The Next Ex

by Linda L. Richards

Published by MIRA Books

384 pages, 2005


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Former stockbroker-turned-daytrader Madeline Carter agrees to teach the indulged wife of an A-list movie producer about the stock market. When said wife turns up dead, Madeline finds herself in the middle of a series of murders while inadvertently opening up a 40-year old cold case.

The Next Ex follows the critically acclaimed Mad Money, published in 2004, the first book in the Madeline Carter series, which was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.

"Turn off your phones, and lock the door. Once you begin reading the spell-binding The Next Ex by Linda L. Richards, you'll want no interruptions. From the swank estates of Beverly Hills to the hip actors' community in Malibu, Richards delivers hot scandal and cool nerves in the shade of Southern California palm trees. With verve and scalpel-like precision, Richards peels back layers of power and wealth to show all of us that the past is always present, and murder is never pretty. For unforgettable characters and sheer suspense, remember Linda L. Richards' name." -- Gayle Lynds, author of The Coil

 

"Linda L. Richards' The Next Ex is as smart and sophisticated as its heroine, Madeline Carter. And, like Madeline, it wears its knowledge lightly, guiding the reader through a wonderfully twisty story. But if the plot is engaging, the characters are even more so. This is a Hollywood crime novel for people who love that particular subgenre -- and even for those who think they don't. A bracingly intelligent whodunit." -- Laura Lippman author of To the Power of Three

 

 

One

I'll always remember her eyes. They still haunt me in my sleep. Eyes the color of topaz, bright and rare. In that first instant, I thought about a beautiful doll I'd had when I was a child. These eyes were vacant and staring, just like that doll's. And though I didn't want to believe it, I knew in that first moment she was dead. Though it's sometimes difficult to recall the major thrust of events, horror can make the smallest details jump into your mind with astonishing accuracy. It would, for example, be impossible for me to tell you how long I stood there as what I saw filled my conscious mind, or even to tell you in proper detail what I'd been doing in the moments just before. But the image of her there is imprinted. I've tried to erase it, bury it. I can't. I could see that she lay where she had fallen, the highly glossed marble that covered the bathroom floor reflecting the curve of her hand, the bend of her leg, the glow of her cinnamon skin.

Her dress was the color of blood and because of it I identified her easily. It was a daringly cut Balanciega gown I'd admired when I'd arrived at the party several hours earlier. Then it had clung to her surgically enhanced curves like a second skin. Now there seemed to be more fabric -- it was everywhere! -- as though the loss of the essential something that had been her had caused this overabundance of cloth.

When I moved closer I discovered what should have been obvious from the start: the puddle that the gossamer fabric made on the floor was amplified by her own blood. There seemed to be gallons of it; more than I would have thought could fit into her slight frame. That's when I heard the screaming: a textbook horror-movie sound, the kind that follows nightmares out of the dark. It reverberated, that scream. It echoed through flesh and walls, and rent, almost, the fabric of my reality. It was only later I realized that this worldending sound had come from me.

 

I'd met Keesia Livingston a few weeks earlier. It was not a chance encounter. Our lives would never have intersected at a place that would have made that happen. I'd been renting the guest house in the Malibu home of the director Tyler Beckett and his wife, the actress Tasya Saranova, since I'd moved to Los Angeles from New York. It was a good arrangement for all of us. Tyler was a friend of my old boss, Sal. Sal liked having me at Tyler and Tasya's. It made him feel as though he could keep an eye on me even though I was three thousand miles away and didn't work for him anymore. Distance hasn't stopped Sal from wanting to watch out for me. He'd been my mentor at the brokerage firm where I worked in New York, and he'd stepped into part of the void left when my father died. And old habits can die hard.

Tyler, my landlord, has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and he liked having someone -- me -- around the place to keep an eye on things when he and Tasya were out of town, which was fairly often. I wasn't expected to do anything besides paying my reasonable rent and being there. Since the "there" in question was lovely -- an apartment tucked under the deck of a palatial ocean-view home overlooking Los Flores Canyon in Malibu -- and the kid, Jennifer, was generally sweet and mostly kept herself out of trouble, the arrangement was never onerous.

So when Tyler knocked on my door one sunny afternoon just as the markets had closed for the day and I was settling in to do a bit of relaxing, I had no reason to be suspicious. It was only later that I'd attribute the grin he wore when I opened the door to sheepishness. I should, I suppose, have been alerted by his manner. Tyler embodies California casual, right down to his working wardrobe of chinos and golf shirts, but he's a busy guy and gets to the point fairly quickly. Usually. On this day, however, he seemed inordinately interested in...stuff.

"The place looks great, Madeline," he enthused. "You've really made it homey."

I looked around the not-many-square-foot apartment, unchanged since the last time Tyler had been there. My desk and computer setup dominated the window wall in the living room. The view over the canyon was spectacular, but I couldn't think of any way it could be accredited to my decorating skills. I had a big, comfy chair that looked as though it was waiting for the imminent arrival of the sofa and coffee table that should have complemented it. I had some art on the walls, but while it was colorful, none of it was noteworthy. I had a little eating area -- a small table, a couple of chairs -- right outside the tiny kitchen, but they were purely functional. At a glance, it was fairly obvious I wasn't set up to do a lot of entertaining.

"Thanks," I muttered, on gentle alert now. "It's amazing what a computer and desk will do."

At the sound of Tyler's voice, his dog, Tycho, had come padding out of my bedroom, where he'd spent my workday snoring gently on my bed: a fairly usual occurrence. I worked at home and the various Becketts and Saranovas did not. Probably for that reason Tycho adopted me not long after I moved in. Though he scared the bejeebers out of me the first time I met him, the large, hairy beast quickly became a fixture in my life and -- when I wasn't using it -- on my bed. I kept food and water for him on my little deck, he would run with me in the morning, go for the occasional car ride when I was going somewhere even mildly interesting to a canine and usually watched me while I slept. I guess you could say that Tycho and I had an arrangement, though he was the only one who seemed absolutely certain of the details.

Now Tyler scratched the big dog's head affectionately. "You know, I hardly see this big lump anymore." I grinned at the big lump description. It seemed so apt. "Well, you always know where he is," I said. "Yeah. Don't know what I'd do if you moved. Probably have to give him to you and get a new dog." Though it was a funny thought -- and Tyler was clearly trying to be funny -- I'd had enough. "Look, Tyler, much as I'm always pleased to see you, I'm pretty sure you didn't drop by today to talk about your dog."

What was my clue? Maybe just that I knew Tyler was one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood and that he was currently working on at least two important projects. His wife and daughter had been waving to his shadow for the last couple of months, and the most I'd seen of him for a while was his SUV racing up and down the canyon: we'd beep and nod when we passed each other on the road. Tyler didn't have time to breathe right now, never mind stop by to chat with his tenant about decorating and dogs.

Tyler had the grace to look slightly embarrassed, as though he'd been caught at something, which put me further on alert. Then he took a deep breath, shrugged and plunged right in. Once you get him going, he's a pretty forthright guy.

"See, here's the thing. I'm this close -- " he held his hands a couple of inches apart " -- to getting a green light on the Race the Dawn project. I mean, I've really polished the script, Alastair Reynolds's people say he's almost a sure thing for the lead, and Vancouver is looking super good for locations."

"That's good," I mumbled vaguely, wondering why in hell he was telling me any of this. I have no kind of stake in the film industry, though I did know that Race the Dawn was Tyler's pet project. He was known as a director, not a screenwriter, yet this was a script he'd written himself and had been trying to get backed for years. He'd put a lot of his own resources into it to get it as far as he had. But he'd known all along that wouldn't be enough.

"And I'm this close -- " he held up his hands again, this time even less distance apart " -- to getting Maxi Livingston to agree to produce."

Maxi Livingston. Even I knew that name. Livingston Studios has had some piece of some aspect of Oscar for almost twenty years. Maxi Livingston was not just one of the most important producers in Hollywood, he was it: the cat's ass, the big kahuna. The twinned hyacinths of the Livingston Studios logo were the final seal of approval: even audiences were aware of that and knew what it meant.

Tyler was no schmuck, no slouch: he'd made some wonderful films. But there had been whispers about Race the Dawn -- to get it made the way Tyler wanted was going to cost a lot of money. The kind of money Maxi Livingston could pony up without even beading the wax on his Bentley. If he produced Race the Dawn, Tyler would be able to make it into the kind of film he wanted.

And I found all of this interesting. I really did. I was born and raised in Seattle, the daughter of a golf course manager and an insurance agent. I have a business degree from Harvard and I've spent most of my career as a stockbroker. I've been around a lot of cool stuff. But to me the film industry is separate. Magic. So it still seemed really special to be this close to it. This far inside. I liked hearing about it. I just didn't know why I was hearing about it now.

That's what I said to Tyler. "Why are you telling me this?" I'm not one to beat around any bushes. Tyler sighed. Ran his fingers through his sparse hair. Sighed again. "You see, Madeline." A beat. A pause. "It's like this." Another sigh. Then a sense that he was just going to rush in and let things fall where they may. "I kinda told Maxi you'd teach his wife about the stock market."

I didn't say anything. I mean, what could I say? I just looked at Tyler. Closely. Tried not to enjoy it too much when he squirmed under my glance. Finally I said firmly, "You did not."

"She doesn't want to be a broker or anything," he said quickly, as though assuring me of something vast. "She just wants to play the market a bit. Like you do." Tyler filled the space quickly with words when he saw my face. "Well not, of course, just like you do. I just meant from home. With a computer. Herself. Without a broker." "Tyler, I am a broker." I hesitated. Went back a few steps. "Well, I was. It's what I did for ten years. It's not like you can just fall out of bed one morning and say, 'Ooh. I think I'll play with stocks.'"

Except, of course, that you can. Ever since the Internet had become so accessible, millions of people had been doing just that. Some of them with incredibly horrible results: buying stuff they hadn't meant to buy, sometimes losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. I told Tyler this now.

"See, that's the beauty, Madeline. Livingston has a pile of money. And his wife wants to do this. Instead, I guess, of opening a dress shop or a gallery. I dunno why, really. Maxi just mentioned it to me and I..." "...rushed in to be helpful," I said with a little more venom than I'd intended. After all, it was my services he was offering here. "And it's not like it's something I can do, Tyler."

"You can't?" he looked genuinely perplexed. The thought obviously hadn't occurred to him. "Well, I'm not a teacher, for one. I don't know the first thing about instructing someone."

Tyler looked relieved. "Oh, that. Madeline, I've seen you with Jennifer. You're a terrific teacher. She really listens to you and respects you."

"It's not the same thing."

"No, of course not." Tyler was in heavy placate mode, yet I could see he was determined to get what he'd come for. "Still, I know it's something you'd be great at."

"Tyler, it's just not that simple. I'm not even licensed in California. I can't go around giving financial advice." Tyler brightened. "See, I knew that, so that's not what I promised. Of course. I just thought you could teach her the mechanical end of things. Online brokerages and how to -- you know -- physically buy and sell stocks from her computer. Not what to buy," he assured me. "Just how to do it."

"Tyler..."

"And I wouldn't expect you to do it for free, of course." "Tyler..."

"I'd pay you for your time."

"Tyler don't be an idiot. It's not the money." He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his chinos, a sheepish look on his face. Again. "I know that, Madeline. Believe me, I know you well enough for that. It's just that it's so important."

Tyler, usually strong and in charge in every situation, looked so dejected -- so desperate -- I got a sense of how important this really was to him. And I thought about it. It was something I was capable of doing. Not so different, really, from when I'd shown my mom how to do the same thing when I was last in Seattle. Yet it felt different, somehow. More official when it was a stranger. And I was busy -- sure, I was busy. I had a life. But it wasn't the kind of life I'd had in New York. In those days a request like this one would have been unthinkable. Laughable. Working at an investment firm, I'd barely had time to eat and sleep, let alone give one second of thought to babysitting a film mogul's wife. But, I reasoned with myself quickly, wasn't that part of why I'd changed my life? Why I'd left that high-pressure world and ended up day trading in a cliff house in Malibu? Because, among other things, life just gets too short when you see it whizzing past you at the end of a speed dialer. And every day you're trying to cram in more stuff and make more money and save more time. And then one day, if you happen to be me, you wake up and realize that the person who dies with the biggest pile of loot is not necessarily the winner. And all that time you've saved over the years? It doesn't accumulate in a bank somewhere. It isn't off accruing interest. You've worked and worked to save that time up and for what? It's just as gone as if you'd wasted it, so what, in the end, was the difference?

So, bottom line: I'd changed my life for a lot of big reasons and a lot of small reasons and all of them had to do with Tyler standing in front of me now with a pleading look on his face. If you couldn't make a withdrawal from that time bank to help a friend, what the hell was the point of anything? | December 2005

 

Copyright © 2005 Linda L. Richards

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. The Next Ex is her second novel.