Deep Red Lipstick

April 11, 2009
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, M came to my house for tea. I dressed the tables with floral tablecloths and took out the delicate white rose-rimmed china that we used to admire together in the great wooden cabinet in which my mother stored it. It would be the first time I had seen her in years, and I was nervous.

She came to my door in a white dress and espadrilles, doe-eyed and carefree. What I remember best was her lipstick. It was a deep red stain, the kind you see when you are out shopping but know with certainty that it is not your color. I didn’t mention it because the color didn’t surprise me; M was always the type of person who would try the unusual, like in grade school when she insisted on dressing every day for a month like a Japanese woman she had seen on television. Though that was a while ago, her personality had become only more eccentric.

Our meeting was far from awkward because there was a lot for the two of us to catch up on. M had been traveling through India for several years, but had returned upon hearing about my father’s illness. When she rose herself to leave, I noticed a dark red stain on the cup she had drunk from, and she had left behind her tube of lipstick. As always, she left with a smile and a wave, and I knew sometime in the future I would be seeing her again, but probably not for a while.

It was two hours later when I received the phone call.

“L. It’s Inspector P. You should head down to the station.”

As I drove, I remembered when M and I had been sneaking through her grand mansion and as we often did, listening in on her father’s telephone conversations. This was an especially difficult feat at her home. Her father had arranged it so that only the telephone in his office and in the room adjacent to it connected to his business line. M and I often pretended that the large numbers we heard were a code for a great conspiracy theory, and would play the roles of police officers and detectives to prevent the ‘Russian spies’ on the other end of the line from succeeding in their evil plot.

Though the last time I played this game with her was different. We picked up the phone as always, but this time neither business nor numbers were being discussed. The first thing we heard was a woman’s voice demanding, “There is no more time. You have three days to make the arrangements.”

“I am sorry, but this just can’t be done,” M’s father replied. “We do not possess the documents you are describing.”

It was then that M inhaled deeply, as if she were genuinely scared. The voice of the lady on the other end of the line began sounding suspicious, and we immediately put the phone down. That was the most exciting and real the game had ever been for us, and we gladly would have played again. However, the next time I came to her house two weeks later, her father had died of a heart attack. He had been on heart medication for a while, and his sedentary lifestyle had finally killed him.

I drove up to the police station entrance and walked past the small cubicles until I reached a box-shaped, windowless office at the end of the row. There, I entered the room and saw Inspector P with a doughnut in his hand looking at files on his desk. I almost laughed-- his position at that moment reminded me exactly of M’s father while he worked.
“Good. You’re here. We would like to ask you some questions concerning a woman who, our records say, dropped by your house this afternoon between the hours of 11 and 2.”

“You mean M?”

“She goes by the name of … ,” he looked down at his folder, “Sandy Williams.”

I frowned. “She is my childhood friend. Trust me when I say that no Sandy Williams dropped by my house this afternoon.”

“Well, then. She must have changed her name since. These adoption records say clearly that her name was Sandy Williams.”

This was my turn to frown. “Adoption?” I asked.

Inspector P seemed to realize he had said too much. He rose, shook my hand, and formally declared, “Thank you for coming in. We will let you know if any information relevant to you turns up.”

I left the office, closing the door softly behind me. Throughout the drive home, I wondered about the strange sequence of events that had occurred within the past few hours. As I drove up the stone driveway to my home, I turned the car around by instinct. I drove past the big trees in the town park until I came up to a large stone driveway hidden well by the surrounding thick bushes. Then I drove up the long, sun-lit, shining driveway to M’s home, and using the spare keys hidden under the heavy urn next to the door, entered her great, tall front foyer.

M’s home sported a glorious main foyer, three floors tall with cream-colored walls and a marble floor that sparkled under the light from the skylights above. I turned left and pushed open the large wooden door to enter M’s father’s office for the first time. It reminded me of the type of office you saw in old Audrey Hepburn movies, small with wooden floors and furniture, and a small rug under the desk.

Behind his desk was a large cabinet. I opened it and found stacks of files, topped by an old family photo of only M and her father. According to her father, M’s mother died of childbirth, but there weren’t any pictures of her in the house. We both suspected that M must have looked like her mother, because there wasn’t any resemblance between her and her father. When the three of us used to go to dinner parties together, old couples sometimes walked by us and declared, “You have such a beautiful daughter,” while pointing to me. “This must be M.” Eventually, we had all heard the mistake enough that we didn’t bother to correct the people’s misunderstanding.

Out of curiosity, I picked up a small file at the bottom of a cabinet. It contained a short newspaper article from twenty-four years ago, almost as old as M and I were. It was clipped from the obituary section.
Williams Family

The Williams family, including a wife, husband and daughter, died in a car crash this past Tuesday. The 32-year-old mother and the father, descended from Duke Albert Williams (1742-1790), were killed in a frontal collision and the 2-year-old daughter is suspected to have been thrown out of the car from the impact. Her body has not yet been found.

The funeral service for the last descendants of Duke Albert Williams will be held from 1-3 this Saturday at the local Catholic Church

I stared at the clipping in shock. There seemed to be too much of a coincidence linking M, my childhood friend, to this Sandy Williams I had heard of this afternoon. I told myself that when she next came to my home for tea, I would tell her. Glamorous M would have loved the thought of being related to royalty.

Grabbing the obituary notice, I drove back to the police station, walked swiftly and excitedly to the office of Detective P, and placed the obituary notice on his desk.

“That’s my friend, isn’t it?” I announced to him excitedly.

“I’m sorry, L, but this is an ongoing investigation, and that information happens to be in confidence between me and my client.”


“I’m sorry, but my client information is private as well.”

The phone rang, and Detective P picked it up. “Hello, you have reached the office of Detective P. How may I help you?”

The woman on the other end of the line, sounding like a formal old lady, spoke loud enough for me to hear snippets of the conversation. “How many times have I had to ask you … the girl … where is she … time-sensitive … you know how much money is being handed down … get me the files … ”.

It was as if I had traveled back in time. I closed my eyes, remembering the day we had listened in on the unusual telephone conversation between M’s father and that strange woman. I didn’t yet know why, but M was wanted for monetary reasons by that strange woman we had overheard on the telephone who had frightened M so many years ago.

Following my only lead, I rushed into the car and quickly drove to the local cemetery that was mentioned in the obituary. Once there, I ran past the tombstones until I reached three tall ones adjacent to each other, the small one in between proclaiming, “Sandy Williams, Loving Daughter. 1971-1973.”

I gasped when I noticed that the ground behind the grave had been freshly overturned. Fearing the worst, my paranoia took over. I heard faraway footsteps that seemed to be getting closer. A car slowed down by the cemetery, causing my heart to skip a beat until I heard it pick up speed and drive away. Faraway, an old woman with sunglasses and a scarf covering her head stood crying over a small tombstone and placed yellow roses above it.

When I used to play hide-and-go-seek in M’s mansion, I would always hide in a cabinet and eventually hear M’s light steps as she came into the room, opened all the drawers, and eventually pull my cabinet open. She would excitedly announce, “Found you! My turn now,” and dance a quick jig. However, there was one time when the footsteps had been different and heavier. They were followed by a gruff male voice demanding, “Where are you? Come out now.” I was so scared at that point that I left my hiding place and ran-- right into M’s Uncle John (who was really her father’s best friend). We laughed about that incident for a long time, but I can still remember the feeling of intense fear as I heard those foreign footsteps approaching.

Instinct took over, and at that point, I decided to run. I ran as fast as I could out of the cemetery and pulled my car hastily onto the small road at highway speed, my little two-seater convertible coughing up smoke in exhaustion. On the way to my home, I ran three red lights and almost lost control over a slippery puddle on a road adjacent to the local garden center. I pulled into my driveway and ran up the steps without even touching the railings. I quickly ran to my closet and packed a backpack full of clothes and photos. Then I ran downstairs. On the way to the door, I noticed the lipstick that M had left behind still on my kitchen table. Feeling compelled, I grabbed it and ran out the door. I jumped into the car and drove away.

I drove all day and night, stopping only for gas and staying on main roads, constantly changing lanes and observing the cars behind me to see if they followed. Every couple of days, I would stop at a hotel to take a shower, providing the concierge a fake name and paying fully in cash. As my car sputtered for the last time, I drove to the side of the road. My tired car gave one last bump forward, causing the contents of my backpack to spill out. Resigned, I began placing the items back in my purse until I picked up M’s tube of lipstick. For the first time, I noticed that the container had two sides. I opened the first one, and dark red lip color got smudged onto my hands. I closed that half and opened the half-hidden clasp to the other side.

Inside the anterior end of the tube of lipstick was a small compartment with a small, tightly folded piece of paper inside. I immediately recognized M’s flowery script.

My L,
Take the key from inside here-it’s yours, and take it to that old bank on 53rd and P. Turns out I’m related to a Duke (and adopted)! I just married the man whose family owns the biggest meat company in India. I don’t want my inheritance, and you were always like a sister to me. I apologize for not telling you at lunch (because I knew you wouldn't accept), and I hope to see you soon.

Love, Your M
P.S. I know it’s not your color, but feel free to wear the lipstick. Trust me, it’ll look fantastic!

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