What You Want to See: New Excerpt
By kristen lepionkaApril 27, 2018
What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka is the thrilling follow-up to The Last Place You Look and the second book in the Roxane Weary series.
Marin Strasser has a secret. Her fiancé thinks her secret is that she’s having an affair, and he hires P.I. Roxane Weary to prove it. Then, just days into the case, Marin is shot to death on a side street in an apparent mugging. But soon enough the police begin to focus on Roxane’s client for Marin’s death, so she starts to dig deeper into Marin’s life―discovering that the elegant woman she’s been following has a past and a half, including two previous marriages, an adult son fresh out of prison, and a criminal record of her own. The trail leads to a crew of con artists, an ugly real estate scam that defrauds unsuspecting elderly homeowners out of their property, and the suspicious accident of a wealthy older woman who lives just down the street from where Marin was killed.
With Roxane’s client facing a murder indictment, the scammers hit close to home to force Roxane to drop the case, and it becomes clear that the stakes are as high as the secrets run deep.
Urban renewal was in the air on Bryden Road. The dilapidated house across the street from my apartment had been condemned, foreclosed, and eventually purchased by a fighty grad-student couple who appeared to be using the renovation process as experimental marriage counseling. Then my upstairs neighbors moved out and were replaced by a twentyish hipster with a name I could never remember and dreams of starting a farming collective in the building’s narrow backyard. I knew this because she had long, loud phone conversations about it all day long.
It was a Tuesday, the kind of perfect June day that made it easy enough to forget how undesirable the weather was in Ohio most of the time. I was on my porch, listening through her open windows to Bridie or Birdy—whatever her name was—talk about the Brahma chickens she was thinking about buying for her farm. As annoying as she was, there was something compelling about it, like a hipster radio drama playing out one floor above me.
It goes without saying that aside from being pathologically nosy, I was also currently unemployed.
I was finishing my second cup of tea when the car pulled up. Tan Impala with no hubcaps and LED light strips behind the grille, easy enough to spot as an unmarked police-issue vehicle. A regular old cruiser was a more common sight in Olde Towne East, but an unmarked one wasn’t out of the ordinary either.
Upstairs, Birdy said, “There are cops on the street. Again. Do you think it’s, like, safe here?”
I thought about calling up to her, “Not for Brahma chickens.”
But I decided against it when the passenger door of the cop car opened and Tom got out.
That meant they were here for me.
Tom didn’t look happy about it. Neither did the other guy, who was short and dense with salt-and-pepper hair razored into a bristly buzz cut like a vacuum attachment. I didn’t know him, but his expression said that he knew something about me.
I put my mug down on the ledge and stood up. “I didn’t know I was getting company.”
“Hey, Roxane,” Tom said. His face was unreadable. “This is Detective Sanko. You got a few minutes?”
The vacuum attachment scowled at me. “You talk just like your dad did,” he said. “And you look like him, too.”
I sighed. “What’s up, friends?”
Sanko said, “Do you want to do it out here, let everybody on the block know your business?”
Upstairs, Birdy was silent for the first time in what seemed like days. “Why don’t you come in, then,” I said.
I led my visitors into the front room of my apartment, which served as an office of sorts. I tried to catch Tom’s eye but he still wasn’t playing. “So what’s this about?”
Sanko looked around my apartment, his eyes sweeping over an end table piled with laundry and a nearly empty bottle of Crown Royal. “Nice place you got here.”
“Ed, don’t be a dick,” Tom said. He looked at me, finally. There was tension in his face.
“Marin Strasser,” Sanko said once he finished his inspection. “You familiar with her?”
I stared at him.
Although I had no idea why they were here, I never would have guessed it’d be about her.
Until a few days ago, I’d been following Marin Strasser everywhere she went. Her fiancé had hired me to find out if she was cheating on him. She wasn’t, not so far as I could tell. Which wasn’t very far, because less than a week into the case, the man’s retainer check bounced and that was the end of it.
Or so I thought. “Yes.”
“I recently did some work for her fiancé. Why?”
They exchanged glances. “Because she’s dead,” Sanko said.
* * *
A week earlier, I had met with Arthur Ungless at the print shop he owned on the north side. It was in one of those stucco office parks where rows of one-story buildings housed an oddball mix of businesses; the print shop was nestled between a bulk candy distributor and a karate studio. The office smelled like ink and paper and had a pleasant hum of activity murmuring from somewhere on the other side of Arthur’s closed door. Business was apparently good: a slow but steady stream of cars coasted past the window behind his desk. “Norm said you were very discreet,” he was saying. “And easy to talk to. I need that. Telling a complete stranger that I think the love of my life is having affair. This is all very uncomfortable, see. Embarrassing.”
“I get that,” I said. I did a job here and there for Norm Whitman’s personal-injury law firm, surveillance stuff that fell on the dirtier end of the spectrum of the cases I took on. But money was money, and I valued Norm’s business enough to take a referral from him seriously. “But you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m on your side.”
Arthur smiled faintly. “Well, you do seem very professional,” he said. “I like that.”
I straightened up in my seat. I wasn’t sure how professional I seemed. I was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans, and an old olive-colored military jacket I’d had for fifteen years that had sort of come back in style recently. But I’d brushed my hair for the meeting, and I was sitting here instead of having this conversation amid the laundry in my home office. So compared to my past self, maybe this wasprofessional. “Why don’t you tell me about your fiancée?” I said.
Arthur nodded somberly. He was about sixty, short, barrel-chested, with reddish hair going silver, a wide mouth, and washed-out hooded eyes. The cuffs of his blue Oxford shirt were dotted with ink and rolled up to his elbows, revealing a faded Marine Corps tattoo on his left forearm. He struck me as a hardworking, friendly guy. By contrast, the woman in the photograph on the desk between us was coldly pretty, a well-dressed blonde at least fifteen years younger than him. “Marin,” he said. “Marin Strasser. You’re probably thinking what the hell does she see in me, good-looking woman like her.”
“No, no,” I said. But I could see what he meant. If leagues were a real thing, Marin would be out of his. I wrote her name down in my notebook and underlined it twice. “What makes you think she’s cheating on you?”
Arthur sighed and leaned back in his executive chair, idly fiddling with the end of his tie. “Well, we got engaged last October. We were at dinner at M when I asked her. You been there?”
I nodded. “Romantic.”
“She was so happy, just over the moon. We’ve had some real good times together, me and her. Trips and such. This year we’ve done Palm Beach and Vegas already, and we’re talking about Mexico for Christmas. I like taking her places, taking care of her.” He paused, his expression clouding over. “But honestly, something’s different now. She’s different. I can just tell. She’s distracted, and jumpy. She’ll get phone calls at all hours—that’s not really new, her clients are very demanding—but she’ll get up and leave the room sometimes too.”
I glanced down at the photo again, wondering briefly if she was an escort. “Clients?”
“Marin’s an interior decorator,” Arthur said, and then I felt like an asshole. “That’s how we met—she came in here to get new business cards.” He shook his head briefly. “Anyway, when I ask her about it, ask her what’s going on and all that, she says it’s just the stress of wedding planning. I don’t know. Feels like more than that. And I gotta be sure, about her. I can’t get married feeling like this. Doubting her, doubting myself.”
“Do you have any suspicions about who she’s seeing?”
“None,” Arthur said.
“Marin doesn’t have a lot of friends. Neither of us do. That’s partly why we got close so fast.”
I looked down at Marin’s picture. I highly doubted a woman who looked like that had few friends. “Okay,” I said, “if you don’t know who, do you have any thoughts about when or where?”
He shook his head again. “We live together, so I’m with her every night. But during the day, I don’t know exactly what she’s up to. No idea. She doesn’t keep an office or anything. I know she spends a lot of her time buying for her clients, so she’s in and out of furniture stores a lot.”
I tapped my pen on my notebook for a second, then wrote furniture stores down under Marin’s name. So far it was not shaping up to be the case of the century. “So you’d want me to keep an eye on her during the daytime hours.”
“Yeah. I usually leave home around seven, and I get back home by eight. Weekends, I usually only work in the mornings.”
I restrained an unprofessional sigh. “Arthur,” I said, “cases like this can get expensive fast. Especially if you’re hoping to have someone on her for thirteen hours a day. Say it takes a few days, or a few weeks, even. Are you prepared for that?”
“Trust me, money is not a problem.”
I told him my hourly rate, and he didn’t bat an eye. So maybe that was what Marin saw in him: either his unwavering dedication, or his bottomless pockets. I figured she was probably having an affair. Part of me wanted to tell him to save his money, because the very act of hiring me more or less meant he’d never be able to trust her again. But if he was determined to pay somebody for answers, it might as well be me.
* * *
Arthur wasn’t kidding when he said Marin was in and out of stores a lot. She didn’t buy much, mostly just wandered around sort of touching things at random. She spoke to very few people, and she didn’t sleep with anyone either. For four days, I followed her from one end of the city to the other. We went to an estate sale, the architectural salvage by the fairgrounds, an antique shop in Powell, two overpriced clothing boutiques and a string of art galleries in the Short North, and a hot yoga class. The most interesting thing that went down during those four days was that I spotted Catherine Walsh in one of the galleries, and I did the mature thing and hid behind a sculpture made of chicken wire and fake fruit. But that had nothing to do with Marin Strasser, and everything to do with the universe’s habit of putting the same lesson in front of you over and over until you learn it. I was trying, where Catherine was concerned. She’d gotten a cell phone recently and I had yet to respond to any of her texts because there wasn’t anything left to say.
If she saw me, she did the mature thing too and walked on by.
Finally, on Friday morning, Marin and I hit up Grandview Heights, and while she spent a very long time looking at pens in a stationery store, I was reconsidering my assessment of the situation. She didn’t seem like a woman in the throes of an affair at all. Nor did it seem like she was busy with her allegedly demanding clients. It just looked like she was killing time. But since I had a professional reputation to live up to, I had every intention of following Marin around until Arthur lost interest or ran out of money.
That happened a hell of a lot sooner than expected. The money, not the interest. Sitting at a two-top in Stauf’s with a cup of mint tea and the crumbly remains of a blueberry muffin in front of me, I received an alert on my phone that Arthur’s retainer check to me had bounced. I stared at the screen. No one had ever written me a bad check before, and I’d worked with plenty of clients who seemed far more likely to do it than Arthur Ungless did. Marin, meanwhile, was flipping blithely through an issue of Dwell magazine. She was wearing a black sleeveless dress that looked like it cost more than my entire wardrobe. I’d been able to tell she was attractive based on the photo Arthur gave me, but in person she was gorgeous, with long, artfully streaky blond hair hanging halfway down her back. Her bare arms were smooth and tanned, wrists adorned by an array of bracelets that made a hollow rattling sound when she turned pages in her magazine. She looked aloof and rich, which made the bounced check even more confusing. But it wasn’t like I really knew anything about her. Surveillance work was nothing but an odd, shaded view into someone’s life, like watching television with the sound off. I ate the rest of my muffin crumbs and thumbed through my inbox in case Arthur had emailed me an explanation of some kind. He hadn’t. I didn’t know what to do. But when Marin put her reading glasses away and stood up to leave, I didn’t follow this time.
Instead, I went back up to Arthur’s office. When I was there earlier in the week, he had proudly given me a tour of the facility, name-checking the highlights from his customer list and his cutting-edge techniques like intaglio and microprinting for document security. Today, though, he just slumped in his executive chair and spoke to his desk blotter instead of to me.
“I don’t want you to think I don’t have the money,” he said, his tone disbelieving. “I mean, I have the money. Of course I have it. Look, I’m real sorry about this. I went to the bank and I got you, what is it, twelve hundred here.” He picked up a white drive-up envelope, thick with cash. “I still very much want your services.”
“Arthur,” I said for the third time. “I think we should maybe hold on this for a bit.”
“No, no, I have the money,” Arthur said. “It is not a problem. There must have been some kind of mix-up, some accounting thing. I’ll have to check into it. The shop had a bad couple years but things are turning around. So I have the money. This is embarrassing, okay, but it’s just some mistake.”
We looked at each other for a minute. “Please,” he said, his eyes welling. “I have to know. I just have to.”
I reached out and touched his wrist. “Let’s give it a few days,” I said. “You can get your books sorted out or whatever you need to do, and if you still want to me to pursue it after that, give me a call. Okay?” I thought I was doing him a favor. The twelve hundred bucks on the desk between us barely even covered the time I’d already put into following Marin Strasser around, so I was taking a risk that he might not call and I’d just be out three days’ pay altogether. But I felt bad for the guy, and I didn’t want to leave him both brokenhearted and penniless at the same time. I wasn’t that much of a professional.
“Okay,” Arthur Ungless said finally as he roughly wiped his eyes. “That’s fair. I’ll be in touch.”
We shook hands, and I left his office distinctly wondering if I’d regret not taking the money and staying on the case.
* * *
And now I had my answer. I sat down heavily on the edge of my desk, picturing Arthur’s big, sad eyes. “What happened?”
“Tell me about this work you were doing for Arthur Ungless first,” Sanko said.
Sanko said, “Heitker, you told me she’d cooperate if you were here.”
“Roxane, come on,” Tom said. “You know it’s not.”
He was right. But I didn’t want to spill Arthur’s business without knowing the circumstances of Marin’s death. I could guess, though, since homicide cops don’t come around asking questions like this about car accidents or aneurysms. “Since when don’t I cooperate?” I said.
A smile tugged at the corner of Tom’s mouth. He was on the tall side, six-one, maybe twenty-five extra pounds on his muscular frame but he carried it well. He always looked like a too-serious cop, whether he was in jeans or dressed in a suit, like he was today. And he always looked good, a fact that I was doing my best not to notice these days. I always felt like anyone could look at us and see it, the kind of familiarity that only happens between people who’ve slept together before. It had been months since the last time. But that didn’t make it any less weird around his colleague.
“Can you just tell me what happened? For Frank.”
“Frank,” Sanko muttered. But then he gave a small shrug. “She was shot. Friday night, around nine o’clock. Victorian Village, on Hunter Ave. Kind of an alley between Dennison and Neil.”
A creeping dread worked its way up my spine. Eerie, how just hours before that I’d been sitting behind her in a coffee shop, watching her read a magazine. “What was she doing there?”
“You tell us. You were the one following her, right?”
“Not by Friday night,” I said. I explained about the check. Tom and Sanko didn’t look surprised, so I assumed they’d heard the same story from Arthur. “I wish I’d still been tailing her, though. I could have seen what happened, or intervened—”
“No, we might just have two victims in that case,” Tom said.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “So what is this, a mugging?” The neighborhoods surrounding the Short North had their fair share of street crime, mostly of the car break-in variety. “When I was following her, she never went anywhere near Neil.”
“She had her purse and all her jewelry,” Sanko said, “so it’s not looking like a mugging, no. According to your client, they had dinner at the Guild House. They met there, Mr. Ungless was working late. They had a bit of an argument, over the fact that Ungless had employed your services, and Marin left, upset. We figure she may have parked somewhere near the crime scene.”
I didn’t know what to make of this. If not for the technology that allowed my instantaneous access to banking information, I would have continued to tail Marin for another two or three days before I knew Arthur’s check had bounced. It was like a glitch in the universe, a loophole. “She drove a black Jeep, with matte black rims,” I said, and rattled off the license-plate number.
“I know,” Sanko said. “We’re looking for it. So about this work you were doing for Ungless. She was having an affair?”
I shook my head. “Not that I saw.”
“What did she do? Who’d she do it with?”
“She shopped. By herself. And she went to hot yoga.”
“It’s like regular yoga, but the room is like eighty degrees.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
Tom cut in, “Never mind hot yoga, Ed. Roxane, how did Arthur seem to you?”
“And, that’s basically it. He was embarrassed about the check. Surprised, too, I guess. I got the feeling he’s not accustomed to being short on cash.”
“And how did he seem regarding his fiancée? Angry?”
“No. He wanted me to keep her under surveillance.”
Sanko scowled harder. “It was me, I’d be angry. If my pretty, younger lady was stepping out?”
It seemed like my initial instinct to hedge had been correct. “He wasn’t angry,” I said. “He was sad and confused.”
“People react in different ways. Maybe he was pretending to be sad, for your benefit.”
“What, he hired me to follow her around but wrote me a bad check so I’d stop right before he murdered her? You’ve got to be kidding.” I turned to Tom. “Did anyone see or hear anything?”
Tom said, “It’s Ed’s case, and his call. I’m just here to make introductions.”
I tried to look as cooperative as I could. “Please?”
Finally, Sanko shrugged. “Neighbor reports hearing raised voices in the alley before the gunshot. A man and a woman, arguing. Then pop. A bullet to the chest. A thirty-eight. You know who owns a thirty-eight?”
I waited for the punch line.
“Arthur Ungless. And conveniently, he can’t locate it.”
I saw Arthur’s face again, pleading for my help the other day. I was thinking that I needed to find a criminal lawyer for him, because he obviously didn’t have one. A murder victim’s significant other was usually the first stop, and for good reason. But I didn’t buy that my client killed his fiancée, argument or no. “You said Marin left the restaurant first,” I said. “So can anyone put Arthur still there at the time she was killed?”
Now Sanko shook his head. “We came here to get information out of you, not vice versa.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “I don’t know what I can tell you,” I said. “Marin didn’t meet up with anyone while I was following her. Other than a few salesclerks, she didn’t even talk to anyone. She didn’t go anywhere unusual or do anything unusual. And Arthur was not angry.”
Sanko thrust a business card at me. “Right. Sure,” he said. “Call if you remember anything.”
I said, “About Marin, or about Arthur?”
“Yes. And don’t go doing your girl detective routine in my case.”
He turned to head for the door. Tom said, “I’ll be out in a second.” Then he paid a lot of attention to the dying plants on my fireplace while he waited for Sanko to be out of earshot.
I didn’t care if Sanko heard me though. “Girl detective routine?”
Tom gave me half a smile. “Sorry. I would’ve called, but the first I heard about this case was ten minutes ago. He grabbed me on the way back in from court and said he needed my help. He hated Frank’s guts, and apparently you by association.”
I shrugged. “So not a compliment when he said I look and sound like him, then.”
He didn’t respond to that. He didn’t have to.
“I should go. We’ll talk later. And hey, be careful around this Ungless guy.”
“He’s harmless. Tom, there’s no way he had anything to do with this.”
His face told me he had his doubts. “Be careful anyway.”
Copyright © 2018 Kristen Lepionka.