When the winner of the worldwide beauty contest to find the new face of “California Girl” is found murdered, the number one suspect is her predecessor. Beautiful Jordan Comstock, both renowned and beloved, was the original ‘California Girl’ model and spokesperson for California Cosmetics.
Meanwhile, two attempts on Jordan’s life get ignored by the police lieutenant, given his unwavering belief that they were unsuccessful attempts on Jordan’s part to divert suspicion from herself. Suddenly, being the winner of this contest doesn’t seem so lucky…
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Genre: Mystery Word Count: 73, 652
Thank heavens. Only two more rooms to clean and she’d be finished for the day.
The hallway outside suite #246 of the Sand Castle hotel was silent.
“Housekeeping,” Hanna called out. She picked up an empty champagne bottle and the remnants of a late night dinner from the silver tray left near the door.
“Housekeeping,” she called once more. No answer. The young Asian maid pulled her heavy cart closer, opened the door and brought in fresh towels. There was a faint lingering fragrance of orange blossoms in the air. Nearing the bedroom, she noticed a heavier odor, a metallic smell like copper. She moved the cumbersome vacuum toward the bed.
The guest from #246 lay dead on the floor. A single shot to the temple.
The body was almost artfully arranged…still fully clothed. Her beautiful blonde hair soft and loose: a luxurious white fur afghan draped below her lovely face. She could have been the central figure in a grotesque oil painting.
Only the small hole in the girl’s temple and the dark bloodstain beneath her head gave evidence to the fact that this was a crime scene…and that someone had been murdered. There was no weapon and no sign of a struggle. Even in death, this girl was extraordinarily beautiful.
A tiny crystal bottle, in the shape of an open rose, lay discarded on the carpet.
Two weeks earlier:
“One more shot, Jordan! Look over this way.” The paparazzi crowded the sleek white limousine as Jordan graciously made her escape. Charles, the liveried chauffeur, held the door open for her as she reached the car. Once inside, she gave a playful wave through the window to the reporters, interested onlookers, and fans. Her stomach had stopped churning. You would think that after all these years her nerves would have begun to relax. Jordan was beautiful, but she needed the reassurance no matter how often she faced the camera. That little girl inside of her still sought to please everyone. Being a super model meant being perfect. How could anyone be perfect? She’d been working in the sun for four hours straight.
The exotic setting for today’s location shoot was the deck of the ‘tall ship’, Paragon. It was a magnificent schooner, recently arrived from Bermuda, and anchored here in Miami. The pungent smell of the sea was heightened as the Florida sun rose.
“Thanks, Charles.” Jordan slipped off her jacket and removed her uncomfortable, but gorgeous, four-inch, Jimmy Choo stilettos. She sank down into the butter soft leather seat, pushed her hair away from her face, relaxing for the first time today. The car moved out and away from the crowd with a low purring growl.
Jordan carefully placed the offending shoes in the small case on the floor and turned to her secretary. “Damn, why do we wear such torturous things, Bernie?”
Bernice smiled, placing her own Birkenstock’ clad feet on the opposite seat, “Maybe because they’re very sexy? Gosh, Jordan, I just don’t know. Why do we?” Bernice grinned this time. “Who would wear those things on a boat anyway, for heaven’s sake?”
“Never mind…those things pay my salary, and yours. Don’t knock it.” Then Jordan laughed, “Let’s face it, they’re wonderful, and I love every painful inch.” Nevertheless, she carefully massaged her feet as she settled in.
Jordan was just making conversation as they both relaxed in the comfort and cool air of the car. The surrounding mix of palm trees, sunshine, traffic, skyscrapers and busy streets that made Miami an international Mecca, slid by as they made their way back into the city.
Jordan fascinated both men and women: men adored her, women wanted to be her.
As a child, Jordan hadn’t been the exquisite beauty she was now. Overweight at the age of thirteen, she’d reached one hundred and fifty pounds by the time she went to high school. Often, her thoughts returned to her childhood, her teens–and particularly her first serious crush. There, she’d faced rejection and ridicule that she would never forget.
Right now, passing a local schoolyard, Jordan was reminded of that awful time as she watched a chubby little girl lingering near the fence alone, away from the crowd. The scene brought back the pain as though it were yesterday. She knew just how that little girl was feeling.
Jordan saw herself again on that school playground long ago.
Brent Calder stood in the center of an adoring crowd. He was the most popular football player on the junior team, and to Jordan, he was as handsome as any movie star. Next Saturday night was going to be the Sadie Hawkins dance at school. Jordan had finally gathered up the courage to invite Brent to the dance. She approached him nervously in the schoolyard, and held her breath as she came closer. Her chest was actually hurting. Her pudgy legs were almost strangled by the fashionable knee socks she wore. She was painfully aware of how she looked.
One of Brent’s pals noticed her first.
“I think you’re going to get an invitation to the dance, ‘Tiger’,” he said as Jordan came near.
“You mean the little fat girl with the braids? Watch out guys,” Brent announced in a stage whisper to the whole group. “One of the heifers must have broken out of the herd. Come on, let’s move to higher ground.” He smiled and turned away contemptuously, throwing his arm around a nearby cheerleader, leaving Jordan standing alone, ashamed and in tears. Everyone had heard him, and had a good laugh at her expense. Brent knew her name. He sat next to her in one of their classes.
Lowering her eyes, she’d attempted to hide her embarrassment and her tears. Then she walked away slowly, forcing herself not to run. Her heart-wrenching sobs didn’t stop until she reached home. Once nighttime finally came, Jordan still heard their taunts in her sleep. Not only did she not go to the dance, it was a long time before she would salvage her injured pride. Cheerleaders were the perfect people. No one could ever compete with them; everybody knew that. Why had she put herself in this awkward position? Who did she think she was? What a fool she had been. When Jordan reached home, she tried to explain to her mother what had happened.
Her mother just said, ‘Never mind, Dear.’ That was her answer for most things.
It was another two years before Jordan shed the excess weight and added five more inches to her height to become the lovely girl who would eventually grace the covers of fashion magazines throughout the world.
She’d never forgotten the humiliation. Here today, it was still fresh in her memory.
Only last year, Jordan found out she wasn’t above a little revenge. During a well- publicized fashion shoot in Palm Beach, Brent Calder and his wife or girlfriend had come by.
Jordan, Alessandra, Elle MacPherson, and Cindy Crawford, among other international models, were part of this celebrated shoot for one of the top designers of the day. Make-up crew, directors and photographers made up the remainder of the glamorous gathering.
Obviously star struck, Brent had approached the group and introduced himself and his companion to the fabulous foursome.
“Jordan and I went to high school together,” he’d announced with pride to everyone within hearing distance. “It’s nice to see you again, Jordan.” He smiled, obviously waiting for the expected recognition.
Jordan had looked up. He was as handsome as ever and looked like he could still play football. All muscles and deeply tanned, Jordan thought he was better looking than half the people on this shoot. He still had that loose strand of hair he never could keep out of his eyes. Why couldn’t he have gone to fat and started to bald? She was crazy about him once, and now, even with that giant ego, he made her feel like that little girl wanting so desperately to be part of the in-crowd. She took a deep breath. She wouldn’t be intimidated this time. She wouldn’t.
To say the least, Brent looked more than a little surprised when Jordan gave him a blank look…then deliberately turned back to Alessandra and laughed. The laugh was strained though.
“Isn’t it amazing how many strangers claim to have gone to school with you?” Jordan had said aloud, ignoring his chagrin. Dismissing him and turning away she returned to the photo shoot, everyone heard her say, “You must get that all the time, Gigi. Isn’t it annoying, when people try to use you to make themselves feel important?” Alessandra was known as the ‘Greek Goddess’ but called Gigi by the other girls. The laughed at the name but it stuck. She was good natured and didn’t mind the nickname.
Alessandra looked shocked and just stared at Jordan for a moment. “That was a rotten thing to do,” she said, once the embarrassed couple was out of earshot. “Couldn’t you just have smiled and pretended? That poor guy was mortified in front of his girl.”
Anyone could see she was disgusted with Jordan’s behavior. Now, Jordan felt guilty as hell, and with some difficulty, finally recounted the painful story from so long ago to her friends. Even at this stage of her celebrated life, Jordan appeared to be looking for acceptance. There was silence for a while.
Then…”Nice going, girl,” Alessandra said. “He really did deserve that.” It was obvious to everyone that the hurt was still there after all these years. “Glad to see you’re not perfect after all.” Alessandra laughed, as though she meant this as a joke. There was an unspoken rivalry between the two. That last remark was likely not too far from the truth.
Behavior of that kind was so unlike Jordan. Damn it, he’d had that coming. Why did she feel so awful? Revenge wasn’t all that sweet.
In spite of all her fame and success, Jordan still had a compulsive need to be loved. She used charm and humor to make people like her. Her friends wondered why she made such an effort to please even complete strangers. People fell all over themselves just to meet her. What did she have to prove?
Looking back over her life, and the incident with Brent, Jordan realized she had never again been afraid…of anything. It had been a turning point in her life. Maybe she should have thanked him. Nevertheless, it seemed like she would be haunted by those memories forever. Never good enough…never good enough.
Now, here in the limousine, while Jordan’s voice echoed with laughter, her eyes revealed a trace of sadness. She was uneasy. She opened one of the bottles of ice water from the cooler always on hand in the car and held it to her throat. The condensation dripped down the sides of the bottle, leaving shiny tracks, like tears. The cold felt good against her skin.
“Want one, Bernie?” she asked between swallows. Jordan drank directly from the bottle, ignoring the crystal glasses fitted into the mahogany case beside her.
“No, thanks.” Bernice looked too exhausted to bother; her clothes sticking to her.
The heat and humidity were suffocating today; the temperature was expected to rise into the high nineties. The car’s cool interior provided a welcome respite as the powerful vehicle moved with fluid grace, entering the busy intersection. The massive towering pastel buildings crowded one another on each corner. Only the palm trees amongst them at intervals reminded visitors that they were still in Florida. The skyline in Miami held myriad skyscrapers like the result of a child gone wild with Lego–the buildings were all colors of the rainbow, and set at every angle.
“Jordan, you need a vacation,” Bernice said.
“Yeah, right. With Robert away, there’s a real chance of that happening.” For a moment she had a wistful expression, as though she were seriously considering the idea.
“Bernie, what time do we meet with the lawyers today?”
Bernice had been Jordan’s personal secretary for eight years. Amidst the glamour and celebrity of the high fashion world, Bernice stood apart with her average countenance and stature, but seemingly wasn’t bothered by it. Her sensible shoes and large loose fitting shirts normally made a statement all their own. Today, even she looked uncomfortable in this heat. Jordan’s pink striped sailor t-shirt, skin tight white Ralph Lauren’ jeans and four inch heels, made Bernice look even more out of place. Like a middle-aged housewife, midsummer in Queens, whenever Bernice stepped out of the limousine, people were always surprised. The limo had the small tasteful logo of ‘California Girl’ on the front doors. Bernice didn’t fit the bill.
“The lawyers won’t be at your office until two-thirty this afternoon,” Bernice answered. The photographers and crew today had been excellent, but they’d taken much longer than expected. “Remember, the announcement hasn’t been made yet. So if you have any doubts about that scheming little vixen, you can still change your mind.”
“Bernice, stop worrying. Our decision is final. She’s exactly what we were looking for. Forget about her for now.” Jordan smiled, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. There was more about this decision on her mind than she would let on. She resisted the impulse to tell Bernice the truth about how she was feeling. How would it look; a super model with doubts about her own life. She could hardly complain to her secretary. With all Jordan’s wealth, beauty, and her picture perfect life, she would sound like an ungrateful spoiled child. No, she wouldn’t say anything more.
“Come on, it’s almost noon. Let’s stop at that new Italian restaurant near the office. I’ve wanted to try it for weeks now. Be nice to think about something else.”
“Charles, you know the place I mean?”
“Yeah, next to that old department store. The one they’re going to tear down, right?”
The car moved quietly past the impressive office buildings where the lunchtime escapees were just beginning to spill out onto the sidewalks like colonies of ants. Most of them looked bedraggled, and many were heading for the nearest watering hole to spend their hour’s freedom.
The limousine continued on through South Beach, where the fashionable inhabitants always looked to be bit players in a movie scene. Expensive and very skimpy outfits vied for attention on the bronzed figures that filled the elegant streets. Sometimes the people seemed to be there just for show.
“Life is going to change dramatically in a few days. Are you regretting your decision?” Bernice asked. It was obvious that Bernice was worried about her friend and boss.
Jordan didn’t answer, but she looked uncertain. She took another drink and sank back into the soft upholstery. She stared out the window, still not seeming to pay attention to Bernice’s question.
The powerful car gathered speed as it left Collins Avenue and made its way across to the busy U.S.#95. Over this short ribbon of highway, the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. This morning the scene could have been a continuous commercial for the world’s most luxurious automobiles.
“Would you like me to call ahead?” Charles asked over his shoulder. “I believe it’s called Anthony’s.”
“That’s the one, but we’re almost there, we’ll take our chances. Thanks.” Jordan accepted that some privileges were automatically afforded her.
“Well, Bernie, I sign the last contracts before the week’s out. Then we’ll be finished.” She shifted restlessly on the cushioned seat as she finally answered. Her shoulders tensed, but she didn’t say anything more.
“Jordan, are you happy about this, or just relieved that it’s almost over?” Bernice asked again. While Jordan still looked fresh and cool, Bernice’s clothes looked as though they had never been pressed. Bernice never seemed to get it right.
Just then a taxi cut in front of the limousine and the sudden braking caught Jordan off balance.
“Charles, take it easy, damn it,” she said. Her voice was sharper than she meant it to be. As cool as she looked, the heat was getting to her as well.
“Sorry,” Charles said, muttering something else under his breath.
Jordan knew it wasn’t his fault, but didn’t apologize. Ever since this ‘new model’ search started, she’d been on edge. Now it was nearly finished. With Robert in California, at their production headquarters, the entire operation was riding on her delicate but very capable shoulders.
Charles was an excellent driver. And what a job he had. For the last four years, he had either been on standby or driving Jordan and/or her husband Robert to various location shoots or business meetings. With the new campaign in place, he was busier than ever. On many occasions he was the chauffeur for the ‘California Girl’ staff models. He was the envy of his cohorts and embellished many a story for their evening’s entertainment. His current girlfriend apparently didn’t appreciate his job one little bit. Jordan was certain that this girl thought Charles might have been her entry into the glamorous world of modeling. When that didn’t pan out, she’d become very jealous of his constant proximity to some of the world’s most beautiful women. Listening to Charles complain lately, Jordan didn’t think this relationship would last very long.
Jordan was fond of Charles. She knew that some of the models were annoying as hell. She’d overheard them at times being less than civil to him, but she figured he was a grown man. He could look after himself.
Jordan knew, for instance, that Marcy, one of the agency models, would often jump into the car and give him orders without as much as a smile or, heaven forbid, a thank you. Marcy was an arrogant little bitch. She came from nothing and her attitude was designed to make her feel important. How foolish, Jordan thought. She’d made it on her own. She should be proud.
But Marcy was a money-maker, so everyone put up with her antics for the time being. Jordan could be sympathetic to a point, but business was business.
Charles, at one time, owned his own fleet of limos, but gambling and liquor had cost him everything he had, as well as leaving him heavily in debt. This limousine was not his; it was the property of ‘California Girl’ here in Miami.
California Girl Cosmetics, and model agency was owned by Jordan and her husband Robert. Jordan herself was known worldwide simply as the “California Girl”.
Charles had the gaunt look of a worried man, lean and rangy with dark sunken eyes that made him appear older than he was. His eyes, like those of a ferret, constantly darted in all directions and missed nothing. As little as ten years ago, he could have run with the beautiful people; now he ran for them. Jordan figured that Marcy was becoming a real pain in the ass. She wondered just how much more crap Charles was going to take from Marcy before turning on her. It would serve her right. Jordan wouldn’t care if he brought her down a peg or two.
Today the sunlight had been dancing sharply off the waters of the Atlantic; Jordan had fought hard not to squint during the session. She delighted in watching the sleek powerboats and magnificent sailing vessels go by as they worked. Jordan had enjoyed the morning shoot, as she loved the ocean. The heady aroma of it always evoked calm for her.
They would reach their destination in a few more minutes. Jordan smiled as they passed the many well-dressed gentlemen on the benches outside the new boutiques, obviously waiting patiently for the return of their partners. As usual, many of them were eating the humongous ice cream cones so popular here in Miami. Today, the ice cream was melting faster than it could be consumed. Fussy kids were taxing their mothers’ patience as they whined to go back home, or back to the beach. Even the traffic moved more slowly than usual. No one appeared to be in a hurry.
A convenient parking spot opened up just as they neared the restaurant. The limousine quietly glided to a stop in front of its open seating area. Jordan was preoccupied; her mind was on impending business.
In a few days, ‘California Girl’ Cosmetics would introduce the new and exclusive ‘California Girl’ spokes-model. At the same time, they would launch their signature perfume named simply ‘Girl’. The perfume had been highly publicized and the culmination of the worldwide model search was to coincide with the launch. The name of the perfume, of course, was not ‘politically correct’. The term, girl, had been the bane of the feminist movement, but Jordan knew that most women were not averse to being called girls. She had never forgotten the first time a young clerk had addressed her as ‘ma’am’…that very polite synonym for ‘old’. He had used the term without looking up, but she knew that her time would eventually come, as it did for everyone. Many women would secretly appreciate the name ‘Girl’.
Who would become the new ‘California Girl’ was a popular topic these last few months. To most people, Jordan was synonymous with the name. However, this was about to change.
The hype was similar to the familiar and successful campaign used on television many years before, when almost everyone, even those who had never watched the nighttime soap ‘Dallas’, speculated on ‘Who shot J.R.?’.
Exquisite models from the U.S., Canada, and Europe had competed valiantly in hopes of winning the coveted title. Many of the contestants had been from their own headquarters in Miami.
The majority of the staff at ‘California Girl’ were models or former models. Jordan was all too aware of the short working life of a model. When their careers ended, many who had started so young had no other options, save marrying or returning to school. Of course there were exceptions, but the camera was a tough critic and most succumbed to the uncompromisingly youth-oriented business and retired sometime on or around their thirtieth birthday.
Cheryl Tiegs had been one of exceptions to stay on successfully after thirty. She paved the way for people like Jordan. Even so, the majority still faded from sight near the ill- fated arrival of the big ‘three oh’.
Jordan took advantage of their knowledge of the business, finding that former models were a great asset to the company. The unwarranted ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘airhead’ tags that models in general had often been saddled with, was fading. Many of them were not only beautiful, but smart as well. And some were becoming very successful entrepreneurs.
The winner of this highly touted search would represent ‘California Girl’, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world, just as Jordan had for the last ten years. Television spots and hard copy perfume ads would feature the model’s likeness.
The perfume bottle of frosted crystal was designed in the simple elegant shape of an open flower. One lucky girl would become not only famous, but also financially secure for life.
The judges, nine in all, were composed of two commercially successful movie directors from Los Angeles, two agents, two highly respected photographers, as well as Robert, Bernice and Jordan herself. Jordan and Robert had the final say if there was any dispute. The initial decision had been made, but Jordan could still veto their choice if she wanted to. Nothing was official as yet. Announcement of the winner would take place this coming Saturday at the Harbor Key Club overlooking the ocean.
Jordan wouldn’t alter her decision now though, she was fairly certain of that. Stepping down had been her idea. Her damn pride would never let her admit, even to herself, that she was jealous.
There had been no public judging, but as much publicity as the public could stand, leading to the announcement of the winner. The contestants’ names and photographs were in every magazine and television show possible. Guesses and predictions were rampant throughout the fashion industry. This successful campaign was conducted with Jordan’s input and a great advertising agency. The judging was conducted through personal interviews and photo sessions. Beauty and sex appeal were balanced against each girl’s most appealing photographic attributes and the ability to converse intelligently in public, and the up-coming launch was to feature the winner and introduce her and the perfume to the world. Lavish gifts of the perfume would be generously distributed to everyone at the announcement luncheon. It should take on the atmosphere of a Hollywood premier.
The fragrance was delightfully light and fresh with a top note of tuberose, lingering notes of orange essence, and orange blossom. All the test areas had been enthusiastic in their praise.
Jordan was caught up in her musing when Charles opened the door, bringing her out of her dreamy state. She looked up to see that they had reached their destination.
“Thanks, Charles,” she said. The two women headed for the restaurant entrance. Outside on the patio, she took in the lovely wrought iron tables and linen tablecloths. They created a very European flavor. Eating outdoors would not be Jordan’s preference.
“Bernie, I think I’d like to eat inside if you don’t mind.” There was a point where celebrity went beyond comfort in public. “It’ll be much cooler in there.” They entered into a dimly lit, but lovely foyer. Classical music played in the background.
“Do you have a reservation?” the tuxedo clad host asked Jordan.
“No, I’m sorry we don’t.”
“I’m afraid we’re completely booked.” But, almost before the answer had left his lips, he obviously recognized her. He blushed, looking slightly embarrassed.
Jordan gave the young man a dazzling smile. This made him look even more self-conscious. She had a childlike optimism. She was not only saucy as the devil but a consummate flirt, using her beauty to her every advantage. Jordan was confident, but not conceited. It was her exuberance that attracted people to her; she worked at it without realizing. She smiled again at the hapless young man.
“Ms. Comstock…” He smiled shyly now. “For you, of course…please come this way.”
Someone with a reservation would probably have to wait, but the waiter led them towards the dining room with a flourish. The floral arrangements at the entrance to the main room gave off a subtle sweet fragrance as they passed by. Once they entered the dining room, the first thing Jordan noticed, with appreciation, was the subdued deep burgundy of the lovely linen covered tables. On the floor, a carpet in the rich complimentary tones of a Persian design.
Just before they reached their place, Jordan stopped to speak to a distinguished gentleman who was just leaving.
“Hi Jordan, it’s nice to see you.” The man was dressed to perfection in a dark suit. Even in this heat, his shirt and jacket were still crisp and fresh. Most other men in the room had either removed their jackets or loosened their ties. William Barosi looked the part of the wealthy designer he was. “Actually, I was going to call you this week. We checked with Alessandra and she doesn’t play golf. So that contract is yours if you want it. We’ll put it in the mail for you to look over. As I told you, we won’t begin filming for six months, but it’s settled now as far as we’re concerned. It was always strictly between the two of you and you were the only player. We want name and face recognition. It goes a long way.”
“Thanks, I look forward to working with you.” Jordan turned to her friend. “William Barosi, this is my secretary, Bernice Molanski.”
“Nice to meet you, Bernice. Jordan, we’ll see you soon. I’ll keep in touch.”
“Okay, and thanks again.”
The young man, who had been waiting patiently, led them the rest of the way to their table, beaming as he glanced at other diners, acknowledging their recognition.
As William Barosi left the restaurant, Bernice turned to Jordan. “What the hell was that little charade all about? Wasn’t he the guy from that designer golf clothing company you mentioned last month?”
“Yes, that was him,” she said easily. Jordan turned away and smiled as the waiter seated the two of them at a table near a window. The women made themselves comfortable.
“You lied to him with a straight face. Son of a gun, you shafted Gigi without batting an eye. You don’t play golf…” Bernice said.
“Don’t worry about it. His clothes are marvelous and Robert and I have joined the Westchester club. I’ve got six months to learn, how hard can it be? I’ve already booked three lessons. Come on, sit down. It sure smells good in here.” She gave a delicious grin.
Bernice smiled again. She was just learning to play golf. “Boy, are you in for a surprise.”
“Never mind.” This time Bernice laughed out loud.
Jordan looked around at the pleasant surroundings. Once out of the proximity of the flowers, the appealing aromas of garlic, pungent tomato and oregano filled the air, enveloping the entire room. Three marvelous paintings in the style of the old masters dominated the dark wall behind them. The room was intimate, well-appointed, and resplendent with lush green foliage. The soft sound of silverware and china was muffled by the orchestral symphony playing discreetly in the background. None of the raucous music of the shopping malls was ever heard in an establishment of this stature.
“If the food is as good as the decor, lunch should be great,” Jordan said. They both noted the lovely table setting. Nothing had been overlooked.
Even though she was hungry, Jordan had much more on her mind than food. The waiter returned shortly to take their order. Both women decided on the lunch special. Anthony Scalaro, the proprietor, sent over a delightful, little known, but excellent bottle of red wine–with his compliments. The special was a wonderful pasta with Alfredo sauce. Served with it was a basket of hot garlic bread, dripping with at least three different cheeses. Jordan would eat a little of everything, leaving the rest on her plate.
During the meal, the proprietor came by to see that everything was satisfactory, and to introduce himself.
“I hope you and your friend are enjoying your lunch, Ms. Comstock.” Anthony was a dapper gentleman with a magnificent trim mustache, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s ‘Hercule Poirot’. He could have played the part without benefit of make-up or costuming.
“Thank you Anthony, we certainly are.” Jordan was used to this kind of treatment, but never tired of it, or took it for granted. “The food is wonderful and the wine, superb.” She smiled, stealing his heart.
“Please come again, anytime, it’s my pleasure to serve you.” It was obvious that his sentiments were genuine, and as he left the table he had a little more spring in his step.
A few of the patrons had been staring, but most just glanced over and smiled once or twice. The lunchtime crowd was predominantly made up of wealthy shoppers or local executive types, both polite and not overly awed by celebrity. The prices would keep out the riffraff. The young waiter brought a menu over and asked Jordan to sign it for a patron at a nearby table. She did so with an appreciation that people cared enough to ask. Jordan smiled at the other table, acknowledging the recipients of the autographed menu. She and Bernice relaxed over coffee for a little while longer, putting off facing the lawyers, if only for a moment.
The meeting would simply be an evaluation and confirmation of financial figures and predictions for the newly proposed advertising costs. It was not of any great consequence; it just brought the inevitable closer to reality. Jordan tried to dismiss her vague doubts about Robert. The rumors she’d heard couldn’t possibly be true. Could they?
There was a sudden tapping on the car window. Charles was startled; he knew the man couldn’t see him through the darkened glass.
“Excuse me,” the man said.
“Yes, what is it?” For a moment Charles was disoriented. He wound down the window, quickly shoving the Gulfstream dog track racing form back under the seat. Not expecting Jordan or Bernice for a while yet, he had almost fallen asleep after eating his brown bag lunch. He recognized this guy as a reporter from a local gossip rag. The guy was sporting a loud patterned short-sleeved cotton shirt, with conspicuous sweat stains. He had a pockmarked face and his belly was straining the garish fabric to a point where the buttons threatened to burst their restraints at any moment.
“I can make it worth your while for an exclusive.” The reporter said. He spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “The contest…you must know who the winner is.” The fellow was leaning into the window to make himself heard. His breath alone would make it a certainty that he would never reach any higher level of employment in the world of journalism.
“Are you crazy?” Charles said. “Why would I tell you?” The little scum was the type that gave all the press a bad rep.
“It’s worth a thousand bucks…just her name, no one will ever know where it came from. I can promise you that.” The reporter moved nervously from one foot to the other. He waited impatiently for Charles’ answer. He was sweating profusely as he leaned closer to the car, and Charles could actually see the dark stains on his shirt expanding.
Charles was a gambler, and he sure could have used the cash, but he didn’t want to take the chance of spoiling the exciting campaign for Robert or Jordan…or lose his job. He raised the window, putting temptation out of his way.
“I’ll get it from someone,” the man sneered. “Might as well be you gets the money,” the reporter was shouting now to be heard through the closed window.
What he said wasn’t exactly true. It was more than likely that no one would give away the secret now. Most of the people in the company already knew or had at least guessed the judges’ first choice, and they hadn’t given it away yet. Charles knew, but nothing had been formally announced.
With the mention of the money, Charles was reminded of the five hundred bucks he had riding on a sure thing in the fifth at Calder racetrack. This could be the break he needed. He usually just bet the dogs. But a tip on a horse he’d gotten from a good friend of his who worked with one of the trainers, had promised a sure win, and apparently this filly could pay off big.
He’d just turned down a thousand bucks. He must be crazy. Damn.
The launch was this coming Saturday. The judges had definitely made their decision, but whatever was bothering Jordan could still conceivably change the outcome. Her unusual impatience was a sign that everything wasn’t as perfect as it seemed.
Not long after the incident with the reporter, Jordan and Bernice emerged from the restaurant. Charles stepped out of the car and waited while the women lingered at the entrance, thanking Anthony and complimenting the chef. He held the door open as they approached. He never mentioned the reporter to either of them.
The legitimate newspapers and T.V. personnel had all been invited to the introductory gala luncheon and would be content to learn the winner’s name firsthand, with the all-important accompanying photographs. This was an entertainment piece, not a news breaker. Photos of the new superstar would be the readers’ and viewers’ real interest.
Over the next few days, reporters and dignitaries arrived from the far reaches, and were entertained with cruises on Biscayne Bay, touring the city, or simply enjoying the incomparable beaches.
Now finally, here today at the Harbor Key Club in South Beach, the long awaited festivities were well under way.