I know that many authors use newsletters to communicate with their readers and send them special bonus features and details of upcoming events. I don’t have a newsletter and use my blog to keep in touch instead. And once in a while, authors write special short stories to share with their readers as a bonus thank you, so I decided to write a short mystery for you. If you like it, I hope you’ll share it on twitter, and even if you don’t share it, I hope you enjoy it.
The alarm went off. Speed had to work this Saturday. Part of being an EMT. Not like paralegals. She worked in Judge Hershel’s office, arranging court dates, calling lawyers, arranging crime scene pictures and evidence, a nine-to-five job with an hour lunch. She and Herschel, known for being a tough female judge, clicked, working seamlessly together.
She started to lift her head to glance at the clock and groaned. She should have stopped at one bottle of wine last night. Speed had to help her to bed. He was good like that. She might even love him. Did he love her? Maybe. Whatever. They made a good team. She reached behind her to nudge him. “It’s five-thirty. The alarm went off. Get up.”
Naked, he pushed out of bed and started to the bathroom. Worth opening an eyeball to see. Great ass, skinny legs, but his shoulders were broad. His thick, wavy, black hair fell over his forehead. She stretched out an arm to turn off the alarm. Never safe to do until one of them was up and moving or they’d fall back to sleep. They might indulge in bad habits—she liked her wine and he liked his pot—but they never missed work.
When he came back out, he quickly dressed, bent to kiss her cheek, and started for the door.
“Have a good day.”
He stopped and turned, frowning down at her. “What do you want?” She never sent him away with a sappy saying.
“You could bring home pizza when you’re done for the day.”
He raised a dark eyebrow. “A small or big bottle of wine?”
“With pizza? What do you think?”
“I’ll buy a cheap red, but you’d better not get mouthy after you drink it. Red does that to you.”
She zipped her lips, and he shook his head. “Right.” Then he was out the door.
She slid her legs on his side of the bed, enjoying the extra space, and went back to sleep. It was eleven when she finally got up. First thing, aspirin, then the bathroom. Leaning heavily on her cane, she wandered out to the kitchen for coffee. White Chinese cartons littered the coffee table. Styrofoam containers were scattered across the countertops. They needed a larger apartment so she didn’t have to toss the trash so often. As it was, she had to drag a large garbage bag around the one large room every few days, or they’d be buried in take-out crap.
The good news? They never had to clean the stove top. Neither of them liked to cook, but she did love to bake. Speed fancied himself king of a grill and invited friends over once in a while for burgers and brats. She frowned. One of his get-togethers was coming up soon. They’d have to hit the store for real food.
Cleaning could wait. With a cup of coffee in her left hand, her cane in the right, she headed to the sectional that took up most of their living area. She stretched out on it, easing some of the ache from the top of her tibia, just under the knee, which had been turned to rubble when the drunk driver crushed that side of her car. Ironic really, since the woman had had imbibed too much wine. But Noira never drove when she drank. That’s why God created Ubers.
Physical therapy had helped her heal so she could do almost everything she had before, but the leg still ached when she overdid. She and Speed had walked most of Promenade Park last night. Fun, but she could feel it today. Then they’d come home with take-out from Don Chavez. Fresh air and chimichangas. Life was good.
She flipped on the TV and started watching White Chapel on Prime. She was still binging when Speed walked in the apartment with wine and pizza. He looked around the apartment and shrugged. “We can clean tomorrow. You needed a day off.”
One of the reasons she loved him. He moved the last empty pizza box aside and opened the new one.
“Any excitement today?” she asked, reaching for a slice of the goat cheese and prosciutto specialty he favored. It was his turn to pick.
He swallowed a bite and washed it down with a sip of beer. “An odd thing happened. Ditto and I got called to a heart attack run, but when we got to the house, it was boarded up. The condemned sign on the door had been there a while.”
She frowned. “Someone gave you the wrong address?”
“We thought maybe it was a neighbor who got the numbers wrong, so we knocked on a few doors, but no one had called us. We had the dispatcher call back the number on her screen, but no one picked up.”
“Was it a prank?”
“Not a funny one. Husky and Weasel got called to a truck that overturned and had to cover it on their own.”
Noira knew all of the EMT drivers Speed worked with, and their nicknames suited them. Ditto always agreed with whatever anyone said. Husky was a big boy with a heavy build, looked like a linebacker. And Weasel had a narrow face, pointed features, and beady little eyes.
“Do the dispatchers save numbers like that so they can’t prank you again?”
Speed nodded. “Like the boy who called wolf. If that person calls again and needs help, he’s out of luck.”
“Serves him right.” She held up her new slice of pizza and they toasted each other.
Four days later, Speed called Noira at work. “Can you come home?”
Something was up. Neither of them ever interfered with each other’s jobs. “Give me half an hour.” With a quick knock, she stuck her head in the judge’s office. “Speed needs me at home. I have to leave early today.”
“Go. Will you be back in the office tomorrow? I’m in court on Friday.”
“Should be. If I can’t, I’ll call you right away.”
Herschel nodded. Friday’s case was a guy she’d seen a few times too many. This time, it wasn’t just burglary. He’d had a gun. If all went well, she wouldn’t see him again for years.
Noira grabbed her purse and headed home. When she and Speed had first moved in together, she’d been disappointed that they couldn’t get a second-floor apartment with a balcony. Now, with her leg, she was grateful she didn’t have to maneuver any stairs. And Speed loved their patio with his grill.
She found him on the patio, nursing a beer and looking upset. He glanced up at her. “Thanks for coming. I didn’t want to be alone.”
Oh, God. What had happened? She went to get a glass of wine and sat across from him at the small, round table. “How bad is it?”
“Someone called that she saw a guy lying in an alley with blood seeping out from underneath him. He was breathing. She thought maybe he’d been shot. Ditto and I were delivering a woman to the hospital, so Weasel and Husky had to make the run. They got to the alley but no body. They wondered if he came to and tried to crawl away, so got out of the vehicle to search for a blood trail to follow.”
He paused to take a long gulp of beer. She braced herself for something bad.
He inhaled a long breath. “When they stepped between two garages, someone shot Weasel in the chest. Husky said the shot came from behind a nearby house. He didn’t see anybody.”
“Did they try to shoot Husky?”
Speed shook his head. “There was just the one gunshot. Husky didn’t run after whoever did it. He was trying to stay low and working to save Weasel, but he bled out.”
“Weasel’s dead?” What a stupid statement! He bled out. But it was hard for Noira to wrap her head around the fact that Weasel was gone.
“The calls weren’t pranks,” Speed said. “They were set-ups. Someone must hate EMTs.”
Goosebumps covered her arms. She was cold. What if the shooter had aimed at Speed? She didn’t want to lose him. But then she frowned, remembering the time he and Ditto had sped to a condemned house. They’d left their vehicle, too, looking for a heart attack victim. “Were there more than the two prank calls? Did other drivers go on wild goose chases?”
He pulled his gaze from his empty beer bottle to her face. He had beautiful, milk-chocolate brown eyes. “Yeah, Roly and Stringbean got called to a used car lot that was closed, and Red and Irish ended up at a barn on some country road.”
“The shooter doesn’t hate EMTs,” Noira said. “He wanted to kill Weasel.”
Speed snorted, unconvinced. “Why not kill at home? It would be easier. Why on the job?”
She shrugged. “No witnesses? Weasel lives. . .” She winced and corrected herself. “. . .lived in an apartment complex, like we do. Too many people around. He hardly goes anywhere—mostly to work and home—and he only hangs out with other EMTs.”
“Exactly, so who’d want to kill him?”
She pushed to her feet for another glass of wine and leaned more on her cane than usual. Her knee was acting up. “I didn’t know him well enough to even guess. His girlfriend?”
“Baby Cakes?” Speed shook his head. “They’d been together four years. You’ve met her. Who else would want her?”
Noira had been with Speed six years. If she was going to kill him, it would have been in the first one, not the fourth. Little things drove her nuts. He never rinsed his whiskers out of the bathroom sink. He left the toilet seat up. He cut his toenails and left them on the floor. If they survived what friends called the seven-year itch, they’d probably be together forever. She filled her wine glass. “Baby Cakes never came to any of your grill parties. Have you met her?”
“I got the impression she’s sort of a loner, not very social.”
“Is she planning his funeral?”
“Nah, he planned his own last year. Said he watched too many people die, leaving everything for their families to deal with. If it was up to his family, though, he said they’d throw his body in a wooden box and bury him in a pauper’s graveyard to get more of his money.”
Noira lifted her eyebrows in surprise. “Did Weasel have money?”
“Beats me. He might. He sure didn’t like to spend any. You had to pry a nickel out of his fingers.”
She smiled, remembering. “Yeah, when you grilled for everyone, some of the guys pitched in on the beer. Never Weasel.”
“And he’s the one who drank the most. If it was free, it tasted better.” A laugh started, then stuck in his throat. “He was sort of a jerk, but I’m gonna miss him.”
Noira reached to pat his hand. “Let’s go out tonight. The Club Room has great food and good music. Or we could get sushi. That’s one of your favorites.”
“After one more beer.” He went to the kitchen and came back out with fresh drinks for both of them. He raised his bottle to clink her glass. “To Weasel.”
“Rest in peace.” They drank, then got ready to leave.
Two days later, Noira was surprised to see Weasel’s case file tossed on her desk. Judge Hershel was going to preside over his case. Hunter, a detective Noira worked with occasionally, had arrested Grifter for killing him.
Noira read the evidence. Two homeowners had seen Grifter in the alley before Weasel was shot. Hunter checked his cellphone. He hadn’t made a call for an EMT, but the techs had found a burner phone in a trashcan nearby, and it had the call on it. No fingerprints, but Hunter hadn’t expected to find any.
“Any calls on his phone at the time Weasel died?”
“One from an unknown number the night before to score some crack. The deal was supposed to go down in that alley that morning.”
“He was set up.”
“Or else,” Hunter argued, “Grifter thought Weasel saw the deal go down and would turn him in, so he shot him first.”
She shook her head. “I’m not buying it. Grifter’s a small-time drug dealer. You told me he wasn’t even worth picking up.”
“He was there,” Hunter said. “Opportunity.”
“Husky told us that Weasel tracked Grifter down a month ago, angry because some kid almost overdosed on heroin he sold him. Told Grifter that if he didn’t clean up his act, he’d make sure he was behind bars.”
Noira stared. “Weasel? I never thought he cared that much about anything. I got the feeling he just wanted a paycheck.”
Hunter snorted. “He had special motivation. The kid’s mom cleans rooms at the hospital. He met her delivering a patient there. They struck up a conversation and got a little cozy. He liked what he saw and was trying to get in good with her.”
“But he lives with Baby Cakes.”
Hunter rolled his eyes. “And men never cheat?”
“I didn’t think he could. Why would any woman be interested in him?”
“You know better than that. Anyone, even the worst-looking stripper, can attract someone. It’s a matter of knowing what your options are. Guys like Weasel don’t expect to snag a debutant.”
Something still didn’t feel right. Grifter would never bother to buy one burner phone after another, and he’d never lure Weasel to different locations to kill him. She was going to go home and think through everything Hunter had told her. After he left, a memory niggled. She pulled Grifter’s file, and she’d remembered correctly. He’d been beat up a year ago. He had a gun but couldn’t make himself use it, only carried it to scare people away. When a cop had asked him about it, he’d said that guns scared him.
She called Hunter to share what she’d found, but he was unimpressed. “Things change. After the pounding he got, maybe Grifter decided he’d rather pull the trigger than spend time in the hospital again.”
She was still fussing when she got home that night. Speed listened to her with more sympathy when she told him about Grifter.
“Weasel bragged about giving him a scare,” he said. “But it was mostly a grandiose gesture, and both he and Grifter knew it. It impressed the kid’s mom, though.”
“So he wouldn’t hunt down Weasel to kill him?” Noira flipped through her cellphone to decide what to order for supper.
Speed went to stretch out on the sectional and flip on the TV. It was his turn to pick what they watched. He settled on an old repeat of Survivor. When he picked their shows, she picked their meal. “I’m guessing Grifter’s heard more serious threats than Weasel’s. He doesn’t deal with the nicest people.”
Noira called in an order for fries and buffalo chicken wings. When she went to sit beside Speed before leaving to pick up the food, she said, “If Grifter didn’t kill him, who did?”
Speed reached out to tousle her chestnut curls. Her hair was more unruly than his. “Babe, neither of us are detectives. I don’t have a clue.”
With a sigh, she admitted defeat. She’d have to console herself with an order of cheesy garlic bread.
Speed set the day for his grill party and decided to dedicate it to Weasel. He invited Baby Cakes to come, too, telling her, “The guys and I have raised some money instead of sending flowers. We thought you might be short until Weasel’s finances are settled.”
The morning of the barbecue, Noira dragged her garbage bag around the apartment, tossing all of the empty cartons and containers inside it. She helped him set up card tables and chairs outside, and she filled an aluminum trough with ice, then beer and wine.
Speed was grilling burgers and brats when Husky and his wife arrived. Noira had made cole slaw and bought tons of chips and dips. She’d baked a chocolate sheet cake, too. Juanita helped her set them out on a long, portable table. Little by little, the rest of the crew trickled in, grabbing drinks and settling in to yak.
It was a perfect day for an outdoor gathering. Late summer sunshine shone in a robin egg-blue sky, and the temperature hovered in the low eighties. Husky raised his beer bottle in a salute. “To Weasel!”
Everyone joined in, and he said, “Juanita made chicken enchiladas to take to Baby Cakes after Weasel died. Thought it was the right thing to do. Boy, did she get an earful.”
He motioned for Juanita to tell the story. She was a small, slender woman with a warm smile. “Baby Cakes was furious that Weasel planned his funeral ahead, said he ordered the most expensive of everything.”
Ditto paused his beer bottle midway to his lips. “But he prepaid for it. She doesn’t have to worry about spending a penny.”
Juanita glanced at Husky. “That’s what he said, too, but Baby Cakes said it left less money for her to survive on. She and her sister went to talk to the funeral director about it. She told him that Weasel had changed his mind in the last few months. He told her that he didn’t want his body to lie in a coffin indefinitely. He wanted to be cremated.”
Roly ran a finger around his shirt collar. He was always too warm and unbuttoned his top button. “Maybe that was her way of getting even with him. I stopped by his place a month ago to return a post hole digger he loaned me. The two of them were in the middle of a row, and he told her to pack her bags, because her days were numbered.”
Ditto shook his head in disbelief. “He was going to break up with her?”
“He said she spent more time with her sister than with him, wouldn’t even watch TV in the same room he was in, and he’d met someone new who actually liked him.”
Speed went inside and returned with a tray that held buns and condiments. “Did she get to change Weasel’s wishes? He told me he wanted to be laid out in a blue casket with doves on it.”
The men looked at each other and shrugged. Noira and Speed had been watching for an announcement of Weasel’s funeral but hadn’t seen one. Speed checked the meat on the grill and announced, “Everything’s ready. Come and get it.”
People stood in line to load their plates. Baby Cakes showed up just when everyone was settling at the tables, and she brought someone with her.
“This is my sister,” she told them. “I didn’t want to come alone.” She walked to Husky’s card table and plopped an urn on it. “Thought I’d bring Weasel, too. He never missed one of your get-togethers.”
A shiver raced up Noira’s spine. This gathering was to honor the man, but she hadn’t expected to have his ashes here. Everyone glanced at the urn uneasily.
“When was the funeral?” Speed asked. “We wanted to come to it.”
“I decided to keep it private.” Baby Cakes gave her sister a look and nodded slightly to the tray where the fat envelope was propped, then said, “It was nice of you to think about how broke we’re going to be a for while.”
We’re? The sister must have moved into Weasel’s small house. Noira was surprised by how rough-looking both women were. Too thin. Tattoos on their necks, arms, and legs. And neither looked overly upset by Weasel’s death.
Speed went to get the envelope to hand to her. “We’re sorry for your loss.”
Baby Cakes shrugged and stuffed the envelope into her purse. “Well, it was great meeting you all. We have things to do so can’t stay. I wanted to drop off Weasel, though. You can keep him.”
Everyone stared as the two women turned to leave. The nerve! Noira reached for Speed’s phone and dialed the number he’d used to invite Baby Cakes. Baby Cakes stopped to dig her phone out of her purse to see who was calling. Then she frowned and glared at Noira. “What’s the deal? What do you want?”
What did she want? She wasn’t sure. She just felt that something wasn’t right. “We meant for this to be a memorial service for Weasel. We were hoping you could stay and tell us some special moments you had with him.” As she talked, she stood, moving closer to the two women.
“Special moments?” Baby Cakes sneered. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“You lived with him four years. Surely, there’s something you can share.”
With a huff, Baby Cakes started to turn away.
“Wait!” Noira moved to follow her, then purposely slipped, going down on one knee. Her bad knee. It hurt like crazy. Her cane slid out from under her, tripping the other woman. As Baby Cakes threw out her hands to break the fall, her cellphone flew to Noira. She picked it up, scanning the screen. Then she looked at Baby Cakes with a raised eyebrow.
“Give me that!” Baby Cakes lunged for it, but Noira tossed the phone to Speed. “Detective Hunter will be interested in why you called Grifter the night before Weasel was shot.”
“I like a little lift now and then. So what?”
“You set up both men—Grifter and Weasel.”
“You can’t prove that.”
Speed punched numbers into his phone. “We can’t, but I bet Hunter can.”
The EMTs moved forward to block both women before they could leave. They held them there until Hunter came for them. The rest of the barbecue was filled with talking and hashing over the events that had just happened.
Grifter was back on the streets a week later. Hunter rested a hip against Noira’s desk, explaining, “Weasel and Baby Cakes were together four years. He left everything he had to her, including a hefty life insurance policy, but if they broke up, all that would end. She bought a gun a few weeks ago, used her sister’s name. The two of them were planning on selling the house and moving to one of the Carolinas together.”
“Baby Cakes told you that?” Noira asked.
Hunter shook his head. “No, the sister. When we asked to see her gun and told her she’d be an accomplice for murder, she spilled everything in exchange for us dropping the charges.”
“So, she knew what Baby Cakes had planned?”
“Oh, she knew. Said he deserved it after living with her sister for years and then dropping her when someone younger looked his way.”
“Did Baby Cakes really spend more time with her sister than him, though?”
“She barely tolerated him.”
“But she thought he’d stay with her?”
Hunter crossed his arms over his beefy chest. “I never said Baby Cakes was a genius. And Grifter asked me to give you a message. If you ever need anything from him, it’s on the house.”
“No way.” The less they had to do with Grifter, the better.
Judge Hershel came out of her office. “Case closed. If you two want to solve anything else for me, be my guest.”
Hunter put up his hands in surrender. “No thanks, I’ll just stick with the ones that land on my desk.”
She raised her gray eyebrows at Noira.
“Count me out.” She was looking forward to going home tonight, opening a bottle of wine, and eating coney dogs with Speed while they watched The Great British Baking Show. As much stress as she wanted to handle.