Nicoli Hunter Mysteries
My name is Nicoli Hunter. I’m a Private Investigator licensed to practice in California. My office is in Redwood City in a marina complex where I also live aboard my forty-six foot sailboat, Turning Point. I’ve been living aboard since I got divorced, earned my PI license, and opened my own office just over two years ago.
Most of my customers are bar and restaurant owners who hire me to conduct covert employee surveillance. However, in the last few months I’ve handled two murder investigations during which I brushed up against the Grim Reaper, so lately I’ve appreciated the simple things in life more than I used to. For this reason alone, when an invitation to my high school reunion arrived in the mail, it appealed to me. I optimistically filled out the enclosed questionnaire.
1. What is your current occupation?
2. What is your spouse or significant other’s name and occupation?
Occasional significant other: Bill Anderson, Police Detective
3. What are the names and genders of your children?
4. Where are you currently living?
Aboard my sailboat in Redwood City, California
I finished filling out the form and was enclosing a check when I developed cold feet, remembering why I had chosen to avoid all of the previous reunions. I’d had a miserable time in high school. It never made sense to me that I was required to attend classes when I had better things to do, and I was not one of the popular kids. I was creative and eccentric, hanging out with the big-brains, drama geeks, and stoners, who also didn’t fit in.
Suddenly undecided about this upcoming event, I called my best friend, Elizabeth Gaultier. Elizabeth also lives aboard, on a trawler docked at the base of the companionway not far from my boat, which is how we met. She answered on the second ring.
“Hi, honey. What’s up?” Elizabeth has caller ID, but refuses to own a cell phone. She’s complicated.
“I’m trying to decide if I want to go to my high school reunion.”
Elizabeth knew I’d hated high school, but was quick to remind me that I’d had a few good friends I hadn’t seen in years who might attend the reunion, not to mention a few old enemies who should see how good I looked now and how successful I’d become. I thought about that. I’m five-seven and currently a hundred and thirty-eight pounds. I quit smoking a few weeks ago, so I’ve gained a little weight, but I still fit into my skinny-jeans. I work out five or six days a week and I try to live on the Zone diet. My hair is long, curly, and chestnut brown, and I wear it in a graduated layer cut. My eyes are dark blue with black rims around the irises. I may not be a beauty queen, but I have a good face, apart from the gun powder stippling on my temple from a recent near miss with a homicidal maniac.
“And you could invite Bill along,” Elizabeth suggested. “For moral support, and to make your old frenemies jealous,”
“What the hell,” I said. “If it’s a disaster we can leave early.”
Thus it was that on a balmy Friday evening in October, I found myself at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Burlingame where the El Camino High School reunion was being held. Bill had readily agreed to come along. He had never attended one of his own class reunions, so he didn’t know what he was getting himself into any more than I did.
Bill is thirty-seven years old, almost six feet tall, lean and well-muscled, with a radiant smile, black hair, hazel eyes, and a dark complexion he inherited from the Lakota Sioux on his mother’s side. He’s definitely eye candy, and I was not above flaunting him in front of my former classmates even if we weren’t in a committed relationship.
We arrived late and entered the hotel through a side door because Bill refuses to allow valets to park his classic Mustang. He insists it’s because the transmission is temperamental, but I know the truth. A man’s car is like his woman. He doesn’t want another man to touch her unless she needs medical attention. I know how he feels. I drive a vintage 1972 British racing green BMW model 2002, and every time I drop it off at Bimmers in San Carlos for repairs I get heart palpitations. Not because I don’t trust Franjo and Milenko, they’re the best BMW mechanics in the State, but whenever I’m without my sweet little 2002 I suffer from feelings of apprehension and distress. I’d recently had the car repainted after it was vandalized by a murderous psycho who was stalking me, so now I’m even more careful about where I park.
We were headed for the front desk to ask where the reunion event was being held when I spotted a ladies’ restroom and decided I needed a quick stop. I dashed inside, annoyed by the butterflies in my stomach. I examined my face and hair in the mirror, added lip gloss, and then selected a stall. I was seated when I heard the restroom door open and a group of women enter, all talking at once. I didn’t recognize any of the slightly tipsy voices until I heard one woman call another by name.
“You haven’t changed a bit, Cher,” said the voice.
“Oh my God!” I blurted out. “Is that Cher Costanza?”
“Yes,” sang a familiar blonde voice. “Who’s that?”
“It’s Nikki Hunter!” I quickly stood and pulled up my bikini briefs as the automatic commode flushed itself. I was wearing my favorite little black halter dress with my Stuart Weitzman peep-toe pumps. This was extremely formal attire for me. I spend most of my life in shorts or jeans.
I opened the stall door and time flew back nineteen years as I gazed into the face of my best high school buddy. I’d skipped a grade and graduated at seventeen, so, at thirty-seven, Cher had a year on me. The fact that we hadn’t stayed in touch didn’t stop us from instantly reverting to the teenagers we used to be. We quickly hugged, then stood back and examined each other, simultaneously announcing, “You look great!” and bursting into fits of laughter.
Bill, waiting outside in the hallway, must have thought there was a cheerleader’s convention taking place in the ladies’ restroom.
Cher had changed so little that I was stunned. She still had the same shoulder-length blonde hair with bangs cut a little long. She had to tilt her chin up slightly in order to see out from under them. She was tan, even in October, and wore the same black eyeliner and pink lipstick I remembered so well, though a bit more skillfully applied than it had been in high school. Her figure was still trim and she was wearing a Versace Graffiti Print dress with a very short skirt. In fact it was so short that she might be arrested for indecent exposure if she bent over in public, but it totally worked on her. Her cerise-pink polished toes peeked out of a pair of nude Manolo Blahnik ankle strap sandals that added four inches to her height.
Cher and I smoked our first cigarettes together in the El Camino High girls’ restroom during lunch. Salems. I wondered if she still smoked. I couldn’t smell tobacco on her, but you can’t always tell. Besides, she was wearing Flowerbomb, a floral scent that would mask almost anything.
When I got over the shock of seeing her again, I turned to see who Cher had been talking to. I was met with polite smiles from Heather Crossgill and Melissa Hutchinson—two of my former arch-enemies. They both looked fit, but they were dressed like fifty-dollar hookers. Cher always had a kind of innate elegance, even in high school when her wardrobe was tacky. In addition to the innate grace with which she carries herself, I attribute this to her angelic disposition. Heather and Melissa, on the other hand, were mean-spirited, petty, back-biting, two-faced bitches who wouldn’t give me and Cher the time of day back in high school. I couldn’t help but wonder why they were hanging on her every word now. Surely they hadn’t changed. The mean girls in high school grow up to become mean women, don’t they?
When I looked back at Cher I noted the huge diamond on her ring finger and the one carat studs in her ears. Combined with the Versace and Manolos, the look shouted opulence. So that was it. Heather and Melissa were drawn to Cher now because she had money. I was halfway through this ugly thought when it dawned on me that I had traveled, emotionally, back to our ninth grade gym class when Heather and Melissa had made fun of me because my bra didn’t match my panties, or maybe it was because my panties didn’t match my bra. The point is, I tend to hold a grudge.
“Hi guys. How are you?” I said, smiling at my old adversaries.
“Is that gorgeous hunk of man waiting outside your husband?” Heather stage whispered.
“He’s mine all right,” I said. Let there be no mistake about that. “But we aren’t married.” I felt my smile grow frosty as I hastily rinsed my hands.
“So where’s our venue?” I asked, hoping to shift the topic away from Bill and defuse the childish surge of jealousy I was feeling.
“Other side of the lobby,” Cher said. “Come on, I’ll show you. We just stepped out to grab a drink at the bar. There’s no bar in our banquet room. Can you believe that?”
She grabbed my arm and we exited the restroom together, with Heather and Melissa trailing behind.
I introduced Bill to all three women and, being a perfect gentleman, he shook hands with each of them. Steam started coming out of my ears when Heather held onto Bill’s hand with both of hers for what felt like a full minute. He must have known I was contemplating a body slam because he flicked me a glance that said chill. As soon as Heather released him, Bill put his arm around my shoulder and kissed me, scoring major points to be cashed in later in the evening. He kept his arm around me as Cher led the way across the lobby to the room where the reunion was being held, Heather and Melissa weaving along behind us.
While Bill and I got in line to register, Cher said she would find our place markers and move them to her table.
The registration area was manned by Arabella Tribuzio, at least that had been her maiden name. Her nametag read Bella Piazza. Unlike Cher, Bella had changed. She looked her age, but had somehow grown into her eyes, nose, and teeth. In high school all three had seemed too large for her face. Now she just looked dramatic.
When we finally made it to the front of the line Bella looked up at Bill, smiled broadly, and then turned her attention to me. Her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. “Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “When they told me you were coming I said, ‘I don’t believe it,’ but here you are! Nikki Hunter. How the hell are you? Where have you been for the last nineteen years, and who is this handsome devil?” She waggled her eyebrows at Bill.
It was Bella all right. She always said what was on her mind. I’d liked that about her.
“This is Bill Anderson,” I said. “I’m doing well. I live in Redwood City now, and I’m a private investigator. Does that cover everything?” I was smiling when I said this, and you have to know Bella. She’s over-the-top, Italian, and not easily offended.
She was checking our names off on her list and before she could respond someone behind us said, “Can we keep the line moving?”
I spun around, ready to bite off the head of the jerk who was rude enough to rush me at my first reunion, when I did one of those ridiculous-looking double-takes. The person standing behind me, grinning ear-to-ear, was none other than Steve Saxon, one of my old high school friends. Steve had been a sensitive kid, which made him a prime target for the jocks, or anyone else who needed to make someone feel small in order to feel good about themselves. He had been the best friend of Sandra Knudson, with whom I attended drama and dance classes, and I’d gotten to know him by association with Sandra. My memories were coming back in a flood.
Steve had aged well. He was over six feet tall, his hair was dark blond, and he’d grown a beard, which completely transformed his appearance. His sparkling blue eyes had the requisite crow’s feet and he was dressed in jeans, a turtleneck, and a tweed blazer. If I hadn’t been so happy with Bill at the moment I might have made a pass. Instead, I gave Steve a quick hug and introduced him to Bill.
“What have you been up to?” I asked him, as we drifted into the banquet room after Bella had checked him off her list.
The volume of conversation made it hard for me to hear myself, let alone Steve’s response.
“I’m living in Maine,” he said, managing to scan the room and maintain eye contact with me at the same time. “I’m an artist. Pretty well known in some circles.”
“Really?” I didn’t remember Steve being artistic, but I had probably forgotten more about that time than I realized. “What’s your medium?”
“Oils, mostly. I dabble in watercolor.”
“Subject matter?” I asked.
“Naked women,” he said, his eyes flashing.
I looked over at Bill to see if he was paying attention. Regrettably, he was.
“Seriously,” I said.
“Seascapes. When I get bored with them I sometimes persuade a lady-friend to pose nude for me. I keep those for my private collection.” Steve’s eyes made the unspoken suggestion that I look him up if I was ever in Maine long enough for a casual fling. I looked around the room, suddenly anxious to find Cher and our table. I spotted her waving madly from the opposite side of the dance floor.
“Great to see you again, Steve,” I said, nudging Bill in the other direction.
“Great to see you!” he responded. “Save me a dance.”
So, one of my favorite high school friends now fancied himself a ladies’ man and was no longer sensitive enough to care that I was here with someone else. I decided it was a minor offence and that I should be flattered, not to mention the fact that I found the way my body was responding to Steve’s interest a little disturbing.
Bill and I crossed the room and seated ourselves at Cher’s table. She had arranged the place cards so that I was next to her, and Bill was between me and Melissa. Clever girl. She had known that if she seated Bill next to Heather I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else all night. I admit to being the jealous type. I’m territorial and competitive, but until this reunion I’d thought I had those impulses pretty much under control. It seemed my level of maturity had temporarily regressed back to high school.
Once we were seated I noticed Cher’s Flowerbomb competing with Heather and Melissa’s equally strong and flowery fragrances, and I was glad I’d forgotten to spritz on my own signature scent, Must de Cartier, in my haste to dress for the evening. The fragrances already mingling at our table were enough to make me hurl.
I rested my hand on Bill’s thigh and scanned the room for familiar faces. I spotted Sandra Knudson near the entryway. She was talking to a man with a neatly trimmed beard and a receding hairline dressed in jeans and a brown leather bomber jacket. He looked familiar. I stared at him for a minute, but couldn’t quite place him. Then I looked away and it hit me. Paul Marks! Paul and I had walked to school together for more years than I could remember. He’d lived around the corner from my house and had taken piano lessons from my mom. Adorable, sweet, loyal Paul Marks. We’d been hot and heavy for a while in high school, before deciding we were better off as friends.
I waved and both Paul and Sandra waved back. Why hadn’t I stayed in touch with these people? A moment later Paul strode over to our table and knelt beside my chair as I turned to greet him.
“Nikki,” he said, reaching for my hand. “I can’t believe you finally came to one of these things. I thought I’d never see you again. You look beautiful.” He gave my hand a quick squeeze and leaned in for a kiss on the cheek.
Paul always had intense brown eyes with long lashes and an aura of kindness, and that hadn’t changed. I felt my heart swell with affection, but I also noticed his face was thinner now, almost gaunt. I supposed it could be part of the natural aging process, but it didn’t look healthy on him. Although he was smiling, I could sense anxiety just beneath the surface.
I introduced Paul to Bill and they shook hands, maintaining eye contact long enough to tell me that Bill was feeling a little bit territorial himself tonight. The moment was slightly awkward, but not unpleasant.
“So, Paul,” I said, “What have you been up to for the last nineteen years?” That sounded lame even to me, but I was genuinely interested.
“I’m an air traffic control supervisor at SFO,” he said. “Recently promoted. I’ve been married once. No kids. We’re divorced now. What about you?”
All right, I thought, such a high-pressure job could easily account for the level of stress Paul exhibited.
I smiled and said, “I’m a private investigator. I live aboard a sailboat in Redwood City.”
That was the condensed version, but the room was too noisy for a conversation about how many times I’d been married and the career path that led me to my current occupation. I pulled a business card out of my purse and handed it to him. He studied it for a minute, frowning slightly, then fished a card out of his wallet.
“Let’s have lunch,” he said.
I nodded enthusiastically. “I’d like that.”
A moment later Paul left to find his own table.
While we’d been talking the waitstaff had begun pouring ice water and were now serving green salads liberally doused with bright orange dressing. I placed my napkin on my lap, picked up my fork, and looked around the banquet room, listening to the idle chatter at surrounding tables and the clink of silverware. The lighting in the room was dim, but I could see that there were four long tables set up against the back wall, covered with works of art, articles of clothing, and gift baskets. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that was about.
I turned to Cher. “What’s all the merchandise for?” I asked pointing toward the back of the room.
She laughed and leaned against me saying, “It’s a silent auction. Proceeds go to the school. This isn’t just a reunion, it’s a fundraiser.”
I’d never been to a reunion and I’d never been to a silent auction, so I was totally clueless. Good thing I had a guide. I noticed Cher was ignoring her salad too, so I asked if she wanted to go take a look at the auction tables.
“Yes,” she answered quickly.
I asked Bill if he wanted to join us, but he took a pass. I kissed him on the lips and glanced across the table at Heather, who gave me a snide grin. I really wanted to slap her. Sometimes I hate being human.