The Body Dressed Like Santa
The entire butcher block countertop of the kitchen island was covered with different kinds of Christmas cookies and tea breads. Jazzi had set out eight disposable aluminum pans to fill. For this time of year, she’d found some that were red and green for the holiday.
“I’m going to give each family two cookies per person of each kind,” she told Ansel.
Her tall, hunky Norseman frowned. “Will there be any left for us?”
The man loved his cookies. His holiday generosity ended if he didn’t get his share of goodies. Actually, he loved food in general. Since he’d moved in with her, he swore he’d never eaten so well. Neither had George, his pug, but George wasn’t a fan of sweets, so he curled on his dog bed in the corner to supervise.
“Okay, let’s get started.” Jazzi reached for eight spice cookies to layer in Jerod and Franny’s tin. Jerod’s kids, Gunnar and Lizzie, would have to fight her cousin for these. Franny didn’t even try. They were his favorites. Ansel took his cue from her and added spice cookies to the tins near him. When they finished, there were half a dozen left.
“Only six for us?” Ansel complained.
“Of those. We have lots more cookies to go.”
He didn’t look happy.
Chocolate crinkle cookies came next, then Mexican wedding cakes, oatmeal and raisin, sugar cookies, and peanut butter. She’d made double of the chocolate chip cookies. Those were the kids’ favorites. Ansel’s blue eyes lit up when she brought out the snickerdoodles and had a dozen left over for them. Those were his favorite. The fragile, fancier cookies came last—the cherry-coconut bars and macaroons.
When they finished, they bundled the tins up and added gift tags and ribbons, then got ready to deliver them. It was still early in December, so in theory, winter wasn’t official yet, but an inch of snow covered the ground and it was darn cold outside. Most of Jazzi’s family lived on the south side of River Bluffs, so they loaded the cookies and George into her pickup and headed across town.
River Bluffs was the second largest city in Indiana, but it still had a small-town feel. Its nickname for a long time had been the city of churches. People still thought of themselves that way, but traffic was heavier than it used to be and traveling across town took longer.
Gran and Samantha lived almost all the way to Ossian, so they decided to deliver to them first. Gran lived on enough property that, at eighty years old, she still put out a huge garden every year and kept chickens. Often, when she came to their house for the Sunday meal, she brought fresh eggs.
Gran grabbed Samantha’s hands and grinned from ear to ear when she saw Jazzi and Ansel at their door. When she saw the big tin of cookies, she almost pulled them inside. “Isn’t my sister, Sarah, wonderful, Samantha?”
Whenever Gran felt stressed, she reverted to bygone days, reliving her younger years, and Jazzi became her sister in her mind. Otherwise, Gran was as sharp as a Jeopardy contestant with more energy than most. Something must be bothering her today. Jazzi hated to see her upset. She had a special soft spot for her. She’d learned how to cook in Gran’s kitchen. Mom avoided stoves as much as possible. So did her sister, Olivia. But Jazzi loved puttering around with recipes, and Gran had been happy to teach her.
Samantha gave Jazzi a small smile and shrugged. “Your grandma’s been a bit confused today.”
Jazzi studied her. “Is something bothering you, Gran?”
She hugged herself, clearly upset. “Poor Brady, just because the body’s on his property doesn’t mean he killed him. He’s going to need your help to clear his name.”
Ansel frowned. “Brady?”
“Franny’s nephew,” Jazzi told him.
“Have you met him?” Ansel had been engulfed and welcomed by her family since he’d started working with her and Jerod. He knew most of the aunts and uncles. Had to. They showed up every week for the Sunday meal.
Jazzi shook her head. “Franny talks about him a lot, but we’ve never met.” Worry wriggled through her. Gran had been born with the gift of sight. When she saw something, it always happened. Jazzi had wondered why Gran hadn’t seen Aunt Lynda’s murder, but Gran explained that Lynda and the baby she’d given away were too close to her. After a little research, Jazzi found most psychics couldn’t predict their own futures.
Trying to calm Gran, she asked, “Is the body on Brady’s property now?”
“Could be. You’d better go look.”
“I will, Gran. And Ansel and I will help him all we can. Don’t worry about that.”
Gran blinked, satisfied, and reached out to pat her shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Jazzi. With your help, Brady will be all right.”
Good. Gran was back to being herself again. Kissing her goodbye, Jazzi watched Ansel pick up George to carry to the pickup. The pug didn’t like to get his paws cold and wet. He didn’t like to climb stairs either. The pug was spoiled rotten.
“What now?” Ansel asked as he slid behind the steering wheel.
“Let’s finish delivering the rest of the cookies and make Jerod’s house our last stop. We can ask Franny where Brady lives, then maybe we can grab Jerod to drive to Brady’s house with us.”
“Does Brady live close to here?” Ansel headed to Jazzi’s mom and dad’s subdivision on the southwest side of the city.
“Just over the bridge on Anthony, near the river, but I don’t know the exact street.” River Bluffs got its name from the three rivers that converge downtown. “Franny’s really proud of him. He came home from Afghanistan, confined to a wheelchair. He hasn’t let it slow him down, though. He’s married with two kids and has a good job in a factory as a software engineer.”
“Makes me want to help him out even more.” Ansel turned into Mom and Dad’s addition. When he knocked on the door, Mom’s two labradoodles ran to peer out the window and bark at them. The dogs loved company. They were almost as social as Mom—a hairdresser.
Jazzi heard the TV in the family room. Dad would be watching sports. Mom opened the door to invite them in, but Jazzi shook her head. “We have more deliveries to make, and I’ll see you tomorrow at the Sunday meal. We just wanted to bring you some cookies.”
Mom nodded. “Thanks, kid. We’ve been waiting for them. We’ll try not to eat them all in one night.”
With a wave, Jazzi and Ansel returned to the pickup to drive to her sister, Olivia’s apartment. As usual, Thane was there. Jazzi had put four of each cookie in her sister’s delivery, expecting him.
Soon, they were pulling into Jerod’s driveway, and Jazzi squared her shoulders, trying to bolster her courage to share her bad news. Jerod saw them on his front stoop, opened the door, and reached for the aluminum pan. He tore off the wrapping on his way to the kitchen.
“No one gets any of the spice cookies but me!” he called out.
Gunnar and Lizzie came running, grabbing for the chocolate chips. Franny came last. She smiled. “I love them all.”
Jazzi licked her lips, nervous, and Jerod raised an eyebrow at her. “I know that look. When we were growing up, you always licked your lips before you told me you broke one of our toys or did something stupid.”
“I didn’t do it this time.”
His frown deepened. “Then who did?”
“I don’t know.” She told him what Gran had said.
Franny’s freckles seemed to grow paler. She put her hand to her throat. “Gran’s never made a mistake when she sees things, has she?”
“No.” Jazzi looked at Jerod. “Do you want to go with us when we go to Brady’s? Neither of us has met him. He might not want to hear this from a stranger.”
Jerod turned to Franny. “Would you rather go? I’ll stay home with the kids.”
“Not me. I don’t want to search for a body. You go. Brady likes you.”
With a nod, Jerod went to get his coat. He grabbed two spice cookies on his way out the kitchen door. When they reached the pickup, he climbed into the backseat on the opposite side of George.
“Did you bring your pug to sniff out the corpse?”
“No, that would traumatize him. George is sensitive.” Not that she’d noticed, but who knew a six-five Viking would fuss over his fur baby so much?
Jerod gave them directions to Brady’s house, and it was late afternoon by the time they arrived. More houses than usual were decorated for Christmas up and down these streets. Colored lights glowed from gutters and bushes. A red sleigh sat in Brady’s front yard, filled with fake poinsettia plants.
Jerod led the way to Brady’s door and knocked.
“Give me a minute!” came a voice. A mid-thirties man with brown hair and sky-blue eyes opened it to welcome them. He looked up at Jerod from his wheelchair and frowned. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have stocked up on beer and snacks.”
“This isn’t a social visit.” Jerod introduced everyone, then explained.
Brady looked stunned. “You think there’s a body on my property?”
“I hope we’re wrong, but we’d better check it out. Mind if we look around?” Jerod turned to go back outside.
“Go for it. I have trouble moving this chair in the snow. I wouldn’t be much help.”
“No worries,” Jerod said. “We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
And for a while, it looked like for once, Gran had made a mistake. But then Jazzi looked at the muddied snow in the flowerbed beside the garage. Something was barely sticking above the dirt and she went to see what it was.
The toe of a black, shiny boot shone when the sun hit it. No one wore boots like that, did they? She called for the guys, and they came to check it out. Arming themselves with garden rakes from the garage, they scraped enough dirt away to realize it was the kind of boots Santa wore. A little more work and they found a red pantleg, hemmed in white fleece.
Jerod scratched his head. “Someone buried Santa here.”
Ansel pulled his cellphone from his pocket. “That’s what it looks like. He made his appearance a little early, didn’t he? I’m calling Gaff.”
Detective Gaff had worked with them when Jazzi and Jerod found Aunt Lynda’s skeleton folded in a trunk in their attic. He returned when Jerod discovered another body buried near their septic tank.
“Gaff? Sorry to bother you on a Saturday,” Ansel said when the detective picked up, “but we found a dead Santa and need your help.”
“Really? Santa?” If Gaff stopped taking their calls, Jazzi wouldn’t blame him.
Ansel explained. When he hung up, he gave them a quick nod. “Gaff’s on his way.”
Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi waited inside the house until Gaff and the crime techs arrived. Poor Brady kept staring out the back window toward his garage.
“Sophie and the kids will be home in an hour. They went to see a movie. Do you think everyone will be done by then?”
Jazzi shook her head and looked up expectantly when Gaff gave a quick knock on the door and stepped inside.
Gaff shook his head at her. “Too soon to know anything. The victim is dressed like Santa, though. His bag for presents was buried with him, but it’s empty except for a box with a pair of earrings.”
Brady moved his wheelchair out of the way so that Gaff could take a seat at the end of the couch. “Has he been there long?”
“It doesn’t look like it. It’s so cold, though, it’s hard to tell until there’s an autopsy.” Brady blanched at the word, and Gaff hurried on. “Have you been home all day today? Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”
“I’ve been here, but I was working in my office on the other side of the house. Since Sophie and the kids were gone, I thought I’d squeeze in a few hours on a program I’ve been trying to get done.”
Gaff studied him. “How do you cope in a two-story house? Aren’t the bedrooms upstairs?”
Brady pointed to the chair lift attached close to the stair railing. “I have another wheelchair up there. I only go up for bed. Sophie and I still like to sleep together.”
“Can you stand at all?”
“With difficulty on two special crutches. Are you trying to decide if I could conk Santa on the head and bury him?”
Gaff looked up from his notes. “I don’t like to leave anything unanswered. How did you know he died from a blow to the head?”
“I didn’t hear anything. I’d notice a gun shot, even if the killer used a silencer. And if Santa was stabbed, you’d think there’d be a scuffle and blood.”
Jerod crossed his arms over his chest. “He’d have to wheel himself out there to bash the guy and then kneel in the snow to dig the hole. Did you see any wheelchair tracks? Anyplace where he’d balance on his knees to dig the hole?”
Brady smiled. “The detective’s just doing his job, but thanks for jumping to my defense, man.”
Jerod snorted. “You were in active combat. If you were going to kill someone, you’d be better at it than this.”
Gaff shook his head. “I’m just getting started, Jerod. Give me some credit, but I think that’s all I need for right now. The tech guys might be here for a while. If you don’t want your wife and kids to see us loading Santa onto a stretcher, you might want to call and let them know what’s going on.”
Brady nodded and reached for his cellphone.
Gaff stood to leave. “I’d wish you happy holidays, but you’re probably not in the mood right now.”
Jazzi walked him to the door. “Thanks for coming.”
“I didn’t have a choice. You sure know how to get a man’s attention. You keep calling with dead bodies for me to see.”
Laughing, she watched him trudge back to the garage to talk some more to his team. They stayed a little longer with Brady before he said, “You don’t have to babysit me. This shook me up for a minute, but I’ve been through worse. I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” Jerod asked. “This is hitting home base.”
“It’s my yard, but at least I don’t know the victim. At least, I don’t think I do. I didn’t have to watch any buddies die.”
“Okay, then. Take care, bud.” Jerod patted him on the shoulder. “If you need anything, call.”
On the way to the pickup, Ansel glanced back at Brady’s house one last time. “He lives right across from the levee the city built to protect this neighborhood from flooding, and he owns a corner lot. The levee’s high enough, if someone jumped Santa near the river, no one would see what happened.”
Jazzi frowned. “But why drag him to Brady’s flowerbed to bury him?”
“The river rises every time there’s a heavy rain. Isn’t it suppose to rain later this week when the temperatures climb a little?”
Jerod scratched his chin. “You think the water might wash the body higher on the riverbank. You could see it when you cross the bridge. Maybe the killer didn’t want it found.”
“But why?” Jazzi couldn’t fit all of the puzzle pieces together.
Ansel turned left on Anthony to head south to Jerod’s house. “If we find out who Santa was, maybe we’ll find out.”
On Sunday, Jazzi and Ansel worked most of the morning getting the food and house ready for the Sunday meal. The nine-foot Christmas tree was already up and decorated near the front window in the kitchen’s sitting nook. The banisters were wound with greenery and the fireplace was hung with Christmas stockings—five of them—Jazzi’s and Ansel’s, one for each cat, and one for George. The small tree Jazzi had put up in her apartment each year now sat on a side table in the living room. The meager amount of decorations she’d bought for her apartment wasn’t close to enough for the stone cottage. They still needed to buy more, but that could wait.
While Jazzi cut chunks of chicken breasts and salmon to drop into the seafood curry, Ansel put red table runners down the center of the long farmhouse table and the folding table they put up beside it. Jazzi helped him load dishes and bowls on the kitchen island for people to grab for the buffet-style meal. At the last, Jazzi added shrimp to the curry while Ansel loaded the bread pudding with its rum sauce along with the Caesar salad and rice.
They’d just finished when people started trickling into the house—a dozen in all. Jerod and Franny got there first with Gunnar and Lizzie. Jerod’s parents came next with Jazzi’s mom and dad, who’d brought Gran and Samantha, close behind them. As usual, Olivia and Thane hurried in last. Once everyone got their food and settled at the table, the talk turned to the body buried in Brady’s yard.
“Gaff called last night, and the victim was named Barry Yearwood,” Jazzi told them. “He’d just gotten out of the army, and his wife expected him home on Monday. She was worried that he wasn’t going to make it since bad weather is predicted out east later tonight. The weatherman predicted airports might have to close.”
“He must have come home early to surprise her.” Jerod gave a nod, apparently liking that idea. “That might explain the Santa suit and the earrings in the bag.”
Ansel reached for more salad. “Seems a shame that the guy made it through the military and got killed the minute he got home.”
That thought sobered Jazzi, but her mom shook her head in disbelief. “Do you know his wife’s name? Mariah Yearwood is a regular customer of mine. Her husband was getting out of the service soon. She talked about it all through the last haircut I gave her.”
Jazzi’s mom and sister ran a hair salon together and knew more people than Jazzi could keep track of.
“Gaff didn’t mention a name,” Jazzi said, “but I can ask him.”
Mom pursed her lips, thinking. “Mariah lived on base with her husband while he was stationed in the states but came back home when he was sent to Japan. She’s not the type of girl who likes to be alone. From a few things she’s said, I wondered . . . Well, it’s not nice to gossip, but she mentioned a friend’s name a lot.”
“A man’s?” Ansel asked.
Jerod piled seconds in his bowl. “Do you think she planned on divorcing her husband to throw him over for a new guy?”
“Oh, no. Mariah said her friend never sticks at anything. He’d never settle down. Her husband offered her the security and spending money she likes. His checks pay for her car and rent.”
Ansel raised a blond eyebrow at Jazzi. “Later tonight, you should call Gaff, just in case. He might want to check on some of this.”
She nodded but noticed that Gran was fidgeting with her napkin. They were upsetting her. She glanced around the table. “Are things getting busy for all of you? You’re all are super social. Are you invited to a lot of parties?”
They all got the hint. The talk turned to holiday get-togethers and events. Gran went for a second glass of wine, and the meal finished on a lighter note.
Before she and Ansel started clearing the dishes, Jerod’s dad turned to him. “You guys have got to be close to finishing the fixer-upper you’ve been working on. What’s your next project?”
Jerod scowled. “We haven’t decided yet. That’s bothering me, but we haven’t found something we think we can flip. We’re going to have to look harder.”
“Our garage has gone together with a couple more businesses close to us to help out a family we’ve adopted for Christmas.” Eli was a mechanic who worked on imported and high-end cars. “The house they rent is a disaster. I was thinking you guys might slap some new paint on the walls to cheer it up a little for the holidays. They can’t afford to. They can barely make ends meet.”
Jerod turned to her and Ansel. “We could do that, couldn’t we?”
Ansel looked excited. “I’ve always wanted to adopt a family for Christmas. They give you lists of what they want for presents, don’t they?”
Eli nodded. “It’s going to break your heart when you look at it. These people asked for the basics. We’ve collected plenty of money for them, more than they asked for.”
Jerod locked gazes with Jazzi. “Cousin?”
“Let’s do it. We have the time, and your dad has the money.”
Eli grinned, and so did Gran.
“I’ll bake them some pies.” Gran was always willing to lend a helping hand.
“We’ll pitch in, too,” Mom said.
If they were lucky, they could do more than just paint the peoples’ walls.
Jazzi didn’t think about contacting Gaff until the last person left and the house was quiet again. When he listened to her news, he sighed over the phone. “How do you always have information before I have time to ferret it out?”
She had to chuckle. “Luck?” Possibly bad luck. She’d rather not be involved in his investigations. He’d included her when he interviewed her friends and family about Aunt Lynda. Her death was an old crime with no new clues. The people involved were ones she’d known well for a long time, so he swore people told her more than they’d tell him. And he was probably right. If the crime hadn’t been so closely tied to family, though, he wouldn’t have let her anywhere close to his work. And she liked it that way.
He snickered. “You’re still a step ahead of me. Is there anyone in River Bluffs that someone in your family doesn’t know?”
“There has to be, but a lot of people go in and out of Mom and Olivia’s salon, Jerod and I have worked on a lot of fixer-uppers, Jerod’s Dad’s a mechanic, and Franny’s mom works part-time at a grocery store and volunteers at the pet shelter. We meet a lot of people.”
“I’m learning that.” He was quiet a moment. Finally, he said, “I’ll look into Barry’s wife more and get back to you. Thanks for the heads-up.”
“Any time.” But she sincerely hoped her involvement in murders had come to an end.
On Monday, Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi met at the house they were working on. The only thing that still needed done was installing new light fixtures so that the new owner could move in the next day. Jerod’s dad called with the family’s name and address that his work place had adopted. He gave them the list of things the parents and three kids had asked for. The list broke Jazzi’s heart. Sweaters. Sweat pants. Warm socks. A ham, green beans, and cornbread mix for their big meal.
Jerod hunched his shoulders. “This is just sad. My kids would never ask Santa for warm socks.”
Ansel glared at the list and shook his head. “I say we finish up here, then go shopping for these. We’ll deliver them now and tell the family to make a new list for Christmas morning.”
They didn’t dawdle. They got busy and by noon, they were ready to walk out of the house, stop somewhere for lunch, and go shopping.
They bought all the clothes and groceries, taking their time since no one would be home until after school and work. Then they drove to deliver them early. When they saw the house the family rented, though, they wanted to nail the owner to a wall, and they had the nail guns to do it.
A bucket sat under a leak in the ceiling.
“Bad plumbing,” the husband explained.
The porch sagged. The floors had chipped, faded tiles. But the place was spotless. When they left, Jerod gnashed his teeth. “No wonder they asked for warm clothes. Not one window had a storm on it. Drafts ran through every room. These people deserve better.” He pulled out his cellphone and called his dad. “How much money do we have to spend on these people?” He punched speaker.
“Five thousand dollars, if you need it. It’s all tax write-offs for us.”
“Mind if we try something else instead of painting the place?”
“It’s your call,” Eli said. “You guys know what you’re doing.”
They talked about it and drove straight to city hall.
“We’re looking for a house under five thousand dollars,” Jerod told the clerk. “We can fix anything but a terrible foundation. If we get a halfway decent day, we’ll even put on a new roof. We want to fix it and give it to our Christmas family.”
The clerk stared at them. “We have three houses marked to be condemned. They’re not worth fixing up. I’ll give you the addresses. If one of them works, you can have it. We’d like to see the neighborhoods improved.”
Jerod took the list and they went to search for a house. The first one was on a street that was lined with one horrible house after another. “Nope. It doesn’t look safe here.”
The second house was tolerable, but the third house had promise. “What do you think?”
They got out and walked around, peeking through windows. The walls looked solid. So did the floors, even though they were covered in ugly linoleum. The roof and porch needed repaired.
“We can make this one nice,” Ansel decided.
“It’ll take two weeks of hard work. I’d like them to be able to move in before Christmas,” Jerod said.
Ansel shrugged. “We’re between jobs. We have the time.”
Jazzi let out a breath. She’d been hoping for some time off. They were going to make a busy December even more rushed, but she’d like to see the people in a new home by Christmas, too. The men looked at her and she caved. “I’m in.”
They drove back to city hall, signed the paperwork, got the key, and returned to the house to take measurements and start working. This would be a quickie job—no sanding woodwork or fancy touches, no granite countertops or hardwood floors. Once they knew what they wanted to do, the guys went to order the materials and dropped Jazzi at home to load the sander into the back of Ansel’s work van. She’d already driven back to the project and started on the floors upstairs when they got back.
Jerod studied the three bedrooms and bath on the second floor. “The wood planks are decent. With some paint and stain, the rooms will look pretty nice.”
Ansel nodded. “While Jazzi does the floors, let’s gut the kitchen. If we call around, maybe we can get some of the people we buy appliances from to donate some scratched or dented ones to us. If worse comes to worse, we can buy used ones.”
“Good idea.” The guys went down to the kitchen and got busy. George didn’t like all the movement and noise, so moved to curl in a corner of the living room. She’d brought his dog bed inside with the sander. Ansel took the pug to work with them every day so kept one in the van.
They worked late and started early for a week until the house was starting to come together. They finally got a break on the weather and installed new black roofing shingles they’d gotten on sale. They didn’t get as lucky on the front porch and had to fix it on a day that was so cold, Jazzi lost feeling in her fingers. They didn’t have the time or money to install new wooden floors downstairs but got carpet on clearance for the living room and dining room, and they bought a roll of discounted linoleum in a brick pattern for the kitchen. It looked good with the bottom maple cupboards they installed. They couldn’t afford top cupboards so built open shelves instead.
Every ceiling and wall were painted when Gaff called.
“I finally cut a break on the Santa murder. Mariah’s boyfriend has been pawning diamond earrings and other jewelry. I found a pawnshop owner who identified him and what he sold. The items all match up to the items Barry bought with his debit card the day he was killed.”
Jazzi pressed a hand to her stomach. She felt sick. “So this was just a robbery? The boyfriend killed Barry over a few bucks?”
“Either that or he didn’t want to lose his new digs. He’s been living with Mariah for a while now. He’d have to move out when Barry came home. I’ve been watching her place, waiting to pick him up. No sign of him yet.”
“Thanks for letting us know, and good luck, Gaff.” The news was depressing, though. When she told Jerod and Ansel, Ansel scrubbed a hand through his white-blond hair, mussing it.
“The man served his country and came home to this? It stinks.”
Jerod’s lips pinched in a tight line. “When I go home tonight, I’m going to kiss my Franny. She wouldn’t take up with someone else when times got tough. My girl would see it through with me.”
They were waiting for appliances to be delivered and then the house would be done. No dishwasher, but a new refrigerator and stove. They both had scratches and dings, but they were on the sides no one would see. They’d had to go with new Formica counters and a stainless sink. The only rooms they couldn’t make as nice as they wanted to were the bathrooms. They’d had to settle on cheap tiles to line the walls around the bathtub, and they’d had that resilvered because they couldn’t afford a new one. The half bath downstairs barely had room for a toilet and sink.
By the time the delivery came and they finished for the day, the house was as good as they could make it. The furnace still worked, and the aluminum windows weren’t attractive, but they did the job.
On the spur of the moment, Jerod said, “Let’s go visit the family and bring them over. The house is in our company’s name. We’ll sell it to them for a dollar.”
“I want to fill the refrigerator and cupboards first,” Jazzi said. “I want a turkey on the top shelf, along with milk and eggs. I want cans of fruits and vegetables, and boxes of cornbread mix.”
Ansel laughed. “You always think about food.”
“And you’re lucky I do.”
That made him chuckle. “You shop while we collect the family. Call us when you have the groceries put away, and we’ll meet you here with them.”
They separated and by the time Jazzi called Ansel’s cellphone, she even had Christmas cookies she’d bought at a bakery on a paper plate on the counter.
Jerod had the husband and the family follow his pickup to the house. When they walked inside and stared around at the empty space, they looked confused. “It’s yours,” Jerod told them.
The man blinked. “Excuse me?”
“It’s yours. We’re fixer-uppers. The city gave it to us free, your Christmas helpers collected enough money, and we fixed it up for you.”
He shook his head. “How much is the rent? We can hardly afford where we are now.”
“No rent.” Jerod pulled out the deed and said, “We’re selling it to you for a dollar.”
“No rent?” The wife’s eyes went wide.
“Let’s hope that clears up some money for you.” Ansel nodded to Jazzi. “We wanted to make you feel at home.”
She opened the refrigerator and cupboards. The six-year-old girl squealed and ran to look at the turkey. “It’s so big.”
Jazzi’s throat tightened. It was twelve pounds, nothing special. The two boys saw the cookies and raced to them. “For us?”
“Look around. See what you think. And happy holidays,” Jerod said.
They watched the wife turn on the stove and clap her hands together when every burner lit. The father opened a bottom cupboard and said, “Kids, look. There’s so much food. How will we ever eat it all?”
Ansel reached for Jazzi’s hand and squeezed it. He rocked back and forth from toe to heel, he was so happy, and she loved her Norseman even more.
“We want to pay you for the new roof and everything you’ve done,” the husband said.
Jerod shook his head. “We got everything on discount. We paid for everything with donations from the businesses who adopted you. We all wanted to make sure you had a merry Christmas.”
When they finally walked to their vehicles to drive away, they looked in the windows and saw the family climbing the stairs to check out their bedrooms.
Before driving home, Jerod said, “We done good. We can’t usually do anything like this, but I’m glad we did it this time.”
“We are, too. We’re going home to celebrate.” Ansel carefully laid George on the backseat of the van and tossed his dog bed next to him. He started to slide behind the steering wheel when Jazzi’s cellphone rang.
She switched the phone to speaker and they all gathered around to hear what he had to say. “Hate to ruin the end of your day,” he told them. “But I interviewed lots of people and wrapped up the case. Barry Yearwood got into New York and thought he got lucky. According to a buddy, they both snagged tickets to fly home before the storm hit the east coast. That made it so Barry landed earlier than expected. He told a clerk he meant to surprise his wife and rent a Santa suit and buy her tons of presents.”
Jerod groaned. “Oh, man, this just keeps getting worse.”
Gaff sighed. “Yeah, when we picked up Lance, he said the poor guy showed up at Mariah’s doorstep, knocked on the door, and walked in while they were going to town. He said Mariah tried to play it off, but I mean, how do you do that? Barry turned around and stomped away, yelling that she’d hear from his lawyer, that they were done.”
Ansel shook his head. “Why not call it off with Lance when Barry left the base? Why take chances?”
“She never intended to quit seeing Lance,” Gaff said. “She thought she’d make excuses to meet him on the sly and Barry would never catch on. She wanted Barry’s money and her fun. Then she remembered that Barry had really good life insurance in case anything happened to him in the military, more than enough to support her. She promised to share it with Lance if he made sure Barry didn’t file for divorce. Lance raced after him and caught up with him at Brady’s house. Bashed him on the back of the head and tried to hide the body in his yard.”
Jazzi shivered. “It’s a good thing Gran has the sight. Who’d have looked for him there?”
“I hate to say it, but your family helped me solve another case.”
Jazzi didn’t know what to say to that. Finally, she settled on, “Glad we could help, but I’d rather not make a habit of it.”
Gaff laughed. “I second that. Have a good one, guys. Happy holidays.”
“You, too.” Jazzi put the phone back in her pocket and shook her head. “At least this one didn’t take too long.”
Jerod nodded. “We have everything in good shape for Christmas. I say we take off until the New Year. Then we can get started on our next job. We could use a vacation.”
Ansel and Jazzi nodded in unison. Jerod could spend time with his kids over their school break, and they could spend time with each other. Now that was a happy thought.
THE BODY ON THE FRONT STOOP by Judi Lynn
I wrote a Halloween story for Muddy River and posted it on Monday, so I thought it only fair that Jazzi and Ansel got a Halloween story of their own. This story would fall between book 3 and 4 if any of you read the books, but it works as a standalone. So here’s wishing you a happy October and hoping you enjoy the read:
The Body on the Front Stoop
It was October 31st, Halloween, and in River Bluffs, trick-or-treat hours started at five and ran to eight. Jazzi and Ansel had agreed to meet her cousin, Jerod, and his two kids at her sister Olivia’s house so that Jazzi could help Olivia pass out candy, and Ansel could help Jerod take Gunnar and Lizzie from house to house. When they got ready to drive there, Ansel’s pug trotted to the kitchen door to go with them. Her tall, hunky Viking usually took George everywhere with him, but tonight, he blocked the door. “Sorry, bud, you can’t come.”
“You’re not bringing him?” Jazzi couldn’t believe it. She’d expected Ansel to dress him in a Halloween costume. She’d pictured him in an orange pumpkin outfit.
Ansel shook his head. “Not this time. He’d want to go house to house, and he’ll get tired, then want me to carry him. He gets heavy after a while.” The man had drool worthy biceps, but George was no lightweight.
Before going to the garage, Jazzi glanced through the kitchen window to check on George. He didn’t suffer long. He headed straight to his dog bed and stretched out, head on paws. Good. She wouldn’t imagine him lying by the door, whining until they came home.
On the drive across town, they passed more houses with decorations than usual. Orange lights hung on bushes, and gravestones dotted front yards. Stuffed bodies dangled from tree limbs. Jerod’s pickup was already in Olivia’s drive when they got there.. As they walked to the kitchen door, Jerod and his kids spilled out of it. Olivia’s boyfriend, Thane, followed.
“The kids can’t wait anymore,” Jerod told them.
Ansel grinned and bent to give Jazzi a quick kiss. “Don’t let any little ghouls give you trouble.”
“No way. Olivia and I can handle the hordes.” She looked at the three guys, all over six feet. “Don’t scare anybody.”
Jerod snorted, nodding at the kids’ empty pillowcases. “If they try to steal any candy, we’ll dangle them upside down by their toes.”
He would, too. Her cousin was still a kid in a grown-up’s body.
The men took off, and Jazzi and Olivia had barely filled two huge, plastic bowls with candy when a gaggle of fairies and monsters rang the front doorbell. The line of kids never quit after that. By the time it was eight, and they finally turned off the porch light, only three pieces of candy remained. A few minutes later, Gunnar and Lizzie came running to the house, hugging pillow cases filled with goodies.
The guys followed them inside. Jerod motioned toward the stockpile of candy. “We’re going to have to freeze some of the loot. They’ll get sick if they eat it all.”
The adults settled around the kitchen island, and Gunnar and Lizzie dumped their sugary treasures on the floor to compare what they got. A half hour later, everyone was ready to call it a night. Ansel took Jazzi’s hand and they walked to her pickup together.
“Did any dads put the make on my favorite witch?”
“With kids in tow? No man’s that crazy.”
“If I saw a curvy blonde at the door, I’d be tempted.” He backed out of the driveway and turned north, toward home.
No kids lingered in the streets. Porch lights were darkened. They passed only three other cars on the road. When they finally walked in the house, ready to change into PJs and call it a night, they found George lying near the front door. He sat up and barked at them.
“Well, that’s something new.” Ansel went to pet him and calm him down, but George started digging at the door, whining.
Why now? When they were back? They never let him wander in the front yard.
“What’s wrong, boy?” Had someone egged their house while they were gone? Ansel was reaching for the door knob when two squad cars pulled into their drive, followed by Detective Gaff’s unmarked Buick. They’d worked with Gaff before, more times than they’d wanted, when dead bodies kept showing up at their fixer-upper houses.
“What the heck?” Ansel swung the door open and turned on the light over the stoop.
Gaff hurried up the walk to meet him. “We got an anonymous call that there’s a dead body on your front porch.”
Jazzi walked out to join them and stared when she saw a body propped against their fieldstones. A stuffed one? A kid probably stole it from someone’s yard, but how did anyone notice it in the dark? Whoever stole it must have called it in.
Ansel stepped over its legs to get a better look, then stopped and stared. “The body’s real. The front of the shirt’s soaked with blood.”
Gaff poised his pen over his notepad. Jazzi had watched him do that every time he interviewed someone. “You didn’t notice him when you pulled into your drive?”
“It was dark. The front light was off, so no kid would show up, looking for candy.” Ansel glanced through the storm door at his pug. “George knew it was here, though. He was trying to tell us.”
Gaff gave a curt nod. “So, you weren’t home tonight?”
Ansel turned his head away from the body. “We went to Olivia’s house for trick or treating. When we got home, George was sitting at the front door, whining. He’s never done that before.”
Gaff turned to Jazzi. “When did you leave your sister’s house?”
“About eight-thirty. We just got home.”
“You have an airtight alibi?” At one time, Jazzi would have taken that comment the wrong way, but she’d worked with Gaff enough to know it was standard procedure and he was trying to rule them out.
Ansel was losing patience, though. “Call Jazzi’s sister or Jerod. We were with them from five to eight-thirty.”
Gaff motioned to the dead man. “We got the call at eight, so that rules you out. Meet Carter Fryburger, one of the city’s illustrious lawyers. Do you know him?”
“Should we?” Jazzi glanced up and down the street. “We don’t neighbor much, but I’ve seen most of the people who live here. I don’t remember seeing him.”
Gaff shook his head. “He’s not a neighbor. He had a piece of paper with your name and address on it stuffed in his jacket pocket.”
“My name?” Jazzi asked.
Gaff motioned toward Ansel. “His. Any idea why?”
Jazzi didn’t have a clue. Neither did Ansel. Her Norseman crossed his arms over his chest, obviously put out about it. “I’ve never needed a lawyer.”
Gaff put his notepad and pen back in his shirt pocket. “I’ll start digging around to find out what Fryburger was doing lately, who he represented. I’ll have men knock on doors up and down the street to see if anyone saw or heard anything, but there’s not much else we can do right now. Sorry this happened to you again.”
Jazzi sighed. Was Karma ticked with her? She understood how her Aunt Lynda’s body had ended up in their attic and why Noah’s body—the son she’d given up for adoption—was buried near their septic tank. But this? The planets must be aligned wrong for them.
With a nod, Gaff went to talk to his team, and Jazzi and Ansel went back into the house. Ansel spent a while comforting the dog. Then, after everyone left, the two of them climbed the steps to their bedroom. They’d had a big enough day. As always, Ansel carried George, and the cats streaked ahead of them.
A short time later, Jazzi heard snoring. Not Ansel. The dog. She rolled onto her side, and the cats pressed against her legs. Ansel’s hand slid across the sheets to touch her. She smiled and drifted to sleep.
# # #
The next morning, when they joined Jerod at the fixer-upper, they told him about the body they’d found.
He stopped yanking drywall off the kitchen walls they were going to knock down and stared at them. “You haven’t advertised for corpses, have you, like some people advertise for Fill Dirt?”
Jazzi made a face at him and reached for a sledgehammer. He raised an eyebrow, but she aimed at the wall, not him.
Ansel kicked a chunk of loose drywall to the floor. “I want to know why the lawyer had my name and address in his pocket.”
“Are any of your friends in legal trouble?” Jerod asked. “Maybe he wanted you to be a character witness.”
“I’m too new here. You two introduced me to most of the people I know. My uncle and cousins sure didn’t help me make friends.”
“They didn’t help you with anything.” Jazzi couldn’t keep the censure out of her voice. When his parents kicked him off the farm after he graduated from high school, Ansel came to River Bluffs to live and work with an uncle who owned a construction company, but his two sons resented Ansel and let him know it.
The three of them were getting ready to tear down studs and install a support beam when Jazzi’s cell phone rang. She looked at the I.D. “Gaff.”
“We found Fryburger’s car,” he told her. “It was parked in a farmer’s field and set on fire. There was blood on the driver’s side and a lot of ashes on the passenger seat. It looks like somebody wanted to get rid of a stack of documents. Fryburger’s estimated time of death was seven-thirty, then someone dumped him at your place.”
Jazzi took a deep breath. Someone had gone to a lot of work to make Ansel look guilty. “Have you found out anything more about Fryburger?”
“I went to his law office today. His paralegal told me a woman hired him to find the father of her baby. Thing is, she’s not sure which of a list of men might have the right DNA.”
A knot formed in Jazzi’s stomach. It took her a moment to respond. “Was Ansel’s name on the list?”
Gaff paused before speaking. “Sorry, Jazzi. That’s probably why Fryburger meant to visit him.”
Ansel had told her that he had a one-night stand when he first moved to River Bluffs. He was angry and lonely, and the woman was as lonely as he was. He thought it might lift his spirits. It hadn’t.
But still. “Why leave Fryburger at our place?”
“I’d guess the killer found Ansel’s name and address in Fryburger’s pocket and tried to make it look like he killed him. When I learn more, I’ll let you know.” Gaff hung up, and Jazzi told the guys what he’d told her.
Jerod gave a low whistle and stared at Ansel. “You had a one-night stand? I’d have never guessed. You don’t seem the type.”
“I’m not. It was stupid.” Ansel frowned. “But why would a woman wait so long to look for her kid’s father?”
Jerod gave a wry grimace. “When an old flame of mine got dumped and needed money, she coughed up my name for a paternity test.”
That didn’t come as a shock. Her cousin had run on the wild side when he was young.
“Maybe the woman moved away for a while,” Jazzi said, “and recently moved back.”
Ansel shook his head, frustrated. “I only had that single one-night stand my whole life, and I never called the woman again. She never called me.”
Jerod snorted. “Did you use protection?”
“I’m not that stupid.” Ansel grew thoughtful. “But accidents can still happen. If I have a son somewhere, I’d like to meet him.”
Ansel wasn’t the type to shirk responsibility. If he had a son, would he want the boy to be part of his life? Would he bring him home for weekends? Their wedding was November tenth, only days away. She’d bought the dress and everything for the reception. But when she’d said yes to Ansel, she’d told him she wasn’t ready to have kids. What would she do with a young boy? Would she be any good with him?
Ansel narrowed his blue eyes, worried. “This came out of the blue. Do you still want to go ahead with the wedding?”
Jerod’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. He turned to Jazzi.
Could she give up Ansel just because he had a kid? Not likely. “I still love you. If you have a son, I’ll love him, too. We’ll figure this out together.”
Ansel’s broad shoulders sagged. He looked miserable. “I’m sorry. This complicates things, and I never wanted to burden you.”
She waved that away. “It’s not like you planned it. We’ll work this out.”
“Let’s hope he’s not mine.”
Jazzi felt a quick stab of pity. Every man on that list must be wishing the same thing. All of a sudden, she felt sorry for the boy.
“Do you remember the woman’s name?” Jerod asked.
“I’m not sure she told me.” Ansel rubbed his forehead. “Neither of us expected anything to come from it.”
“But she remembered your name after all these years.” Jazzi shook her head. She was being silly. Why wouldn’t she? What woman would say no to a night with her Viking?
“Was she at least good-looking?” Jerod asked.
Jazzi shot him a dirty glare, but Ansel frowned, thinking. “She was sexy, not pretty. She had long black hair, gray eyes, and a mole above the left side of her lips. Oh, and she had a birthmark on the inside of her right thigh.” His cheeks turned red when he said that.
Jerod hesitated, cleared his throat. “Did she have a gap between her front teeth?”
Ansel stopped and stared. “I forgot about that.”
“Yeah, well, I went to school with her. Brooklyn Yorke. We were young and . . . you know. The last time I saw her, she was working as a phlebotomist at the downtown hospital.”
“A what?” Ansel gave him a blank stare.
“She takes blood.”
What were the odds that Ansel and Jerod had slept with the same woman? But then, once Jazzi thought about it, they were both good-looking, the kind of guys women flirted with. “When was the last you saw her?”
“A few months ago at Coney Island. We both stopped in to grab lunch.”
Ansel’s lips turned down, his expression serious.
“Go.” Jerod motioned to the door. “She works days at the downtown hospital. At least, she did when I ran into her. I’ll start taking down cupboards. You can help me carry them out when you get back.”
With a nod, Ansel started to the door. “Jazzi?”
She hesitated. Did she want to meet this woman?
Jerod gave her a small push. “Give your guy some support. Go.”
Jazzi hurried to follow Ansel to his van. George followed, too, but at a more sedate pace.
# # #
“No dogs are allowed in hospitals,” Ansel told George. “You’ll have to stay here.”
It was chilly enough, they didn’t even have to roll down a window for him. When they strode inside, they stopped at the information desk. Ansel asked to see Brooklyn Yorke, and the woman smiled up at him.
“Whom should I say is asking for her?”
“Ansel Herstad. I’m not sure if she’ll remember me.”
Jazzi bit her lip. Brooklyn had listed his name on the paternity suit, hadn’t she?
The woman made a call, then put down the receiver, and shook her head. “Brooklyn didn’t come into work today. You might want to try her another time.”
Ansel turned on his heel and strode back to the van. “I’d like to get this over with.” His fingers tapped the steering wheel. “Do you think she’s listed and we can find her address?”
Jazzi pulled out her cell phone. “I can try, but most single women don’t list where they live.”
Brooklyn must not worry about that, though, because her home address wasn’t far from the hospital. She lived past West Central, off Main Street. Ansel was turning onto her street when they heard a car backfire in the distance.
“Boy, that was loud.” Ansel patted his van’s dashboard. “Glad this old girl isn’t having any problems.” His plain, white van wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but it was reliable.
He found Brooklyn’s address and parked at the curb before a tall, narrow, brick house.
“Stay,” he told George. The dog lowered his head back onto his paws and closed his eyes. The house’s front door was cracked. They knocked and waited, but no footsteps could be heard. Ansel rang the doorbell. No response.
“Maybe she’s in the backyard.” Jazzi started to walk in that direction.
They traipsed to a chain link fence. Jazzi reached for the gate’s latch but stopped so abruptly, Ansel almost bumped into her. Then he, too, saw the woman collapsed on the ground, a fallen rake close to her outstretched hand. Her long, black hair was pulled back with a headband. This had to be Brooklyn. He leapt the fence and raced to her, bent and took her hand. A red stain was growing larger across her pink sweatshirt.
“Hang in there,” he said. “We’re calling for help.”
Jazzi punched 911, then Gaff.
Brooklyn stared at Ansel, trying to focus, and her lips curled in a smile. “River’s not yours. I wish he was, but I wanted to see you again. Take care of him. Please. Don’t let Archie near him. My family won’t help . . .” She started to cough and blood spilled down her chin. She gripped Ansel’s hand. “Protect River. Please.”
“I’ll do everything I can.”
Then she spasmed. Her body went limp.
Ansel stared, dazed. He turned to Jazzi, his voice cracking. “She died.”
“Gaff’s on his way.” Jazzi went to stand behind him. She put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it to comfort him, and he leaned into her.
When he lifted his head, he glanced across the backyards. “He shot her in daylight, outside, where anyone could see. She asked me to take care of her son, to keep him safe.”
“What else could I tell her but that I would?” His gaze locked with hers, worried.
“You did the right thing. Where is River?” Jazzi studied the house. Was the boy hiding inside?
“It’s a Friday. He’s probably at school.”
Right. She crossed her arms, hugging herself. Finding a person dying was worse than finding a dead body. “Hurry up, Gaff,” she mumbled under her breath.
Ansel crouched in a silent vigil over the body. He looked stunned.
Jazzi turned abruptly when cars pulled to the curb. When she saw Gaff, she sighed her relief. She motioned to Ansel. “Brooklyn talked to him before she died.”
The crime scene team waited for Gaff to lead Ansel and Jazzi through the gate to the front walk before they got busy. Ansel leaned against his van, waiting for Gaff to ask him questions. Then he explained everything that had happened.
“And you heard a car backfire?” When Ansel nodded, Gaff shook his head. “That was probably the gunshot.”
Ansel went on. “She said I wasn’t the father, that she wanted to see me again.”
Gaff stopped scribbling notes. “Couldn’t she just make a phone call?”
“She probably thought I wouldn’t come. I probably wouldn’t have, but after she accused me of being her boy’s father, she knew I’d show up.”
Again, Jazzi felt sorry for the boy. Now she could pin a name to him. River. And that made her feel even more guilty for being glad he wasn’t Ansel’s. Who’d take care of him now? Obviously, there hadn’t been a father in his life.
Gaff heaved a sigh. The detective was a sucker when it came to kids. He had grandkids of his own. “Let’s see if I can find some next of kin to inform about her death.”
“And the boy?” Ansel asked. “Brooklyn said her family wouldn’t help.”
“That was before she died. Maybe there’s an aunt or grandma who’ll raise him.”
Ansel looked upset. Jazzi reached for his hand, and he swallowed hers with his, tightening his grip on her. Then he and Jazzi went to sit inside the van while Gaff made his calls.
Jazzi called Jerod to let him know what was happening. Her cousin sounded almost as upset as Ansel. He’d known Brooklyn, too, and kids ranked high in his life. When Gaff tapped on the van window, she and Ansel got out to talk with him. They kept the door open so that George could see them.
“None of her relatives want the boy,” Gaff said. “I talked to a friend she worked with at the hospital, and she said Brooklyn never left River with anyone but Didi, a neighbor of hers. She lives three houses down on the opposite side of the street. I’m going to ask her if she’ll take care of River until we decide who’ll take custody of him.”
Ansel tensed his shoulders. “She said she didn’t want Archie to take him, whoever Archie is. Must be someone on her list.”
“Too soon to worry about that. If Archie has no family connections, he has no rights to the boy.”
They went with Gaff when he walked down the street to Didi’s house. When Gaff showed his badge, her legs gave. She clung to the door to support herself. “She’s already gone?”
Gaff frowned, confused. “Someone already told you? Did a neighbor see something?”
More confusion. “Who found her? I hope she didn’t linger. She didn’t want that.”
Gaff let out a slow breath. “Let’s get our facts straight. My friends here found Brooklyn. She’d been shot. She died before the ambulance could reach her.”
Didi looked numb, shocked. “Someone shot her?”
“Why? She was already dying.”
Gaff let out a long breath. He raised an eyebrow at Jazzi. “For some reason, when you’re involved in a case, things always get more complicated.”
Jazzi was about to defend herself when Didi’s gaze settled on Ansel. “Were you one of the possible fathers on her list?”
“I thought I was, but she told me River’s not my son. She asked me to protect him if I could.”
“Then she must have trusted you.”
He licked his lips, clearly uncomfortable. “I only met her once.”
Didi’s eyes grew wide. She stared at him. “You were the one-night stand she never forgot.”
Ansel fidgeted, glanced at Jazzi, looking horrified, and nodded.
Didi turned to Jazzi, too. “What a mess. This all happened before he met you. Brooklyn said the man was hurting and lonely. So was she.”
“He told me. I understand. But why did Brooklyn wait all this time to look for the boy’s father?”
“You don’t know?” Then Didi shook her head. “How could you? Brooklyn didn’t have much longer to live. She caught the cancer too late.”
Jazzi swallowed hard. This scenario just kept getting worse. “How much time did she have?”
“Not much. Brooklyn could never catch a break. I loved her and that boy of hers. Brooklyn left a will, naming me as the guardian for him when she died. Just until she found the boy’s father, that is. She didn’t want her family to take him. And if Archie was the dad, she left River to me permanently. I’d love to keep him. I work from home, so I’d always be here for him.”
Gaff broke into their conversation. “If you’d be willing to keep River until we can figure out what to do with him, I’d appreciate it.”
“I already signed on for that.”
Ansel glanced down the street to Brooklyn’s house. “Will you be safe with the boy? Someone’s on a killing spree, and we don’t know why.”
Gaff sounded sure of himself. “I think whoever killed Brooklyn wanted to silence her. I don’t think he’s interested in the boy, but I’ll have someone keep watch on this house, just in case.”
That satisfied Ansel, but he still handed Didi one of their business cards. “If you need anything, call. Anything at all. I promised Brooklyn I’d help if I could.”
They stayed at Didi’s until a school bus stopped at the corner and kids piled onto the sidewalk. Didi called to one of them. “River! You need to stay with me for a while.”
Without question, the boy trotted to her. When he saw Ansel, Jazzi, and Gaff, he stopped.
“Who are they?”
“They came with bad news,” Didi said. “Your mother died. Until Detective Gaff can talk to people, I can keep you here with me.”
The boy’s eyes filled with tears, and he flew into Didi’s open arms. “Mom’s dead?”
He didn’t sound surprised, just sad. Didi hugged him to her, and Gaff motioned that they’d leave them in peace. The three of them walked away together.
# # #
No one spoke until Ansel and Jazzi reached his van. Then Ansel turned to Gaff. “I don’t suppose you’d give us the names of the other men on Brooklyn’s list.”
“No, because two people are dead, and this case is dangerous. But if they’re okay with it, I will let you come with me when I go to question them.”
“When are you going to do that?”
“Right after I talk to the medical examiner and Ben.” Jazzi knew Ben, one of the crime scene techs. She’d worked with him before.
Ansel nodded. “We’ll wait.”
Fifteen minutes later, Gaff walked back to them and handed Ansel an address. “I called possible father number one, and he’s home. He’s more than happy to meet you. He swears he’s not the dad, and he’s hoping you are. Number two lives ten minutes away, so I thought we’d catch him next. I couldn’t reach him, but he’s probably at work. Maybe I can catch him in another twenty minutes.”
Ansel followed Gaff’s unmarked car with his van. They parked in a fenced-in lot for an apartment building. The guy lived on the top floor. George didn’t even open an eye when they left the van to join Gaff.
At apartment 54, Gaff knocked on the door, and a man jerked it open. He took one look at Gaff’s badge and scowled, then he looked Ansel up and down.
“Make this fast. I can’t believe some woman I’ve forgotten is suing me for child support.”
Jazzi tilted her head to glance up at him. He was almost as tall as Ansel. She tried not to stare at his prominent Adam’s apple. Extremely thin, his face and body were pointy, all angles.
Gaff asked, “Did Brooklyn’s lawyer visit you to deliver papers, demanding a DNA test to determine her child’s father?”
The man pointed to an envelope on his coffee table. “I already swabbed the inside of my mouth and sent in the tube with it inside. It won’t do her much good. I’m paying for three other kids already. I’m broke. You can’t get blood from a turnip, but I’m cooperating, so why did she sick the cops on me?”
“She didn’t. This is a homicide investigation. Both Brooklyn and her lawyer have been killed.”
The man stared. “If the kid’s mine, I don’t want him. I can’t afford to hire a babysitter when I work. I don’t know him, and I want to keep it that way.”
Gaff let that pass. “Can you tell me where you were on Halloween?”
“Easy. A buddy of mine gave a party. I had a little too much to drink and spent the night on his couch.”
“When did the party start?”
“That was the problem. He kicked it off right after work. I try to pace myself, but when you start that early, it catches up with you.”
Gaff handed him one of his business cards. “If you think of anything, give me a call.”
The guy threw it on the coffee table with the lawyer’s envelope. Then he glared at Ansel. “Do you want the kid? Is that why you’re here? Because if you do, I’ll sign him over. He’s yours.”
“I promised Brooklyn I’d take care of him,” Ansel said.
“Was that her name? Good. Keep your promise and don’t bother me again.”
On the elevator ride down, Gaff put a check behind number one. “Not much of a human being, but not our killer. Let’s try the next address. I can’t reach him, but we’re so close, we might as well stop by and see if he’s home yet.”
They caught every red light on the way, and Jazzi wiggled in her seat. “You’d think River Bluffs could time traffic flow better.”
“Easy, babe. This is prime traffic time. It always takes longer to get anywhere.”
What could have been a ten-minute drive took twenty. Jazzi almost cheered when they finally pulled into the guy’s driveway. He lived in a duplex, not that far from her parents’ addition.
“Stay here,” Ansel told George, not that the pug stirred. He wasn’t a fan of stop and go visits.
They walked to the front door and Gaff knocked, reaching for his wallet to show his badge. “If the guy doesn’t want to see you, you’ll have to leave. Got that?”
Ansel nodded. Gaff knocked again. No one answered, but Jazzi pointed to the top of a vehicle through the garage window. Gaff knocked louder. Nothing.
“Maybe he’s outside.” Gaff started to walk to the back of the house.
On the way, Ansel glanced in one of the high windows on the side of the house. Gaff and Jazzi weren’t tall enough to see in, but Ansel turned for a closer look. “I see shoes with the toes pointing up.”
That stopped Jazzi and Gaff in their tracks. Gaff huffed a frustrated grunt. “Can you see a body?”
“No, but I see legs.”
Gaff went back to the front door. This time, he tried the knob, and the door cracked open. He called before stepping inside. “Hello! Is anyone home?”
The smell smacked them as they entered the room. Flies buzzed noisily. Gaff pulled out his cell phone.
“Ben? We have another one.” He gave him the address. Then he stepped farther back from the pool of blood soaking the cheap carpet. His gaze went to an envelope that looked as though it had been dropped just inside the door.
“The lawyer was here,” Ansel said.
Jazzi covered her nose and mouth with her hand. She fought back rising vomit. She whirled to rush outside and saw a hole and blood splatters on the inside of the door. “It looks like Fryburger might have died here.”
Gaff gave a low, frustrated growl. “Maybe he walked in on something he shouldn’t have seen.”
“Like someone shooting number two?” Ansel pressed his handkerchief over the bottom of his face. He looked a little greenish, too.
Jazzi pointed to a couch pillow with a hole in it. “To muffle the gunshots?”
Gaff motioned for them to follow him outside. Once they could breathe in fresh air, they gulped to rid themselves of the house’s stench. Jazzi ran a hand through her tangled hair, making it worse. Ansel loved her honey-blond mass of waves, but on days like this, she lost control of it. Strands were curling around her face, annoying her.
Gaff went to his car and ducked inside it to call in the victim’s name and ask for information. When he hung up, he looked aggravated.
“Wouldn’t you know it?” he snapped. “Number two is Brooklyn’s Archie. He’s been working as an informant for our drug unit. Looks like his dealer found out.”
Jazzi mulled that over a minute. “Why would Brooklyn even ask him to be tested for a paternity suit? She didn’t want him around River. She must have been desperate.”
“He probably wasn’t an addict when she met him,” Ansel pointed out. “And she was dying of cancer. Maybe all she wanted to know was his medical background, to see if River might have inherited a predilection for a disease.”
“That makes sense.” Jazzi could understand if Brooklyn was worried he’d inherit a cancer gene from his father and her. Maybe cancer ran in her family.
Gaff shook his head. “You’ve got to feel sorry for Fryburger. He was delivering letters by hand, going out of his way to help Brooklyn. He must have walked in on the killer soon after he shot Archie.”
Jazzi was struggling, trying to put all of the pieces together. “But why Brooklyn? She couldn’t identify the dealer, probably didn’t even know he existed.”
Gaff got out of the car to stand with them. “Her letter probably got her killed. It shows that she was connected to the informant, was suing him for paternity. Her name was on the suit. He might have thought she’d been in contact with Archie, and maybe the guy blabbed to her. Who’d think she hadn’t seen him for years?”
Jazzi could see the argument Gaff was making, but there were a lot of maybes in it. Would someone really kill a woman for that slim of a trail?
Gaff must have recognized her doubt. “You read the paper. How many shootings happen in River Bluffs every weekend? This guy didn’t want any loose ends, wasn’t going to take any chances.”
He had a point.
The crime scene team arrived, and Ansel turned to leave. “You guys are going to be here a while. Thanks for letting us tagalong, Gaff. We’ll leave you to your work now.”
“Jazzi’s helped me plenty of times. It’s only fair. When I learn something, I’ll call you.”
George opened an eye when they climbed back into the van, then returned to his nap. Jazzi called Jerod to check on the job site, but he told them he’d called it a day and was on his way home. “No magic fairies will come to install our beam, so it will be there tomorrow.”
Good. He hadn’t tried to do heavy lifting on his own. George didn’t move until they pulled into their own drive and Ansel dropped Jazzi at the kitchen door on his way to the garage. A few minutes later, he carried George into the house.
Jazzi went to pour herself a glass of wine and handed Ansel a beer. They both sank onto stools at the kitchen island. Inky and Marmalade ran to greet them, meowing for attention.
“They want me to fill their bowls.” Jazzi, well trained by now, complied. George came for his dry dog food, too.
Once everyone was settled, Ansel took a long swig of his drink. “What a day!”
That didn’t quite cover it. But she had to agree.
# # #
Jazzi and Ansel slept in the next morning. They’d been helping Jerod finish his basement but finished it after a long Saturday last week. Today, all Jazzi planned to do was clean the house and go to the grocery store.
After an extra cup of coffee, she started dusting and scrubbing while Ansel used a dust mop on their wooden floors. They ate a leisurely lunch before leaving the house to walk to the van.
“We won’t be long,” Ansel told George. The pets loved grocery day. Food came into the house and Jazzi tossed brown bags on the floor for Inky and Marmalade to play in. Jazzi was only going to buy what she needed for the family meal tomorrow, and she was keeping it simple—two big pots of spaghetti with meat sauce, salads from bags, garlic bread, and tiramisu.
She paused to enjoy their backyard while Ansel punched the button to raise the garage door. Leaves had fallen from the trees in the wood at the back of their property, covering the ground in reds and golds. Their pond reflected a blue sky filled with puffy, white clouds. A bird called but flitted away when a car sped down their street. Jazzi glanced toward it and saw the passenger window slide open. “Get down!” She pushed Ansel. He wrapped his arms around her and took her with him.
Bullets plowed through the back of Ansel’s van. Jazzi pulled out her cell and called Gaff. “We’re being shot at. We need help.”
“Get somewhere safe. I’m sending backup.”
The car screeched to a stop, and tires squealed as it reversed. Jazzi grabbed Ansel’s hand, and they ran for the house. They bolted the back door, then Ansel scooped up George on their way upstairs.
He tugged Jazzi into the bedroom, put down George, and they worked together to shove furniture in front of the door. Then he went to the closet and pulled out his hunting rifle and shotgun. He kept the ammunition on a shelf and loaded them. Pushing Jazzi into the master bathroom, he barked, “Lock yourself in. Don’t come out until I say it’s okay.”
She was about to argue, but he gave her a look. “I need to know you’re safe so I can concentrate.”
“Too bad. I’m staying with you. Give me a gun, or I won’t have a weapon.”
“Do you know how to shoot?”
“All I have to do is aim in their general direction, right?”
He handed her the shotgun.
The house’s front door was heavy steel with a storm door with jealousy windows—not easy to break. It didn’t surprise Jazzi when she heard the kitchen door’s glass shatter instead. “Clear!” a voice called. Another “clear” came from the living room. Then footsteps ran up the stairs. Their door was the only one closed, so a shoulder rammed into it after the killer tried the knob, and the door wouldn’t budge.
The men groaned, pushing in unison, and a small crack slid open. They pushed harder.
Ansel raised his rifle and nodded for Jazzi to do the same. “Don’t hesitate. When you see them, pull the trigger. The shotgun will do the rest.”
It got quiet in the hallway. A voice called, “You’re bluffing. You ain’t got no shotgun.”
Ansel never bluffed. “You ready?” he asked her.
“When you fire, I will, too.”
The men had a quick discussion and put their shoulders against the door. Just as it started to open, sirens sounded close by.
“They called the cops. Let’s get out of here!”
But squad cars blocked their vehicle before they could make their escape. Guns held tight, Jazzi and Ansel ran downstairs to watch out their front window. The men jumped from their car. Each fired a shot, and the police, safely behind their vehicles, returned the fire. One man dropped. Diving to the ground, the other two dropped their guns, then raised their hands to surrender.
Once they were cuffed and locked in the backseats of squad cars, Gaff left the others to check on Jazzi and Ansel. They walked out of the house to greet him.
His eyebrows rose in surprise when he saw the shotgun and rifle. “How close did they get?”
Ansel quickly filled him in.
“You were just another name on Brooklyn’s list. I thought you’d be safe.” Gaff rubbed a hand across his forehead. “The dealer dropped Fryburger’s body on your porch, hoping to make you look suspicious. You became a threat when you almost caught him at Brooklyn’s house when he killed her.”
Ansel spread his hands in frustration. “We didn’t even see him.”
“He couldn’t be sure of that, or if you’d seen his car.” Gaff shook his head. “This got too dangerous, too fast.”
Talking about Brooklyn reminded Jazzi. “What’s going to happen to River? Did somebody take him?”
Gaff’s expression brightened. “Archie tested as River’s father. Brooklyn left it in her will that if River’s dad didn’t want him or turned out to be Archie, then River should be given to Didi. She left the money from her life insurance to whoever raised him. She had a one hundred fifty-thousand-dollar policy. Didi and River should be fine.”
Jazzi let out a long breath. “Those two love each other. I’m happy for them.”
Gaff glanced at the cops, who were anxious to leave. An ambulance had come for the man who was shot. “I’d better go. Stay safe.”
With a wave, Jazzi watched him drive away before returning to the house with Ansel.
“I’ll call the insurance company and let them know what happened, but first, we have to let George out of the master bath.”
The cats joined them as they climbed the steps. George shot out of the bathroom when they opened the door. He jumped on each of them, his tail wagging. All three animals had sensed the danger.
Jazzi sat on the bed and petted the cats while Ansel comforted George. Finally, when everyone was calmer, including them, they trailed downstairs to stretch on the couches and watch TV for a distraction. After a while, Jazzi said, “We never made it to the grocery store, and my family’s coming tomorrow.”
“Just this one time, I vote we do what your sister does and order in pizzas.”
“We’ll break the bank.”
“But they eat pizza all the time.”
“Then we’ll order in something else. I don’t want to go to the store today, and I don’t want you to have to cook tomorrow.”
She grinned. “I’m marrying a rebel.”
“We Norsemen understand the soothing qualities of pepperoni and cheese. Right now, I’m in the mood for a scary movie.”
It was their private joke. Ansel swore scary movies forced away lingering worries, with the added bonus that she pressed against him when she shut her eyes at the scary scenes. His added hope was that the clinging would put her in the mood for other things.
She sat up and crossed the room to his couch. What the heck? Maybe a pretend scare would lessen the real one they’d just had. She was even all right with a relaxing Sunday and order-in.
Ansel propped himself against the arm of the couch and pulled her close. “To good scares.”
She leaned her back against his chest and let him choose what to watch. She didn’t care. Watching anything with Ansel had its benefits. Didi and River were safe. So were they. And for the moment, life was good.
Too Many Skeletons To Count by Judi Lynn
(I posted this short story on my webpage, but I’ve given up that page, so thought I’d share it again here, in case someone missed it before. This comes before the first novel, The Body in the Attic.)
Jazzi Zanders wiped sweat from her brow. They were starting to tame the overgrown yard, but it was hot work. The heat and humidity had risen steadily through the day. She’d pulled her thick, honey-colored hair up off her neck, securing it in a sloppy knot, but strands escaped and curled. Her sleeveless tee stuck to her, accenting her boobs and cleavage. Couldn’t be helped, but her boobs always distracted Ansel. The contractor had taken off his shirt, and perspiration coated his golden tan. His rippling muscles proved every bit as much of a diversion to her, but she’d known Ansel for years, and his live-in girlfriend would give them both grief if they did more than look.
Jerod walked to the cooler to grab another bottle of water. Her cousin was shirtless, too, but marriage and children had softened his rangy frame. He was as tall as Ansel, and as strong, but not as defined. His shoulders were beginning to sunburn, so he pulled on his T-shirt.
“I’ve trimmed up all the bushes. Now I’m raking up the debris.” He glanced at the saplings Jazzi and Ansel had dug out of the long hedge that ran along the back patio. George, Ansel’s pug, had supervised, as usual. Ansel took the dog everywhere with him. “I’m thinking we might as well tackle the weedy area beside the barn next.”
All three of them had stared at the huge rectangle of weeds that spread on the far side of the barn. Had someone planted a garden there at one time and then let it go wild? Wild berry bushes and maple starts mingled with golden rod and Queen Anne’s lace. They’d carted the back hoe with them today to clear out the area.
Jazzi and Jerod might have gotten this place cheap at auction, but they’d earn any profit they made when they flipped it. It was far enough from town, and the gravel drive bumpy enough, not many people bid on it. The grass was high, the landscape a mess, but the house was in decent shape. And there was a barn.
The original owner had retired to sunshine and beaches. He’d rented it out, thinking he might want to move back sometime, but winters didn’t appeal him to these days. He wanted a quick sale. The house only needed updated—fresh paint, gut the kitchen and install new cabinets and an island, and maybe a porch with a peak over the front stoop. The main work was going to be outside.
Jerod motioned to the barn. “I’m thinking someone used that as a machine shop.” There were deep grooves in the cement floor and large stains. Spotlights were attached to the beams.
There’d been stalls once, it was obvious. Someone had ripped them out. The doors were too small to use the building to store heavy machinery.
Jazzi hopped onto the seat of the back hoe, and George perked his ears when she started the engine. He glanced in her direction, then rested his head on his paws again to sleep some more. She’d clear the mess by the barn, then start work on the old, gravel driveway. The drive was so pitted and bare, they’d decided to asphalt the whole thing.
She’d made three swipes to clear the debris when sunlight sparkled on bones she’d uncovered. Lots of bones. Oh, crap. She shut off the engine and jumped down to investigate. Someone hadn’t buried these very deep. She bent over a row of them she’d scattered. Not human. The leg bones were too short. Was that a tail? She walked over to a skeleton that was still intact. Four legs. A dog? Lots of dogs? Why so many? Had someone started a pet cemetery out here?
She glanced at George. Good, he hadn’t noticed. She didn’t want to traumatize him. “Hey, Jerod! Ansel! Take a look at this.”
The two men came to see what she’d found.
“What in heaven’s name?” Jerod frowned.
Ansel ran a hand through his white-blonde hair. He narrowed sky-blue eyes to study the huge plot of dirt. “Do you think the whole area’s full of these?”
Jazzi wrinkled her nose in distaste. “What do we do with them? Are there laws about bulldozing pet remains?”
“We couldn’t. It would be wrong.” Ansel glanced George’s way, too.
Jerod reached for the cellphone in his jeans pocket and scrolled for the number of Animal Control. His wife’s mom volunteered there twice a week. “Hilda, I have a problem.” He explained what they’d found.
While he talked, Jazzi bent to study the bones again.
“Do you think whoever lived here were breeders?” Ansel’s gaze drifted to the barn. “Maybe they had kennels inside.”
Jerod finished his phone conversation and let out a frustrated breath. “A guy from animal control is driving out to look this over. We might as well start on the driveway until he gets here.”
Jazzi drove the back hoe to the end of the gravel to clear it. Jerod and Ansel raked and smoothed the earth behind her. The sun slid behind the trees at the edge of the yard, so at least, they worked in some shade.
A gray van bumped toward them an hour later. The three of them were covered in sweat and dirt. Jerod walked to the house and unwrapped the hose. He held it over his head and rinsed off. Ansel did the same, soaking his tangled, blonde hair and then shaking off the excess. George pushed to his paws and came to lap up fresh water.
Jerod held the hose for Jazzi. “Come on, Pigpen, I’ll let you play in the water.”
She snorted. Like she’d trust her cousin. He’d douse her, for sure. She took the hose from him and ran the water—tepid, not cold—down her arms, then caught it in her hands to rinse off her face. They didn’t smell quite so bad by the time the man in uniform came to greet them.
In his late fifties, the man’s expression looked solemn.
“This way.” Jerod led him to the plot they’d found.
Ansel put George in the house. “I don’t want him to see this.”
The officer blinked, surprised, then looked at the bones. His lips turned down. He glanced at the barn. “Can I see inside there?”
Ansel led the way.
He looked at the patterns on the floor and the spotlights overhead. “I heard rumors, but I didn’t think they were true. I warned the shelter to be careful who they gave dogs to, but I couldn’t find this place.”
Jazzi swallowed a sour taste and braced herself. “What kind of rumors?”
“That someone in River Bluffs sold tickets to dog fights. Detective Gaff and I tried to track who it was, but decided it was just gossip. Guess not.”
Jazzi backed away from a dark stain in the cement. Was it blood? “You mean these are all dogs that got killed in the matches?”
“That would be my guess. Let me look at the bones again.” When he saw them, he shook his head, his eyes sad. “So many of them.”
Jazzi’s hands balled into fists. She pointed to a small skeleton. “That dog wouldn’t stand a chance against these guys.” She motioned to the large skeletons and heavy jawbones of big dogs.
“That’s the point,” the man said. “They throw little guys in the ring to get the big dogs warmed up.”
Her nails dug into her palms. “For sport?”
“And betting. A lot of money changes hands.”
Blood money. Jazzi’s hands fisted on her hips. “Who rented this house before we bought it?”
Jerod grinned at her. “You’re on the right track, cuz. Let’s make sure this guy doesn’t start up business somewhere else.”
Ansel’s voice sounded rough. “I say find this guy, then toss him in the ring and let the dogs finish him.”
The animal control officer raised his eyebrows. “Not a bad idea, but it would ruin the dogs. We’d have to put them all down. We might have to anyway.”
Jazzi led him into the house. George came to sniff his feet, then returned to his favorite spot to snooze by the French doors. Jerod brought out the property’s deed and documents to spread on the kitchen table. With the information in front of him, the man called Detective Gaff. It didn’t take long for the detective to track down the home’s renter and get back to them.
“Still lives in River Bluffs,” the officer told them. “Bought another piece of secluded land with a barn. Probably means to start up there.”
“Are you going to arrest him?” Jazzi wanted to read a newspaper headline with a photo of the guy in handcuffs.
“Not quite yet. Gaff says we’d be ahead letting him sell tickets and fill up his venue, so that a team can arrest everyone there. We might get every participant, every dog that way. In the meantime, it would help if you didn’t say anything to anyone.”
They swore themselves to silence, but the day finally came.
Every Sunday, Jazzi invited her family over for a big meal. They yakked and interrupted each other like she’d seen Italians do in movies, not that they were Italian. On days Ansel’s girlfriend worked, he came, too, with George, of course. They were all gathered around the table, passing barbecued chicken, German potato salad, and sautéed green beans when Jerod spread the front page of the newspaper in front of her.
“You probably didn’t get a chance to see this yet,” he told her.
Ansel grinned. “They got him.”
“They got everyone.” Jerod pointed to a paragraph about halfway down. “. . . Every person who came to bet, every owner who brought a dog to fight, but especially, the guy who ran it.”
The entire family cheered. Jazzi celebrated by lighting candles on the lemon bars she’d made for dessert. And George got an extra serving of chicken. When everyone left except Ansel, he said, “I want to drive out to the property. I want to pay my respects to the dogs that didn’t survive.”
Jazzi rode with him. George curled on the back seat. She, Jerod, and Ansel had decided not to dig up the plot and disturb the shallow, mass grave. Instead, they sprayed it with weed killer, dug out the bushes and saplings, and planted it with crownvetch, so that the ground cover would bloom every year from June to August.
“We have to tell whoever buys this place about the graves,” Ansel said.
Jazzi nodded. “I know.”
“Someone will buy it anyway. Someone will see it as a final resting place that’s serene and beautiful.”
After the work they’d done, it was beautiful. “You okay?” Jazzi asked.
He sighed. “Emily thinks I’m too sentimental. She laughed at me.”
“She’s a nurse. She’s practical. She deals with life and death every day.”
“I guess.” He jammed his hands in his jeans pockets. “She’s not crazy about George either.”
Jazzi stared, surprised. She bent to scratch George behind his ears. “How could anyone not love George?” The pug didn’t bark. His favorite past time was napping, and he was affectionate.
Ansel’s shoulders sagged. “You can’t please everyone, I guess. Emily doesn’t like his eyes. She says they bulge.”
“All the better to see us with.” Jazzi tamped down her humor. Emily kicked Ansel out of the house when she worked nights and wanted to sleep during the day. George probably fared worse, but Ansel wasn’t in the mood to be teased about it. She tugged on his arm. “Let’s go home.”
“Then let’s go to my place. We can watch football together.”
His eyes lit up, and he called George. As they pulled away, Jazzi glanced at the house and the barn. The guy who’d organized dog fights would pay for his sins. The house Jazzi and Jerod had bought was going to make them a decent profit. Life had its good and its bad. It was what it was. But they’d keep doing their best. For now, though, it was time to kick back and relax. Beer and football. A great way to spend a Sunday.
The Body in the Lake
(A Jazzi Zanders Mystery)
Ansel had moved in with Jazzi in July, a big deal for both of them, but other than that, nothing much had changed. They still worked with her cousin, Jerod, every day, flipping houses. And her family embraced him, as they had before, every Sunday at the family meal. But Ansel kept talking about celebrating the move by taking off for a long weekend. It just didn’t happen. One thing led to another, and the next thing they knew, summer was reaching an end.
“Forget the family meal this weekend, and take four days off over Labor Day,” Jerod told them. “Stay at my parents’ lake cottage. We’re all going to be out of town. Mom and Dad rented a houseboat in Tennessee, and Franny and I are taking the kids to join them.”
Her parents were going to the Michigan Dunes over Labor Day, and her sister and her boyfriend were driving to Indy. Even Gran and Samantha were going to be busy. Friends were coming to stay with them for a few days.
Jerod pressed a key into Ansel’s hand. “Leave town on Thursday night. It was Dad’s idea. He’s all for you two getting away for a few days.”
Bless Eli. When she was a kid, Jerod’s dad used to invite Jazzi to their lake cottage a lot. A long weekend with Ansel would be a great escape. They could use one after getting entangled in two murder investigations, so they took Jerod up on it. After work on Thursday, they packed their things and headed north. Jazzi put out extra bowls of food and water for the cats, Ansel grabbed George—his pug—and they took off.
It was only an hour’s drive. The lake wasn’t big enough for speed boats, but Eli had a fishing boat and a pontoon. A town was close enough to buy groceries or eat out. She’d packed a few books, two bikinis, and her Kindle. Ansel brought magazines and stopped to buy bait. They were set.
They arrived early enough to tour the lake on the pontoon. Nothing much had changed. She could still point out most of the people who lived along the shoreline. At dusk, Ansel grilled burgers, and George sprawled on the patio, enjoying the breeze off the water. When the sun set, they moved inside to the screened porch, away from the mosquitoes, and Jazzi reached for her book. A few hours later, a lone fishing boat with a small engine puttered to the center of the lake, a light attached to shine down at the water.
“Must be fishing for crappie,” Ansel said. “The light attracts them.”
Jazzi glanced at the shoreline. One by one, all the cabins had gone dark, people heading to bed. She yawned. She was getting tired, too, but that was the joy of vacations. She could stay up late and sleep in the following morning.
Ansel started flipping through another magazine, and Jazzi was past the middle of her novel when a splash sounded that was loud enough, Jazzi glanced up to squint at the spot where the boat had been. No light gleamed in the distance.
“Do you think the fisherman’s all right? Could he have fallen in the lake?” She stood to walk closer to the screen, straining to see.
Ansel smiled. “It’s warm and sticky enough, he probably decided to skinny dip to cool off. Turned off the light so we wouldn’t see more of him than we wanted to.”
She relaxed. Taking a dip in the lake wasn’t like swimming in the ocean at night. She’d never forget the opening scene of Jaws. She settled back in her lawn chair but had trouble concentrating. Part of her listened for the boat to start up again. And soon, it did. The light switched back on, and it headed to shore.
They read for another half hour before climbing the steps to bed. They’d packed clean sheets, got George comfortable in his dog bed, then doused the lights. Jazzi might sleep till noon—her idea of indulgence. But Ansel planned on getting up early to fish.
She was still in bed, enjoying the lazy sleep that comes from water and fresh air, when her cell phone buzzed. With a groan, she reached for it. “Hello?”
“I could use some help.” Ansel’s voice was strained.
She sat up and blinked at the empty side of the bed. “Where are you?”
“On the lake, anchored beside a body tangled in the reeds. I don’t want it to drift away or sink. I called 911, and someone’s on their way. Could you meet them and point out where I am? Do you know the spot?”
“Jerod and I used to catch frogs there. We always let them go. I’ll send whoever comes your way.”
A dead body. Not again. She shut her eyes and counted to ten. Why did this keep happening to them? But this one was a stranger. And Detective Gaff and his wife Ann were on vacation. The local authorities would deal with this poor soul. They’d haul it out of the lake, and that was that.
She hurried to dress and get ready. A sheriff’s car parked on the grass across the street from the cabin. A DNR official pulled beside him, towing a boat. Jazzi went out to point to where Ansel was guarding the body and watched them load the boat into the water and head to meet him. Another car came, disgorging what looked like a medical examiner, and finally, an ambulance pulled onto Eli’s small backyard.
The men waited until the sheriff and DNR officer returned with the body. Jazzi turned her head but not in time. She saw long, dark hair spill out from under the sheet they’d used to cover her. She didn’t like seeing corpses. No morbid interest made her want to look. She’d seen enough of them working with Gaff. Finally, Ansel returned. He carried a stringer with three perch to the side of the cabin, where Eli had a fish cleaning station.
Jazzi had baited enough hooks and caught enough fish to be good at cleaning them, but she was just as glad Ansel was doing his own. By the time he’d finished and carried the fish to the refrigerator for supper, the sheriff knocked on the door.
“I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me,” he said. He was younger than Gaff, maybe in his mid-forties, fit and trim.
Ansel explained about Jazzi’s uncle letting them use his cabin, how he’d gotten up early to go fishing and anchored his boat near the reeds. “That’s when I saw the body.”
“Did you hear or see anything suspicious last night?”
Jazzi told him about the boat on the lake in the dark.
“Could you see the person steering it?”
They both shook their heads. “The light was aimed at the water, away from the boat.”
“Anything interesting on the boat itself?”
Jazzi closed her eyes, trying to remember. “There was a small flag on the front. It had a fraternity’s initials on it. White letters on a red background.”
Ansel stared. “How did you notice that?”
“When the light turned back on and the boat started to move again, it waved in front of the beam for a few seconds.”
The sheriff’s brows drew together. “You’re sure about that?” When she nodded, he said, “I know that boat. You’ve been a big help.”
He left shortly after that, and Ansel and Jazzi tried to relax again, to get back into a lake groove, but it wasn’t happening. They decided to drive to a restaurant overlooking the water to have lunch. As usual, when they walked in, women turned their heads to gape at Ansel. Six-five with rippling muscles, white-blond hair, and sky-blue eyes, he looked like the Norse man he was.
The dining room was crowded with people spending their last weekend at their cottages. Many of them were closing up for the summer and driving out of town on Monday for their kids to start school. People laughed and called to each other, friends they only saw over the summer.
The noise and fun helped ease their tension, and by the time they returned to the cabin, they were ready to take a dip in the water and enjoy their mini-vacation. “We lost one morning, that’s all,” Ansel told her. “We don’t have to drive back home until late on Monday.”
He cooked the perch for supper and it wasn’t until they turned on the evening local news that Jazzi’s mood plunged again. The face of her summer friend from years ago flashed on the screen. The sheriff considered her the prime suspect for the murder of a local girl she didn’t get along with.
Jazzi sprang to her feet to scan for a cottage across the water from them. Its windows were up to catch the lake breezes. Lights were on. “He has the wrong person,” she told Ansel. “Lyndsay wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
He frowned. “When was the last time you saw your friend?”
She didn’t like his implication. “A person doesn’t change that much over the years. Lyndsay’s a social worker. She helps people. She’d be the last person to dump a body in the lake.”
“We’ve worked together five years. I never remember you visiting the lake cottage, not even when Jerod and his family were spending the weekend and invited you.”
She shrugged. “I used to come with Jerod before he got married and had kids. Now, the cottage is stuffed full of people when they visit. I wouldn’t do that to his parents.”
“So when was the last time you were here?”
She raised a brow at his tone. “Gunnar’s six now, so maybe seven years ago.” Jerod had told everyone that Gunnar came “early.” She knew better.
“Has it been that long since you’ve seen Lyndsay?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
He gave her a sympathetic look and shook his head. “You’re a true, loyal friend, but Lyndsay might not be the same person you remember. She might not even be a social worker anymore. That job comes with a high rate of burn-out.”
“I’ll just have to find out.” Lyndsay couldn’t change that much. Could she? According to the news, the sheriff hadn’t arrested her, so she’d be staying at the family’s cottage.
Ansel grimaced. He obviously didn’t like her answer. “I wasn’t saying that you should look into what happened. I was just trying to point out that your friend might not be innocent.”
“But she might be, and she has to be upset. I need to talk to her.”
He groaned and shook his head. He reached down to scratch George behind the ears. He often turned to George when he was upset. “But we promised each other . . “.
“I know. No more dead bodies. So you shouldn’t have found one.”
“It’s my fault?”
“You’d have been fine if my friend wasn’t involved.” When his scowl deepened, she sighed. “Can I call her?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Yes, but . . ..”
He nodded for her to go ahead, and in a few minutes, she had Lyndsay on the phone.
“My boyfriend and I are staying at Eli and Eleanor’s lake cottage this weekend.” He winced at the word boyfriend. Ansel insisted he was playing for keeps, and boyfriend sounded frivolous. She still thought he’d figure out he could do better after they lived together a while. Her ex-fiancé had sure wanted more after she’d moved in with him. But she tossed him a sympathetic glance before going on. “I just heard the news. Are you okay?”
A silly question. Of course, she wasn’t. At the end of the call, she’d invited Lyndsay for lunch tomorrow to catch up on old times and to let her cry on her shoulder if she needed to.
When she hung up, Ansel let out a long breath. “This was supposed to be a weekend getaway. I suppose that was too much to hope for.”
Jazzi felt sorry for him. They’d both been looking forward to a weekend just to themselves for a long time. She pushed thoughts of murder out of her mind and went to sit on his lap, leaning in to kiss him. “Sorry, but I didn’t expect another body.”
“Neither did I.” His tone was dry.
Her Norseman looked upset. “What if we don’t talk about it anymore tonight and enjoy relaxing on the screened porch together?”
“Sounds like a plan.” He went to get himself another beer and Jazzi a glass of wine. They read as they sipped, listening to the water lapping at the seawall and inhaling the scent of the lake’s night air. At midnight, she’d finished the mystery she was reading and started a new one. Ansel had tossed aside three of his magazines and was flipping pages of the New York Times. He folded the section he was reading and gave her a look that made her skin sizzle. “I didn’t come up here just to read.”
She grinned. “I was beginning to worry the lake air had relaxed you too much.”
Standing, he reached out a hand for her. “Come on, Blondie. I have plans for you.”
Promises, promises. She followed him upstairs.
The next morning, she woke, feeling wonderful. And felt guilty. Lyndsay must be in turmoil now. She heard snoring, but when she opened an eye, Ansel was gone. Fishing had called him. She propped herself on her elbows and shook her head at George. The pug snored louder than her Norseman.
She got ready and pulled on her bikini and a cover-up to pad downstairs. This bikini was bright red—Ansel’s favorite. Lyndsay was coming at noon, but lunches at the lake were casual. Ansel was going to grill brats, and she’d made potato salad at home and packed it to bring with them. She’d sauté fresh green beans and mix up some iced tea, but all that could wait.
She had three hours to play, so went outside to wade in the water. It always felt cooler this time of day. The lake had a sandy bottom that dropped off so gradually, she could walk out farther than the pier before it reached her shoulders. She gulped a breath and let her head dip under the surface. Lifting her face so her hair would hang in back of her when she emerged, she was rubbing her eyes when a motor barreled past her, too close to the shoreline.
The wake of the boat almost knocked her off her feet. She glared after it and noticed the fraternity flag waving at its prow. Putting her hand over her eyes to shield them from the glare, she squinted to see the driver. A guy wearing a baseball cap backward with a deep tan and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Definitely not Lyndsay.
Lyndsay didn’t have a brother. She was an only child. Could the guy be her husband or boyfriend? Someone should teach him how to drive a boat and explain lake rules.
She stayed in the water until she was cool and refreshed, watching the boat roar back and forth across the lake. She toweled off and settled in a lounge chair in the sun, armed with sunglasses, iced tea, and her Kindle. She wouldn’t mind getting a deeper tan before good weather left them.
An hour later, she heard Ansel’s engine approaching the pier. She went to help him tie it in place. His blue gaze traveled up and down her body. He loved her curves.
“Looking good, Jaz.” He grinned, then reached behind him and pulled up his stringer of fish. A huge smile split his face as he waved his prize at her. “Two bass and four perch, and they’re all good-sized.”
The man looked mighty pleased with himself. “Does that mean more fish for supper?”
“Why not? There’s nothing better than fresh-caught. We have to leave on Monday, so we might as well make the best of it.”
If it made him this happy, she’d eat fish again tomorrow night, too.
He went to clean his catch, and she went to the kitchen to start lunch. Lyndsay arrived shortly before noon, and Jazzi made the introductions. Then they settled at the table on the screened porch to eat. This time of year, too many bees came if they ate outside. Ansel tossed George treats under the table.
They made small talk over their meal, and then Ansel carried everything to the kitchen and waved for them to stay seated. “I’ll clean up, and then I’m running into town for a while. I saw three antique stores I want to check out.”
What he really wanted was to get away from any news about bodies, but that was fine with her. He glanced at George on his way out the door. “Sorry, boy, but you have to stay.”
She waved him off. Then she and Lyndsay settled in for serious girl talk.
Lyndsay watched him go. Dressed in shorts and a snug T-shirt, he looked particularly yummy. She shook her head. “You got lucky, girl. That is one fine man.”
“No complaints,” Jazzi said. “What about you? Are you married?” There was a ring on her finger, but it didn’t look like a wedding band
Lyndsay grimaced. “A friendship ring. Four years, and I still have this piece of crap.”
Jazzi blinked, surprised. “Why stay with him if he won’t commit?”
She shrugged. “I guess I don’t want to start the search again. Dating’s such a pain. It’s almost better to put up with Dork Boy than look for someone new.”
Dating wasn’t fun. Jazzi understood that. But . . . “You’re selling yourself short,” she told her friend.
“I know. I need to pull up my big girl panties and break it off with him, but I keep putting it off. I’ve fallen pretty hard for the guy.”
Jazzi studied her. “I saw him taking your family boat for a spin this morning. Does he use it often?”
Lyndsay muffled a laugh. “I know what you’re really asking. You never were very subtle. You want to know if maybe Kenny took the boat to dump Dina’s body last night.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I spent most of Friday finishing up the dreary odds and ends of legal stuff after Mom died.”
Jazzi flinched. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
A sadness crossed Lyndsay’s face, but she shook it off. “Mom told me many times that she missed Dad. He went three years ahead of her, and she never really stopped grieving. She was getting frail and didn’t want to go to a nursing home, but it wasn’t safe to leave her alone. It was sort of a blessing for her, what she wanted.”
“And for you?”
“I was losing her bit by bit anyway. Her memory was going.” Lyndsay’s parents were much older than hers. They’d had her late in life. A welcome surprise.
“I’m sorry.” What else could she say? Nothing original came to mind.
Lyndsay let out a breath. “Anyway, I finished all the legal stuff on Friday and then went to bed early. I was wiped out. I don’t know what Kenny did. I didn’t wake up until the sheriff knocked on our door to question me.”
“That was partly my fault.” Jazzi explained about seeing the flag on the boat.
“How would you know we’d put a flag on it? That’s the fraternity Kenny was in during college.” Lyndsay reached for the pitcher and poured herself more iced tea. “Besides, I’m glad there’s some kind of clue so maybe Dina’s killer will get caught. Dina and I didn’t get along, but I didn’t want her dead.”
Jazzi hesitated, unsure how to ask the next question but decided to go for it. “Do you think Kenny would kill someone?”
Lyndsay pursed her lips, considering her answer. “He’s a little self-absorbed and sort of clueless sometimes, but he’s good and decent. I don’t think he could hurt anyone.”
“Can you think of anyone else who might have killed Dina? Maybe someone Dina pushed too far, who lost his temper and didn’t mean to kill her?”
“You’re still thinking about Kenny, but Dina pushed a lot of people too far. Including me. We had the same circle of friends, so I ran into her more than I wanted to. And she always went out of her way to give me a dig or belittle me.”
“Doesn’t sound like anything worth killing for.”
“She’s been making a big play for Kenny lately.”
“Did that bother you?”
Lyndsay grimaced. “It irritated me. She only wanted him because he was with me. And to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. If Kenny strayed, though, she was welcome to him.”
That answered her question. “Not worth killing for.” She took another sip of tea. “But who else would use your boat to toss Dina’s body?”
“I’ll tell you what I told the law officers. Kenny has a bad habit of leaving the kay in the boat. It’s not his property, so he doesn’t worry about it. No, I take that back. He’s careless. He leaves his keys in his car all the time, too. Guess he trusts people too much.”
Jazzi stared at her. “Are you sure you want Kenny? You’ve told me a long list of flaws.”
Looking frustrated, Lyndsay ran her hands through her short bob. “I’m crazy about the idiot, but I feel stupid admitting that, even to myself. And I know I need to give him an ultimatum. Marry me or walk. I’m just afraid he’ll walk.”
“Does that change how you felt about Dina?”
“No, if she could win Kenny from me, I’d know he had one flaw too many. She’d be doing me a favor.”
Jazzi believed her, but she still wasn’t sure how she felt about Kenny. “Would Kenny have heard someone start the boat engine and take off in it?”
Lyndsay shook her head. “When he watches TV, he has the volume so loud, it drowns out everything.”
“That means anyone could have used your boat.”
“Exactly, but the sheriff didn’t look very convinced of that.” Lyndsay finished her tea and glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to go. I promised Kenny I’d go into town with him this afternoon. We’re getting a new puppy—a Dalmatian. He’s always wanted one.”
“Dalmatians need a lot of exercise, don’t they?”
“Tons. The dog’s going to be a lot of work.”
It must be true love. It had to be. Lyndsay was going out of her way to make Kenny happy. “Somehow, I think Kenny likes you more than you think. He’s willing to become a doggie parent with you.”
Lyndsay stopped in surprise, then beamed. “I didn’t think of it that way, but you’re right. There’s hope.”
Jazzi watched her drive away, then returned to the screened porch, fretting. She was convinced her friend didn’t kill Dina, and now she really hoped that Kenny didn’t either. But who’d sneak onto someone else’s boat and use it to get rid of a body?
Ansel returned a few minutes after Lyndsay left. He wore a smug look. Jazzi narrowed her eyes at him. “You look like you swallowed the canary.”
He went to the kitchen for a beer. She poured herself a glass of wine and followed him to the lawn chairs facing the lake. It was a warm day, but a breeze blew across the water, making it comfortable. He settled in one and stretched his long legs.
“Well?” Jazzi asked, sitting beside him.
“Guess who I met at the marina?”
“I knew I’d picked a smart girl.” Ansel grinned. “And his business assistant was with him. They were fiddling with the assistant’s boat engine. A lot of people know them. They do all of the landscaping in the area.”
“Did you get to talk to them?”
“And how. All I had to say was that you were visiting the lake and were worried about your old friend, Lyndsay, getting blamed for murder.”
She waited. He liked to organize his thoughts before he started talking.
“Kenny swore Lyndsay couldn’t have dumped Dina because she went to bed early, and he’d have seen her leave the cabin if she tried to sneak out.”
“But what if he dumped the body?” Jazzi asked.
“He said he didn’t have any quarrel with Dina, no reason to kill her.”
“Lyndsay said Dina was making a big play for him.”
“He wasn’t interested. He’s hooked on Lyndsay.”
“She doesn’t know that. She thinks he doesn’t want to commit.”
Ansel smiled. “She’ll know soon. He’s buying a ring. Said Dina had made him realize he didn’t want anyone but Lyndsay.”
Jazzi let out a frustrated breath. “Did Kenny happen to say anything about Dina’s ex-boyfriend? Lyndsay said she was flirting with Kenny to make him jealous.”
“It just so happens, Kenny’s assistant, Craig, was the ex. He said Dina could flirt with anybody she wanted to. He was done with her.”
“Did he sound like he meant it?”
“A hundred percent. The guy’s divorced and has a kid. He surprised Dina and got home early one night and heard how she talked to his little boy. That was it. She was out.”
Jazzi ran a hand through her hair. She’d let it dry naturally after being in the lake, and it was bouncier than ever, falling in thick waves over her shoulders. She should have pulled it back but hadn’t taken the time. “We’re back to square one. We still don’t have a clue who’d want Dina dead.”
“Except, Mr. Dad was seeing someone new, and after Kenny and his buddy left, a guy who worked at the marina told me that he’d dated that girl for a while but ran away, scared. Seems Hayley’s controlling and jealous.”
Jazzi raised her hand in a high-five. “Way to go! You found a lead.”
“And, she’s working bar tonight on County Road 8. You hungry for wings?”
She’d never known her Norseman could be so devious. She loved it. “Should I dress up?”
“Something low and plunging would be nice, something that makes you look cheap.”
She blinked, taken off guard. “Cheap?”
“Yeah, and I think we should sit at the bar and have an argument, and then you can start flirting with Craig. He’s going to be there, and he’s ready to flirt back. Then I’ll get mad and stomp out and drive away.”
“How far away?” She turned to him. “Are you setting me up as bait?”
“You know how I love to fish.”
Was this her Norseman or had an alien invaded his body? He didn’t like solving mysteries. “Are you feeling all right?”
He laughed. “You won’t rest easy until your friend’s name is cleared. Maybe this will help you find some answers.”
“I’ve never been bait before,” she pointed out. “Dina got conked on the head and thrown out of a boat.”
“Yeah, but I’m going to be hiding in the wings at the cabin, and no one conks my girl.”
“You’re expecting Hayley to move fast. If she’s smart, she’ll wait for me to leave the lake and go home.”
“Except Craig’s going to ask you to stick around so he can drop by your place for a while.”
Jazzi widened her eyes. “I’m awfully wanton in this scenario.”
“But I know the truth. You’re only wanton around me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, let’s hope I’m convincing.”
“Honey, with your looks, you could seduce half the men in America.
She shook her head. Heaven help him, Ansel was a bit prejudiced. He really believed that.
At six, Jazzi went upstairs and changed to go out. She wore her black bikini top with a white shirt over it and a pair of short-shorts that showed off her legs. Ansel whistled when he saw her, but shook his head. He undid three of the shirt’s top buttons.
She grimaced. “Isn’t this a little over the top?”
“Oh, yeah, and I love it.” He patted George on the head as they walked out of the cottage and then opened the pickup’s door for her.
It was a ten-minute drive to the bar, and it was early enough that it wasn’t busy yet. They settled on stools and Jazzi got a glance at herself in the mirror on the back wall. With her trashy bra and big hair, she looked like a floozy. Ansel caught her eye in the mirror and winked at her. She shook her head.
“Can I get you something to drink?” The female bartender was taller than Jazzi and big-boned. Her hair was bleached blond with lots of dark roots. She had strong features, attractive enough, but Jazzi wouldn’t want to see her mad.
“A beer for me and one for my girl,” Ansel said.
Jazzi frowned. “I’d rather have wine. Riesling, if you have it.”
“But beer’s on special tonight,” Ansel said.
“I don’t care. I’ll pay for my own drinks if you don’t want to.”
Hayley’s brows rose, but she went to fetch their orders. She was serving them and taking their food orders when Craig walked in. At least, Jazzi assumed it was Craig. Hayley’s expression turned possessive. He was six foot with wavy, sandy-colored hair and brown eyes, and he sat one stool away from her. Jazzi sent Ansel a quick glance and he gave a small nod, so she turned on her stool and smiled at him. Craig looked her up and down and smiled back.
“What are you playing at?” Ansel scowled at her and demanded while Hayley stood at the bar, ready to take Craig’s order.
Jazzi raised her chin to him. “Nothing, just being friendly. I’m renting a cottage here for a while. I might as well get to know a few people.”
Craig ignored Hayley to look at her. “You’re staying in these parts?”
“For a month or two.”
“I live here. I can introduce you around.”
“No need for that,” Ansel said. “We came here to spend some time together. Didn’t we, hon?”
“It never hurts to make new friends,” she said, smiling.
“What are you in the mood for tonight?” Hayley asked Craig, interrupting.
His expression clearly answered that question, but he said, “What are they having?”
“I’ll have the same.” He scooted to the stool next to Jazzi. “Where you from?”
“River Bluffs, the north side.” Her look turned smoldering. “Only an hour away.”
“That’s enough!” Ansel yanked on her shoulder, pulling her closer to him. “Who’s paying for your supper tonight anyway?”
Hayley brought their food, and Jazzi concentrated on eating but occasionally gave Craig a sideways glance with a flirty smile.
When Craig’s food came, Hayley hung around to visit with him, but his gaze kept sliding to the mirror to watch Jazzi. Hayley kept watching her, too, her expression going darker by the minute. When they finished eating, Jazzi licked her fingers and raised an eyebrow at Craig.
“I’ve had it.” Ansel pushed off his stool, tossed some money on the bar, and started for the door. “I don’t have to put up with this crap. We’re going home. You coming with me?”
Jazzi looked directly at Craig. “The cottage is rented for two months. No use wasting it.”
“Have it your way.” Ansel slammed out the door and drove away.
Jazzi sighed. “Guess I’m stranded. I don’t have a car.”
Craig tossed money on the bar, too, and slid an arm around her. “Don’t you worry. I’ll drive you home. My boy’s at my parents’ place tonight. I can tell you all about the lake.”
They stood and left together.
Once Craig reached Eli’s cabin, he walked Jazzi inside and looked relieved when he saw Ansel sitting at the kitchen table. All of the curtains were closed so no one could see in. “Even if your plan works, Hayley won’t get off work till ten tonight. I could stay. You sure you’re going to be all right?”
Someone else gave a quick knock and walked inside. The sheriff. Ansel nodded to him. “He was willing to give this a try. We have backup.”
“Then good luck to you. I’m going home and hugging my boy.”
Craig left, and the three of them settled in to wait. Jazzi had to give the man credit. This was iffy, at best. Hayley might not take the bait. She might not come tonight. And they left the cabin tomorrow to return to River Bluffs. Craig promised to mention that to Hayley at the bar, that Jazzi had changed her mind and gone off with Ansel, leaving him behind. But the sheriff had decided to give their one-shot risk a try.
They visited and watched TV until ten, and then the two men made themselves scarce, moving to the small utility room to wait.
“Mess yourself up a little,” Ansel told her first. “Look like you and Craig had a good time.”
Easy enough to do. Jazzi took off her shirt and scrunched her fingers in her hair, making it even bigger. Then she picked up a book but couldn’t concentrate. She finally turned on the TV but only half listened to the program that was on. She didn’t have long to wait. At ten thirty, she heard someone fiddling with the hook on the screen until the door opened.
“Craig? Did you come back for more?” She stood up and turned to face Hayley. The woman was carrying a baseball bat. Jazzi put up a warning hand. “Hey, what’s your problem? I didn’t see any ring on Craig’s finger or yours.”
“Then why isn’t he with you?”
“He will be once you’re out of the way.”
Jazzi sniffed. “If a man cheats, he’ll cheat again. You won’t keep him.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. He would have stayed with me once I got rid of Dina.”
“You stole him from somebody else?”
Hayley was advancing on her slowly but surely. “Don’t be stupid. He broke up with her, but she stopped at his place to tell him she was pregnant, that he should do the right thing. Not that I believed her. And she never had a chance to tell Craig. I took care of that.” She drew the bat back, ready to swing, when the sheriff walked into the room, his gun drawn.
“Put down the bat, Hayley. You’re under arrest.”
She whirled to run, but Ansel blocked the way. He must have gone out the front door and circled behind her. She lunged at him anyway to knock him aside. A mistake. Ansel was solid muscle, an immovable force. He gripped her firmly, and the sheriff yanked her arms behind her back to cuff her.
“Thanks for your help,” he told them as he led Hayley outside where another vehicle pulled forward to load her in the back and take her into custody. They watched the vehicle pull away, and the sheriff tipped his hat to them. “We’d have gotten there. I didn’t believe Lyndsay or Kenny were guilty, but you made this easier. I’ll call them and Craig to let them know what happened.” Then he left, too.
Ansel pulled her into his arms and smiled down at her. “I never knew you were such a good actress.”
She smirked. “How do you know I was acting? Maybe I have a thing for Craig.”
“When you have me? Now you’re being ridiculous.”
She laughed as he tugged her toward the stairs. “I didn’t know you were into role playing.”
“Role playing doesn’t have anything to do with it, but you look mighty tempting dressed like that and all disheveled.”
George lay at the bottom step as she followed him upstairs. She’d have to muss her hair more often.
They got a slow start the next morning. Their long weekend had flown by. Ansel carried George onto the pontoon for their last boat ride. Lyndsay, Kenny, and Craig flagged them down as they chugged past Lyndsay’s cottage.
When Ansel pulled to their pier to visit, Lyndsay held up her hand to display the ring on her finger. “You have to come to our wedding once we set the date.”
“Will do.” Jazzi was happy for her friend.
With a smile, Craig nodded to Ansel. “You might want to be careful, friend, and put a ring on your girl’s finger, too.”
“It’s in the game plan,” Ansel promised.
Jazzi didn’t comment. She’d give him time and see if he still felt that way a few months from now.
“We want to thank you two for everything,” Kenny told them.
“No problem. Jazzi can’t leave a friend in need.” Jazzi sniffed at that. Like he could. If a friend needed him, he’d ride to the rescue, too. He glanced at the angle of the sun. “But we have to leave later today. We want to enjoy the lake a little bit longer.”
They set off again, and once they reached the reeds, Ansel dropped anchor to fish for an hour, and Jazzi turned on her Kindle to read. One perch later, they returned to the cottage. Ansel cleaned the fish and made them for a late lunch. They finished the potato salad and gave the cottage a quick clean before packing their things for the drive back to River Bluffs.
An hour later, back in their stone cottage, Ansel settled at the kitchen island while the cats wound around their ankles, purring after being fed. “You know, our time off didn’t go according to plan, but I still enjoyed the four days away.”
Jazzi came to lean into him. “So did I.”
“We’ll have to do it again at the next holiday, but this time . . . “
“I know.” Jazzi smiled. “No more bodies.”
Enough was enough. They were starting work on a new house to flip soon, and this time, they wouldn’t find any skeletons in the attic or shallow graves near a wetland. This time, their biggest worries would be installing a metal roof and jacking up one corner of a foundation. Stuff they were used to.