Jazzi Zanders Short Stories

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.)

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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.”

“Emily’s sleeping.”

“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 (Jazzi short story for Labor Day)

The Body in the Lake

(A Jazzi Zanders Mystery)

By

Judi Lynn

 

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.”

“Did he?”

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?”

“Kenny?”

“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?”

“Wings.”

“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.”

“He’s mine.”

“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.

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