Labor Day, Monday, 2 September
If life had taught Bettina Connaught Cross anything, it was to abide by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s most widely quoted dictate:
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
Being Bettina, she took the warning one step further:
Trust no one.
Certainly not those in San Francisco’s elite social stratum. When news about her husband Art’s financial embezzlement was made public, all reverence afforded the generations-long Connaught name disappeared just as quickly as the city’s celebrated tulle fog when hit by the hot, harsh California sun.
The resonance of this philosophy rang even truer in regard to the women she’d handpicked to help her run the Pacific Heights Moms & Tots Club—the organization she’d founded, and had served as its Chief Executive Mom since its inception. Like some of the other club members, at least one or two mothers on the Top Moms Committee had invested with Art.
In truth, there were other ways in which membership had cost PHM&T moms just as dearly, if not more so. Bettina’s draconian infractions coerced them into dropping friends who hadn’t won the club’s approval. They were appointed petty tasks that tested their friendships with fellow members. They were encouraged to report any infractions committed by others who had pledged to abide by the club’s endless list of rules.
But now Bettina was the one who was ridiculed, laughed at, and shunned.
Knowing this, she no longer attended the PHM&T’s mandatory Monday-Wednesday-Friday meet-ups.
Not that she could, even if she wanted. Her attorneys (in truth, Eleanor’s, since her mother held the Connaught purse strings) insisted that Bettina lay low in order to fend off the veritable onslaught of subpoenas from Federal prosecutors hell-bent on unearthing Art’s whereabouts. The subpoenas were now delivered almost on a daily basis to her home in the Summit, the Eichler-designed high-rise condominium that was the crown jewel of San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. To that end, all meals and other necessities were ordered by phone, and received by Benny, the Summit’s concierge, whom Bettina paid a princely sum each week to walk them up personally.
Frankly, the siege against her gave her the excuse she needed to shun her family: her mother, Eleanor; her brother, Matt; and his wife, Lorna, whom she despised above everyone else.
She was determined not to see them, and vowed to stay out of the public eye until she devised a scheme that might actually salvage her tarnished reputation.
Today, she put that scheme into action by calling a meeting of the Top Moms Committee. As its Chief Executive Mom, it was solely within her purview to do so. Emails to its members went out exactly twenty-five hours before one o’clock on Labor Day Monday. That way, she held onto the element of surprise.
The ironclad contract they so capriciously signed for the honor of being a “Top Mom” left the women with no other recourse but to attend. Or, as the husband of one of the ladies put it, “This damn contract makes the Iran Nuclear Deal look simple! But reneging on even one of your fiduciary duties as a Top Mom could tie us up in court for years—and that would bankrupt us! Sorry, honey. You’ll just have to suck it up and go.”
Round One to Bettina.
And so, instead of taking their children to one of San Francisco’s many beautiful parks on this crisp blue Labor Day, the Top Moms—Sally Dunder of the soon-to-be Threesies group, Mallory Wickett of the soon-to-be Foursies, and Kimberley Savitch soon-to-be Fivesies—congregated in front of the Summit.
And then, en masse, they entered the private elevator that would take them to Bettina’s penthouse apartment.
The elevator door finally opened into a seemingly endless hallway crowned with a replica of all twenty-three panels of the Bassae Frieze, the original having been ransacked from a Grecian temple, thus allowing British Museum patrons to gaze upon its intricate beauty.
Joanna Blunt, the Fivesies’ former Top Mom, was already waiting in front of the Crosses’ massive double-entry doors. She was just as shocked to see the other ladies, as they were to see her.
Sally, the most guileless of the group, and therefore the least likely to keep her feelings in check, blurted out, “What are you doing here?”
Mallory’s snort did not discern between Sally’s bluntness and Joanna’s annoyed wince. “You served your time and got a reprieve, Joanna—or have you forgotten?”
Mallory’s prison analogy was certainly apt, considering that a sentence for first-degree theft would be shorter than their five-year terms on the Top Moms Committee. The fact that Joanna’s daughter, Chloe, was now in first grade at the very elite Pacific Heights Country Day School—ironically, the very same school in which Bettina’s daughter, Lily, would soon be attending kindergarten—released her from any further obligation to be at Bettina’s beck and call.
Joanna shrugged. “Believe me, I’ve been asking myself that very same question from the moment I received Bettina’s cryptic email”—she glanced down at her Patek Phillipe white-gold twenty-four carat watch—“twenty-three hours and fifty-two minutes ago. The only thing I can come up with is that after having put up with that bitch for the last five years, no way am I going to miss out on watching her grovel and plead for our friendships. Isn’t that why you’re here too?”
The smile on the other women’s faces proved she’d hit her mark.
She scanned the group. “Jade isn’t with you? Ha! No surprise there, I guess. My God, if my husband had lost the amount of money Brady invested with Art, I guess I’d have blown off Bettina too.”
All eyes shifted to Kimberley. Her face was even redder than her long auburn hair. Like Jade and Brady Pierce, she and her husband, Jerry, had been victims of Art Cross’s embezzlement.
“And, besides,” Joanna continued, “like the rest of you, I have a morbid curiosity as to what Bettina has been up to in the six weeks since her hubby went on the lam.”
“Well, you’re about to find out.” Bettina’s pronouncement roared through the hallway.
The women gasped in unison at the thought that Bettina had heard them.
Even as they shrank in shame, they searched fervently for their nemesis. To that end, Sally’s breathy squeak could have been mistaken for a titmouse. The others turned their gaze to where she pointed: at the frieze high above their heads. Looking closely, they saw tiny red lights blinking within the eyes of the plaster of Paris centaurs, which were so viciously trampling the Greek soldiers beneath their hooves.
Apparently, Bettina not only heard; she was watching them.
Suddenly, as if by invisible hands, the doors opened on their own. As strange as that was, the spook house gimmick didn’t surprise Bettina’s guests. They were quite aware that Bettina reveled in playing god.
Kimberley was the last one over the threshold. Angrily, she pointed a single middle finger at the closest red-eyed satyr before walking through the doors.
She walked through too, but left them open, just a hairline crack.
Call it payback.
“Ladies, find your places, then feel free to sit down.”
Bettina stood at the head of the massive rough-hewn oak dining room table that comfortably accommodated twenty-four guests. Her luxurious blond hair was upswept casually. Her colorful Erdam Orlando color-block lace sheath, a sixty-two hundred-dollar acquisition made only days before Art’s disappearance, did not betray her pregnancy with even the slightest bulge.
Doing so would have been a sign of weakness she could ill afford.
Her dog, a deep auburn Tibetan mastiff that she’d proudly named Prince Vsevolod Ivanovich, stood at attention beside her. When Mallory passed him, he growled.
Mallory paused, but she was smart enough to show no fear.
Waterford cut crystal glasses filled with Evian water had been placed in front of the closest two chairs on either side of Bettina. But file folders, in different pastel colors, stood in for place settings.
Each folder was graced with a name scrolled in elegant calligraphy.
“I didn’t know you’d invited us for brunch.” Warily, Sally picked up the glass in front of her chair.
The others knew what she was thinking: Is it poisoned?
“Trust me, I’m not feeding you,” Bettina assured her. “After what I have to say, you won’t have an appetite anyway.”
“Then maybe we should stand instead,” Mallory retorted.
“That’s fine with me. But if you faint, don’t expect me to catch you.” She tilted her head, as if truly scrutinizing her frenemy. “You’ve put on a pound—or three. My God, Mallory! How could you let yourself go like that?”
Mallory started to say something, but then thought better of it. Biting her lower lip, she plopped down into her chair.
Bettina smiled wickedly. Despite being only a size two, Mallory’s Achilles’s heel had always been her anxiety over her weight. The others dreaded any Top Moms social outing that included a meal because all lavatory runs had to be made before eating. Otherwise, the sound of Mallory purging her salad might send your lunch back up your windpipe as well.
In no time at all, the other women were also settled in their chairs. Soon, they were deeply engrossed in their files. The gasps were expected, as were the sobs. Every now and again, one or another let loose with a “Why…you bitch!...” or “Oh, my God! How did you find out about that…?”
These initial exclamations died off before the thought was articulated, for good reason: even if Bettina knew their deepest, darkest secrets, they’d be damned if the others would too.
The research and surveillance of this intel had cost Bettina a pretty penny—practically her whole savings. Seeing the
looks on the women’s faces, she realized immediately that it was money well spent.
Sally, for example, would not like it known that her husband was a cross dresser.
As for Joanna, it was the fact that her husband, a newly minted senior partner in his law firm, was also a top-tier customer on the hook-up website, Ashley Madison, that had her tearing up.
Mallory’s husband was having an affair with one of her sisters—the one known to be anorexic.
As for Kimberley, her husband was spending a lot of time—and losing a lot of money—on illegal gambling, as if one big win could make up for all the money Art lost them. Their beautiful Presidio Heights Victorian cottage was already in foreclosure.
When the women were finally done, they sat stone-faced, staring straight ahead. After what they’d read, they were too ashamed to look each other in the eye.
Bettina waited until the last file closed before rising and taking each dossier in hand.
No one dared to stop her.
She walked over to the dining room’s sideboard. It was placed below a row of beautifully framed primitive watercolors, each signed by the painter: Bettina’s four-year-old daughter, Lily. The only thing on the sideboard was a rainbow-hued ceramic sculpture. It was a primitive work; one of Jeff Koons’ first, but one could rightly guess it was a horse. One twist of its raised back hoof and the sculpture slid from its base, which held a small vault deep within it.
Bettina punched in the release code. A hum and a click indicated the door was now unlocked. As she placed the files into the safe, she declared, “I cannot think of a more loving way to show my loyalty to you, my sisters in arms, than to permanently hide your indiscretions from prying eyes. Or, as the eighteenth century French philosopher, Luc de Clapiers, so aptly put it, ‘Our failings sometimes bind us to one another as closely as could virtue itself.’”
“What the hell does that mean?” Mallory muttered.
Bettina sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised that you haven’t heard of him, Mallory. He died relatively young, and his body of work is rather thin. So let me spell it out for you.” Her glare dared Mallory to blink. “I own you.” Her eyes sought out Sally’s and then Kimberley’s. “And you, and you”—she then turned to Joanna—“And you too. So don’t you forget it.”
Bettina tipped the horse’s hoof. It swung back into its original position.
As it clicked into place, shivers went up the spines of the other women.
Once again, they were her pawns.
The only thing that might call this assumption into question was the crash and splintering of the front door as it gave way to a mob of Federal agents.
Bettina stood there, rigid as a statue. Her guests, lacking her resiliency, shrieked as they ducked under the table.
A SWAT team, wearing bulletproof vests over black T-shirts and jeans, swarmed into the room. “United States Marshals, accompanying a United States Attorney with the Department of Justice,” one of the men shouted.
The last of the intruders to enter wore a suit and tie. From the cut, Bettina recognized it as Brioni.
Ha, she thought, so that’s how our tax dollars are being spent!
The man in the suit made his way to her. He must have been several inches over six feet because he towered over her. “We have a search and seizure court order, plus an arrest warrant for Arthur George Cross.” He handed her a set of official looking papers.
Talk about ruining a perfect blackmailing scheme! Bettina’s sigh was heavy with annoyance. “I am Bettina Connaught Cross. Mr. Cross is not here, but do feel free to search the premises, if it would make you feel better.”
The man’s brow lifted derisively. “So honored to have your ‘permission’ to do so.”
“And you are?” she asked archly.
“Daniel Warwick. I’m the court-appointed trustee for all of Mr. Cross’s assets.” He looked her over, as if sizing her up. “And yours too.”
“I beg your pardon?” Bettina’s voice was low and ominous.
Upset by his mistress’s tone, Prince Vsevolod mimicked her with his own deep growl.
Daniel stared down at him.
It was no contest. Prince Vsevolod surrendered with a wag of his tail while nuzzling on Daniel’s pant leg.
He might as well be kissing his ass, Bettina thought. For that matter, maybe I should, too.
With focused effort, she positioned her lips into a smile and leaned in. “I think you have it all wrong. I took no part in my soon-to-be ex-husband’s business.”
Daniel shrugged. “That may be the case, but the court has ordered the confiscation of any and all property, cash, and assets acquired during the period of embezzlement.”
A collective gasp rose from under the table.
Bemused by Bettina’s Greek chorus, Daniel crouched down beside it. “Ladies, if you wish, you are free to go.”
Bettina’s Top Moms didn’t need a second invitation. Without a backward glance, they scurried out of the room.
Bettina had never seen the women move that fast, and in heels no less. Except for Kimberley, who gave Bettina’s tormentor a wink.
The nerve of that tart!
Bettina’s warning, meant for all of them, but now especially for Kimberley, followed them out the front door: “Ladies, I’ll see you tomorrow, nine o’clock sharp, in the Golden Gate Valley Library’s assembly room. We have some new moms to vote on—not to mention some new policies. Come prepared with your list of favorite candidates.”
When she didn’t hear their acknowledgments, she added, “And, remember: United we stand, divided we fall!”
She turned back around to find Daniel staring at her. “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“They’re part of my moms and tots group. It’s a personal reminder.”
“Yeah, I sort of got that.”
Seeing his consternation, she added, “Nothing to worry about, believe me. It’s…confidential—in regard to them, not me.” No better time to change the subject than now. “You and your crew really must leave now.” She raised her hands, as if, presto-change-o, he’d simply disappear.
“It’s Mrs. Connaught Cross. But, please, call me Bettina.” She batted her eyelashes, all the while wondering if that really worked in softening the male perspective.
Alas, no. All it gained her was another bemused smirk from him. “Mrs. Connaught Cross, once again let me remind you that any property or possessions acquired during the time of embezzlement is subject to search and seizure.”
“Mr. Warwick, you’re missing my point entirely! Art had nothing! You see, everything in this home belongs to me, including the condo. It’s all in my name.”
“Bettina, tell me: was it purchased within the past five years?”
Finally, he’s softening up, she thought. “Why, yes, in fact—with money from my trust.”
“Oh, yes, your trust!” It was almost as if a little light went off in his head. “By the way, any co-mingling of your funds, and Art’s, leaves it open to our forensic investigators, and possible seizure as well.”
“Ha! Do you think I’d ever let Art get anywhere near my money? I know better!” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she could have kicked herself.
Especially seeing this Warwick fellow roll his eyes. “And they say, ‘the wife is always the last to know’? Thank you, Bettina, for laying that old chestnut to rest. And under Federal law, anyone who knew about his illegal activities and failed to report it is just as culpable.”
“I didn’t say I knew he embezzled,” she huffed. “I meant that I knew he was a lousy fund manager.”
“You’re parsing your words now.”
“My attorneys will beg to differ,” she bristled.
“No doubt.” Daniel shrugged. “However, this subpoena and search warrant supersedes their personal opinions. But hey, don’t take my word for it! Feel free to give them a call.”
Bettina snatched her phone off the table. She’d just hit her attorney’s number when one of the marshals shouted down from the second story landing, “Yo, Warwick, you’ve got to get up here to see what we’ve found in the master bedroom!”
Daniel whipped around. “Is it Cross’s stash?”
“Almost as good! It’s a bondage chamber with all sorts of dirty little goodies. The guy was one sick puppy.”
Oh…hell. Bettina turned beet red.
Her change in color was not lost on Daniel. Smothering his smile, he pointed toward the second story. “I think it’s time you gave me a tour of your boudoir.”
(c) 2015 Josie Brown. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press ([email protected])