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PRELUDE AND THEME

CHAPTER TWO

December, 2007

In her early days at Warrick, Thompson, Karen had looked forward to the firm’s annual Christmas party. The venue varied. Sometimes oceanside at the Hotel del Coronado. Sometimes inland with exquisite food at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. And sometimes under chains of white fairy lights outdoors on the Prado at Balboa Park. But always with no expense spared. Before her legal career, Karen had no experience with formal parties. Her family’s budget could not cover Christmas dinner at a restaurant, let alone a catered affair for four hundred.

In those first years at the firm, she had shopped the second-hand designer stores to compete with the wives of the big name partners who imported their gowns from Rodeo Drive. Even before she was fully aware of how much appearance mattered in the Warrick, Thompson world, she had instinctively kept her true self hidden and disguised herself to look like those around her. At age thirty, as she stood by the hors d’oeuvres at her first firm Christmas party, white wine in hand, she had laughed privately at the thought of resale Givenchy as camouflage.

Now at forty-eight, she regarded the annual event as a dreary duty. Howard loved it for glad-handing big name clients. But she thoroughly hated wearing a pasted smile from eight to midnight, while watching unhappy people drink themselves into oblivion. And now that she had the money to afford original designer labels – in fact something Howard insisted on to ensure his status in the firm – she no longer found dressing up for the big night could take her mind off the exquisitely boring evening that lay ahead.

On Friday, December 16, she closed her courtroom at four p.m., an hour early, and made it home before I-15 became impassible. She had trained herself in the last two weeks not to look at the answering machine when she came in. She knew the light was not blinking. She had instructed her staff and Howard to leave messages only on her cell so that a winking red light would not tempt her to hope Stan had called again.

Because, of course, he did not. And it had been for the best, she reminded herself as she stripped off the gray suit of judgeship and ran hot water for her shower. Even if her heart still turned over at the sound of his voice after so many years, they had nothing to say to each other.

She stayed in the shower an extra long time. The last thing she wanted was to arrive before Howard. He was flying back for the party but would arrive so late he would go straight to the Hotel Del from the airport. He was still in trial in Philadelphia and had not been home since December 1. She had given his tux to his secretary to FedEx to him the day before.

She took extra time with her hair and makeup. Was there any trace of Carrie in the face of The Honorable Karen M. Morgan? Her auburn hair, which had been long enough to cover her breasts on those wild nights when she and Stan had made love from two a.m. until dawn, was now cut to a tame chin length. She pulled it away from her face with small black clips when she sat on the bench. Loose hair, even chin length, was unprofessional.

She still had Carrie’s round face and big hazel eyes that became green when she wore that color. But these days they were more often gray, influenced by the black robes. She had never looked her age – a disadvantage in the early days of her career when partners had passed her up as too young for important assignments. But Howard now loved having a “trophy wife” his own age who looked ten years younger. She shuddered at the way he’d said it.
She applied her Chanel makeup and studied the effect. Suddenly she wished she had picked the dark green velvet Prada gown at Nordstrom’s. Deep V-neck, long skinny sleeves, and a pencil skirt, slit to the knee. Hardly something the Honorable Karen would wear. But a dress the middle-aged Carrie would have adored. If she had survived.

Karen dug deeper into her cosmetic drawer and found an old emerald eyeshadow. Cover Girl. From the days when she had bought makeup in drug stores. She applied it lovingly to each lid. And then deepened her black liner, smudging it carefully so that it would look soft. She smiled. Her eyes were now the color of the sea on a sunny day. She slipped into her black silk Chanel gown, high neck but plunging V back, three quarter-length sleeves. She added the emerald and diamond earrings she had bought last summer when Howard’s secretary forgot her birthday. She wiggled into black satin evening sandals and picked up her discreet black evening bag. Eight-thirty. Cocktails had begun at eight. Howard shouldn’t arrive until nine.

She resolutely refused to look at the answering machine as she walked through the kitchen, car keys in hand. But just as she opened the door to the garage, she turned abruptly, ran across the room, and switched it off. There. Now she could come back untormented by any hope of a call. Besides, it was Friday night. Stan Benedict was working. Somewhere – she had no idea where – he was on stage, playing trumpet in a way that touched the soul of every woman in the club. One lucky one would go home with him. But not Carrie Moon. She had been home with Stan Benedict. And she was dead. The Honorable Karen M. Morgan turned off the kitchen light and headed for her BMW. Showtime at Warrick, Thompson. Again.

* * *

Everyone had just sat down to dinner in the dark paneled Crown Room when she arrived at the Hotel Del. To her surprise, Howard was already there and seated next to fifty-something Huntfield Harper, CEO of Harper Biotech. Her husband shot her an annoyed, but relieved look as she slid into the seat beside him.

“You’re late!” he hissed in her ear, smiling to mask his displeasure.
“Sorry.” She gave him and her immediate audience a vague smile, unperturbed. “Red zin,” she said to the hovering waiter and turned to engage the third Mrs. Huntfield Harper in mindless conversation. While the twenty-something, dripping in diamonds, chattered about shopping and redecorating her Rancho Santa Fe mansion, Karen tuned out. She had long ago mastered the art of lobbing a pointless question across the net to keep equally pointless social conversation flowing.

When the lobster entree arrived, Mrs. Harper received a warning look from her husband as the waiter poured her fourth glass of champagne. Karen heard the musicians begin their sound check. They were behind the closed folding doors in the middle of the Crown Room where dancing would follow dinner. First the deep reverberations of a bass guitar, then a sax, starting low and running an F scale into the upper octaves, followed by laughter and conversation that she couldn’t make out, followed by electronic buzzes and monotones that indicated they were adjusting the sound equipment. Mrs. Harper paused at that moment, and Karen tossed her another question about interior decoration that restarted her monologue.

The sax wailed a few notes of the blues scale, and then a trumpet began to warm up. Karen felt the first low notes vibrate inside her as if she were the instrument. No, she told herself. Stan’s not in there. A phone call does not mean he’s in San Diego. And even if he were, he’d be playing solo at a jazz club somewhere – probably Croce’s tonight. He wouldn’t be backup in the kind of corporate dance band Warrick, Thompson shelled out big bucks for every year. Stan wasn’t in the next room. But someone who could nail triple high C’s, just the way he could, was in there. The high, pure notes sent her blood racing. At least the music would salvage something of the evening for her.

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