A tuxedoed waiter appeared at the table, carrying two plates. He set both down in front of Eric. “One salmon and one steak, medium rare.”
“Thanks,” Eric said, eying the gourmet surf and turf appreciatively, and the waiter gave a little bow before departing.
Amanda Brenner, poised and elegant in a black dress and pearls, shot her son a discrete, narrow-eyed stare.
Catching the familiar signal of disapproval, Eric pleaded, “What? I’m hungry.”
Carl, his father, merely laughed. “It’s all right,” he said, flashing Eric a boyish grin, which ideally suited his youthful, preppy demeanor.
“Well, at least fix your tie,” his mother said, determined to uphold proper manners despite being outnumbered. “You’re about to drag the tip through the béarnaise sauce.”
Eric tossed his rep tie over the shoulder of his blue blazer, and his mother rolled her eyes in defeat. The war on etiquette over, Eric could concentrate on his food. He sliced off a generous chunk of juicy sirloin, popped it into his mouth and sighed with satisfaction. You didn’t find quality like that at the college cafeteria. A tasty meal was the main reason he chose to join his parents at these rather boring black tie dinners, of which there were many. Rising stars on the local political front – his father was the city’s Assistant District Attorney and his mother a prominent lawyer – their names were on the guest list for every fundraiser, fête and fiesta in town. A group called Keep San Diego Beautiful had organized that night’s affair, at the Hilton, and they were honoring Eric’s father for his efforts to crack down on crime. Fifty tables of eight had been set up in the ballroom for the occasion, and tickets had gone for $150 a piece. The causes tied to these events rarely mattered to Eric; he just tagged along for the fringe benefits. His parents didn’t mind, as it gave them the opportunity to see him. Although they lived only fifteen miles south of SDU, in Point Loma, he rarely went home to visit, as school kept him too busy.
“Tragic business up there at the college,” Ruby Barstow commented to Eric from across the table, fiddling with the diamond choker around her thick neck. Ruby and her husband, Ronald, the County Clerk, were the Brenner’s dinner companions for the evening, as they had been on several previous occasions. Eric always felt uneasy around Mrs. Barstow. He found her to be a busy body. Fittingly, she looked like a hen – barrel-chested and sharp-nosed, with a tuft of red hair.
Eric swallowed his food before replying. “Yes, everybody’s pretty upset.”
Eric had to be careful about keeping his opinions general to avoid tipping off his parents about his direct involvement. They didn’t know he held a part-time job with the University Police Department, otherwise they’d freak. They assumed he’d given up his dream of becoming of policeman when he’d enrolled at SDU. The subject of his intended profession had come up during his junior year of high school, and both his mother and father had been adamantly opposed to the idea. Obviously, they were strong supporters of the law, but they believed police work to be far too dangerous. Instead, they had their hearts set on Eric following in their footsteps and becoming a lawyer. Not wishing to disappoint them, and tired of arguing (he had two attorneys to contend with after all), he opted to keep mum on the matter, until an opportunity presented itself. He was hoping, now that he intended to find Courtney Kennedy’s murderer, tonight would be the night.
“We know the Kennedys,” Mrs. Barstow declared, and Eric’s skin tingled at the news. “I just spoke with them today. They’re simply devastated, aren’t they, Ronald?”
Mr. Barstow, bald and bookish, opened his mouth to speak.
But his wife beat him to the punch. “I mean, can you imagine how they must feel?”
Eric had observed the woman’s habit of cutting off her husband countless times before. He wondered why Mr. Barstow even continued to try and get a word in edgewise.
Mrs. Brenner gripped Eric’s hand affectionately, and she grew misty-eyed. The possibility of losing her child through an act of violence had apparently touched a nerve. Eric reckoned this definitely wasn’t the time to tell her about his police work.
“Courtney was set to dance the ballet in the Griffith Playhouse production of Carousel next month. Ronald and I had tickets to opening night. I just love Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Mrs. Barstow gushed. “It would have been such a break; the show is on tryout for Broadway.”
“That’s a shame,” Mr. Brenner commiserated, slinging his arm across Eric’s back and giving his shoulder a tender squeeze. So much for his father’s blessing.
“I can’t even begin to think how hard this must be for Randy,” Mrs. Barstow continued.
“Randy?” Eric inquired, apparently a tad too eagerly. His father looked at him with one eyebrow raised, signaling a budding curiosity in his son’s sudden interest.
“Randy Tremain. Courtney’s boyfriend,” Mrs. Barstow filled them in. “They’d been going out since high school. Such a handsome couple, right Ronald?” They played the speak up/shut up game again. “Do you know Randy, Eric? He’s a sophomore at SDU.”
“No.” But he soon would, he thought.
“Such a tragedy,” Mrs. Barstow clucked. “It’s unfair for something like that to happen to someone so …” she searched for the right word, “… perfect.”
If Courtney was so perfect, Eric mused, then why would somebody want to kill her?