So the time has come for another look into my forthcoming novel The Red Dress!
This time, I’m much more confident in sharing this with you all. There was a great response from everyone for my first preview. So much so, that I had a dickens of a time holding off on sharing the next bit. I even wanted to move the release day up because of it.
Alas, I did none of that, and instead keeping to my original schedule. Or as much of one as there has ever been. Even so, I am really excited to share this all with you.
Without further ado, here is the second excerpt. And keep an eye out for The Red Dress come December!
I found myself at the Swope Law Office at ten the next morning. It took up every floor of an old six-story converted storefront. While the brick exterior matched something from the 1930s, extensive remodeling inside had created a modern atmosphere. A mellow burnt-orange covered the walls, with only the odd potted plant and mass-produced landscape left to break the monotony. A reception desk occupied the center of the room and was manned by a blond in professional attire. Couches and chairs, more comfortable-looking than they probably were, lined the walls, along with the requisite three-month-old magazines fanned out on tables around the room.
I approached the most attractive thing in the room, returning her cold eye with patented smile number two. “Daniel Atwell to see Arthur Swope.”
She spoke in a clipped manner, making no attempt to hide her distaste. “Mr. Swope doesn’t argue cases anymore. You can meet with another lawyer. Perhaps Ms. Salsburg.” She picked up her phone and dialed.
I reached out and depressed the switch hook. She looked angry, so I switched to smile number four. “That’s okay. I’ll find my way. He’s expecting me.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hawthorne, but I’m afraid not.” I didn’t rise to the occasion. Mama would’ve been proud. “No one is allowed into the offices unescorted. Client confidentially. You’ll just have to wait until I’m free to see you up.”
“Okay.” I slouched forward, elbows on the reception desk, the model of patient insolence.
She pointed to one of the chairs against the wall. “You can have a seat over there.”
“I know,” I said, looking up at her and switching back to smile number two.
Her lips pinched. It only made her cuter. “Follow me.”
“No need for that, Heather.” The mousy speech sounded from behind me, and I turned to see exactly the type of man you would expect to own such a voice. “I’ll take him up to Father’s office. I need to drop off the Varner case.” The receptionist nodded, short and quick, clearly happy to be rid of me.
My guide lacked any sort of chin and had ears too large for his head. I sampled his handshake—much too limp—as we paused before the elevator. “Robert Swope. We’ll have to stop at my office for that file I mentioned before I take you up.” He paused as we entered and started the assent. “I understand my father hired you to investigate Mom’s death?”
I agreed, but corrected him on who was hired. Robert nodded and continued on unruffled. “Whatever he told you about Mom, I’m sure he got it wrong.”
That was an interesting statement. I made to address it, but before I could, the doors opened and he stepped out into a carpeted hallway. It looked much like the lobby, but sterile. Some of the doors, each marked with a plaque, sat open, but most were shut. Robert led me down two halls before stopping at a door marked with his name and title. We entered a room just large enough for its contents, painted red and lined with overflowing bookcases. Two overstuffed chairs sat before a well-worn wooden desk. “What do you mean your father got it wrong?” I made myself comfortable in the chair closest to his desk.
His answer was punctuated by the ruffling of papers and the opening of drawers. “In my father’s mind, Mom was perfect. He never saw any of her flaws. I did. Everyone else did. But not the great lawyer. It didn’t matter how many times she insulted him in public; she never blemished.”
“How did you feel about her?”
Robert paused, looking at me over a sheet of paper. “She was my mother. How do you think I felt about her? I loved her. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to call her since her death, only to realize she can’t answer. And every time I do, I remember, and the wounds open back up.”
“Would anyone wish to harm Mrs. Swope?”
“Don’t call her that,” he rasped. “You knew her yourself. To me, she’ll always be Mom, but you . . . She deserves better.”
I shrugged. “Your mother’s and my time together ended long ago. This profession requires me to keep emotions distant; otherwise, it compromises objectivity and results. It may sting, but it’s all I have. Do you understand?”
He dropped his head and went back to the drawers. “She didn’t have any friends—none that I can think of, at least—but no one wanted her dead.”
“I take it she was only close to your father?”
“When I was growing up, she talked about a few friends, but I never met any of them. I thought they were imaginary. Gradually she stopped talking about them. But even with Father, she was often distant. The only person she seemed to have any emotional connection with was Helen, and only regarding that animal shelter.”
“That seems like a lonely life.”
“I agree. But Mom didn’t mind. She reveled in it. Maybe those charities made up for it somehow, provided a place to focus the attentions she gave no one else.
“What about the two of you?”
Robert shook his head as he shuffled through another stack of papers. “We were close, but over the last few years things got strained. We were too alike to have a harmonious relationship. We made due.” His smile was bittersweet. “I wish we hadn’t argued as much now, but hindsight and all that.”
“What can you tell me about these charities she worked with?” I asked. “I need a list of them if possible.”
He paused and then giggled. I want to be fair, but the man giggled. “‘Worked with’ might be too strong a phrase. Mom was a great starter but never much more. She breezed into a place, declaring their cause her own, and then promptly changed everything. Didn’t make her many friends. If anyone balked, Mom would throw money around until she got her way. Then she’d grow bored and quit.” Robert shook his head. “I can get you a list before you leave.”
He paused before going on. “I think they only kept her around because she was a monetary godsend. Each received tons of donations thanks to her connections. She rarely involved herself with the same charity more than once, so if a group got the opportunity, they seized it.”
“What about the MBE?”
He shook his head. “I doubt it. That was her pet cause when she died, but she’d only been with them for about a week. They had yet to fully experience the brunt of her attentions. Any hatred had yet to climax. The only organization she worked with consistently was the animal shelter. Unlike the others, she never tried to reorganize it. She even brought home an abandoned kitten a month before her death.”
“I understand you found your mother’s body.”
Robert paused for a long minute before speaking, physically gathering himself to continue. “Yes. Mom and I had talked earlier that day. She was having second thoughts about the anniversary party. At the time, my parents’ marriage was under a lot of stress, and she didn’t feel a giant gala would help. But Father insisted and she went along. That night wasn’t even around their anniversary. I don’t know who missed that detail, but it reeks of Father.
“Anyway, Mom wanted to cancel the entire thing. I thought it was cold feet or embarrassment or something stupid, so I convinced her to leave it be. I went to the house because I’d promised to drive her. It was the only way I could get her to attend. But I was late.” Tears formed at the corner of his eyes, and he paused to wipe them away.
I jumped into the silence. “Put a pin in that. What’s the relationship between your father and Patricia Vice?”
Robert took his time gathering himself and sat back in his chair with his eyes closed. He remained that way as he spoke. “Years ago, Patricia Vice was an organizer at one of the charities Mom helped with. That’s where Father met her. Her husband died just after her election to Congress. She and Father kept in touch, and now that she’s running for another term, she enlisted my father’s help as an advisor. Beyond that, nothing.”
He opened his eyes and attempted a weak smile before starting in again at the pile before him. Near the bottom, he pulled out a manila folder. “Found it. You are quite a distraction, Mr. Hawthorne.” I let it slide. “Now we can head to Father’s office.”
Instead of standing right away, I sat there watching him. The abrupt ending felt contrived and rubbed me the wrong way. I had more questions, along with sowing Stephanie’s seeds, and yearned to continue prying. But then the moment passed. It would keep for now.
The trip up to Arthur Swope’s office took only a few minutes. When the elevator doors opened, we stood on the top floor in a bare, white hallway with two doors, one on either side. Using the door on the left, we entered into a spacious office painted dark green. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with books and binders of the same size if not the same color. Even a bust of Socrates stood against the wall. Arthur Swope sat behind a massive wooden desk, his back to a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window which looked out onto the street below.
Swope never looked up as we approached. While I produced the documents that needed to be signed, Robert held out the folder to his father. I thought it impossible for Robert to become any less intimidating, but he succeeded. “Here’s the Varner files you wanted. Also, I brought that detective you hired.” A thumb shot out at me.
The senior Swope scowled at his son. “I can see that. What took you so long? Miss Swanson informed me of his arrival half an hour ago.”
Robert mumbled something unintelligible and all but ran from the room. I looked back to Swope as the folder hit his desk. “Bad timing?”