Sherwood Ltd. by Anne R. Allen by Anne R. Allen - Read Online

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Sherwood Ltd. - Anne R. Allen

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Allen

Chapter 1—The Man in the Green Hoodie

Anybody can become an outlaw. For me, all it took was a little financial myopia, an inherited bad taste in spouses, a recession—and there I was, the great-granddaughter of newspaper baron H. P. Randall, edging around in alley-shadows, about to become a common thief.

Okay, I was only stealing trash: a clear plastic bag stuffed with enough bottles and cans to redeem for a quart of milk. I’d seen it from the window of my friend’s San Francisco apartment where I was doing a little uninvited house-sitting. All I’d found to pour on my morning flax flakes was a dusty bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Not the best fortification for a day of job-hunting.

I stretched an arm into the dumpster, but the bag of recyclables was just beyond my reach. Praying the gathering dusk would make me invisible to passersby, I kicked off my heels, hoisted myself to the dumpster’s rim and—with a triumphant clatter of Pellegrino bottles—extricated my treasure, safely unobserved.

Except by some dog who had materialized behind me in the alley—a skinny, bedraggled thing—investigating my discarded shoes with a hungry snout.

You’re not to eat those. I balanced on the edge of the dumpster, keeping my toes out of biting range. I adore dogs, but this one had odd, not-safe eyes.

A light flared from the street end of the alley.

I froze.

Are you all right up there? A man moved toward me—all spiky hair and bony shoulders, silhouetted against the lights from out on Castro Street. I managed to twist around to a sitting position, clutching my trash bag. I hoped I wasn’t poaching on his territory. The homeless, like everybody else, would have rules of etiquette. What irony if an etiquette expert were to be attacked for bad manners.

The man struck another match and reflected flame glinted off steel-rimmed glasses as he lit a pipe. The scent of tobacco wafted above the garbage stink. He came closer. I clutched the glass-filled bag, ready to use it as a weapon.

The coyote, he said: The trickster: ‘always poor, out of luck, and friendless’—Mark Twain said that, I believe. His accent was British. Reassuring. I’d hoped to see a bit of the wild life of San Francisco, but that’s not the sort I had in mind.

An ulp moment.

That was a coyote? I tried to breathe normally as the animal slunk away. They don’t eat people, do they? Thank goodness I was wearing my most conservative pants suit. I didn’t want to appear connected with wild life of any kind.

I’m told they like to nibble on human feet. The man gave a half-smile.

I wiggled my naked toes and shuddered. Thanks for scaring it away.

I’m no expert on coyotes, mind you. He puffed on his pipe. We haven’t many in Nottinghamshire. He was tall and good-looking, in an unkempt, What-Not-To-Wear sort of way: Oxford don meets Pirate of the Caribbean. A little older than me. Mid-forties, maybe. He wore a hooded green sweatshirt with the Golden Gate Bridge embroidered on the chest. Probably a tourist. I relaxed a bit.

Not a lot of coyotes in Manhattan either, I said. I’ve just arrived in San Francisco myself. My instinct was to offer a hand and introduce myself, but:

1) I didn’t think it wise to give my name to an alley-person—no matter how educated and/or attractive.

2) I didn’t want my dumpster-dive to make its way into the press.

3) My free hand was occupied with keeping myself from sliding, derrière-first, into the smelly trash below.

I decided it was time to make a quick exit. But a passing headlight showed the glitter of broken glass on the pavement below. Not nice for jumping on in bare feet.

Let me help. The man stuck his pipe in his teeth and reached up to circle my waist with big, powerful hands. He lifted me down gently. Did you drop something valuable in the skip there? He smelled of peach tobacco and Scotch.

Just some recycling. I avoided eye contact and made my way toward my shoes. I wished his touch hadn’t felt so electric.

You risked life and limb rather than pollute? Are you sure you’re not a native? He offered a supportive arm and friendly grin as I stepped into my pumps, but I resisted the urge to flirt. My soul-crushing divorce—plus a fizzled rebound romance—had cured me of trusting good-looking men. Even polite ones. Besides, this was the Castro; the man had to be gay.

He re-lit his pipe. You’re here for a bit of a holiday then? His accent wasn’t BBC English, but something edgier—more northern.

No. Work, I said, lying by omission. I picked up the bag. I must run.

What sort of work do you do?

My least favorite question. Since Metro-Features dropped my column six months ago, I hadn’t done any actual work—unless you counted nursing my dying mother, staging a ridiculously lavish funeral, fighting the foreclosure on my apartment—and dealing with those condescending debt consolidation people.

I write. I gave him a dismissive smile and moved toward the building.

He laughed. Indeed! I don’t suppose you have an unpublished novel lying about? Something a bit steamy? He puffed his pipe. Perhaps involving whips and chains?

My head pounded. Of course. A stranger in a city alley at night—what made me think he wouldn’t be a pervert? With a quick pivot I took off toward the stairs.

I could hear him running behind me.

Lass! I’m sorry! I could feel his breath on my neck

I launched the trash bag in the direction of his solar plexus and ran as quickly as stiletto heels would allow. I heard my Pellegrino bottles shatter as the bag fell short.

The man wasn’t fazed a bit. Don’t go!

One of his big hands clamped onto my wrist. With the other, he reached into his pocket.

Oh, great. He had a gun.

Chapter 2—Poor, Out of Luck, and Friendless

The man’s grip on my wrist tightened. In the shadowy dark, I couldn’t see what kind of weapon he had taken from his pocket. If it was a gun, it was small. Maybe a knife.

I looked around for a blunt instrument. I refused to be murdered here, without even an ID: an anonymous dead garbage thief.

But with a creepy move, he stuck his hand into the pocket of my jacket. I could feel the heat of his hand through the gabardine—no gun or knife—so what did he want?

A wallet? Keys? Yes: he probably intended to burgle the apartment.

But I’d show him not to mess with a New Yorker. I faked a trip-and-fall movement, yanked off my shoe, and aimed the steel-tipped heel at his eyeball.

His turn to run.

Get lost, creep! I hurled the shoe at him, then slipped off the other, clutching it like a hammer. I shot up the back stairs, turned the deadbolt, and ran to the kitchen sink, not sure if I was going to be sick.

Was it the English accent that made me think the man safe? Or the mention of Nottingham? I’ve always had a thing for Robin-Hoody stuff.

I set the bronze leather Prada pump on the counter. It looked as alone and useless as I felt. I gulped some water and told myself to stop whining.

Things could be worse. I could be homeless.

But my friend Plantagenet Smith had this lovely San Francisco pied a terre he wasn’t using. At least that’s what he said in his last e-mail before my phone and Internet service got cut off. He was staying at his boyfriend’s beach house in Morro Bay until he finished his screenplay. He usually wrote slowly, so I figured I had at least a month.

I hadn’t broken in—not technically. I simply used the extra key he keeps in the hat of the garden gnome by the back door. I probably should have phoned from somewhere to tell him I’d taken him up on his offer of hospitality if you’re ever in San Francisco again. But it’s hard to tell somebody who met you as a teenaged heiress to zillions that:

1) Your mother, the Countess, died destitute.

2) Your celebrity ex-husband has declared bankruptcy and flown off to Thailand in quest of enlightenment, affordable health care, and/or cheap sex, not necessarily in that order.

3) The hot L. A. policeman you’d been hoping to stay with while in California wrote last week to say he’d found his soul mate—a sweet vice detective named Lola—and they’d be sure to invite you to the wedding.

4) What was left of your last paycheck has gone to bribe Habib, your passive-aggressive Manhattan doorman, so he’ll keep your stuff in the basement until your former assistant can move it to her cousin’s garage in Queens.

5) Your entire net worth is in your pocket: two quarters, an old subway token and some grimy Altoid mints.

I breathed in the serenity of the tastefully decorated studio, telling myself it would all be okay, even though the job I thought I had at the Chronicle had been eliminated three days before I was supposed to fly out here on a non-refundable ticket. I’d find something soon. The clerk at the bookstore on the corner had been hopeful about an opening. Not that selling gay men’s books and erotic paraphernalia was my dream job, but I didn’t think it polite to judge. I hoped I wouldn’t have to dress in Goth regalia like that clerk, though. Black isn’t my color.

I poured myself a Campari and soda to soothe my stomach and booted my laptop, cheered to see email from Valentina. Hiding my reversal of fortune had meant cutting off my A-list friends—not a huge loss—but it meant my assistant was my only confidante.

But Valentina’s note was not warm. WTF is going on with your stuff? Your terrorist doorman told my cousin Rico he’d never heard of you or your things. Rico’s pissed. He’s still gotta be paid for the gas and his time, so send a check ASAP.

I steadied myself as this hit me like a gut-punch. Everything I had left. Gone.

I poured some of Plant’s Grey Goose into my Campari. But it didn’t help my stomach. Or my heart. Which wasn’t so much breaking as deflating—a hissing, dying little balloon collapsing inside my chest. All the designer clothes, shoes, handbags. The furniture, china and silver I’d managed to save from the family estate. My whole identity.

I checked my watch. Nearly nine PM—midnight, New York time. No point in calling. And who would I call? The co-op board? Legally, I had no right to store anything in the building after the foreclosure on Wednesday. The police? To report that the man I bribed to commit a crime turned out to be a criminal?

I sipped my make-shift Negroni and stared down into the alley as I fought despair. No signs of my attacker out there, but the dreadful coyote was back, chewing something: a man’s sandal. My Prada pump would probably be next.

No.

I wouldn’t let it happen. I grabbed a flashlight, stepped into my clogs and stomped down the stairs, shouting at the animal. The last shred of my former self was not going to become coyote food. I searched with the flashlight beam to make sure the area was Englishman-free, and located my pump at the end of the alley.

The coyote hardly looked up from its meal of Birkenstock à la dumpster-slime, even when I shone the light directly in its face. The sandal dripped ooze. I felt sick again, but managed to shoo the animal back into the shadows

I approached my shoe with stealth, praying the pervert wasn’t lurking in some hidey-hole. As I bent to pick it up, I heard the coyote growl behind me: a serious, don’t-mess-with-my-lunch growl. With some stomping and shouting, I managed to drive the beast away—but only as far as the dumpster. Finally, after some banging on the dumpster’s metal sides, I thought I saw the creature slink away. I beamed the flashlight into the shadows to make sure it had gone.

That’s when I saw the body—lying lifeless and twisted on top of a large garbage bag—a man dressed entirely in black, with a pentagram tattooed on his left hand.

Lance. That was his name. The Goth clerk from the bookstore on the corner. One of his feet was nearly gone—his black jeans ending in a bloody stump.

Chapter 3—No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I managed to call 911 and keep calm until the police arrived and paramedics took away the footless body. But when they took my Prada pump as evidence, I sank onto the back stairs and broke into sobs—not snuffly, oh-how-sad tears, but uncontrolled, little-kid wails. I couldn’t have said if they were for the coyote-gnawed clerk, or Habib’s betrayal, or the whole crashing-down, twenty-first century world.

The officer sat next to me on the bottom stair. You’re taking this pretty hard, Ms. Randall. Why is that? Didn’t you say you only met Larry this afternoon?

I sniffed back the waterworks. I’m not used to seeing people eaten by wild animals. And I don’t mean to be impolite, but the man’s name was Lance, not Larry. I almost wished I hadn’t called 911. If it turned out Lance hadn’t been killed by the evil-eyed coyote, I’d set myself up as a murder suspect. No good deed goes unpunished.

His license gives his name as Larry McNerlin, the officer said. Does he have family in the area? Friends we can contact?

I told you—all I know is he was working in the bookstore on the corner when I went in this afternoon. I’d had my fill of fake-clueless questions. But if you don’t think the coyote killed him, I have a suspect for you.

I told him about the Englishman in the green hoodie.

The officer looked skeptical, but wrote something in his notebook.

A few minutes later, his partner reappeared.

We’ve found a coyote eating human remains, he said. Over in Duboce park. He gave me a nod. Your story checks out. You can go back upstairs, ma’am. We’ll contact you if we have any more questions.

Ma’am. That’s who I was now. An anonymous ma’am. I wondered if Jonathan, my ex, had descended so quickly from Page Six to anonymity.

I escaped to the apartment, but Plant’s airy studio didn’t feel safe anymore. The high ceilings and open floor plan of the modernized Victorian made me feel exposed. I wanted a tiny, secret place to burrow into. I took a long shower and swallowed one of the tranquilizers Valentina gave me the day we got the notice that Metrofeatures was dropping my column. I fell into bed and drifted in and out of ridiculous nightmares about pipe-smoking coyotes attacking my feet.

But through the druggy haze I heard sounds from the hallway outside. Heavy footsteps. A clunk. My brain snapped back to full consciousness. Had the hoodie pervert come back with his knife? My own stupid fault for flirting with an alley-person.

I made myself take a deep breath and think rational thoughts. Maybe this was the police—back to ask about my relationship with the deceased again.

Officers? I called into the dark. No answer. I jumped from the bed, put on my robe and looked around for a weapon. If you’re not the police, I called at the door— I’ve got a gun in here. A whole bunch. We collect guns. Major NRA fans.

I heard a laugh.

Darling, you’re an awful liar, a voice said.

Chapter 4—Little Beige Lies

A key clicked in the lock and the door burst open. The light flicked on and there was Plantagenet, looking disheveled—or as disheveled as one can in a bespoke Zegna suit.

He rushed to hug me.

Sorry, darling. I didn’t remember you were staying here. I just assumed you’d be visiting your nice policeman, Rick…

He could probably tell from my expression that Rick was a sore subject.

"But of course—you wrote you were interviewing for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. I should have offered…oh, darling, I apologize for being in such a fog. But it’s wonderful to see you. I’m glad you found your way in."

I couldn’t say anything. I clung to him. His hug made me feel safer than I had in months. I felt the sting of incipient tears as I tried to put all the recent horrors into words.

He handed me his handkerchief. Of course. Losing your mother and dealing with that skinflint ex of yours—I’m sure it’s been terrible. I apologize for not being a better correspondent.

He poured himself a Grey Goose and sighed.

I’m not in such good shape myself. I’ve left Silas—walked out on him and all his pretentious dinner guests. They’re probably still waiting for me to fetch another case of Viognier. I don’t need to be somebody’s damned househusband. He gulped vodka. Especially since Silas seems to be having a thing on the side with a clerk in his Berkeley bookstore.

A bookstore clerk. Too ironic. And sad.

Plantagenet and I both had such abysmal taste in men, it was good we had each other. We’d been friends since my subdeb days, when he was an orphan kid from New Jersey, sneaking into fancy parties for the food, and I was the clueless little heiress to the Randall newspaper empire. But we drifted apart when I married Jonathan—the two didn’t get on—and we’d only reconnected when Jonathan and I split up last year.

Plant fixed me a Negroni and asked me to tell him all about the night’s disasters.

I accepted it gratefully and launched into my tale.

When I came to the part about finding Lance’s body, Plant stopped me, his face suddenly white.

Lance? You’re sure the dead man’s name was Lance?

Actually, the police think he was named Larry McNerlin. But they also think my Prada pump was involved, so I don’t put a lot of trust in them. You knew him?

Plant nodded as he blinked back incipient tears. He called himself Lance McMerlin, but I can imagine he changed his name. A sweet young guy. Plant bit his lip, then took a gulp of his Grey Goose. Unfortunately, his literary taste ran to ersatz-medieval. He gave a laugh that turned into a sigh. "We met when my screenplay for Wilde in the West was getting all the awards. He and I…let’s say Silas isn’t the only one who’s dallied with book-persons. Silas was furious about Lance, the damned hypocrite. Plant refilled his glass. But if you say we belong together because we had matching boy toys, I’m going to cry."

I was a little afraid he might. It felt awful to have delivered the bad news in such a casual way. I wanted to give him comfort, but Ativan and vodka had done their work. I stretched out on the suedey softness of the couch, fighting to keep my eyelids open.

Darling, you don’t have to give up the bed, Plant said. I’ll sleep on the sofa. I’m so glad you’re here. Stay as long as you like. We’ll make good roommates. After all, we don’t have the same taste in men or the same dress size…

Whatever he said after that faded into more coyote dreams.

~

I woke to the aromas of Jumpin’ Java and Noah’s bagels and lox.

Plant looked showered and fresh in a Jhane Bharnes shirt and khakis. I’ve been talking with Felix at the bookstore. He handed me a double mocha. The poor man. The police suspect him in Lance’s death, since he and Lance were occasional lovers.

The coyote didn’t kill Lance? I didn’t know if that was good news or not.

"Lance had no pre-mortem wounds, according to Felix. That’s probably why your policemen friends suspect foul play. They questioned Felix for hours. Apparently Lance gave his notice yesterday. Felix got a little heated—in front of a witness, who happened to be Lance’s old girlfriend. But Lance may have OD’d. Felix says he seemed drugged and out-of-it recently. Not a good way to go, but better than being killed by a wild animal, I should think.

Or murdered by a well-mannered Englishman.

It was quite possible I’d had a brush with a murderer. And he still might be out there.

All I could do was shiver.

Plant set out the bagels and lox for our breakfast—a taste of heaven after a week of scrounging meals from his understocked cupboards.

As I spread cream cheese on a second bagel-half, he gave me a penetrating look.

"Felix said an odd thing—he said you’d applied to work at his store. That wasn’t you, was it? What about your job at the Chronicle?"

My un-favorite subject again. Evaporated. So has the editor who asked to interview me. I’m an etiquette columnist in the 21st century—about as much in demand as, well, a newspaper.

And they didn’t bother to tell you until you’d flown all the way across the country?

I shrugged as I munched my bagel. I didn’t feel up to telling him the non-refundable ticket represented my entire net worth, and without his apartment to run to, I’d probably have spent the last week sleeping on a bench in Central Park.

Plant gave me a confused smile. I hope I didn’t make a mistake, but I told Felix to go ahead and give Lance’s job to one of the other applicants. So many people are hurting for money these days, and you’ll be rolling in it once the Countess’s will is straightened out.

That could take a while. I took another chomp of bagel to avoid having to admit my little beige lies. There was nothing to straighten out. My poor mother had six husbands, five of them rich, but the last one left her nothing but debts and a dubious title.

Plant put on a cheery voice. "I think the Universe has decreed you spend the summer working on a project of your own. Isn’t it time to do an update of Wedding Rx from the Manners Doctor or maybe Manners Rx for the Suddenly Single?"

Another painful subject. My agent says they’re totally last century and told me to start a blog. It lasted three months. I had ten followers.

"Then you’ll have to do a whole new book. Something more contemporary. How about Good Manners for Bad Times? I’ll put a curtain over the bed alcove and that can be your room."

He gestured at the area by the side window. It did look rather inviting.

It used to be a separate bedroom. He went on. When I bought this place, I thought I’d only use it for an occasional theater weekend, so I remodeled for entertaining.

His voice rose as it usually did when he talked about his finances.

"I didn’t realize those Hollywood vampires would steal me blind. Do you believe they claim Wilde in the West never made a penny?"

He offered me half of the last bagel.

And speaking of vampires, I want the dish on your ex. Has Jonathan Kahn really left the faux news business to find enlightenment…?

Chapter 5—Sherwood, Ltd.

Plant and I did make pretty good roommates. And actually, the studio was bigger than my old three-room West Side apartment.

I didn’t bring up the subject of Silas and Plant didn’t ask me about my failed romance with my policeman friend Rick. I even started to get used to the Stephen Sondheim mix constantly playing from Plant’s iPod speakers. I set up my laptop in an almost-private nook, and had a lot of evenings to myself, since Plant spent most of his time at Theater Rhino, where they were reviving one of his plays.

I discovered a resale shop in Hayes Valley that gave me a reasonable amount for my Piaget watch and the diamond earrings Jonathan had given me on our tenth anniversary. After that, I could contribute groceries and buy a few necessities. I didn’t tell Plant where the money came from. He thought my new Tinker Bell Timex was a cute fashion statement. I didn’t need diamonds. I was living in jeans anyway.

~

That’s why it was over a month before I put on the Armani pants suit I’d worn job-hunting the day Lance/Larry the bookstore clerk had met his end.

Plant was treating me to Peruvian food to celebrate finishing up my book proposal and sample chapters to send to my agent. As we waited to get into Mochica in a drizzly March fog, I stuck a hand in my pocket for warmth, and felt something I didn’t remember putting there. I pulled out an elegant business card, printed on forest green stock with gilt lettering.

Sherwood Publishing Group, Ltd., it said. Peter Sherwood, Managing Director. Maidenette Building/Threadneedle Street/Swynsby-on-Trent, Lincs, UK.

Ooooh, Plant took the card as I told him where it came from. Your alley-person was Peter Sherwood? He really is a publisher, darling. Silas and I met him at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He’s the new owner of Dominion Books. His uncle’s an earl or something.

I felt my face flush. How awful. I should write and apologize…

Plant smiled. The fact he’s an aristocrat doesn’t mean he’s well-behaved. He wasn’t joking about the whips and chains. Dominion publishes erotica. He was probably peddling his wares to Felix.

I put the card in my purse as a waiter finally beckoned us inside. I felt terrible. I gave the police his description. And called him a creep. The poor man.

Don’t worry, darling, Plant said after ordering the wine. "I’m sure Mr. Sherwood is fine.