A STRONG PAIR OF HANDS CAUGHT ME BEFORE I hit the sand. I instinctively tried to fight my way free of being held. The first backward swing of my elbow made contact.
“Ouch, tough girl, I was just trying to help,” a familiar voice said as my rescuer let me go. I looked back just as I hit the sand. Mason was rubbing his arm. “You’ve got quite an elbow swing.”
He looked down at me with concern. “Are you okay?”
I did a quick survey of myself. Somehow I had avoided any kind of injury-not even a bump on the arm. Mentally I felt a little shaky, but an inner voice ordered me to snap out of it and I obeyed. “I think so,” I said as Mason held out his arm and helped me up. It was still sinking in that I was safe. I apologized for the elbow strike and threw my arms around him, grateful to have the chance to do it.
The relief at being out of the car had made me forget my police entourage until a voice over the loudspeaker ordered me and my accomplice to put our hands on the roof of the car. The three police cars had stopped on the street. All three had their doors open as shields. This had happened before, and I knew enough to simply follow their command instead of trying to explain what had happened.
“This is why I came here this weekend,” Mason said as we both stepped out of the hug and complied with the order. “I never know what’s going to happen with you around.”
“How did you just happen to be here?” I asked as we stood side by side with our arms on top of Adele’s sand-locked car.
Mason said he’d gotten back from his aunt’s party. “You know how it is with family. I needed a tai chi break and headed to the beach. Here I was, expecting peace, and suddenly a car comes rolling on the sand. Obviously, it got my attention.”
I glanced toward the area across the street, and for the first time it registered that I was only a short distance from the gateway to the Asilomar boardwalk. After a moment the police officers came onto the beach and approached the car.
“Ms. Pink?” Sergeant French said, separating from the others. “Are you okay?” As soon as I told him I was, his tone changed. “What was all that about? Did you really think you’d get away? You would just have gotten a ticket if you’d pulled over. I’m afraid you’re in a lot more trouble now.”
“I wasn’t trying to run away from your officers,” I said. “The accelerator in the car stuck. I couldn’t stop. You really should check it out. Remember I told you about getting some information that was going to rock your case? I think someone didn’t want me to make it back.”
Sergeant French let us take our hands down and we all stepped away from the car. He stared at Mason’s tai chi outfit. “How does he fit into the picture?”
“He doesn’t,” I said. I was a little out of it from the shock of everything and started to babble that Mason was a high-level attorney from L.A. and a tai chi expert who needed to recover from a family party and had come to the beach to do some tai chi. Mason threw me a concerned look and said he’d take over.
“When I saw Molly get out of the car, it was a natural instinct to come over and help her.”
Sergeant French called over one of his officers and told him to check out the accelerator. Then he turned his attention back to me. “Okay, now why would someone not want you to make it back, and from where?”
He had his friendly face on, but I knew he was probably thinking “Humor the crazy amateur sleuth.” Mason nodded. “Molly, I’m curious, too. What’s going on?”
We were interrupted by the officer Sergeant French had sent to look over Adele’s car.
“Hey, Sarge, you aren’t going to believe this.” The uniform gave me an odd look. Sergeant French followed him. The car door was open and the officer pointed to something. Then they both knelt down. I was trying to see what they were doing and overhear their conversation. Mason reached out and touched my arm. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”
“You and me both,” I said, remembering how I’d thought it was the end. I was sure Charlie wouldn’t mind waiting a little longer.
A few moments later, Sergeant French and the other officer came back to us, both of them wearing odd expressions, and took us to the car.
“Show her what you found,” the sergeant said. The officer used a stick to fold back the floor mat, which I now saw had covered part of the accelerator. A m'elange of yarn with something pink and sticky mixed in was stuck on the mat. I knelt down and leaned in to get a closer look. The smell gave it away.
“Bubble gum?” I said with surprise.
“Yes, somehow the bubble gum and that yarn mess got caught under there. The mat must have moved when you were driving and held the pedal down. The gum and yarn obviously came from the backseat. There are balls of yarn all over the place and an open bag of bubble gum.
“But don’t you see? That didn’t just happen. Someone did it to the floor mat,” I protested.
Mason was all business now. “What my client is trying to say is that she has good reason to think that someone deliberately placed that glob so the floor mat would stick to the pedal.”
“Thanks for your input, counselor, but I’d really like to hear why Ms. Pink is so sure someone wants to harm her.”
Was there any way I could explain what I’d been trying to do so it didn’t sound ridiculous? I took a deep breath and decided to give it my best shot. I said I thought Sergeant French was right that Izabelle had been meeting somebody on the beach. I explained the e-mails from the Identical Twins Anonymous sponsor. “It seems the whole point of the group is for identical twins who are having problems with being identical twins. Izabelle changed her appearance so she wouldn’t be identical anymore. She never even mentioned her sister was her twin in the memoir piece she wrote in one of the workshops. The e-mail made it sound like there was something she was going to do this weekend that involved her twin,” I said.
“So, you’re saying you think her twin was on the beach with her?” Sergeant French said. To my surprise, he was actually paying attention to what I was saying.
I nodded. “Her twin would know about her peanut allergy and probably that she had an EpiPen with her. And since Izabelle didn’t like her twin, there’s a good chance the feeling was mutual. Who better to feed her sister the peanut butter-laced s’more?” Sergeant French put up his hand.
“Sorry, Ms. Pink, I still don’t buy it that the woman was killed with a s’more. But them meeting on the beach, one way or the other, seems reasonable.”
I shrugged off his critique of my murder plan and continued. “Because of the e-mail from the Twins Anonymous guy, I began to think her twin might be here. But how to figure out who was her twin?” I asked if I could retrieve the crochet book and the manila envelope, and he gave his okay. I opened to the page with the doll model and repeated what the gray-haired woman had told me about the doll probably being made from a photo of a real little girl.
“I thought there was a good chance the doll was made from a photograph of Izabelle when she was around five years old.” I mentioned remembering the photo of the missing child I’d seen on the milk carton and how it had gotten me thinking. I swallowed, then told him about my plan to get the photo in the book age-progressed. I went over my phone search to find the photo studio. To my surprise, Sergeant French’s face lit up with interest.
“What an interesting idea,” he said. He noticed the manila envelope in my hand, and before I could react, he’d taken it and was pulling out the photo. He might have been actually taking me seriously until then, but when he saw the picture, he seemed as if he didn’t know how to react. Finally he tried to speak, but choked on a laugh.
“Okay, maybe the execution didn’t work out quite right,” I said, wincing at the print that clearly just looked like a freaky doll head. Mason had his hand over his mouth, no doubt to hide his grin.
“But the idea could work,” Sergeant French said, taking the book from my arm. He studied the photograph of the doll. “The features and head shape do seem as though they were based on a real child. With the right software it could be very interesting. I have access to the real deal,” he said. “I’ll have to try to pull some strings, seeing it’s Sunday afternoon, but I know somebody who owes me a favor.”
“You mean you’re really going to try to do age progression on the doll?”
His face took on a wary expression. “But if my picture turns out like yours, then it never happened, got it?” I nodded in agreement and he glanced toward the car. “I’m not saying someone did that to the mat. People don’t use bubble gum and yarn to sabotage a car. They use bombs and cut brake lines.” Sergeant French measured his words. “But I’ll acknowledge someone could have. I’m going to err on the side of caution and assume someone did try to sabotage the car, and suggest that you stay low until I get back. The twin could have heard what you were doing and realized the altered photo could identify her.” He turned to Mason. Do you think you can keep her hidden? Let them think she’s over a cliff somewhere and they’re home free.”
“I think that can be arranged,” Mason said. “There’s a chapel just inside the grounds. No one would see us in there. They’re all still tied up with the workshops.”
“Then you really believe me about the s’mores and the twin and-?” I said in surprise.
Sergeant French put up his hand, interrupting me. “Don’t get too carried away. I’m limiting what I believe to the fact somebody might have put the gum and yarn together and stuck them to the floor mat, but that’s it.”
A cop carrying a roll of yellow tape came toward the car as Mason and I walked quickly toward the boardwalk. A few people on the beach had stopped when I’d first landed there, but by now they’d realized there was nothing going on and had drifted off. The path into the conference grounds was empty. I had passed the chapel building numerous times, but never noticed it until now. We slipped in the door and found a pew and sat down.
I thanked Mason for all his help. He was concerned that I was still shaky from my afternoon almost-disaster. I insisted I was fine, but then, out of nowhere, the strain of everything hit and I started to cry. I have to say Mason has always come through in a crisis, whether it’s getting me a frozen lemonade to soothe my injuries after I confronted a murderer for the first time, or rescuing me when my mother turned my living room into a rehearsal hall when she was getting ready for her big audition. He came through again and put his arm around me in a reassuring manner and reminded me I was safe. Now that Sergeant French had taken over, I could just relax.
It might have worked if my cell phone hadn’t started to play its musical flourish. I tried to swallow my tears as I answered in a whisper.
“Why are you talking so softly?” Barry asked. Without waiting for me to answer, he said, “Okay, what’s wrong, babe?”
“Duck,” Mason said suddenly, pointing toward the window. Two people were going by, and I recognized Spenser and his lady companion. Mason and I both slid onto the floor, and I held my breath while we waited to see if they came into the chapel.
“Was that Mason?” Barry said, his voice changing from concern to irritation. “How is it every time I call, you’re with him? And why is he telling you to duck?”
“I guarantee we aren’t having fun,” I said.
“And you’ve been crying.” Barry’s voice changed back to concern. “What’s wrong?”
I had been hoping to avoid talking to him until everything was settled, but no such luck. I told him the whole story. Almost the whole story. I left out the out-of-control car ride. I didn’t think I could talk about it yet without falling apart. I could practically hear Barry hitting his forehead with the heel of his hand when I got to the part about the doll’s head. I knew he was about to say something about me being really around the bend this time, so I got it in that we were hiding while Sergeant French tried to get the doll’s face aged.
“Are you sure that cop is really doing that, and not just humoring you?” Barry said.
“I’m telling you, as we speak, he’s calling in favors because he thinks my plan might work.” Mason looked at me with a concerned shake of his head and gestured for me to hand him the phone.
“Our girl did good,” Mason said into the phone. I wasn’t sure if I liked being called “our girl,” and I just bet Barry wasn’t that thrilled with it, either. Though I did like the way Mason told Barry again how Sergeant French had actually listened to what I’d said. I wasn’t quite as happy when Mason told Barry about the car ride. I could tell Barry interrupted.
“Yes, yes, she’s really all right,” Mason said. “I was on the beach when the car hit the sand. Just by chance I was there to do my tai chi. She was kind of shaken up, so the police officer suggested I stay with her.” I just bet Barry didn’t care for that last part, either. “But you know our girl, she bounces right back.”
Mason handed the phone back to me, and Barry must have asked me five times if I was okay. Then he wanted to know why I’d left out that part of the story.
“I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I wasn’t sure-” My voice began to quaver, and I heard the frustration in Barry’s breath.
“My God, Molly, what have you gotten involved with this time?” Then he caught himself and his voice softened. “I wish I was there to make it all right.” I wished he was, too. After thinking I might never see him again, I wanted to throw my arms around him and tell him how much he meant to me. I could have done the last part, but it didn’t feel comfortable with an audience. There were more frustrated-sounding breaths coming from Barry. “I’m just glad you’re all right. I guess this isn’t the best time to give the news I was calling about.”
My stomach clenched. “What now?” I said a little too loudly and then repeated it in a whisper.
“Remember the things I mentioned that kept showing up in your house? This afternoon when I stopped over, there were some chairs and one of those climbing things for cats along with the boxes. I heard some noise and checked the house. Someone was sleeping in your son’s room.”
“Don’t tell me it was Goldilocks,” I said with a mirthless laugh.
“Wrong sex,” Barry said. “It was Samuel, and when I questioned him about what was going on, he said he’d lost his place and moved back home. He was waiting for the right moment to tell you. I told him I didn’t think that moment existed, and he should just call you, but… Well, neither of your sons exactly listens to me. And the cats. None of his roommates would take them, and Samuel didn’t think you would mind.”
I took it all in without comment. Barry finally added that he hadn’t noticed a lot of hunks of fur around the house, which he took to mean the dogs and cats were okay with each other. This was the awkward part with Barry. He was in a circle separate from the one shared by my sons and me. Barry was trying to be protective, but my sons knew that my house was always their home, too. For now there was nothing I could do, anyway.
When I hung up the phone, I looked at my watch. I hoped Sergeant French would hurry; the workshops would be ending soon. We’d moved back up into the pew since the grounds seemed empty. Finally I couldn’t take sitting anymore, and got up and started to pace.
After what seemed like eternity, but was probably around an hour, Sergeant French walked in the door, holding the book and a manila envelope.
I stared at it as he held it out. “It turned out better than your photo, though that isn’t necessarily saying much.” I opened the envelope and took out the print.
“That’s who it is,” I said, shoving it back. “C’mon, the whole group should be at the bonfire pit by now.”
I walked on ahead, still holding the envelope. Commander and his workshop had set up a cheese tray arranged around a group of Japanese eggplants carved to look like penguins. He was circulating through the group holding a bottle of red and a bottle of white to refill their plastic cups. As I moved into the crowd, I noticed that Sergeant French stayed off in the shadow. No doubt his plan was to move in at the right moment. Several tai chi enthusiasts immediately surrounded Mason.
Commander Blaine poured some red into Miss Lavender Pants’s glass as I reached the center of the crowd. I pulled out the photo and Commander glanced over at it.
“Whoever took that doesn’t have much of a future in photography,” he said, shaking his head with dismay. “What a terrible picture. It barely looks like Nora Franklyn.”
At the sound of her name, Nora looked up. “What picture?” she said, stepping away from Bennett and pushing through the people as she approached me.
I turned toward Sergeant French, expecting him to be moving in to question her, but he was still in the back.
“I never had that photograph taken. Where did you get it?” Nora demanded.
I took out the book and showed her the page with the doll model, and Nora’s mouth fell open. She stared at the doll and then looked at the book’s cover. “I don’t understand. What was Izabelle Landers doing with that doll?”
“Are you sure you don’t understand?” I said, watching her reactions. “You have the same doll, don’t you?”
Nora just glared at me and didn’t answer. If Sergeant French wasn’t going to take advantage of this opportunity, I certainly was. By now the whole group had stopped their conversations and were watching us.
“Izabelle Landers was your twin, wasn’t she? You’re the one who was on the beach with her. You knew about her peanut allergy and you got her to eat the peanut butter-laced s’more, and then you walked away and left her as the allergic reaction kicked in.”
Nora’s face had gone white and she appeared shocked. “Izabelle was Nina?” she said in a daze. She looked at the photograph on the back of the book. “We were identical twins. What did she do to herself?”
Miss Lavender Pants stared at Nora, studying her face. “I’m guessing she got her lips injected with that plump-up stuff. Probably some cheekbone implants, a nose job for sure.” Her eyes moved to Nora’s chest. “I guess both of you skipped the boob job.”
Nora gave her a withering look as I continued. “I know you two didn’t get along.” I mentioned the memoir piece Izabelle had written about the orange soda incident.
Nora took a deep breath, and as she began to recover, she got defensive. “It wasn’t my fault we didn’t get along. She took the orange soda and everything else she could from me. She didn’t like being a twin and she blamed it on me. Not that it’s any of your business, but our parents got a divorce right after those dolls were made. I think Nina blamed that on me, too. We went to live with our father, who never could keep us straight. Personally, I was relieved when she walked out of my life. I can’t believe she was living in Tarzana all this time and I didn’t know it.” As Nora got more in charge of herself, she glared at me.
“But kill Nina-are you out of your mind? She was mean as a snake to me, but she was still my sister.” She glanced around at everyone staring at her. “And I can prove it. I’m allergic to peanuts, too. If I had handled something with peanut butter on it, I would have had an allergic reaction, too. Even if I’d shot myself with an EpiPen, I’d have needed follow-up emergency care. If you don’t believe me, ask my husband.”
Bennett came forward and said it was true, then started to describe Nora’s attempt to get the airline employee to insist that nobody on the plane eat anything with peanuts. He looked at me with contempt.
Nora broke in. “The smell alone is enough to give me a sneezing attack. I need to know the ingredients of everything before I eat it or use it on my body.” Now the scene at the airport all made sense.
“Wow, so I was right. This was a mystery weekend after all,” the woman in the turquoise earrings said, starting to applaud. I ignored her comment, wondering how I could have been so wrong.
“But somebody sabotaged the car. Somebody didn’t want this picture to surface.” I looked toward the edge of the crowd and saw that Sergeant French had disappeared.
Adele burst through her group. “Pink, what did you do to my car?”