An errant cold breeze tugged at the ends of her hair, blowing a lock across her face as she stood beside the car looking up at the crime scene she’d transform into The Painted Lady Inn. Initially, she thought the name provocative since it could have several meanings. The exterior would sport varying hues, of lavender, pink, and blue similar to the homes she saw when she visited Savannah.
The dropping temperature and gathering clouds heralded a weather change. Perfect, exactly what she needed to make her day complete. The way her luck was running today, it would be a blizzard. Curious neighbors drifted back indoors due to a combination of falling temperature and no immediate scenes of blood and mayhem. Only a few gawkers remained, as she noted the non-athletic ball throwing, but no good at catching father herding his prodigy into the house. Pajama pants might be good for a casual looksee, but didn’t make the long haul. A blonde in full makeup attired in a tight sweater, jeans, and stiletto heel boots kept Daniel from making his way to her side.
Her brother didn’t seem to be trying too hard to get away. His natural charm insisted he spoke to everyone he talked to him, which made it difficult to go anywhere with him. The majority of the people eager to exchange a word were women. His wife, when she accompanied her husband, could stop female traffic with a single icy look. Maria knew their initial meeting happened because of an inane question she posed. Not surprising she questioned other women’s motives. Difficult to get the women away when her brother seldom wore his wedding band due to being construction. More than a few man lost a finger and even life when a ring caught while using power tools. Maria accepted his explanation but didn’t like it. Donna suspected the truth had more to do with he liked the attention.
Tabor promised to retrieve her purse and coffee. So far, nothing, which indicated an interruption in his search. A couple police officers jogged from the impromptu gab huddle on her front lawn and headed for cruisers. The whine of the siren indicated the possibility of crime somewhere else. Yep, the party’s over. A lone person attired in a parka with a trailing crocheted black muffler shuffled along the sidewalk with the help of a cane. Could possibly be out for an early morning walk since people do that even when a murder doesn’t happen in the immediate vicinity. Whoever was dressed more appropriately than the woman talking to Daniel. She kept dancing one foot, and then the other until her brother, predictably offered his jacket. A sigh escaped her lips as she shook her head. Yeah, her brother meant well, but sometimes he just didn’t get it.
Like a good sister and even better sister-in-law, she’d have to intervene before the woman invited him in for coffee and a pastry on the side.
“Looks like Delilah has located another good looking sap.”
Her indignation at her brother’s insulting summation, despite she’d mentally already done the same, heated her blood. She threw the newcomer a setup down glance, noticing the parka and the cane. The man marched right up to her, didn’t bother pretending to do something he wasn’t. Had to admire such forthright behavior.
“That’s my brother you’re talking about.” Her declaration didn’t have the desired effect on the man. No excuses, apologies, or general bluster, instead, it had no effect. He kept talking.
“Best save him now. Before she pulls him into the house and throws him out a few days later, just a shell of a man after she’s done with him.” His rusty laugh sounded more like a cough than humor, only his twinkling eyes announced he found some humor in his statement.
His words created an image of a pale Daniel with sunken eyes and beard stubble staggering out of one of the surrounding houses. His shirt would be misbuttoned and untucked. An angry Maria would be at the end of the walk casting daggers with her eyes, not at Daniel, or the floozy that lured into her home, but at her. As the oldest, the responsible one, her parents informed her it was her job to look out for her older brother.
“No worries, he’s married.” She hoped her words would reinsure her as much as the man.
His eyebrows lifted high disappearing behind a thick wedge of white hair peeking out beneath the rim of his fur-lined parka hood. “She’s lured more than one married man inside her house. I’m not even sure she’s above using a stun gun to immobilize them when her surface attraction doesn't do the trick.”
Would the man ever shut his yap? His constant commentary annoyed her, especially when she wondered if there might be a grain of truth in any of them. The idea of her brother wandering wasn’t one she wanted to examine. It took forever for him to marry after having a buffet of potential mates thrust upon him. Her mother gave up on her early, but Daniel she had hope for grandchildren. She just wanted the man to leave her alone, but an idea occurred. The man knew the neighborhood and its occupants. Had time to spy on them if he could detail the goings-on. Might be able to get her some history on the house and even the dead guy.
She thrust out her right hand in the man’s direction. “Donna Malone, your new neighbor.” He took her hand in his glove-clad one and gave it a surprisingly firm shake.
“Herman Fremont. I see you overcame your desire to throw me off your property. Was it my sparkling repartee that did it?” His eyes danced above his drooping mustache as if he knew that his conversation didn’t entertain.
“Ah, thought it would be good to get to know my neighbors.” His snort and crossed arms demonstrated his disbelief.
“Okay, Donna Malone. You strike me as a woman of sense and determination, which should make you stick out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood. Nothing but frivolous females more concerned about looking good than contributing anything while on the right side of the ground. Oh and there is one bitter, old biddy who’ll sue the pants off anyone who crosses her.”
“So I heard.” She recognized Tabor’s voice as he talked to the few remaining officers who stood nearby. He’d be here any minute ending her conversation with Herman and any chance of getting needed information. “I’d like to know more about the neighborhood and its history.”
“Uh huh.” He cut her a sly glance before continuing. He gestured to his face. “Saw all the snow on the roof and decided this old geezer probably knows a thing or two.”
Donna stretched her lips into what she hoped was a smile. Normally, she didn’t do it all that much. The fact that it felt strange and awkward meant it resembled the desired expression. “Oh no, I noticed you were a keen student of human behavior.”
“Knock off that fake smile. Looks more like you’re constipated and trying to pretend you aren’t. Live over that way.” He thumbed in the direction behind him. A perfect location if he had any need to spy on her house.
Her smile faded. Did she ever think the man attractive? No, never, she just wanted to stroll through his collective memories.
“Better. I like an honest female. None of this fluttering eyelashes or phony expressions. What is it you want to know?” He shoved his gloved hands in pockets, shuffled his feet, and hunched his shoulders.
Tabor would arrive in second. So much, she wanted to ask, but one question would have to do. “Do you know who owned the house?”
His eyes rolled upward as he worked his jaw side to side, popping it once. “Hard to say, lots of people owned it, passed through hands several times. A few folks were attracted to the legend. A couple like you had hopes of making it into a B & B.”
How did he know what her plans were? She’d told the realtor who initially walked her through, who must have mentioned it to some else. The gossip train must make a regular stop at Herman Fremont’s place. Legend, there was a legend. “What legend?” Her imagination raced ahead creating romantic triangles, suicides, and consequential hauntings, and even disappearing residents. Such things could either hurt or help her business. It’d be best she knew the story too.
“Temp sure is dropping.” Herman used his gloved hands to slap at his arms. “It’s more of an urban legend, a rumor that stuck around a long time.”
She’d doubt the man would stay considering how cold he was. “I want to hear it!” The words came out more as a demand than a polite request. Still, Herman didn’t act offended.
“It was the start of the century, not this one, but the one before it. I don’t know around 1910 or 1912. Construction had started on your house. A sea captain commissioned the house for his beloved wife. He wanted to broadcast his financial success in the form of an elaborate home. People at that time didn’t live in McMansions they couldn’t afford, but manage to finance. Nope, people, had to pay cash for homes, primarily to build one. Loans existed but weren’t common to finance homes. People had a peculiar belief that you shouldn’t live in a house you couldn’t afford.”
Donna nodded her head while she fisted her hands inside her jacket pockets. What she really wanted to do was shake Herman and yell Get on with it! No history of the home loan wasn’t wanted.
“The construction foreman had a brother. A dashing fellow who always had plenty of money, looks, and charm. The prevailing gossip was he was a jewel thief. Squired all these wealthy old broads around and their diamonds vanished. None of them would point a finger at him although most people though he helped himself as payment for his services.”
Herman stopped, punctuating the story with a large wink. “I got it.” She volunteered that she understood that the jewel thief brother doubled as a gigolo to prevent him explaining what services the jewel thief offered. Ick.
“At the time, a major crime occurred in the nearby city.”
Tabor joined them holding out the coffee cup to Donna. “It’s probably cold now. You could nuke it when you get home.”
Herman looked at the detective, then back at her, then around her, pointing. “Look there he goes!”
The three of them watched Daniel follow the blonde with more wiggle in her walk than gallons of gelatin poured into a pair of pantyhose.
“No!” The word exploded out of her mouth as she darted across the lawn. Her hand had landed on Daniel’s arm before he reached the porch stairs. “Stop. I need you.”
The frustrated woman put both hands on her hips and glared at both of them. Oh, the annoyed stare. Really, she thought that would work on her. Think again, sister. She stepped in front of her brother, cutting off his view of the siren, channeling her disdain into a freezing look directed toward the female. “My brother needs his jacket back too. I imagine a turn in the washer will eliminate the stink of cheap perfume.”
“Donna!” Her brother’s use of her name reminded her once again she stepped over the line of polite behavior.
Here she thought she could run a B & B. “Daniel,” she snapped back. “What were you doing marching into Delilah’s house?”
He blinked a couple of times. ‘Delilah, who’s Delilah?” He angled his head in the direction of the house the blonde slipped into. The front door opened and his jacket flew out. “You must mean Deidre. She had a creaky door she wanted me to look at once I explained I was in construction.”
Her brother may have missed her eye roll as she reached for his jacket. “Daniel, I love you, but how many houses have you entered to fix lonely women’s leaky faucets, stuck windows, cabinet doors that wouldn’t stay close that resulted in something extra.”
Daniel took the offered jacket and shrugged it back on. His habitual “aw shucks grin appeared that melted some of her ire. “I’ll admit I’ve had a few run-ins with the lonely women. A few might even rate up there as succubus status, but I’m married now.”
“Exactly.” She held her hands in front of her making a chopping motion. He got it. Finally. “That’s why you don’t check out the various household problems.”
“Alright. You don’t have to go all big sister on me. I understand, but what if she really did have a squeaky door?” He shook his head as if she were somehow the person at fault.
Everyone in their family readily accepted that Daniel received the looks and charm. That must have been all he got because his intelligence was MIA sometimes. That or he was thinking with a different head. “If the door bothered her that much there are plenty of people she could have called to fix it. She could have used a Youtube video to fix it herself. She could have gone to the hardware store and asked for help. All perfectly accepted ways of dealing with it. So much better than allowing a total stranger into her home.”
Her brother looked chastened, which didn’t make her feel any better, but somehow her point may have sunk it. All the same, why not hammer it home. “Maria wouldn’t like you going into a strange woman’s home.”
A huge laugh exploded not from her brother, but from Tabor, who looked both silly and precious carrying her oversized handbag. “You’d be lucky not to be bunking on the couch for the foreseeable future,” the detective added.
Daniel acknowledged the detective with a nod. “You’re right.”
Really. He basically repeated what she said, although he used different words and suddenly it’s right coming from a man’s mouth. Maybe he needed someone different to point him in the right direction. Her brother did have a tendency to tune her out after years of helpful directives. Should know better than even to offer advice since unsolicited help is not welcome. It was a habit; one she’d honed over the years.
The two men conversed as if they were old friends. Donna’s lips twisted as she considered what they had to talk about. Murder. Mayhem. Her. Their laughter indicated it might be the latter. Yay. All of her neighbors disappeared, including the informative Herman.
“Where’s the old man?”
Tabor stopped guffawing long enough to answer. “He went home complained about it being cold.”
The wind chose that moment to expel an icy gust rattling the few leaves that stubbornly wanted to cling to trees despite being dead. Leaves staying on a tree signaled the tree was dead. Rather like a ghost, sticking around and unaware it was a ghost. Maybe the two weren’t the same. Her botany information might not be totally on the level either. The tidbit came from a man she went out with once on a coffee date. The tree tidbit served as the highlight of their conversation.
Great. Now, she’d never know about the legend. Wait. She knew his name. Shouldn’t be that hard to look up his address. At his age, he wouldn’t be the type to have an unlisted phone number. The street name she knew. All she have to do is bake some of her trademark macadamia and chocolate chip cookies and show up with a plateful. The idea had merit. Her lips went up imagining the elderly men confiding all the needed facts to catch the killer. Of course, she’d be the real hero and would merit a small blurb in the paper mentioning her inn.
“Why are you smiling?” Her brother’s question alerted her that both men’s attention switched to her.
Smiling, well, she must have done it right that time.
Tabor stared at her, his hand resting on her purse draped over his shoulder. No reason to smile, especially in a murder investigation, it gives her the appearance of being some insensitive, macabre figure. “Ah yes, well honestly, it’s you holding my purse. You look so” before she could finish he pulled the bag off his shoulder holding it away from him as if he’d discovered an open vial of smallpox inside of it.
“Don’t drop it.” She darted toward her purse, snatching it by the shoulder strap. “That wasn’t a cheap purse, even on clearance.” Hands wrapped firmly around the strap, she hoisted it to her own shoulder. “I was only joking.”
The detective nodded, and then winked. Was that a wink? Could have been a wince with those busy eyebrows. Could be the morning sun was too much. Something flew into his eye. Didn’t mean a thing. “Am I good to go?”
“Sure. I got your number and you got mine. Give me a call.” He lifted his eyebrows a tiny bit before adding, “If you think of anything else.”
“Will do.” She nodded, before stepping close enough to her brother to elbow him. “Let’s go, Dano. We can reconvene at The Good Egg while I explain to your incredible effect on women again as if you didn’t know.”
Her brother wrapped an affectionate arm around her shoulder. “I remember the lecture. Women expect ordinary guys to be friendly, polite, and helpful. They expect handsome men to be arrogant jerks when a woman encounters a handsome, charming man like myself they go a little bit crazy.”
“Ah, spoken like a condescending jackass, there’s hope for you yet. It would help if you managed to insert the word wife in every other sentence. My wonderful wife enjoys the sound of a squeaky door. My resourceful wife can fix a leaky faucet. I can’t wait to get home to my beautiful wife every moment spent away from her is agony.”
Daniel chuckled slightly as she knew he would. He tightened his grip, then relaxed his hold. “You’re right. I’ve been single so long I haven’t got the marriage behavior down yet.”
“Hmm, I noticed, as did Maria, I’m sure.” His truck sat close to her small SUV on the crowded street. Parking would be the first issue for her end. A discreet parking lot in the back would be a necessity. Oh yeah, what was she saying? “Oh, just assume every woman is hitting on you because 99% of the time they are.”
“Will do. Do you assume every guy is hitting on you?” He made a wry face at her.
Daniel thought he made a funny. “Good one. Of course, not. I’m not you. Rumbled over the hill into fifty-one. No man looks twice at me unless he has a heart attack.” Nope, men, didn’t go for tall, intelligent women who spoke their minds, especially if they had some mileage on the odometer. They preferred the petite fluffy females who flattered their fragile egos. It certainly explained why her covert attempts at online dating never resulted in anything. Never mentioned it to anyone in the family since they all feared she’d die alone and be eaten by her cats. She’d have to have cats first for that to happen.
“Donna, I know I’m the little brother and you think I’m clueless. Sometimes, you’re the clueless one.”
A snort and a vigorous shake removed his arm. “Are you out of your mind?”
He laughed. “Maybe to disagree with you might be classified as insanity. I’m a man and you aren’t. I noticed plenty of men over the years giving you the once over. Only problem was you never stared back.”
The thought made her bark with laughter. Her laugh did resemble a seal’s somewhat, instead the usual ha ha most people had, hers always sounded like har, har, har, rough and discordant to the ears. It made her self-conscious and unable to laugh at most things she even found funny. It also firmed up her reputation as a serious, no-nonsense nurse.
“Yeah right. What is this throw your sister a bone? I know who and what I am. Name me what man who showed significant interest in me.” Her brother’s hesitation made her suspicious. “No making up people either.”
“Donnie,” the use of his childhood name for her surprised her. “For a smart woman, you miss a great deal. As for knowing yourself, you’re overlooking a great deal. As for men, that detective who just left had more than a professional interest in you.”