Friday, June 30, 2017

Lottery Preview

Chapter One

            Another warm, sunny day dawned in the Florida Keys. Skyrocketing north on the Overseas Highway would eventually get one to Miami and beyond, and to the south, it ended in Key West. Today's drive was marred by the woman behind the wheel hanging a sudden u-turn and slowing slightly before careening around the corner, using a little-known shortcut, then jamming on the gas again in pursuit of the flatbed that had taken her beloved Porsche into custody.
            “Fabiana Merceau, slow the heck down,” I yelled over the sound of the traffic. For once, the irate Frenchwoman, her long brown hair blowing in the wind, had her window rolled down. She’d apparently forgotten her own rule, one she’d nagged me incessantly about when I hung my head out the window, which reminded her of a dog. “Pull up alongside the truck, and I’ll get the name off the door. You can call and find out what’s going on. It’s not like you’ve missed a payment.”
            Part of the bargain Fab had struck with her best and currently former client, Brick Famosa, was that, as his private investigator, one of her perks was the latest shiny sports car. The woman changed autos like she changed her stiletto heels, but this model had lasted longer than the rest. Brick and Fab’s relationship had recently exploded over his complete lack of support. After her established track record of doing whatever it took to get a job done, even skirting the law, he'd grown complacent in the knowledge that it wasn’t his butt on the line. In the heat of the moment, she'd lied and told him she was Europe-bound for several months with her boyfriend. I suspected that Brick and she would sweep the hard feelings under the rug when the two figured out a way to say “I screwed up” without admitting fault.
            Fab hit the steering wheel with a closed fist. “I’m going to run that jerk off the road.”
            “No. You. Are. Not. And you’re not going to shoot out his tires either.” Though there was a zero chance of that happening. As talented as the hot, sexy woman was, she couldn’t steer and shoot at the same time. “We’ll act like normal people and call the police.” Normal, I laughed to myself. I hadn’t heard myself described that way in a long time. Mostly, I heard "weird" bandied about. An over-exaggeration – I’m familiar with weird, and that’s not me.
            “You better come up with something better than that.” Fab pulled up alongside the truck on the driver’s side.
I powered the window down and hung my head out, my hand in mid-air, ready to flag the man down, even though I knew that chances were slim that he’d pull over. Pulling my head back in the window, I said, “Change of plans.” I pushed my red hair back into place, smoothing it down, certain it was a wind-whipped mess. “The fancy tow truck is one of Brick’s.”
Brick and I had a tenuous relationship; it was hard to trust him when I knew he never put Fab’s safety first, or mine either. He opposed our relationship, knowing that several times I had convinced my daring friend to calm down and rethink her plan. As backup to Super PI Fab, there were few jobs that didn’t include flying bullets and running for our lives. I was happy for the respite. So were our boyfriends, who'd had a face-to-face with Brick, laying down the rules: no more withholding details, and if it came out after the fact that he knew there was a high chance of danger, it would be the last mistake he would make. My boyfriend followed that up with a right cross to Brick’s eye.
Fab made an outraged sound. “I don’t believe you.”
I put my hands over my ears. “I’m sitting right here, and I’m not hard of hearing.”
“Why would Brick tow my car?”
I fished my phone out of my pocket and held it up. “Ssh. I’m going to find out.”
Brick answered on the second ring. “Madison Westin! What do you want?”
I hit the speaker button. “Fab’s car just got towed.”
Total silence. I could hear him breathing, so I knew he hadn’t hung up.
“It’s not like she’s driving it, cavorting around Europe with that pretty-face boyfriend she hooked up with,” he grouched, loud enough that I pushed the phone farther away. “I didn’t want you even sitting in it.”
I should send him a copy of my latest physical, showing me to be cootie-free. “A heads-up would have been nice. When Fab calls, I’m going to tell her you had someone sneak onto my property and steal it. You’d never do your own dirty work. I’ll leave off that you’re a lowlife; she’s probably already figured that out.”
“Tell her whatever you want,” he roared. “It’s my damn 100K sports car. I’ll do whatever the hell I please with it.” The line went dead. I looked at my best friend and wanted to give her an awkward hug over the console of the Hummer.
The conversation was a good reminder of why I'd rejected the work/car trade deal and insisted on paying for my SUV. Instead, when Brick had come through with a good price on the Hummer, lowering it significantly below sticker, I'd snapped it up, not finding out until later that his family members fighting over it had sent the price plummeting for a fast sale.
“You could return from Europe tomorrow,” I suggested.
“It’s time for me to buy a car.”
“You know my new step-daddy could get you a good deal. Just remind him you’re loved like a sister.”
She crunched her nose.
“Or…” I half-laughed, “You could talk to Mother first.”
Mother had recently married her longtime badass boyfriend, Jimmy Spoon. The twosome were happy. The groom had taken his checkered past and turned himself into a pillar of the community that folks either respected or feared.
“I can’t believe Brick would do that to me.” Fab sighed, honking at the car next to her. He honked back and waved.
Fab powered her window up.
“We could steal it back. The only problem is you couldn’t drive it anywhere because he would report it as stolen.”
“It would be fun if I could see the look on his face.”
I laughed along with her, picturing his outrage and frustration.
* * *
            Fab drove back through Tarpon Cove to almost the end, turning down a side road, then another, and pulling into the driveway of my white, two-story Key West-style house with wraparound porch, which I had inherited from my Aunt Elizabeth. Growing up, my brother and I had spent the summer months each year playing on the beach. Aunt Elizabeth and I had scoured local nurseries with an eye out for new tropical plants. Since moving in, I’d added my own touch, filling the courtyard with brightly colored pots. The last hurricane that whirled through left broken pottery and plants in its wake that I hadn’t yet replaced. The seashells I'd scored from the beach to use as mulch had disappeared into the fierce winds, which had left me with very few unscathed pots.
 The driveway easily held two cars, and normally the Porsche would be sitting there. Fab parked, taking her half out of the middle. “I need a drink,” she said, opening the door.
            “The guys are here.” I turned and pointed across the street to where the large testosterone truck and Mercedes were parked. The family who'd bought the house as a weekend residence encouraged us to use it for extra parking when they weren’t around. They liked that the house appeared to be occupied. “You can take center stage for the car drama,” I said to Fab’s back as she headed into the house.
            I followed her inside, banging the door closed, which I normally frowned at; today, it released some frustration. I turned left to find Fab’s boyfriend, Didier, a big smile plastered on his face, holding up a pitcher of margaritas—my favorite. The one-time supermodel turned real estate investor had an impressive set of abs, revealed by his bathing trunks, his black hair damp from a swim. His blue eyes filled with concern as he set down the pitcher and crossed into the living room, holding out his arms to the woman he loved. I heard whispers in French and sighed, wishing I knew the language so I could eavesdrop.
            “We’ll be back,” Didier said, scooping Fab into his arms and heading up the stairs.
            I flung off my shoes and tossed them in the direction of the boot tray that sat inside the front door. I fist-pumped when they bounced off the wall and into the copper tray.
            I'd barely got my fingers wrapped around the stem of a salted glass when strong arms encircled me from behind. Hands grasped my waist, and in one sudden, powerful movement, I ended up against a rock-hard chest.
            “Ouch,” Creole grumbled from behind me. He lifted the back of my shirt and removed the Glock from my waistband, setting it on the counter. He turned me in his arms and laid a thorough, crushing kiss on my lips. “Why the gun? A job you failed to inform me about?” He drew his eyes together in a frown.
            His blue eyes, almost cobalt today, stared down into mine and waited for my answer. Over six feet and well-muscled himself, he was also dressed in swim trunks, his dark hair plastered back against his head. He and Didier were workout partners, often including my brother as well. When not working undercover chasing bad guys, Creole joined the guys for long runs on the beach and peddling a ridiculous number of miles on their bikes. His birth name was Luc Baptiste, but he never used it, favoring his moniker, Creole. Only a handful of people knew his real name, and no one called him anything other than Creole.
            “You know…” I shook my finger at him, which he promptly nibbled on. “Fab hates it when I leave the house without my Glock or other suitable firearm.” I leaned into him, wanting another kiss.
            “And?” he said sternly, although his eyes twinkled.
            “I owed her a shopping day without any complaining. We didn’t get far.” I went on to tell him about the shock of her repoed car whizzing past us and detailed what happened after.
            “Bastard!” Creole growled. “Didier and I have our fingers crossed that neither of you will ever work for him again.” He grabbed my hand and cut through the living room to the stairs. “Come on, let’s get you dressed for a swim.”

Chapter Two

            It was a perfect warm night with a gentle breeze. The four of us sat around the pool in chaises, finishing off drinks after Didier’s dinner of shrimp tacos. He’d cut up an impressive array of vegetables for grilling so we could assemble the tacos to our liking.
            After moving in, I’d given the drab patio/pool area a major overhaul, making it an extension of the house. I’d also done away with the small dining room and removed one wall, opening up the living room and kitchen. The addition of the outdoor kitchen and eating area made it easy to accommodate my family and their significant others and turned it into the gathering place for most family functions. The fun part had been tracking down comfortable poolside furniture and colorful pillows.
            The sun quickly sank low on the horizon, and the darkened sky started to blink with stars ready to make an appearance. The lights clicked on via the newly installed timer. I had a passion for outdoor lighting, and no one dared to say I overdid it. White Christmas lights draped the back fence, wrapped around the trunks of the palm trees, and twisted in the potted plants that lined the pool area. Here too, the last hurricane had left its calling card, sending more pots and plants airborne, quite a few landing in the pool, requiring it to be drained and cleaned. Now the blue water sparkled, lights floated on the surface.
            My back to Creole’s chest, he leaned into my ear and whispered, “Let’s go to the beach house.”
            He owned a waterfront home in an isolated area a couple of exits out of town. As an added advantage, he shared the solitary road that dead-ended in each direction with only a handful of neighbors. He’d bought the “deal” from an investor eager to unload it and had taken his time renovating it. Open space and comfort were foremost in his mind, and he accomplished both goals. He and I were the only ones that knew its location. I had wrestled a promise out of Fab that she’d never follow me there. Creole didn’t want unannounced visitors, and in his line of work, he didn’t want to give trouble a chance to come knocking.
            Before I could answer, a scream filled the air. The four of us bolted up, almost in unison.
            “It’s coming from the neighbor’s.” Fab jumped out of Didier’s arms, landing on her feet, and pointed to the cedar fence that marked the property line before heading into the house.
            “Bring my Berretta. It’s in the junk drawer!” I yelled after her.
            She snorted a not-so-subtle reminder that she knew where everything was kept in the house better than I did. When she first moved in, she organized the garage to her liking and mine; now I could actually find what I was looking for, though she preferred to do it herself. I overlooked her annoying habit of rooting through the house’s closets, cupboards, and drawers. I’d tried to interest her in organizing all of them, but she only laughed.
            I’d never regretted the day I arrived home to find Fab lounging on the couch, suitcases in the foyer, boxes in the garage, announcing she’d moved in. To think the woman had initially rebuffed my invitation to be friends. It was a reminder to not give up, and I was happy I’d worn her down. Since Fab had never voiced any objections, I assumed it had worked out for her as well as it had for me.
            Creole jumped up, taking me with him, and set me on my feet. “You and Fab will stay here. Besides, I’m going to need your Berretta.”
            Fab flew out the French doors, handguns in both hands; no room in her string bikini. Without a word, she handed mine to Creole.
            I sent her a look that should’ve singed her eyebrows.
            “You can thank me later; I just saved you from a fight with your boyfriend.” Fab took a couple of steps toward the path that ran alongside the house. We used to call it the “secret path,” but too many people knew about it now.
            Didier reached out, grabbing her arm and bringing her to a halt. “You’re not going either. Let Creole handle it. Then I don’t have to worry about you getting hurt or ending up in jail.”
            Fab’s face flushed with anger. She jerked her arm out of his hold and stomped away, catching up to Creole.
            I grabbed up a wraparound skirt from a nearby chair, tying it around my waist. “Come on.” I tugged on Didier’s hand, dragging him into the house to get shoes and out through the front door. “We’re not going to miss the good stuff.” By the time we got to the curb, sirens could be heard in the distance.
            Fab came running out of the driveway of the house next door. “The neighbor is dead,” she said breathlessly. “He’s lying in the doorway.”
            Flashing lights careened around the corner, and the siren shut off. The three of us stood in silence, heads turned toward the police car.
“You might want to do something with your gun besides hold it in your hand,” I said, though I had no idea what. She certainly couldn’t put it in her bikini. The two pieces of string holding a meager piece of material in place wouldn’t take the extra weight. “It won’t fit in your bathing suit.”
            “Put this in the house for me.” She stuck out her Walther.
            I shook my head. “You need to be responsible for your own firearm.” I used the lecturing tone I’d perfected after hearing it from Mother over the years.
            “The only reason I don’t pull your hair out is that you’re my best friend and I’d probably never find another one.”
            I stuck out my lower lip.
            Fab emitted an unrecognizable sound and raced past me into the house.
            “I notice she didn’t try to pass it off on me.” Didier frowned, crossing his arms, unhappy with his girlfriend. The hot couple had been fraying around the edges lately, often exchanging unhappy glances and grouching in French.
            “Did you really expect Fab to stick her feet in the pool and ignore the drama? Leave it to Creole? You knew exactly what you were getting into when you met her; you can’t expect her to change now. If you succeeded in making her over into a milquetoast yes-woman, you’d be bored in a half-second.” I didn’t add that that plan had no chance of success. “Careful what you wish for.”
            Didier and I moved closer to the crime scene. Since the arrival of law enforcement, a few neighbors had come outside, vacating their doorsteps to get a closer view.
Scotch Thomas, the newly deceased, had bought the house six months prior from my previous neighbor, who went to live with his daughter and “let my grandkids drive me crazy.” Scotch had so far been a good neighbor—no wild parties and no collection of odd friends. He’d kept to himself, working on an old junker in the garage located on the other side of the house. The weekly newspaper had recently run Scotch’s picture, showing him under a banner proclaiming him the newest million-dollar scratch-off lottery winner.  
            Kevin stepped out of his police car, surveyed the street, and nodded in my direction.
            “Let’s hope this guy wasn’t murdered, or Kevin will be over here arresting the lot of us.” Didier nudged me. “You in particular. You’re always his first choice as a suspect, even though you’ve never murdered anyone. Have you?”
I narrowed my eyes.
“Clean rap sheet?”
            I felt bad that the elegant Frenchman had begun learning about the seedier side of life shortly after moving in and listening to careful edits of Fab’s and my adventures. Not that he had any choice in the relocation, as Fab had moved his belongings and surprised him with it after the fact. It didn’t take long before he was accepted as a family member.
            “Not sure.” I wanted to laugh at the surprise on his face. “I’ve had a couple of arrests, but once they found out they had the wrong girl, I was released. Don’t know if that stays on my permanent record or not.”
            Fab joined us. She’d pulled on a pair of jeans and a top and brought Didier a t-shirt.
            I glared at her for not bringing me a cover-up, and in return, she ignored me. I excused myself and ran into the house and up the stairs. It took less than a minute to jerk a sundress over my head and grab up a shirt for Creole and run back outside.
            “Catch.” I tossed the shirt to Creole, who had reappeared after rerouting people away from the crime scene until the cops showed up.
            He caught it easily and winked, pulling it over his head. “The girlfriend, Ruby Dailey, found the body, the front door wide open. They had plans to cook dinner together and watch a movie. ”
            “We didn’t hear any gunshots,” Fab pointed out. “How long do you think he’s been dead? I’m not good at guessing just by looking.”
            More police cars blew around the corner, followed by an ambulance and fire truck.
            “That’s the coroner’s job,” Creole said, his attention on the comings and goings. “He didn’t shoot himself. There was no gun lying nearby. This is a murder case.”
            “Ruby have any clues?” I asked.
            “It’s hard to get details out of a hysterical woman, and in addition, it’s not my case.” Creole pulled me to his side. “I spotted an old beach chair and suggested she sit and pull herself together so she could be helpful to the cops. Told her if she needed a ride home to come over.”
            Kevin Cory walked up, his patented smirk firmly in place, twirling a pair of cuffs on his finger. “Anyone want to confess now?” His brown eyes bore into mine. “Make my job easier.”
            The man had a clear-cut case of split personality. There was the uptight sheriff’s deputy, whose mantra was arrest first, then ask questions, and whose slicked-back hair was plastered to his head with a shiny goop that accentuated his snootiness. But in his off-duty persona, he was the life of the party, giving credence to the saying: work hard, party in the same fashion. In that persona, windblown and tanned, you’d mistake him for any other boy-next-door beach dude.
            “None of us killed him.” I flashed a brief smile.
            “Any of you know anything?” Kevin asked and briefly turned away, apparently bored.
            Creole took a step forward. “We were on the patio, heard the girlfriend scream. Scotch hadn’t live here long and kept to himself, no disturbances.”
            “If you remember anything else, I’m sure you have me on speed dial.” Clearly distracted, Kevin headed down the driveway.
            “I’m surprised he didn’t arrest us.” Fab kept her voice low.
            Didier nodded in agreement.
            “Rumor has it…” I cast a glance toward the street, where Creole had just caught up with Kevin, and they stood off to the side talking. “Kevin got reprimanded by Sheriff Tatum and was told not to bring any of us in without a warrant.”
            “Let’s go inside.” Didier put his arms around Fab and me and steered us in the direction of the front door. “There’s nothing more to learn tonight.” 

Chapter Three

            Coming out of my bedroom, I paused to give Fab’s door a hard kick, a little trick I learned from her. Not hearing an angry tirade in French, I paused at the top of the stairs to make sure no one was in the living room, threw my leg over the banister, and rode it the short distance to the bottom. Smoothing down my skirt, then following the smell of coffee into the kitchen.
 Fab sat at the island, scowling at me. “I heard you kicking the door.”
            I ignored her, scanning the counters for my can of coffee mix, which Fab referred to as ‘canned ick.’ “Did you make me coffee?”
            “You’re cheerful,” Fab observed with suspicion.
            I took one of my seashell mugs from the cupboard, filled it with water, and stuck it in the microwave.
            “Earlier, a couple of young guys showed up, snooping around the house next door.” Fab watched me closely for my reaction.
            I closed my eyes, shaking my head. “Just great. Murder… now what?” I retrieved my mug, stirred in the mix, squirted a bit of whipped cream into my coffee, pretending it came from my favorite coffee place, and slid onto the stool across from her. “Didier leave early?” She nodded. “So you thought, well heck, I’ll lurk around the neighborhood. I didn’t hear gunshots; did you forget your gun?”
            “Didier made me promise not to shoot anyone unless it’s self-defense and there are witnesses.”
            I tried to bite back the laughter but failed.
            Fab downed the rest of her latte and banged the mug on the countertop. “Do you want to hear the rest?”
            I winced, breathing a sigh of relief that the mug hadn’t broken into pieces.
            “They weren’t professional burglars. While one tried to kick open the front door,” Fab said in disgust, “the other checked for an unlocked window, didn’t find one, and didn’t have the guts to smash one in. The side gate was apparently locked, and after a couple of failed attempts to scale it, they disappeared around the far side for less than a minute and were back. They hopped into a rundown pickup with out of state plates and took off.”
            I held out my hand. “Show me the picture.”
            Fab took pictures of everything, and that included dead people.
            She flicked through her phone and handed it over. “Never seen the car before. Wonder what they wanted? We could have the tags run.”
            “I’ll tell Creole and let him handle it. That will make Didier happy.” 
Sadness flickered across her face. Translation: she’d seriously annoyed her boyfriend and he was mad once again. It was her own fault that she made promises and then didn’t live up to them.
“I need the SUV.” I stood and grabbed the keys out from under her hand. “Technically, it is my car.”
“I’ll drive,” Fab grouched.
“First one in the driver’s seat gets to drive.” I headed out of the kitchen, opening the front door. Fab yanked me back by the back of my shirt and slipped past me.
* * *
            Halfway to Mother’s, I got a text from Crum: “You better get over here.” I tried calling back, but the call went to voicemail. Fab hung a u-turn and muttered, “Hope it’s not another dead body.”
“The last one was at least natural causes.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when Fab’s heart-stopping drive came to an end as she rounded the corner to the property that I owned. Two police cars blocked the driveway. Fab circled the block and backed into the driveway of the building the neighbors called “the yellow house,” a duplex now owned by my manager, Mac, and an ex-tenant, Shirl. It was directly across the street from The Cottages and offered a view of the property.
I’d inherited the ten units from my Aunt Elizabeth—individual cottages built around a U-shaped driveway and backed up to the beach with easy access. Out of view from where we were parked was the large pool and tiki bar area.
            My first project had been to give the property a sprucing up: repainting each unit in different art deco colors and updating the landscaping, filling in bare spots with flowers and trees and plenty of lighting.
            Fab and I had on our usual work attire, me in a short full skirt that was long enough to conceal my Glock when it was holstered on my thigh, with my top covering it if I wore it at the small of my back, Fab in skinny jeans and a sleeveless top that covered her Walther and accentuated her toned arms. Today, she had ditched the stilettos and opted for a pair of flats.
            I retrieved my phone from my pocket and called Mac on speed dial. It had been another lucky day for me when she walked into the pool area, announcing she was ready to apply for the job before I’d even told anyone I needed a manager. Well, I’d told one person, and that was all it took. Mac possessed the right amount of crazy to relate to the tenants and keep them in line—for the most part.
            When Mac answered, I barked, “Why is law enforcement parked in the driveway?”
            “Oh hell! Why does the good stuff always happen when I’m gone?”
I heard the honking of horns.
“I’m three minutes away and will get you an answer.” Mac hung up.
            “She could’ve at least said good-bye,” Fab grouched.
            “My guess is, much like you, she needs two hands to cut through traffic and get here faster.” I turned and smirked out the passenger window. I’d finally gotten used to Fab’s driving and no longer gripped the sissy bar with my eyes squeezed shut.
            “Quick, slide down in your seat before he sees us.” Fab hunched in her seat, eyes level with the dashboard.
            He who?
            I looked out the windshield. Kevin was making his way down the driveway straight for us. “Do you think I could call the sheriff’s department and ask that they assign another deputy to show up once in a while?”
            Kevin and I pretended to get along. His sister, Julie, had dated my brother, so Kevin got invited to an occasional family dinner, which didn’t need to be more awkward than they already were, just due to his presence. He was a tenant my brother had snuck in when his previous residence burst into flames. It had been suggested several times that he move out, but so far, he hadn’t taken a single hint.
Now that Julie had moved to California, we kept up the pretense for her teenage son, Liam, who had stayed behind to finish his senior year in high school. She’d recently gotten a second part in a movie, and I suspected the move was now permanent. I wanted to question Brad about their relationship status but minded my own business, which was hard.
            Mac whizzed around the corner in her pristine white pickup and squealed to a stop in front of her house. Kevin, who had started across the street, came to a halt halfway and backed up. He scowled when she hopped out of her truck, whipping off her ground-dragging floral skirt and throwing it on the seat, leaving her clad in running shorts and a top that she smoothed over her large assets and patted into place. 
            Kevin smirked, staring at her chest and not raising his eyes as he crossed the street. He knocked on the driver’s side window of our car as Mac opened the back door and slid across the seat, reaching over and hitting the locks.
            Fab cracked the window. “Yeah, what do you want?”
            “Anyone die?” I yelled across the seats.
            Kevin twirled his finger for Fab to roll down the window.
            “This better be good,” Fab grumbled.
            “Look you two, I’m doing my best to be friendly; you could make the same effort. I don’t mind going back to being a complete bastard.” Kevin smiled.
            “Friendly? That’s what you’re doing?” I stopped myself from an eye roll. “We can do friendly, can’t we?” I smacked Fab’s arm.
            I had no idea what look Fab sent Kevin’s way, but his brown eyes went hard with annoyance. He turned and walked back across the street.
            “You couldn’t be reasonably agreeable for two minutes so we could find out what is going on?” I opened the door, burning Fab with a glare.
            I crossed the street as Kevin’s patrol car reached the end of the driveway and turned in the opposite direction, the other cop car following behind.
            Annoyed, I headed straight for Professor Crum’s cottage. He would know what was going on and would hopefully offer up a straight answer that made sense. He was the second tenant my brother had sneaked in behind my back. I’d finally threatened bodily harm if he did it again.
            Before I could raise my hand to knock, the door opened. Crum filled the doorway with his thin, wiry, over-six-foot frame, white hair sticking up. I stayed focused on his face, but out of the corner of my eye, I caught that he had on his signature tighty-whities paired with purple clogs. Shocked didn’t quite cover my reaction when I was informed that there were no laws to prevent him from prancing around mostly naked.
            The retired professor’s references were impeccable. The woman I spoke to at the prestigious California university where he’d tenured had nothing but good things to say. As for me, he’d made a poor first impression, and subsequent meetings hadn’t improved on it.
            He stood aside and swept out his arm, welcoming me inside. I peeked in before stepping over the threshold. The couch was covered in newspaper, and Harlot the cat was curled up next to a pillow, sound asleep.
            I ignored his offer of a chair and stayed standing. “Tell me what’s going on.”
            “Another dead body,” he said and then burst out laughing.
            Sensing this was going to be a long story, I sat next to Harlot and stroked her fur; she rewarded me with a purr. “Let me in on the joke. Kevin didn’t say a word.”
            “Joseph was late getting back from his doctor’s appointment, and some new lady friend stopped by. When he didn’t answer, she went around peering in the windows. The blood-curdling scream that came out of her mouth made my chest hair stand on end.” He patted the few white hairs. “She claimed to see a dead person. Before I could check it out, she had 911 on the phone. When I heard the sirens coming up the street, I went inside and locked the door.”
            “Why? Did you kill anybody?”
            “Nooo. The woman overreacted. I don’t want to get too grisly, but what she saw was Svetlana lying over a chair at an odd angle, legs in the air. She made up different scenarios as to how Svet had died, and only Kevin’s threat of arrest put a stop to the hysteria.”
            “Who dies with their legs in the air?” I tried not to laugh.       “Is Svet okay?” The “woman” in question was actually a well-endowed rubber doll that Joseph had inherited, along with outfits and wigs.  “Is Joseph treating her okay?” I liked Svet and sometimes forgot the hot Swedish woman was full of air. She’d turned out to be the ideal tenant—quiet, never talked back, never a problem; my other tenants could use her as a role model.
            “Joseph actually smiles once in a while. It’s odd to hear him talk about her; you’d have no idea she’s not, uh… human.”
            “The rest of the story…” I said, impatient with the man.        
            “At the same time Kevin blew in the driveway, Joseph came strolling up. Kevin told the woman to get a grip, and she threw herself in his arms and started wailing. I thought old Kev would lose his lunch. He got her to sit down, where she soaked his handkerchief before finally pulling herself together and lamenting that she’d fallen in love with a pervert. To which Kevin snorted and inquired how long they’d been dating, as he hadn’t seen her around. She answered once, but that Joseph had forgotten his wallet and she paid, which brought on more tears.”
            Cheap bastard!
            “How’s Joseph doing?” I asked.
            “In pure frustration, Kevin barked ‘jail’ at him, and the blood drained from his face. I think Kevin felt bad because he told him to go inside and lie down.”
            “How did you hear all of this if you were inside your cottage?”
            “I never close the bathroom window. I’ve got a bird’s-eye view of the hotspots, the ones that provide the most entertainment, and the ideal place to eavesdrop. This time, they were close enough I could hear every word.”
            I wanted to warn him not to start peeing out the window like the man in the building next door. Instead, I made a mental note to tell Mac; she could have that talk with Crum.
            “I’m sure Fab is stomping her dainty foot in frustration.” I scratched Harlot around her neck and crossed to the door. “If Joseph is still looking pale, ask Shirl to check him over. She’ll know if he needs to go to the hospital.”
            A childhood friend of Mac’s, Shirl had been our resident RN. She’d moved in after a messy breakup for what was supposed to be several days, but turned into over a year, and now lived across the street. Everyone loved her, as she dealt patiently with their health complaints, some made up for attention, some not.
            Crum opened the door, sticking his head out. “All clear.”
            Once I set foot on the driveway, Fab yelled from where she held court next to Mac, “Hey. Let’s go.”
            “I’m surprised she wasn’t over here listening in. So unlike her.”
            Crum grunted. “Spotted Fab talking to the most recent tourists from Canada. You know, the latest bunch fits right in.  During the hubbub, they dragged out Joseph’s stash of beach chairs, sat themselves down, and made no bones about listening in. They didn’t flinch at the glares Kevin shot their way. A sturdy bunch; comes from surviving all that cold weather.”
            “Thanks for the info.” I waved and cut across the driveway to meet up with Mac and Fab. “Miss January okay?” I asked Mac. “She missed out on the excitement.”
            Miss January and Joseph were both inherited tenants from my Aunt Elizabeth. Both had been labeled terminal by their doctors long before I took over, but they continued to defy the odds, neither giving a thought to cutting back on cigarettes and liquor.
            “Miss January got drunk earlier than usual and fell asleep in her chair on the porch. I found her lying in a heap on the ground next to it. Had to hoist her up by the arms—barely got her standing—and helped her to bed. She got a little sniffly over Score. We need to find her a new boyfriend; then maybe she’ll stay sober for an extra hour or two.”
            Score was the boyfriend she “found” on the beach and dragged back to her cottage, where he’d lived in a perpetual state of drunkenness until he passed on.
            “Find someone closer to her own age,” I suggested. Score had been in his nineties, close to one hundred. The problem was Miss January looked closer to Score’s age than the forties her identification stated. And the boyfriend pool slimmed down after a certain age.
            I watched as Fab crossed the street and got behind the wheel of the SUV. She’d barely got the door closed when she laid on the horn. I shook my head.
            “You better hurry up, or she might leave you.” Mac laughed. “If that happens, I’ll give you a ride.”
            “If Fab did that, I’d kick her designer-clad butt.” On the other hand, given how she exceled at martial arts… “Maybe not,” I said in response to Mac’s raised eyebrow. “I’d whine to her boyfriend and to Mother, and she knows that.”
            Fab laid on the horn again.
            I waved to Mac. “Call me if any more dead bodies turn up.”


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