The detective placed a hand on her elbow and guided her to a non-descript sedan. The male hand on her arm was about as close to a date she had in the last three years. Odd thought to have when a murdered man had just been removed from her future inn. He opened the passenger door releasing the odor of stale smoke. Donna balked at the scent. It would be like sitting in an ashtray. Why did she want to sit again?
Oh, yeah, the realization that the murderer may have still been in the house when she entered. Her top teeth came down on her bottom lip as she slid into the seat. Tabor moved to close the door, but she put out a flat palm to stop the swing of the door. “I’d like it open.”
The eyebrows moved again questioning her actions, but he left the door open as he moved to the driver’s side. Daniel followed them and stood about six feet from the car. His concern clearly etched on his face. Close enough to keep her in view, but not close enough to attract the detective’s ire.
Tabor slammed his door, evidently having no issue with the cigarette stench. He was probably immune to it, smoked for years, she’d bet. “Sorry for the smoke smell. Don’t usually have people in my car.”
Well, she was aware of it. “I understand.” She mumbled the words, not really understanding why people smoked, but willing to accept his apology. Her hips shifted on the textured upholstery, not feeling it through her clothes, but uncomfortable all the same for her reason for sitting in a police car, make that a detective car.
“You thought of something, back there on the grass. I noticed it on your face.” The detective’s words sounded so normal. A simple comment that her brother might have made.
“I did. Yep, I’ve been told I’d never make a good poker player, or criminal.” She added the last part for good measure, just in case. His actions didn’t resemble any police dramas she’d watched. No roughing her up, or getting her to drink huge amount of liquids and then denying her the right to the restroom.
The scent of coffee penetrated the smoke scent as Tabor opened up a thermos and pulled the fragrant liquid into the plastic lid. He held it out to her.
His thermos, his cup, which his lips touched, maybe recently. No telling how many bacteria danced on the rim of the cup. Still, it was coffee. Her right hand wrapped around the warm cup bringing it up to her lips for a large gulp. Black, not unexpected, but strangely sweet, indicating the detective went heavy on the sugar. “Ahh,” the deep appreciative sigh acknowledged that java was her drug of choice. She even forgave him his nasty habit of smoking brought on by seeing the worst of human nature.
She took another appreciative sip before handing it back to Tabor, who drank after her, not even bothering to wipe the rim of the cup. Her earlier charitable thought died a quick death at the man’s stupidity. She could have a communicable disease. Her inner tirade came to an abrupt halt when she realized she had done the very same thing. Still, that was different; stress from finding a murdered guy caused her to shortly abandon her hygienic principles.
She watched the detective with half-hooded eyes as he finished the cup with two gulps wondering if that was the last of the coffee. As if hearing her thoughts, he tilted the thermos allowing the brown liquid to splash into the cup, tantalizing her. Instead of offering it, he held it close to his torso.
“Tell me what you’re thinking first. Then coffee.”
Oh my goodness, he was as devious as the television actors were. She swallowed hard. Her intentions were to tell him anyhow, but she didn’t like being manipulated. A slight sniff clearly announced how she felt about his actions. “I told you I took his pulse. The man was cool, not cold. I’ve taken pulses on colder, living people. He also had on a Rolex.”
“Good information. Excellent observation on the watch.” He moved the cup away from his chest, as if he’d offer to her, but kept his fingers wrapped around the cup even as her fingers touched the plastic exterior. “There’s more.”
His grip held firm on the cup. Her fingers crowded, his trying to find purchase. Her eyes met his over the steaming brew. “Coffee first.” Her words were low and couched in an ominous tone that usually had student nurses scrambling.
Tabor laughed and loosened his fingers. “Ok. Remind me to never get between you and your caffeine. I may have encountered someone worse than me. No wonder you were so anxious to get your abandoned coffee inside.”
She gulped the coffee half ignoring his comments. Sure, she liked coffee, who didn’t? The coffee flowed down her throat and into her body, thawing out portions that had frozen at the site of the dead man. She’d have to talk eventually and if any danger existed with a murderer lurking nearby, then the detective would simply eliminate it and put things back to the way they used to be.
Her lips tilted up in an appreciative smile as she handed the empty cup back.
He peered inside the cup as if looking for leftover coffee, and then he whistled. “Definitely a coffee hound. You wanted to tell me what?”
The prompt, she recognized it. “I didn’t know the man was murdered. Didn’t know he was dead until I took his pulse. I heard some noises as I walked upstairs. My goal was to see the view from the top, trying to see it as a potential guest at my B & B might.”
She stopped, wondering how to frame her words. Tabor motioned with his hand for her to continue. “At first, I thought it was a rat, a large one. I could hear the floorboards squeak the way they do when something or someone steps on them. Since I was cataloguing what I needed to do to the house, I was talking as I went up the stairs. Whoever was there could have just completed the murder and left minutes before the police arrived.”
Tabor’s hazel eyes flicked over her shoulders to the house. He grabbed his cell phone and hit a number. “Tabor here, home owner has reason to believe perp was in home when she arrived. Check back entrance for footprints.”
He listened to whomever was at the other end. He grunted his agreement a few times, but then added, “No, no I don’t think so. Not the hysterical type at all. I believe her.”
It didn’t take a stretch of the imagination for her to realize she was the topic of conversation. He believed her. He didn’t think she was a hysterical female. Of course, she wasn’t. Her appreciation for the man grew. It took some doctors months to get to that point, others never did. Pompous fools. Her eyes moved over him as he spoke. He had a grizzled, weathered look. His thick hair, liberally laced with silver, had appeal but her eyes drifted to the overflowing ashtray, the habit of smoking cancelling it all out.
Flopping back into her seat, she tabled her observation. Too much was happening for her to develop an inappropriate attraction to a man who offered her coffee. He could be married. No wedding ring on his left hand, but the lack of ring didn’t necessarily equal no commitment. In the end, there could be nothing between them. Romance had given her the boot long ago. Certain women ended up in happily ever after tales with the mandatory two children of each sex, complete with a minivan, and the annual pilgrimage to Disneyworld. Her lips twisted to one side as she considered the path she hadn’t traveled. Not her rodeo, and much too late to get a ticket.
More neighbors emerged from their houses. Obviously they were over their shyness at being caught staring at the unfolding scene. Most were dressed in regular clothes, what she considered shyness was simply a rush to get dressed. A handsome male couple dressed in coordinating sweats casually sauntered by with a standard size poodle pretending to walk their pet. The dog pulled constantly on the leash indicating its impatience at the owners’ leisurely space.
Two children spilled out of a nearby house clutching baseball mitts with their father following behind them attired in a sweatshirt, ball cap, plaid pajama pants, and slippers. He took his position facing her inn while tossing the ball to his children who missed catching the easy lobs that arced high in the air as if waiting for the child to center underneath it. The car clock registered 8:15. Yeah, most men would be outside on a frosty Sunday morning to play catch with the kids. Her snort emphasized her disbelief. The returned ball bounced off the man’s mitt hitting him in face. Looked like no one in the family was athletically inclined. Made her wonder why they bought the mitts in the first place.
Tabor pocketed his cell phone, glanced out the window, before motioning to Daniel. “That man staring hard at us. Is that your husband or boyfriend?”
A tired laugh escaped her lips. It wasn’t the first time someone had made the same assumption. It confirmed her belief that they looked nothing alike. People never assumed they were siblings. He’d be the prince in a fairy tale while she’d be the sister of an ogre since she topped five nine easily. “No, that’s my brother. I asked him to meet me here.”
“Oh, I guess that explains why he looks so worried.”
Worried. Daniel? The way he rocked side to side, varying his weight on each foot, gave suggested anxiety unlike his usual all is right with the world mien. Of course, all wasn’t right with the world. At least, her world.
“Yeah, I was wondering how soon we could get this tied up. Daniel and I were going to go over the house and…” The detective’s long whistle interrupted her question.
“You are one cool cucumber. You’re going back into the house after finding a dead man?”
Was this a trick question? She sucked her lips in wondering if there was a correct answer. “Yes, today is my day off and I need to decide what needs to be done to order materials.”
He shook his head slowly side to side as if in disbelief. “Donna,” he stopped and arched his eyebrows, “can I call you that?”
It seemed like a moot point since he already did. “Yes.” Her glance swept downward to her fingers woven together. Their tight hold confirmed her own mental state.
“Most women would be in hysterics by now.”
A possible lecture on the fragility of the fair sex took form as the dashboard clock ticked off the seconds. It wouldn’t be her first, but she could skip this one. “Please, this isn’t the 1960’s. Women aren’t delicate creatures. Many are doing the same jobs as men. I imagine you have a few women on your staff.”
The detective stopped whatever he was going to say. He retrieved the coffee cup and screwed the lid back on the thermos while muttering in a sotto tone. “None as tough as you.”
Not sure if the words were supposed to be a compliment, she chose to take them that way. Her shoulders went back as she pasted her I Will Not Be Moved expression on her face. Her babe days were over; although she wasn’t overly sure she had had any. Any phrase that pointed out her strength, intelligence, calmness in the face of adversity, and even rightness she’d take. “Can I get back in? Half my morning is already gone. I have things to do.”
The detective’s lips twisted to one side as his brow bunched then smoothed, as thoughts chased across his face. To think he called her transparent, when his emotions broadcasted as clear as a flashing beacon. “Ah,” he opened his mouth wide holding the one word as if warming up for a choral performance.
The urge to tell him to get on with it was overwhelming; she just barely managed to keep behind her teeth. Her lack of theatrics could somehow incriminate her. Nah, it didn’t make sense since she’d never met the man stretched out in the bird aerie. Each room bore a name she considered evocative. Of course, now it might be renamed murder site or dead man hideaway. The possibility of her rooms needing renaming caused her to shake her head violently in denial.
“Hey, you don’t even know what I was going to say. No reason for you to be shaking your head at me.” Tabor complained as he pulled out his pack of smokes. His long fingers carefully turned the box over, but returned it to his pocket noticing Donna’s attention.
Did she need to explain? The uniformed police gathered outside her house still talking. Another officer walked toward the huddled group with a long flat box with the familiar colors of a popular donut shop. Seriously, donuts? Could they be any more stereotypical? Worse, if they brought breakfast, then they weren’t leaving soon. The town’s finest resembled a blue blot on her frosted lawn. A cancerous tumor signaling the demise of her modest dream.
“It’s not what you were going to say. It’s all this.” She flung her arm out the door indicating the whole assembly of people, including her nosy neighbors. “How can I ever expect to get The Flowered Tea Pot Inn off the ground with all this notoriety attached to it?”
“Is that all?” His bent index finger rubbed the line at the bridge of his nose
The incredulousness in his voice indicated his ignorance of B & B ambiance. People wanted comfort, indulgence, something different from their normal routine. No one ever mentioned going to a murder scene. Donna’s nose wrinkled as if she scented something repugnant beside the stale smoke. Oh yeah, there were people who flocked to murder scenes, but they were not the types to pay $140 a night for a room in a restored Victorian. “Well, yes it is. Considering that, my entire premise of opening a B & B involved paying customers. It’s not enough that people drive by it slowly to gawk.”
His closed eyes made her doubt he’d even heard her. His eyelids shot up as he pinned her with a direct gaze. He held out his index finger while folding the other three down. “It may not be as bad as you think. My sister is all into these legends and ghost stories. Travels the country to stay in some iffy places just because she heard some contrived story. You could make up some story about a ghost inhabiting your house. It’s bound to draw folks. Tack on a disclaimer that the story may not be true; it’s just what you heard.”
The idea had merit. Can’t say she ever wanted to stay anywhere haunted. “Did your sister ever see a ghost?”
“No, much to her disappointment. She tried to convince me that strange things happened on her last trip. Things moved around. The items were not in the place she put them, but my sister had a lifelong habit of losing stuff. Not exactly convincing evidence. “
“No reason to call out the ghost hunters then.” She readily agreed, discounting the allure of having her own ghost. “Besides, people like romantic ghosts. Maybe a jilted lover who waited on her beloved to return or threw herself off the widow walk when he didn’t.”
“Yeah, that sounds real pleasant, better than some unknown rich dude killed in an abandoned house.” His crows’ feet showed in the early morning light as he grinned at her. Macabre humor, but probably par for the course in his line of work.
“Yes, it does. Most of the ghost stories are probably not true. People can accept a melancholy spirit; they don’t want a spectral mass murderer hovering over them as they sleep.” The ghost angle lost more and more appeal the more she examined it. Not the type of tidbit you’d type up in a brochure, beside claw foot tubs, and period accurate furnishings.
“You got me there. How long before you expect to open the Inn?” His thumb and index finger casually stroked his chain as if he realized his failure to shave this morning. It was hard to say if his stubble tickled his fingertips, or if he tried to hide the beginning of a beard.
“Good question. The original home inspector told me there were some roofing issues and dry rot. New windows and a heating system would be a must. The interior needs paint, wallpapering, and refinishing the wood floors. Exterior needs a new porch, paint, and a rebricked chimney. Spent my small inheritance buying the place. That’s why I asked my brother to look it over. How long will it take?”
She removed her hat without thinking about it and shot both hands through her shoulder length chin length blond bob. “Well, I was planning on a year. Anything I’m doing will be done in the evenings and on my time off. It might take more than a year.”
“A year, huh? No problems, then.” He shrugged his shoulders, his left hand rested on the car door handle.
It looked like the man would bail on her without even answering when she couldn’t go in the house. “Wait. Why’s a year good?”
His fingers stilled on the handle. “Things happen every day. New scandals, murders, this will be old within a month. No one will remember, except your neighbors who’ll be more concerned about property value. Keep the place up and they’ll forget also.”
“Hmft.” It sounded so easily when he said it. Pretty up the front yard with azalea bushes and tubs of colorful plants and her neighbors would forgive her for anything as long as resale prices stayed high. “You’re right. So when do I get back in the house?”
He expelled a long sigh. “You’re a regular terrier once you get your teeth into something. It’s not going to be today.”
Not today? Her mouth fell open with his declaration. That would set the timetable back. A wasted day. Still, the image of the stranger stretched across the floorboards in need of varnishing would not leave her mind soon. “Okay.” She managed a breathy reply, stunned by the sudden barrier between her and her dream. Not forever, she mentally reminded herself, just a detour, that’s all.
“You look like someone killed your best friend.” His brows lowered as his eyes rolled up. “Forget I said that. I meant someone stole your favorite toy.”
Donna managed a slight smile for the detective. Sticking her foot in her mouth was something she did at least monthly. Usually, it was due to her intolerance of tiptoeing around a person’s ego. No time for playing nice when you were dealing with human lives. A fellow nurse described her abrupt manner as masculine. She recognized the insult, but decided to accept it as praise since it implied she didn’t engage in small talk or the inferences women often used as opposed to naming the issue.
“I know what you meant.”
He rolled upon his left hip allowing his fingers to pluck out his wallet from his pants. The stress lines across the worn leather demonstrated the wallet might be as old as its owner. Tabor plucked out a dog-eared business card.
“It’s a little worse for wear. I’ve being meaning to get new ones, but these will do until I run out.”
She reached for the card, but Tabor pulled it slightly out of reach. “I want to put my cell number on it. It only has my desk number on it and I’m seldom at my desk.” He rested the card against the dusty dashboard and clicked a pen before writing.
“Feel free to call me tomorrow to see when you can return to work on your B & B. I’ll need the keys, of course.” He pocketed the pen and held out the card to her.
Needed her keys. She didn’t like the sound of that. Everyone and his brother would be tromping through her house. It wasn’t as if she had anything to steal. “My keys are still inside with my purse, recorder, and coffee.”
“The recorder,” he said the words more to himself than to her. “That could be helpful. Maybe some of those sounds might be on it.”
Who knows what was on the recorder? All her rambling comments with a side commentary on how she hated rodents. It wasn’t exactly something she wanted to share, but in the end, she probably didn’t have a choice. If it helped find a killer that’s all that mattered. “Yeah. Okay.” She agreed with a slight sigh that somehow didn’t convey the frustration she felt at a dream circling the drain before being sucked down.
A flash blinded her momentarily. Her vision cleared enough for her to view a camera-wielding teenager with some card clipped to his puffy vest. An officer scurried up to him, but not before, he aimed the camera at her inn for a shot. The open car door allowed her to hear the exchange.
The uniformed officer pointed away from the scene as he spoke. “Sir, you need to leave, this is a police matter.”
“I know that.” He snarled, not even trying to soften his disdain. The same arrogance some of the new doctors displayed, proving that the attitude must be inherent as opposed to developed. The kid with the camera had it in spades. “That’s why I’m here. “ His thumb motioned back to the white card on vest. “I’m press. Here to cover the story.”
Seriously. A kid who should be worried about being arrested for trespassing on her property. Instead, he had the stupidity to argue with a police officer. She leaned forward, narrowing her eyes, trying to focus on the miniscule writing on the white card. Blurry. Still, it might be nothing more than something he copied and pasted from an Internet search.
The officer managed to stay calm while insisting that the teen leave. Instead, the boy crossed his arms while angling his head back toward the car. “Is that old woman the murderer?”
Old woman! She had just turned fifty. Most of her fellow nurses insisted she looked great for her age. A few merited the absence of a husband and kids for this. Unwilling to confess to her nightly ritual of facial tightening exercises, she usually agreed with their initial conclusion. Her lips firmed as she regarded her nemesis. Obviously, the officer didn’t know how to deal with his ilk.
She scooted across the seat, ignored Tabor’s inquiry about where she was going and stood. For a second, she stared at the offensive creature, locking onto him, as if she were a hitting seeking missile. In some ways, she was.
Her muscles tensed for action as she marched toward the two males engaged in a battle of wills. “You there!” Her index finger stabbed in the direction of Clueless and Offensive. “You are on my property. Get off.” Her menacing tone often sent lab technicians scurrying for cover. The officer straightened a little recognizing the ring of authority. The boy child sent her a dubious glance, and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Haven’t you heard of freedom of the press, lady?”
Was he really going to play that card? Murdered man in her house, neighbors gossiping on the lawn, barred from her own house she just purchased with every penny of her inheritance, and now this. Anger raced through her body with liberal amounts of endorphins in the mix. A right hook would bloody the curled lip, but all the police milling about would get her jailed for assault, and they might actually consider her unstable enough to be a suspect.
“Yeah, I‘ve also heard of little boys who print off fake press passes, doing 2-5 years in prison for fraud.” She gave him a long considering look from the top of his stylish haircut to the bottom of his expensive athletic shoes. “Lots of guys would appreciate some sweet, young thing like you to brighten up their dull days. In fact, I imagine they’d be standing in line.”
Donna watched as his eyes enlarged and wondered how much she’d have to elaborate before she rattled him. His one hand felt for his vest pocket, pulling out a phone.
“Got a call I have to take.” His long legs carried him across the street and into a nearby house. The purple and pink home stood out like a bleeding wound among the more sedate Victorian mansions. No problem remembering that home or its occupants.
“Two to five years for fraud?” The statement rattled her and she turned to find Tabor standing with the officer with his hands in pants pockets as he gave her a knowing smile. The officer nodded and pivoted, showing former military experience in the one simple move, either that or he was a member of a marching band.
“Okay. I made it up. Figured from his ‘I’m King of the World’ attitude that intelligence wasn’t his strong point.”
“Hmmm.” His murmur served as an answer. “I could do with a real bulldog like you on my team. I bet I’d get a lot more answers from dodgy witnesses.”
Bulldog now, was that any better than old woman? The men that inhabited her piece of the world today were full of compliments. Normally, the bulldog statement would please her. Normally, she wanted people to view her as determined, confident, competent, and unwilling to take attitude off anyone. Sounded somewhat like a bulldog.
“Plain as day the kid was lying. I’m not sure why the officer didn’t call him on it.” Her grumbling covered the goulash of emotions crowding into her body. Did every emotion she owned decide to make its presence known in the pace of a few hours? “All air and attitude. I know the type.”
“Haynes, the officer, has to be very careful, especially in this neighborhood. Every other home is owned by a lawyer and the rest are owned by people who know lawyers and aren’t afraid to use them. The woman three houses down from you called the police because she could hear the neighbor boy bouncing a basketball in his backyard court. Even sued because of it.”
A chill passed over her body that had nothing to do with the frosty temps. The auction ad never mentioned anything about litigious neighbors, only that the zoning would accommodate a bed and breakfast. What if that wasn’t even true?
“Did she win?” She forced the words out, afraid of the answer.
“Of course not, the judge threw it out as a waste of time. Frivolous lawsuit. However, it hasn’t stopped the woman from calling the police on her neighbors or filing lawsuits. She has time and money to do both.” The detective grinned as if he found the whole topic amusing somehow.
“What type of lawsuits?” Better to know and be prepared.
“All stupid stuff. Parking mainly. She’s always out front measuring if her neighbors’ cars or guest cars park too close to her area. Even had one towed away.”
Visions of her guests parking in the wrong place and having their expensive vehicles manhandled while they searched for the Inn terrified her. Originally, she thought a large sign would mess with the ambience of the neighborhood. Neon had merit, suddenly. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“Technically yes, since it’s a public street and there’s no signage designating towing is a possibility. In the end, she not only had to pay the tow driver, but the legal fees of the case sworn out against her. No parking complaints have resulted lately. She did recently accuse one of her neighbor’s male dogs of getting into her yard and becoming friendly with her prized poodle.” He moved his eyebrows up and down in a comical fashion making her laugh and she forget about her initial fears for a second.
If the man wasn’t a smoker and didn’t consider her a bulldog, he might have potential. Unfortunately, he was both and served only as a reminder of the dead stranger murdered in her topmost parlor.