Lowcountry Bombshell Excerpt
The dead are not troubled by the passage of time. I know this because my best girlfriend, Colleen, died when we were seventeen. She hasn’t aged a day in fourteen years. I turned thirty-one last February and commenced researching wrinkle creams.
My familiarity with the departed accounts for why, on that steamy Wednesday in late July, I entertained the notion that the blonde on my front porch was the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.
The doorbell rang at ten that morning. Rhett barked his fool head off upstairs where I’d stashed him. My golden retriever was unaccustomed to being on lockdown, but I’m a private investigator by trade and was expecting a new client. Out of habit, I peeked through the sidelight by the front door. The woman on the porch was dressed in white capris with a white blouse knotted at her waist. There was no mistaking the platinum-blonde hair, calendar-girl figure, and beauty mark. Clearly, I hadn’t guzzled enough coffee and needed a closer look.
I opened the door. Hot, moist air washed into the foyer.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you Liz Talbot?” Her voice was smoky and breathless. It brought to mind Little Bo Peep, if Bo were trying to seduce you. She looked crisp and fresh, in utter defiance of the weather.
“Yes.” I nodded slowly. “I was expecting Calista McQueen?”
“That’s me,” she said.
I tilted my head and looked at her sideways, as if the view might be different from another angle. I could feel my face squishing up in one of those looks Mamma has warned me countless times will cause wrinkles. All that money I’d spent on high-dollar cream would be wasted if I wasn’t careful.
The woman on my porch sighed and fixed me with a double-barreled stare. “I’m not her. I’m not related to her, and I’m not one of those tribute artists, either.”
“Of course. My goodness, I’m so sorry,” I said. “The resemblance is just—”
“Startling, I know.” She glanced around the deep porch. Her gaze drifted from the swing, to the hammock, and settled on the Adirondack chairs. “Did you want to meet out here?”
“No, please.” I jerked the door open wider and scooted out of the way. “Come in. It’s so hot out there I’m afraid my manners must have melted.”
“Thanks.” She turned and scanned the yard, then crossed into the foyer.
I swept my arm towards the room to her right. “Why don’t we talk in here?”
She undulated into what now serves as my office. Like a giant Hoover, her presence sucked my self-confidence right out. I followed, yanking the clip out of my hair and fluffing as I went. I could hear Phoebe, my hair stylist, ranting now. Three freakin’ hours to get that multi-toned blonde and you cram it into a freakin’ clip.
When the temperature and humidity approach triple digits, all this hair causes my brain stem to overheat. At least I was dressed nicely in a cobalt blue shift that matched my eyes. It’s hard to go wrong with Ann Taylor Loft.
Calista stopped in front of the fireplace on the far side of the room. She waited, posing the way models do at the end of the runway. “You have a lovely home.”
“Thanks,” I said. “It was my grandmother’s.” Gram had liked to entertain, and her living room was large enough for her fifty closest friends to gather for mint juleps. I had divided it into sections with my home office, the only office for the Stella Maris branch of Talbot and Andrews Investigations, occupying the left half. My walnut desk and two guest chairs stood in front of a wall of bookcases that wrapped around the far left corner and flanked the windows on both sides of the fireplace. The opposite side of the room held a big green velvet sofa with wooden trim and a row of fringe around the bottom. It had been Gram’s favorite piece. The sofa faced the wall of windows, with a set of chairs on each side to complete the conversation area.
I debated whether to sit behind the desk or on the soft furniture. I’d never met with a new client at home. Since I’d moved back to Stella Maris in April, I’d been holding initial meetings on neutral territory—a restaurant, maybe, or the park. But Calista had balked at that idea. I could see now why she was shy of public places.
I gestured toward the sofa. “Have a seat.” While I grabbed a pad and pen from the desk, she arranged herself on the end of the sofa closest to the door. I settled into a tropical-print wingback on her right. Calista looked at the ceiling.
I willed Rhett to stop barking. “Don’t mind him,” I said. “He doesn’t care to be left out. He’s accustomed to having the run of the house and yard.”
“You should let him come down. I had a dog once…”
“Thanks, but I think we’ll be less distracted if he stays upstairs. He’ll be quiet when he realizes I’m not letting him out.”
Mamma would have been mortified at how long I just sat there staring at Calista McQueen. I kept thinking I’d find something that differentiated her from the movie star, but the woman next to me was Marilyn’s doppelganger. I was acquainted with all manner of oddities, but a doppelganger—that was a new one. She must have been used to the staring because she just sat there with perfect posture, letting me get it out of my system.
Finally, I closed my eyes, shook my head to clear it, and located my professionalism. “How can I help you, Ms. McQueen?”
“Please,” she said, “Call me Calista.”
I nodded. “I’m Liz.”
She moistened her lips. “I’d like you to keep me alive.”
“If someone’s threatened you, we need to call the police.”
“No one has threatened me.”
I squinted at her. “Then why are you in fear for your life?”
“This is a long story,” she said. “Could I please have a glass of water?”
“Of course.” I jumped up. “Where are my manners? I just made some fresh tea…”
“Oh, that’d be swell.”
“Lemon, mint, or both?”
“Mint, please,” she said. “Thank you, ever so.”
I scrambled to the kitchen. While I waited for the tap water to run hot, I heard Mamma’s voice in my head lamenting my utter lapse in hospitality. I scrubbed my hands and slathered them with sanitizer. No sense running the risk of making us both sick. Bacteria are forever on the offensive, but they thrive in hot weather. Some people think roaches would be the only thing left after a nuclear apocalypse, but I’m convinced bacteria would not only survive, they would kill off the roaches. Certain members of my immediate family make great sport of trying to trace what they refer to as my “nervous habit” to some incident in my childhood, or genetic mutation. This is ridiculous. I simply have a healthy regard for personal hygiene.
I fixed two glasses of tea, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Then, I headed back to the living room silently chanting, don’t stare, don’t stare, don’t stare…
I set the glasses on coasters on the mahogany end table between us and returned to the wingback. “Please,” I said. “Start at the beginning.”
She took a sip of her tea. “My, that’s good.” She stared at the glass for a moment. When she looked up at me, her eyes shimmered. “This will sound absurd.”
“You’ve come to the right place. I have an appreciation for the absurd.”
The edges of her mouth crept up. She fixed her gaze on something far away, outside the row of floor-to-ceiling windows. “I was born June first, nineteen seventy-six, at nine-thirty a.m., in Los Angeles General Hospital. My birthday was the fiftieth anniversary of hers. To the minute.”
I reached for my tea glass but didn’t take my eyes off Calista.
She paused for a moment. “My mother named me Norma Jeane. On my birth certificate, it says a man named Mortensen is my father, but I’ve never met him, and I doubt that’s true. When I was two weeks old, my mother put me in foster care. With very few exceptions, the first eighteen years of my life followed the same pattern as Marilyn’s.”
I set down my glass and picked up my pad and pen. “Wasn’t her last name Baker?”
“She was baptized Norma Jeane Baker, same as me. Her mother’s first husband was John Baker, but he was out of the picture long before Norma Jeane was conceived.” Calista shrugged. “Martin Edward Mortensen was her mother’s most recent husband when Norma Jeane was born, so he’s on the birth certificate. It was pretty much the same with me, or at least, that’s what they told me. Not the same Martin Edward Mortensen, of course.”
I focused on keeping my expression neutral. “Go on.”
“Sometimes my mother would pick me up on Saturdays from whatever foster home or orphanage I happened to be living in and take me places. To the movies, mostly, and out to lunch. I lived with her a couple of times, but it never worked out.” Calista blinked. “My mother insisted I was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, though I think her friend Grace put that idea in her head to begin with, probably before I was even born, when the doctor told Mother her approximate due date. You see, Mother’s maiden name is Monroe. She lives in Los Angeles, and they’ve both always been fascinated by Marilyn. Mother is very impressionable. Grace is… ambitious. They were very close, Mother and Grace. Aunt Grace. That’s what she had me call her.”
“Uh-huh.” I felt my eyebrows creep up.
“I think they tried to make my life just like Marilyn’s, the foster care, living with relatives, the orphanage. All of it.”
“But they couldn’t have known how much you’d grow up to look like Marilyn.”
“No.” Calista slowly shook her head. “At first I think the date ignited Grace’s imagination. She was always into numerology, Tarot cards, horoscopes, all of that. As I got older and actually resembled Marilyn, she became more and more obsessed. The strangest thing of all is I don’t look as much like her as it seems. My hair is naturally this color, Marilyn’s wasn’t. The head of Columbia studios arranged for electrolysis to raise her hairline, and to have her hair bleached with peroxide and ammonia. Another studio type she had an affair with took her to the orthodontist and had her overbite corrected. Her agent had work done on her nose and her jaw. I’ve never had any of that done. I look like she looked when they got through with her.”