I’m waiting on feedback from my critique partners, so decided to write a quick short story for you. I have fun with Noira and Speed. I hope you enjoy them, too.
A Debt Paid
(a Noira and Speed mystery)
Noira tried not to wake Speed while taking a shower and brushing her teeth. She tiptoed out of the bathroom and into the closet. Her guy had worked overtime, manning the EMS all weekend, and he was dragging. He was off today, and she was tempted to use vacation time to be with him, but she had to get to the courthouse to work with Judge Herschel. The judge had a big trial coming up, and Noira had to set court dates and organize crime photos.
She went into stealth mode getting dressed and leaving the room, being careful not to clunk her cane on anything. Stupid leg. It didn’t work right since the accident.
Looking in the hallway mirror, she pulled her unruly chestnut hair into a ponytail and slapped on mascara and blush—good enough for a Monday—then headed to the apartment’s tiny kitchen. Not that size mattered, at least, not in this instance. Noira didn’t cook. All she needed was a fridge and a microwave. Empty cartons filled the overflowing wastebasket. She’d picked up all of them, and Speed would take them to the trash.
She was pouring coffee into her to-go cup when she glanced out the kitchen window and saw a guy carrying their neighbor’s TV to his pickup. What the heck? She fought to remember who lived there. Erik…something. That man wasn’t Erik, and Erik didn’t appear to be home. Was he getting robbed?
She thumped out the back door and headed toward him. “Hey! What are you doing?”
He lowered the TV onto the hood of his truck and turned to her. Not much taller than she was with a stringy build, he started to answer, but after one glance at her cane, gave a dismissive shrug. “Butt out, lady. It’s none of your business.”
It had happened to her before. When people pigeon-holed her as an invalid, they didn’t take her as seriously. A foolish mistake. She held up her cellphone. “Put the TV back or I’m calling the cops.”
He made a grab for her phone, but she raised her cane and jabbed him in the stomach. Lips curled down, he started toward her. She gripped her cane, ready to swing it.
“Keep your distance!” Speed ran to stand beside her, jeans yanked on but barefoot and shirtless. An impressive sight with his hard abs and broad shoulders.
The guy spread his arms. “Hey, she’s the one hassling me. I just came to grab a few things, and she’s threatening to call the cops on me.”
“Where’s Erik?” Speed glanced to the apartment’s open door. “One word from him, and we’ll be on our way.”
“That’s the thing,” the guy said. “Erik’s dead. I’m just trying to get what he owed me before the cops lock down his apartment.”
Speed glanced in the truck bed. “How big was his debt?”
“A hundred bucks.”
“You’ve got a lot more than that you’re hauling away.”
The man’s jaw set. “So what? He’s dead. It’s not like he needs any of this anymore.”
“He’s dead?” Noira only knew him in passing but was curious. He wasn’t much older than they were. “I waved to him yesterday. What happened?”
“The dumbass stumbled into a guy at the bar last night. When the guy pushed him away, he fell and hit his head on a table, going down. Didn’t get back up.”
Speed raised dark eyebrows, looking doubtful. “What are the odds of that?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. All I want is to collect what he owed me.”
“You’ve got more than enough already. Put the TV back, Fingers.”
Noira shook her head. Speed and his fellow EMTs used nicknames for each other. It had become a habit with them.
“Fingers?” When the guy started to argue, Speed reached for his cellphone. “Are you going to try to take mine, too?”
The look on the guy’s face said he was considering it, then he shook his head. “Nah, your girlfriend will call for backup when I take you down.”
Fat chance. Speed lifted patients in and out of vehicles for a living. He didn’t just look strong. He was strong. She and Speed stood and watched while Fingers returned the TV. As he stalked toward his truck, Speed called, “I don’t work today. I’m keeping an eye on Erik’s place till the cops get here.”
Looking none too happy, Erik’s “friend” slid behind the steering wheel and drove away.
Walking back to their apartment, Speed groused at her. “What were you thinking going out there alone? That man would have knocked you on the ground and kicked you while you were down to steal a TV. Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“You needed your sleep.”
“I could have gone back to bed after things got settled. You could have been hurt. Don’t do that again.”
She frowned at him, surprised, then gave a sideways smile. “It’s sweet that you worry about me.”
“I don’t need any more worries,” he grumbled. “You’re not a martial arts expert. Don’t push your luck.”
“I have my trusty cane.”
He grabbed her shoulders and turned her to look at him. “I know you don’t like being told what to do, but if someone kicked your cane out from under you, you’d go down hard. Either that, or you’d have to hop on one foot to get help. That man would have left you in the dirt and driven away with his TV set.”
She sighed. For once, he might be right. “Okay, I get it. I’ll be smarter next time.”
“Good.” He walked her to her car and gave her a quick kiss. “Have a good day at work. I’m going back to bed. Bring home something good for supper.”
“But I thought you were going to watch over Erik’s apartment.”
He shook his head. “So gullible. Let’s hope Fingers is worried I might.”
At work, over lunch break, she told her friends about what had happened.
Kitty’s green eyes grew wide with wonder. “And Speed rushed out to rescue you? With no shirt on?”
“Don’t drool,” Noira warned. Kitty was only twenty-two and had a crush on him. Not that Noira blamed her. Her man was easy on the eyes and fun to hang out with. Kitty didn’t drink enough or cuss enough to interest him, though.
Natalie, older than both of them with dark coloring and a tongue that dripped acid, smirked. “I wish Fingers would have gone at it with Speed, then we could see his picture in the paper from his hospital bed. Great nickname for him, by the way.”
Laughing on their way back to their offices, Noira put the matter behind her. On her way home from work, she stopped to grab barbecue from Shigs and Pits, one of Speed’s favorites. No pizza for a knight in shining armor, wearing low-riding jeans and nothing else.
He was in a good mood when they sat down to eat. “I’ve worked with one of the cops who came to check Erik’s apartment and told him about this morning’s incident. When I described Fingers to him, he said it sounded like the friend Erik went to the bar with last night.”
Noira sniffed. “Some friend.”
“Yeah, I guess he stayed to answer questions about what happened and then split. The man who pushed Erik off him was more upset than he was.”
“What happens now?” Noira took a sip of wine to wash down her pulled pork. “Does Erik have family close by? Will someone empty out his apartment?”
“I guess his family’s scattered all over the place, and no one’s close enough that they want to bother with it. A cousin asked if he left him any money in a will, and when the answer was no, he lost interest.”
“Sad. What about his parents? No brothers or sisters?”
“No one who wants to come. His dad asked if he had enough money to be buried. When they told him he had life insurance to cover it, the dad said ‘good enough, then I don’t have to send anything.’”
Downright cold. But then, it wasn’t fair to judge. Who knew what history the family had? It looked like Erik would be stuck in the ground, and that was that.
She and Speed decided to watch a movie to relax. Noira poured another glass of wine and Speed got another beer. They were watching the old Batman and Robyn when a light flashed around their darkened living room. Speed got up to see what it was.
“You’re not going to believe this, but Fingers is back with a flashlight, trying to break into Erik’s apartment.”
“He’d risk going to jail over a TV?” Noira paused the movie and pushed to her feet to see for herself. Sure enough, Fingers was trying to jimmy Erik’s door open, using a credit card and a pocket knife. “What an idiot.”
When he couldn’t get in, they watched his light bob as he made his way to the back of the apartment, thinking he’d have more luck with the sliding doors. He didn’t, but they heard the tinkle of breaking glass. Then the light moved around inside the building.
“That’s it. I’m calling him in.” Speed punched 911 on his phone.
A short time later, a cruiser turned off its lights and quietly parked a few doors down from Erik’s apartment. They watched the cops cautiously advance to the back, pull their guns, and call, “Freeze.” Within minutes, they watched them lead Fingers to the back of their squad car, then drive away.
Speed shook his head. “If Fingers had a brain, he’d have grabbed the TV and gotten out of there. Instead, his flashlight beam bounced all over in the back of the apartment, the bedrooms and bathroom. He must have been looking for something.”
“I doubt if Erik had anything worth the bother.” She went back to the sofa to finish watching the movie.
Speed came to stretch his legs on his corner of the sectional. “We’re having a good night. Double the entertainment. Wish you didn’t have to work tomorrow. We’d stay up late and party.”
“No such luck.” She raised her legs, too, so that their feet met. She wiggled her toes against his. “A paralegal’s work is never done.”
He turned off the TV. “Then we’d better hit the big finale before you’re too tired. Poison Ivy’s tempting, but I’m not ready to go green. I’d rather enjoy home comforts.”
He pulled her to her feet and they headed to the bedroom.
She was busy at work the next day when Hunter strolled to her desk and dropped a folder on it. The beefy detective nodded at it. “Your dead neighbor didn’t die hitting his head on a table. He was a goner before his face met the floor. Heart attack. The thing is, we talked to his doctor, and his ticker was just fine. Made him suspicious.”
She told him about Fingers breaking into Erik’s apartment last night. “And he wasn’t there just to grab the TV. Speed thinks there’s more to it than that.”
“Interesting. Think I’ll stop by where Erik worked and chat up some of his co-workers. Thanks for the tip, Crip.”
His new nickname for her since she limped. She wasn’t complaining, though. After the car accident, she was glad she still had a leg that sort of worked. That night, when she went home, she found Speed at the grill, babysitting two steaks. The only time she cooked was when Speed worked his grill magic. And then, it was nothing to brag about. She opened a bag of salad and put a container of Ranch dressing on the table. Then she nuked a bag of frozen corn and added butter and salt. When Speed carried his steaks to the table, his eyes lit up.
“We’re feasting tonight.”
She loved the man. It took so little to make him happy. “You know that Kitty worships you, and she’s a great cook.”
He patted his firm abs. “I love food. I’d eat too much and get fat. Better to have a drinking buddy who loves pizza as much as I do.” When she laughed at him, he arched a brow. “Do you realize how pretty you are, and that there are men who wear suits and make lots of money who’d be happy to keep you in style?”
She grimaced. “You ruined it right there. Suits. What would I do with a man in a suit? He’d tell me I drink too much wine instead of kissing me and putting me to bed.”
“I only do that when you drink too much red. You get mouthy when you down wines that are too dry.”
“See? You love me as is. Who can ask for more?”
With a shrug, Speed raised his beer in a toast. “I guess we’re meant for each other, then.”
She cut into her steak—perfectly medium rare. “You have too many talents for me to ever leave you.”
His chocolate-brown eyes sparkled with humor. “And you’re too interesting for me to settle for less.”
They’d finished eating and were sitting on the back patio, enjoying the evening, when Hunter walked around the building to join them.
“Care to search Erik’s apartment with me?”
Speed blinked. “What are we looking for?”
“Seems every time Erik had too much to drink, he bragged about having a key to a lock box with information in it that could make him rich.”
Noira snorted. “Then why did he have to borrow a hundred dollars from Fingers? And why did he live in a two-bedroom apartment across from us?”
“Because one of the guys he worked with said he was too chicken to actually blackmail whoever it was he had the dirt on. Either that, or he wasn’t desperate enough.”
“That’s what Fingers was looking for? The key?” Speed was on his feet, ready to help look for it.
She sighed. It was a beautiful night. She still had a half glass of wine to finish, and her lawn chair was comfortable. She didn’t want to move.
“Come on!” Speed said. “Let’s go. Let’s find the thing!”
Oh, rats! She pushed to her feet, grabbed her cane, and grumbled. She didn’t really know Eric, so this whole thing could be a joke. But Fingers had believed him. And he’d died suddenly from a bad heart he’d never had a problem with. Grumbling more, she followed the two men to Erik’s apartment.
Hunter let them in. “Where would you hide a key?” he asked.
The men opened drawers and began searching. She went to the key ring lying in a bowl by the back door. She held it up and pointed to a smaller key than the rest. “What do you think?”
Hunter snarled an unkind remark. “Who’d just put something like that on his key ring for anyone to see?”
“Hey, I always forget where I hide things,” Noira told him. “I need to keep things simple.”
Speed studied it. “Okay, so we have the key. Maybe. What now? What does it unlock?”
Noira turned to Hunter. “What bank did Erik use?”
Hunter looked in his notebook and made a call. “He has a lock box with them. Want to ride with me?”
Both men were surprised when they unlocked the box and found incriminating photos and papers for a major player in town. It made her like Erik more. He was like her. Forgetful. And he couldn’t make himself blackmail someone when he could have. He must have had too much to drink and shared his secret with someone who didn’t have the qualms he did. Someone like Fingers, who was with him when he died.
“Have you gotten any info from the medical examiner yet?” she asked Hunter.
Her friend pressed his lips in a tight line. “It looks like someone slipped eye drops in his drink. Maybe a whole bottle of them.”
“And his drink didn’t taste funny?”
Hunter grunted. “He probably couldn’t even tell, he was so drunk.”
“And he was at the bar with Fingers?”
“Bright girl!” Hunter gave her a fist bump. “You’re not bad, Crip. You’d make a good detective.”
She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “You enjoy what you do. I enjoy sitting at my desk, scheduling and organizing.”
“What are you going to do with the stuff from the lock box?” Speed asked. “That could put someone behind bars.”
Hunter shrugged. “Not my case. I’ll give it to my superior and he can decide. The guy’s just going to lawyer up anyway, and it will be a miracle if he’s convicted.”
“But the trial would ruin his reputation.” Speed glanced at the top photo and winced. The woman in bed with him wasn’t his wife, a baggie of coke on the nightstand clearly visible.
“I’d say he deserves that.” Hunter collected his evidence and then drove them home.
Back in their apartment, Speed bent to give Noira a kiss. “Good work, Holmes. You helped solved Erik’s murder.”
“Not me. We’re a team. All I was worried about was Erik’s TV.”
He smiled and wrapped her in a hug. “But it’s never that simple with you, is it? There’s always more, and that’s what makes you interesting.”
Whatever made him happy worked for her. She started to the kitchen. She still had half a glass of wine to finish.