of her burgeoning catering and event-planning business. That was the thing about Peyton --- just when you were ready to strangle her, she could charm the pants off you.
Her wedding had been one of the more lavish I'd ever attended. It was held in a historic house on the outskirts of Greenwich, and Peyton arranged for her own company to do the catering. That was partly because she didn't trust anyone else to do the job with her degree of genius, but also for the PR value for her business. Friends of mine had sworn I'd bag some rich guest that day, but David Slavin was fifteen years older than Peyton, and his business associates and friends were paunchy and pathetically boorish. I'd spent a good chunk of the day flirting with one of the bartenders.
The snow was coming down even harder when I emerged from the underground at 59th and Lexington. I felt relieved when I finally stomped into the marble, two-story-high lobby of the Four Seasons. I rang Ashley's room to tell her I'd arrived and then headed over to the lobby bar, requesting the most private table they could manage. Like the lobby, the entire area --- the marble walls, the Roman shades, and the furniture --- was done in shimmering beige. A little too mausoleumlike for my taste.
Though I hadn't recalled Ashley's name when she'd first said it on the phone, I had no trouble recognizing her as soon as she strode purposefully in my direction. Several heads turned to watch her. She had a rich girl's air of self-importance and entitlement, the kind that many A-list actresses try for years to acquire but never do.
As she got closer, I realized that the dark plum thing she was wearing was actually a fur coat. Either she was planning on going out afterward or she'd been reluctant to leave it in the room. It was, I suspected, sheared beaver or mink, lush and plush and worth at least twenty thousand dollars. I wondered if her car sported a bumper sticker that read I DON'T BRAKE FOR SMALL ANIMALS.
She slid into the chair to my left without bothering with a perfunctory air kiss or even a hello. I guess she figured we'd gotten our pleasantries out of the way on the house phone. She wore her chestnut hair pinned back tonight, accentuating the slenderness of her tanned face. Her cheekbones were so high and sharp, you'd risk a paper cut if you got too close to them.
"Did you order yet?" she asked briskly, shaking off her coat to reveal a sleeveless lavender wool dress and thin buff arms. She glanced at my turtleneck and jeans with a soupçon of disapproval, as if I were wearing one of those plastic lobster bibs that says I'M A PIGGY.
"No, I was waiting for you," I told her.
She jerked her head around toward the center of the room and signaled for the waitress. She appeared on edge, and I assumed it had to do with the news she was about to divulge. There didn't seem to be any reason to spend five minutes on small talk, so as soon as she had ordered a dirty martini and I'd asked for a glass of Cabernet, I jumped in.
"So tell me, what's going on?" I asked.
"When was the last time you spoke to Peyton?"
"It's been a while. Last summer, I guess."
"Do you remember the bridesmaid with the short black hair? Jamie Howe?"
Jamie. She was the bridesmaid I'd spent the most time talking to, mainly because she was also in the magazine business. She'd met Peyton during her tenure at Food & Wine and had since become an editor at another food magazine. I hadn't particularly liked her. She was sullen and, I suspected, jealous of Peyton's success. She kept talking about how lucky Peyton was to have David to foot the bill for all of her ventures.
"Sure. She lives here in New York, right?"
"Lived," she said almost defiantly. "She's dead now."
"You're kidding," I exclaimed. The news took me totally by surprise. "How?"
"She was electrocuted in her apartment --- down on the Lower East Side. It happened in September."
I sat there momentarily speechless while Ashley took a fortifying sip of her martini. As she swallowed, she laid her French-manicured hand flat against the front of her dress, as if it helped the vodka to go down more easily. When she set the glass on the table again, I caught the cloying scent of olives.
"Gosh, I vaguely remember hearing that someone in the business died like that," I said finally. "But I had no idea it was her. What happened, exactly?"
"She was taking a bath and a CD player slipped into the tub," Ashley said.
"I know. And hard to believe someone wouldn't know better than to set it so close to the tub."
She had an odd way of punctuating her comments with a sniff. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Are you thinking --- "
"Until last week I didn't think much about it at all," she said, suddenly sounding frantic. "I'd never even met Jamie before the wedding. But --- you're not going to believe this. Two weeks ago another of the bridesmaids died. My roommate --- Robin Lolly."
I let out a gasp so loud that a media mogul type at the next table turned his head in our direction. She was right. I could barely believe what I was hearing.
"How?" I asked.
"She was taking antidepressants, and she had some kind of fatal reaction. It was from mixing them with the wrong kind of food." Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke, but they seemed to come as much from nervous tension as from sadness.
"Robin?" I said. "She's the one who managed the shop at Peyton's farm?"
"Yes, yes," Ashley said impatiently. "She was the pretty one --- with the long blond hair. She may have still been using her married name when you met her --- Atkins."
"That's terrible," I said. "Were you two very close?"
"We weren't what you'd call best friends," she said, shaking her head quickly, "but we'd known each other since high school. Robin, Peyton, Prudence --- she was the maid of honor, remember? --- and I all went to Greenwich Academy together. Robin and I started sharing a town house last March. My roommate had moved out, and Robin needed a place to live after her divorce."
"Was she at home when she died?"
"No, she was up in Vermont --- all alone --- at a ski house her parents left her. She'd driven up on Friday, and the coroner said she must have died shortly after she arrived --- though her body wasn't discovered until a cleaning person came in Monday morning." Her voice choked as she spoke the last sentence.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "This must be awful for you --- and for Peyton, too."
"Look," she said, suddenly, grasping my arm so hard that it would have taken the Jaws of Life to remove it. "Don't you find it odd that two perfectly healthy young women who were in a wedding together would die within a few months of each other in such bizarre circumstances?"
"Are you saying you think someone killed the two of them?" I asked. "Because they were bridesmaids?"
"All I know is that something's not right about it --- and I'm going out of my mind. Robin and Jamie hadn't even met until the wedding. But they became friends after that. And now suddenly they're both dead --- as a result of these strange accidents. I'm terrified something could happen to me."
"I know how upsetting this must be, but it really sounds like nothing more than an awful coincidence."
She shook her head agitatedly. "That's what everyone says --- Peyton and everyone else."
"Well, do you have anything else to go on?" I asked.
"To begin with, I find this whole food-and-drug-mixing thing preposterous. Robin was very clear about the foods she wasn't supposed to eat. She told me what they were so that if I ever cooked for us, I wouldn't include any of them."
It was hard to imagine Ashley doing anything with food other than calling the Zone Gourmet delivery line.
"But sometimes people cheat with food, no matter how religious they say they're going to be about their diets," I told her.
She glanced nervously around the room, as if she were afraid of eavesdroppers, then leaned closer to me.
"No, she knew how dangerous even a tiny slip in her diet could be. I just don't think she would have cheated. And that's not all. After Jamie's death, Robin got really weird. She seemed nervous and tense."
"But that was probably just normal grieving," I suggested.
She let out a ragged sigh. "I can't believe this," she said. "I thought you of all people would take it more seriously. I guess if my life is in danger, I'm going to have to take care of myself."
There was a manic edge to her voice, and the media mogul glanced over again. It probably appeared as if I were trying to talk her down from a coke high.
"Ashley, look, you need to chill on this. Even if the worst happened and someone killed both of them, it may have to do with their being friends, not being in the wedding together."
"No, no," she said, shaking her head. "I thought that too for about forty seconds, but then I remembered something. Right after Jamie died, Robin started asking me about the wedding. She wanted to know if anything had seemed strange to me that day."
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck shoot up, as if they'd been lollygagging around, half listening, and now something had finally caught their attention.
"What do you mean, strange?" I asked.
"I don't know. Nothing occurred to me when she asked other than the fact that the damn bridesmaid dresses made us look like giant balls of butter --- and when I asked her to be more specific, she told me to never mind. At the time I didn't associate her question with Jamie's death, but now I see it has to be connected."
I asked if she'd pointed any of this out to the police, and she said she'd told the officer in charge of the investigation of Robin's death about Jamie, but he had dismissed it. The out-of-state factor had clearly deterred the police from seeing any connection.
"So what exactly is it that you want from me?" I asked finally.
"Come to Greenwich. Just look into this. Isn't that what you do?"
A woman like Ashley wouldn't care that it wasn't really what I did. Yes, I'd gotten involved in a couple of murder cases, yet basically I'm just a reporter. But trust fund chicks like her were only interested in locating the spot where their needs intersected with what you had to give.
I thought for a moment, sipping my wine. It sounded on the surface as if the situation really were nothing more than a dreadful coincidence. But the question Robin had asked about the wedding disturbed me. At the very least I wanted to talk to Peyton. She must be reeling from it all.
I told Ashley okay, that I would visit Greenwich --- to talk to Peyton and possibly make some other inquiries. The next day, Wednesday, would actually be the best day for me to make the one-hour drive, because I needed to be at Gloss on Thursday afternoon for a meeting with the deputy editor. Ashley seemed instantly relieved. I took down her number and told her that I would be in contact with her tomorrow, after I figured out what time I'd be leaving.
We asked for the check and she paid it, though there was a moment when I thought she was going to ask me to split it. Typical. After walking her to the elevator, I slipped out the rear entrance of the hotel on 58th Street. The snow was still coming down hard and cars crawled along the street, their wheels sometimes spinning and whining. Miraculously, a taxi appeared and no one tried to bulldoze me for it. As I nestled into the warmth of the cab, I realized that a knot had formed in my stomach. The conversation with Ashley had rattled me.
Back in my apartment, I pulled off my coat and boots and, without turning on the lights, flopped down on the couch. I don't exactly live in Hilton-sister style, but for a single girl in Manhattan I've got a pretty nice place --- a one-bedroom with a living room big enough for a dining table and a terrace off it. The view is to the west, to nothing in particular, but it's charming. I see dozens of gray- and red- and sand-colored buildings with old shingled water towers scattered over the rooftops.
Lit by the blanket of snow on the terrace, my living room was practically aglow. I sank back into the cushions and tried to conjure up Peyton's wedding day. Much of it was a blur by now, though I could recall the big details. The ceremony, in a Protestant church in Greenwich, had taken all of fifteen minutes. The reception, on the other hand, had gone on for hours, starting with a cocktail hour that had featured a vodka-and-caviar station among other extravagances. Dinner was five courses long, including a cheese course before dessert.
The phone rang suddenly, startling me. I picked it up from the side table next to the couch. It was Jack, just calling to say good night.
"I tried earlier," he said. "I didn't think you were going out tonight." Not accusatory, just curious. I blurted out the whole story.
"That's definitely weird," he said. "But I wouldn't let it worry you. In all likelihood, it's just a coincidence."
"Doesn't it defy some natural law of probability?" I asked, knowing that because of his training as a shrink, he might be up on such things.
"Not really. It's known as a cluster. It's a set of random events that seem significant because there is more than an average amount of them. But they're just that --- random. They really don't mean anything."
He told me again not to be alarmed, and then we moved on to a discussion about the upcoming weekend. It was momentarily distracting, but no sooner was I off the phone than I felt a new wave of disquietude. The two deaths could be random, sure, but then there was that odd question Robin had asked of Ashley: Did anything about the wedding seem strange? I couldn't imagine, though, what occurrence that April day could possibly have led someone to murder two women who had just met.
I finally turned on the lights, and after traipsing down the hall to my tiny office --- which had once been a walk-in closet --- I rummaged through my desk drawer until I found a photo of the wedding party that Peyton had sent me last summer as a souvenir. There were Peyton and David in the center and, off to David's left, the best man, Trip, one of his business partners, and several older groomsmen I'd barely spoken to that weekend. Off to Peyton's right were the maid of honor and the five bridesmaids. And there I was among them, my short, blondish brown hair shellacked into a Doris Day style and all five feet six inches of me entombed in yards and yards of yellow taffeta.
You see, that's why Ashley's story troubled me so much. I'd been a bridesmaid in Peyton Cross's wedding, too.
Excerpted from 'TIL DEATH DO US PART © Copyright 2003 by Kate White. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.