The guy in front of me barely waved, and the guard smiled and lifted the mechanical arm so his Bentley could pass. Nothing to it. Easy peasey. It was my turn.
I pulled my 1998 Odyssey up to the little concrete guard station that saved the ultra rich from actually having to interact with their neighbors. Beautifully manicured lawns, with carpet-like grass and fancy naked statues, were hidden right behind this one little mechanical arm. If I stretched my neck to the side, I could see them, though – huge mid-century modern ranch houses, the kind with secret codes, tennis courts, and views people paid a million dollars extra for.
The guard never even looked at me.
Beads of sweat pooled up along my hairline because my air-conditioner was on the fritz again. I stuck my head out the window. “Hell-ooo,” I said, pulling out a piece of notebook paper. It flapped wildly in the Santa Ana winds that had pummeled San Diego the last couple days, causing unusually hot, dry weather for the middle of November.
A pencil-thin, middle-aged man with sunken cheeks and a blank stare didn’t look up from his clipboard. The windows on his guard station were closed, and I could tell he was flaunting his air conditioner in there.
I threw my car in reverse, backing up so I could drive up to the window again like I do when the automatic soap dispenser doesn’t recognize my hand. I pull my hands away then bring them right back, pretending to be a completely different set of hands. It didn’t work. He knew I was the same hand.
My face grew hot, and I suddenly felt like I needed air, and fast. I didn’t have time to wait for him to acknowledge me. I pulled my foot off the brake and allowed my minivan to lurch forward into the mechanical arm in front of me. A loud crunching thump was quickly followed by mumbled cussing coming from inside the booth.
I think he may have noticed me that time. I backed up to the booth again.
With flailing wild arms, he yanked the window open. “Can I help you?” he said, looking my car over like I’d asked him to lick it.
I leaned out as far as I could. His air conditioning felt good on my reddening cheeks. “Oh hi. Sorry about that. I could’ve sworn you motioned for me to pull forward.”
His neck veins turned a darker shade of blue.
I pointed to my paper, reminding myself to be nice. “Couple things. I’m here to see some lady named Stella Harper. My name is Marcie Henderson. H-e-n…”
“And I also have a quick question…”
He slid the window closed, barely letting me finish my sentence, apparently unwilling to share his air conditioning for too long. He checked his notes and lifted the arm. I knew he hadn’t heard the part about the question. Leaning out as far as I could, I managed to pound on the glass. He threw the window open again. This time he didn’t look nearly as patient.
“Yeah, hi again,” I said, pointing to my paper, more dramatically this time. “I’m only asking because I get lost easily, and I wasn’t even really given an address. That’s weird, right?”
I continued. “But maybe you know where Stella Harper lives. My directions say it’s the second street on the left…”
“Then it’s the second street on the left.” The guy closed his window and lifted his clipboard up to his face.
I pulled my Odyssey under the mechanical arm, chugging past the guard station.
My aunt had given me specific instructions on what to wear, say, and do when I met her and her ex-husband Chris at Stella Harper’s mansion. And the first one was – whatever you do, don’t take your car.
“For Goodness sakes, Marcie. Have some pride in your appearance. You can’t drive a dirty piece of junk to a place like San Diego View Estates. That’s like entering an armpit in a beauty contest. Take a cab, take my Mini, take whatever you want – a bicycle, whatever – just don’t take that heap of rust and don’t be late.”
I looked at the clock on my heap of rust. It was 1:10. I was late. Still, I slowed down to gawk at the mansions as I passed them. No sense in hurrying now. I was going to get the same lecture whether I was 15 minutes late or 20.
I strained my neck to see over the large manicured hedges as I drove along the street, just to get a glimpse of how the ultra-rich lived, but it was like one of those tours you take of the stars’ homes up in Hollywood. You really only see a few fruit trees and security systems, but everyone oohs and aaahs like they didn’t just waste hard-earned money on a rich-people zoo where the animals never even come out.
I wasn’t sure why I had to come here anyway. What was so special about rich people that they couldn’t meet at the club like the rest of the clientele? Everyone was always catering to them, coddling them, letting them get away with murder…
After pulling up to the large white iron gate in front of Stella’s mansion, I punched the temporary visitor’s code into the little box in front of me then watched as the gates opened slowly like a million-dollar “ta-da” moment to reveal a huge, two-story boring beige mansion with a Mexican tiled roof… not exactly what I was expecting, but then I was expecting a palace made of gold.
I parked next to a Mercedes, probably a safe place to park. Any thief who was smart enough to get by two security gates and a security guard wouldn’t pick my 1998 piece of crap to steal, but…
I couldn’t take that chance. I set my alarm and made my way over to the mansion.
My aunt swung the door open before I could knock. She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “Marcie, I am not happy,” she whispered, pulling me into the house.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said, looking around at the humungous foyer that surrounded me. A large brass elephant stood proudly next to an abstract painting of a human-duck thing.
“We’ll talk later about you being late,” she scrunched her face when she saw my Odyssey parked in the driveway behind me, “and why on Earth you would take your car after I specifically told you not to, but right now, I need you. Stella is driving me crazy.” She pulled me to a corner of the foyer, her Tennessee accent growing thicker with every frantic word. “That… that… woman is obnoxious and manipulative, and I don’t even think she needs a matchmaking service. I think she just called me out here to… show off. The big show-off, I can’t stand her.”
“I thought you two were old friends.”
“Which is the only reason I haven’t killed her yet. That and I really need this account.” My aunt bit her lip furiously, something she only did when she was nervous or lying.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you need me to do?”
“Everything.” She yanked me through a spacious living room bigger than my entire house, and I already felt my jaw tightening into resentment. How do some people end up with fancy gold-accented, embossed ceilings in life while other people got weird popcorn stucco? My aunt tugged on my arm, trying to get me to hurry along, but I wanted to take in as many mental pictures of this place as I could. The marble fireplace. The real-wood furniture you probably didn’t need to assemble… I was going to use all of this as ammunition later to properly beat myself over the head with while I stared up at my popcorn ceiling. We went past a formal dining area much too large to be called a room, and out to an enclosed patio with large windows overlooking the backyard.
As soon as she opened the French doors to the sunroom, Aunt Mabel’s scowl transformed into an ear-to-ear smile, or as close to an ear-to-ear smile as her Botox would let her get. A bony-necked brunette with a shawl and what looked like a permanent fish pout sat next to Chris on the patio sofa, practically leaning into his lap as she pointed out at her yard where large tree limbs and pieces of bark were blowing around. “As much as I hate it, I told the groundskeeper there’s no point in coming in until the winds let up. It’s terrible, just terrible…”
They didn’t look over when we entered the room, so my aunt coughed loudly. “Stella, honey, you remember my niece Marcie, right?”
“My goodness,” the woman said, standing up. “That isn’t little Marcie, is it? I haven’t seen you since you were about eight years old, back when your aunt was living with your family in that horribly dilapidated one-room apartment,” she said, as I walked over and we hugged. I didn’t remember her at all. My aunt bit her lip again.
Stella looked over at my aunt as she hugged me. “You know what dilapidated means, right, Mabel? Let me know if you need me to explain anything.” She stopped hugging me. “Sorry to hear about your mom, honey. She was a wonderful woman. Got your aunt and me out of more than a few jams back in the day, huh, Bumpkin?”
“Bumpkin?” I said, shooting my aunt a look.
Stella laughed, her mouth full of teeth Chiclets. “That’s what they used to call us. Bumpkin and Culture.”
“That’s what she used to call us,” Aunt Mabel mumbled, making her way over to the couch to sit next to Chris, apparently before Stella could. Stella’s face dropped when she saw Aunt Mabel make her big move. But she turned gracefully, sitting down in one of her iron patio chairs instead. She offered me the chair next to her.
Aunt Mabel clasped her hands across her lap and took a deep breath. “Stella, like I was saying, at the San Diego Matchmaker Club we realize dating in the second half of life is more like rebranding yourself. You can’t go down in social status after a relationship ends. You’ve got to quietly emerge with a handsome man on your arm who is at least your equal in both charm and wealth,” she said enunciating each syllable, making me look around for the teleprompter she was using.
“That sounds wonderful. Why haven’t you done that?” Stella said, screeching and scooting her chair along the tile so she could lay a casual hand on Chris’s knee. “I realize it’s hard to find someone who can equal my social status. That’s no short order for even a legitimate matchmaking business. But if dating is about rebranding, then I have to say, the three profiles you sent me so far have been a little… off brand. A little generic.”
“A doctor?” My aunt hissed. “Is generic?”
“A plastic surgeon, and not even a notable one at that.” Stella leaned in so close to Chris she could probably smell his deodorant. “Do you know how pathetic dating a plastic surgeon would be at my age? It would look like I wanted handouts. I should’ve known you couldn’t handle this, Bumpkin. I’m not your average client.”
My aunt half-smiled through gritted teeth. “We can handle it. I mean, Marcie can. As it turns out, Marcie’s going to take over your case for me. But don’t you worry, she’s the best little matchmaker around…”
I gasped, spit-taking on my own spit. I had only been working at my aunt’s matchmaking club for about a month – and now she wanted me to be in charge of her most obnoxious client? Because she didn’t want to? Well, I didn’t want to either.
My aunt continued. “So Marcie’ll go with you to your makeover tomorrow, hold your hand through the whole process. It’ll give you two a chance to reconnect. I sure wish I could go, but I’m just too busy.” She stuck her bottom lip out. Chris raised an eyebrow from his phone, shook his head, then lowered it again.
Stella’s expression was firm, almost frozen. “It doesn’t matter, I guess. It’s like I was telling your ex–husband here, I’m not even sure I should be dating right now.” Stella squeezed Chris’s arm when she said ex.
Chris looked up. “And as your lawyer I have to agree.”
Stella continued. “It’s not fair to bring anyone into my… mess. I’ve never been so frightened in all my life. I even hired a bodyguard.”
My aunt scooted to the edge of her seat, her chestnut brown eyes suddenly sparkling in the sunlight. “What mess? What’s going on, sugar?”
“Someone is trying to kill me,” Stella said, looking around, lowering her voice. “And I think I know who it is.”