Handcuffs & High Heels: A Ruby Wisdom Mystery

Handcuffs & High Heels: A Ruby Wisdom Mystery
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IshaJohnson,United Kingdom,Professional
Published Date:31-07-2017
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Handcuffs & High Heels: A Ruby Wisdom Mystery J.M. Edwards This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. © 2014 J.M. Edwards All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, recorded or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a review. CONTENTS CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 17 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 20 CHAPTER 21 CHAPTER 22 CHAPTER 23 CHAPTER 24 CHAPTER 25 CHAPTER 26 CHAPTER 27 CHAPTER 28 CHAPTER 29 CHAPTER 30 CHAPTER 31 CHAPTER 32 CHAPTER 33 CHAPTER 34 CHAPTER 35 CHAPTER 36 CHAPTER 37 CHAPTER 38 CHAPTER 39 CHAPTER 40 CHAPTER 41 CHAPTER 42 CHAPTER 43 CHAPTER 1 It was ten o’clock on a Tuesday night in early June. The moon was high, the lights were low and I was right in the middle of giving my favorite UPS guy a hot oil massage when the phone rang. “Doesn’t your office ever close?” Clint asked. “You know the rules,” I said. “People first. Then work. Then shopping.” “But I’m people,” he moaned. “I know you are,” I said, drying my hands on a towel. “And I’ve been rubbing your shoulders for an hour. If my phone rings, it’s almost certainly about work.” As the only private investigator in the upstate New York village of Wormwood, I frequently receive calls from clients at all hours of the day and night. When Clint stopped by at nine and announced that he’d pulled a muscle delivering Winnie Badger’s new Elvis Presley garden sculpture, I’d offered to work out the knot. But I’d also reminded him, as I often do, that we might be interrupted by business. Clint and I had been dating for a year—twelve months of happiness, adventure and bliss. He was thoughtful, kind and extraordinarily handsome. His lips were supple satin pillows, his face was a chiseled masterpiece and the curls of dark hair on his head looked like wisps of midnight sky. When he asked me out a few days after delivering my new office chair, I was a bit hesitant. He looked like the kind of guy who was normally interested in nothing more than a quick shag and a peck on the cheek. But during our first date on a drizzly Saturday evening, a four-hour conversation over pizza and two bottles of malbec, I realized that Clint was a keeper. And the dozen roses he brought by my office two days later convinced me that he was interested in something genuine and lasting. He was the best thing that had happened to me since I got my private investigator’s license the previous year. As I reached for the phone on the bedside table, Clint wrapped one hand around my wrist. “Sure that can’t wait until we’re done?” I gave him a look, the perfect blend of cool confidence and appreciation. Then I said: “You know what they say about all play and no work?” He heaved a sigh, punched his lips into a woeful frown and headed for the shower. I grabbed the phone and clicked onto the call. “Ruby Wisdom,” I said. “How can I help?” A woman was sobbing on the other end. I could barely understand what she was saying, and the smattering of words I did catch made no sense: dental floss, fur-trimmed handcuffs, George Clooney, pink panties and high school graduation. “Hold on there,” I said when she stopped to gulp in a breath. “You need to slow down so I can understand what you’re telling me. Just take your time and speak clearly.” She mumbled a few more things before one final guzzle of oxygen. Then she said: “I believe that my husband’s having an affair.” There was a flurry of soggy sniffling on the other end of the line. “He’s sleeping with his bookkeeper,” she whispered. “In our bed.” She paused again for more weeping. “At our house when I’m at work, and I think...” Her voice disappeared into another round of whimpering. I waited, knowing she would eventually get back to her point. I listened as she wept for a few moments before delivering the glum finale: “I think he’s going to leave me so he can marry her.” I shook my head at the familiar refrain. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book. The pompous corporate executive beds a young, shapely ingénue and then dumps his faithful and beloved bride. I’d already worked three similar cases in my short career, confirming the infidelity with surveillance photographs, exhaustive research and covert snooping. “What’s your name, ma’am?” “Violet Sullivan,” she said. “My husband is—” “Tripp Sullivan,” I interrupted. “I’m familiar with his car dealership. And those wacky commercials.” Everyone in Wormwood knew Tripp Sullivan. He owned the Cadillac dealership on the corner of Main and Bourbon, a profitable enterprise that he inherited from his father when the elder Sullivan died in the arms of a coat check girl at Miss Maude’s Cupcake Ranch. As anyone in town could also testify, Miss Maude’s establishment had less to do with flour, baking soda and vanilla cream frosting than stripper poles and lap dances, although one of their specialties did involve sticks of butter and a large rubber spatula. “Aren’t those television ads ridiculous?” Violet asked. “I keep telling Tripp he needs a classier image, but he thinks riding donkeys is the way to go.” “Are you referring to the bookkeeper?” I asked mischievously. “Or the TV commercials?” She giggled softly. “You’ve got a naughty sense of humor, Ruby. I think I like it.” “Just trying to lighten the mood,” I said. “Now, here’s what I propose we do.” I suggested that we meet at my office the next morning at nine. I told her to bring my usual fee plus a box of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls. We’d share the chocolate-covered treats while I reviewed my standard contract and Violet told me about her husband’s duplicitous ways. “My office is downtown above Smith’s Pharmacy,” I said. “Do you know the place?” Violet snickered. “I’ve been there plenty of times filling Tripp’s prescriptions,” she said. “Sleeping tablets, antidepressants, blood pressure pills, Viagra.” She made a loud tsk, tsk sound into the phone. “He’s got more junk in his veins than Keith Richards during his heyday with the Stones.” “Well, you can park around back if you’d like. Or there are usually a few open spots at the curb in front.” “Don’t you worry,” Violet said. “I’ll manage fine. I’m looking forward to meeting you, Ruby. Dita had so many nice things to say about you, so I just know you’re going to help me resolve this manure pile one way or another.” When I finished the call, Clint was in the bathroom, slathering his caboose with some of my Beyond Beautiful Firming Serum. While I adore my love bucket’s smooth, round posterior and admire the way it looks in his brown UPS shorts, there was no way I was going to let him ply it with two-hundred dollar face cream. “Hey” I grabbed the jar and put it back in the medicine cabinet. “That’s not for your rear.” “It’s not?” “Did I stutter, pumpkin?” I handed him a bottle of cocoa butter deep conditioning lotion. “Put this on your flipside instead.” “Thanks, Ruby,” he said. But before he could pump any cocoa butter balm into his hands, Clint suddenly cursed a blue streak. “Damn it all,” he said. “I just remembered that I’ve still got a box of baby chicks in the truck. I need to deliver ‘em right away.” I nodded and smiled. “I understand professional obligations,” I said. “You’ve got a duty to serve and protect.” Clint tilted his head to one side. “Huh?” The corners of his mouth lifted to form a drowsy grin. “Did you just insult me or something?” I shook my head, slapped his bottom and headed for the kitchen. When he left ten minutes later, shirt tails flapping in the breeze and a smudge of cocoa butter lotion in his hair, I decided to do some initial online research about Tripp and Violet Sullivan. Business had been slow lately, and I was grateful for the job. Although it didn’t sound like it would be difficult to crack, I was still looking forward to sitting down in the morning with my new client over a caramel macchiato, a Little Debbie Swiss Roll and another case of happily ever after lasting less than a lifetime.CHAPTER 2 Violet Sullivan was tall and square, with long, chunky legs and the kind of face that looked perfect in a pitch-black room at midnight. She walked into my office a few minutes after nine the next morning with a box of Swiss Rolls, a large purple alligator handbag and an unlit cigarette dangling from her lower lip. Despite the eccentric appearance and questionable makeup choices—rarely does bright lime lipstick go with sapphire eye shadow—I was most distracted by the vintage John Deere cap that she was wearing with her bright teal Lilly Pulitzer tunic dress. “Sorry about the hat,” she said, gesturing at her head. “My hair’s a disaster, and this was the first thing I could find.” She put the unlit smoke back in her purse. “I’m trying to quit,” she explained nervously. “My therapist told me to chew gum, but I find that incredibly unladylike.” “The hat’s actually quite lovely,” I said, after she settled into one of the guest chairs across from my desk. “Very original and more than a little bold.” “Well, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and just about died” I smiled and wondered if she was talking about before or after she slipped the battered bonnet over her mousy brown hair. “So I grabbed this out of Tripp’s closet,” Violet continued, satisfying my curiosity. “But then I decided my appearance was the last thing I should be concerned about. I mean, he’s making love to another woman in our matrimonial bed, so everything else is pointless and inconsequential.” I nodded. “And why do you think your husband is having an affair?” “I found a pair of Victoria’s Secret pink panties under the covers,” she told me. “Let me guess—not your size?” She frowned. “They were so tiny that I thought they were a child’s sock.” She held her hands a few inches apart. “I mean, I couldn’t even get one leg in those little things, let alone my whole body.” She grabbed a tissue from my desk. I finished my first Swiss Roll and sipped my coffee while she whimpered and dabbed at her eyes. “And why do you think it’s the bookkeeper?” I asked when she’d calmed down. “I recognized her perfume,” Violet whimpered. “It was all over our sheets. I’ve been to the dealership enough times to know that Clarissa wears Buxom Fantasy, that despicable crap they sell at Dealmart over on Dodge Street.” She heaved a sigh and reached for another tissue. “Our pre-nuptial agreement stipulates that I’m entitled to half of Tripp’s fortune if I catch him having an affair. I just know that’s what he’s doing with that floozy She’s got big knockers and a teeny waist. Just the kind of girl Tripp used to fall for before he met me.” Although Violet seemed convinced, I’d need to conduct my own investigation to confirm her suspicions, beginning with a few pointed questions. “Is that a vintage Lilly Pulitzer?” I asked. She grinned. “I’ve had this dress since I was twenty-two. My grandmother bought it during one of my summer visits to West Palm.” “And how about those paisley knee-high socks you’re wearing?” I asked. “Where’d you find those?” “Heels & Deals,” Violet answered, referring to the shoe store near the Wormwood Public Library. “They’ve got the best stuff in town.” “Can’t argue with you on that point,” I said. She blinked. “That sets you apart from most other people,” she said, sounding mournful and small. “During the past few days, it just seems like everybody wants to fight with me about something or other.” I glanced up and she was drying her eyes again. “You need a cocktail, Violet?” I nodded at the full bar near the photocopy machine. “I like to think of my office as more of a clubhouse for big, beautiful women than a desk and two chairs.” She shook her head. “I already had a highball at home. That’ll keep me until dinner. I was so upset when I found the panties that I called in sick today. Decided to have a drink while I looked online for a local private investigator. I was about to throw in the towel when Dita Ingersoll told me about you.” “How do you know Dita?” I asked, reflecting on the Ingersoll affair. It was a torrid case involving a blowup sex doll, three gallons of mayonnaise and a wayward husband named Earl with an unfortunate appetite for underage girls. After the divorce settlement, Dita was so pleased with my work that she gave me a hefty bonus and three loaves of her award-winning pistachio kumquat bread. “Dita and I go way back,” Violet said. “We met in high school.” “Were you classmates?” She shook her head. “Strip poker party at the frat house.” I gave her a wink. “Keeping it classy,” I said. “My kind of girls.” A smile began to bloom on her lime-green lips, but then her mouth decided to call it quits. She ended up looking like a disappointed child on Christmas morning when the enormous gift- wrapped box under the tree holds a certificate for Etiquette 101 classes at Toddler University. My parents sent my brother and me to Toddler U when we were kids. The money was wasted on Ben, but I believe the things I learned from Chevelle Beauchamp and her faculty laid the foundation for the impeccable manners I employ each and every day. You know what?” Violet said suddenly. “You’re not at all the way Dita described you.” I shuddered at the thought of how someone like Dita—a svelte and stunning vision of cosmetic surgery, Pilates and malnourishment—would tell another person about my physical appearance. “Oh, really?” I hoped my tone was the perfect balance between preoccupied and indifference. “What did she say?” Violet shrugged. “Well, she got your hair right,” she said. “It’s kind of dark blonde with a few auburn highlights. And your skin tone is a lot like buttermilk that’s been watered down with a banana daiquiri.” She stopped to appraise my facial features. “And you’ve got a cute, tapered nose, delicious cheekbones, full lips and a sweet, little chin.” She leaned forward for a better look at my body, and I saw a blur of confusion cross her face. “But she said you were the size of a small farm animal, and I—” Her mouth fell open and her face went blank. “Oh, shoot I didn’t mean to…” Her hands flapped a little in her lap, like the subtle motion would somehow reverse the hands of time and she could keep from making such an egregious gaffe. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone describe me in less than flattering terms. I knew that the words many women take for granted—leggy, slim, toned and willowy—would never apply to me. And I was okay with that. I liked my curves, plentiful breasts and plus-size posterior. “The most important thing is you’re cute as a button,” Violet said. “And you’ve got a really sweet smile.” While I digested her appraisal of my appearance, Violet retrieved a Little Debbie from the box and gnawed on it hungrily. Then she slumped in her chair as I sipped my coffee and collected the remaining shreds of my dignity from the office floor. Before the awkward silence could swell into anything perilous, I decided to keep things moving with a rapid-fire series of questions to sketch in the background of the case. “How long have you and Tripp been married?” She groaned. “Too damn long.” “More or less than a decade?” “It seems like a hundred years.” “Okay, so we’ll split the difference and call it a long time,” I said. “Any children?” “Mutt and Jeff,” she said. “Both boys?” “Both dogs,” she answered. “They’re my everything at this point. If the bastard’s going to leave me for that home wrecker, at least I’ll have the two pups to keep me warm at night.” I watched her face. There were shades of sorrow and rage, hints of confusion and abandonment. There was also a splotch of chocolate under one eye that made her look somewhat like a football linebacker getting ready for the big game. “You’ve got a little something on your face, Violet.” I handed her another tissue. “Looks like maybe some Swiss Roll frosting.” She took the tissue, wiped away the dark sugary spot and said: “I’m a woman scorned, Ruby. And I want to see that man pay.” “Oh, he’ll pay,” I said. “But first we need to catch him in flagrante delicto.” She frowned. “Is that the new Italian place down on Wabash?” I smiled and shook my head. “No, in flagrante delicto is a legal term. It basically means we need to catch Tripp in the act with his lady friend.” “Having sex?” I nodded. There was no need to rub it in, so I returned to my standard investigative questions. “Where do you work, Violet?” “Tractor World,” she answered. “When I met Tripp, I was the featured dancer at Bubba Tuttle’s Big Kat Korral out on the frontage road.” I knew the joint. It was a seedy, tumbledown former feed and grain warehouse that Bubba’s daddy had converted into a gentlemen’s club. If Violet had once been their top attraction, it was safe to say that she’d let herself go over the years. “And what do you do at Tractor World?” I asked. Violet shrugged. “Receptionist,” she said quietly. “Although I can also fix transmissions if Eddie’s too drunk to come in. My daddy said a girl should learn a trade in case love never bloomed in her garden.” “Sounds beautiful, dear. And multi-tasking is always a good idea when you get to be our age.” She narrowed her gaze. “How old are you?” “Twenty-eight,” I said. “Aren’t we about the same?” Her jaw tightened and her fingernails dug into the upholstered arms of the guest chair. “I’m forty-four,” she said through clenched teeth. “And the broad that my husband’s screwing is barely old enough to have a driver’s license.” I knew for a fact that the bookkeeper at Tripp Sullivan’s dealership was twenty-five. I also knew that she was my Clint’s twin sister. Life in Wormwood was simple and plain. We may have been a reasonable drive from the bright lights of the big city, but Wormwood would always be a small town filled with big fish. Connecting the dots was a breeze. Solving most cases didn’t take too much heavy lifting, especially when they involved a woman whose husband was bedding my love bucket’s doppelgänger. “What’re you going to do to help me?” Violet asked. I decided to nibble on another Little Debbie Swiss Roll while I contemplated the answer. She watched me take a delicate bite. Then she watched me chew it slowly. And then she got up from the guest chair and began pacing. “I’m gonna kill the little twerp,” she said. “Are you talking about your husband?” I asked. “Or the bookkeeper?” She stopped near the filing cabinets. “Maybe I’ll just put both of ‘em out of their misery.” “How about you let me poke around a bit?” I suggested. “Double homicide tends to put a damper on things.” “But they deserve to die” she sputtered. “Especially that cheating husband of mine” “Well, before you load the weaponry, why don’t I do some investigating? I’ll ask a few questions, do some surveillance work and pick up another box of Swiss Rolls. By the time I accomplish all of those things, I’ll have a plan of action.” She nodded. “So you really think murder is a bad idea?” “Always,” I said. “Unless you’re talking about killing time with a roll in the hay.” CHAPTER 3 It was nearly midnight when Clint turned over in bed and nuzzled my left cheek. “Come up here and give me a kiss,” I said. He grunted and groaned, heaving his gorgeous body until we were gazing into one another’s eyes with the blissful afterglow of our nimble lovemaking. “You’re a tiger in the sack,” I said. “Grrrrrrrrrrrr” He raised one hand and pawed gingerly at my neck. “Tony the Tiger reporting for duty” I leaned over and gave him a kiss. “How’s your sister doing these days?” He cringed. “We just made sweet, passionate love, Ruby. I don’t want to think about Clarissa right now.” “I get that,” I said. “How much time do you need?” He grinned and raised one eye. “Before I’m ready for another round of sweet, passionate love?” I shook my head. “Before you can talk about your sister.” “Well, darn it all. If you’re so interested in Clarissa, maybe you should ask her how she’s doing. I usually only see her when we have Sunday dinner with our parents.” “Do you know if she’s dating anyone?” He gave me a look. “Why? You thinkin’ about asking her out?” I swatted his shoulder. “No, I’m working on a new case. I suspect your sister might be involved.” “You suspect?” he asked. “Based on what?” “The tearful accusations of a woman scorned,” I answered. “I can’t reveal names or any identifying characteristics, of course. My work has to be completely surreptitious and entirely furtive.” “You talkin’ about the meeting you had today with Violet Sullivan?” “Well, so much for being surreptitious,” I said, moving onto my side. “How’d you know about that?” Clint rolled his eyes. “I’m the UPS guy, Ruby. I drive all over everywhere. I went by your office this afternoon and saw Violet’s Wednesday car parked out front.” “Her Wednesday car?” He smiled. “Yep, every Wednesday she drives the custom lime-green Cadillac Escalade. She’s got a different one for each day of the week. Tripp gives ‘em to all of his special lady friends.” “He does?” I asked. “How do you know that?” “Oh, c’mon,” Clint moaned. “I already told you. I’m the UPS guy. I drive all—” “All over everywhere,” I said, pinching his arm. “So how’d you know it was Violet’s SUV?” He smirked. “On account of the vanity license plates,” he said. “They’ve got her first name and the number three.” He wiggled his eyebrows in victory. “The three is for the day of the week, right? The black Escalade is for Monday. The pink one’s for Tuesday. And the—” “I got it, Sherlock. The lime-green Escalade is for Wednesday.” He laughed and pushed his face against my arm. “You’re cute when you get feisty,” he said. “Oh, this isn’t feisty,” I said. “This is me wondering how you know so much about Violet Sullivan’s fleet of customized Caddies.” “For cryin’ out loud, Ruby I’m the UPS guy. I drive all over everywhere.” He paused for me to say something, but I held his gaze and waited patiently. “Besides, my sister told me about ‘em.” “So now we can talk about Clarissa?” I asked. “Why’re you so curious about my sister?” he said. “Is it because she works at the dealership?” I told him what I’d heard about the pink panties and the Buxom Fantasy perfume. He shrugged and rolled his eyes again. “It’s the most disgusting thing she’s ever done,” he groaned. “But she’s an adult, so it’s none of my business who she sleeps with.” “Are you saying that it’s true?” I asked. “Can you believe it?” Clint said. “What she sees in that old troll is beyond me. I mean, on one hand, I understand why she’d be into it. The guy’s filthy rich. He gave her a brand-new car. And he’s got a huge mansion with horse stables, a heated pool and his own soft serve machine. But there’s no amount of ice cream could make me sleep with somebody so old and wrinkled and nasty.” “How long has it been going on?” I asked. “A few weeks,” Clint answered. “It started one Friday night when Violet was in New York meeting with her publisher.” “Do you mean the book rumor is also true?” He nodded. “She’s turned her hard luck tale of woe into a big money deal with the people that publish the Harry Potter lady.” I’d heard the rumor about Violet’s lucrative publishing contract the previous week from Toots Colson, the owner of Wormwood’s only nail salon. Toots had told me that Violet was writing a steamy memoir about her rags to riches life. The book promised to reveal intimate details about how Violet had clawed her way from an impoverished existence as a stripper and truck stop waitress to become the wife of a multimillionaire auto tycoon. “I can’t believe Violet didn’t mention that when we met,” I said, wondering what else she’d left out of her teary blubbering in my office. “But, let’s keep the focus on your sister.” “Let’s not,” Clint said. “And say that we did.” I pinched his cheek. “C’mon, love bucket. I have a few more questions for you.” “Do they involve making love or getting something to eat?” I shook my head. “Then I’m not interested.” “Do you remember the time you were delivering those pornographic magazines to Casey Crook?” “Hey” Clint said. “You’re not supposed to talk about that It’s confidential and private information. I could lose my job” I made a face. “And you got lost on that unmarked dirt road behind the old Patterson farm?” “I already told you,” he sputtered. “I only knew they were dirty magazines because I recognized the return address.” His face went red and his forehead crinkled. “And I only knew the address on account of this one time that I placed an order for a copy of Giant Juggs for my friend’s bachelor party.” “I don’t care about that,” I said. “I’m trying to make a point.” “Well, you’re taking the long way around to get there,” Clint said, giving me a sultry wink. “I’ve got other things I want to discuss.” “Anyway, I seem to remember that you called me for help,” I said. He shrugged. “So?” “Well, now I need your help.” “I don’t want to talk about my sister.” He stuck out his lower lip and muttered something under his breath. “She’s on my ‘do not call’ list at the moment.” “Just a couple more questions, sweetheart.” I took his hand and gently kissed the tip of each finger. “You may know something that could be critically important to whether I succeed or fail with Violet’s case.” He pouted for another minute or two. Then he sighed noisily, rolled onto his side and draped one arm across my midsection. “What do you want to know?” he asked. “Did your sister admit that she’s having an affair with Tripp Sullivan?” “Might as well have. She’s posted pictures of them online. Facebook. Instagram. Naked Idiots on Rafts.” “Whoa,” I said. “I haven’t heard about that last one. Is that a new website?” “It should be,” Clint said, chuckling. “I just made it up on account of Clarissa’s shared pictures of her and Tripp naked in his swimming pool.” I cringed at the thought of Tripp Sullivan exposing his twig and berries for the whole world to see. But I’m nothing if not professional, so I dismissed the horrible image and hit Clint with another question. “Care to join me in the shower?” He snickered. “Uh-huh.” “Will you scrub my back with the loofah?” “You betcha” Clint said cheerily. “Anything else?” “There is one more thing,” I said. “Name it, babe. I’ll do anything for my sweet Ruby girl.” “After we finish in the shower,” I said. “Will you please run out to the Dairy Twirl? They’re open until one o’clock, and hearing about Tripp Sullivan’s soft serve machine is making me hungry for a vanilla shake.”CHAPTER 4 The next morning, fueled by a triple espresso and two blueberry scones, I headed for Sullivan Cadillac. A thin redhead greeted me when I knocked on Tripp’s office door. She was wearing a filmy scrap of faded denim the size of a cocktail napkin and black patent leather stilettos. Her lips were crimson, her eyes were bloodshot and there was a dubious mark on her neck the size of Rhode Island. The white plastic tag pinned to her extra-large left breast read HEATHER CAIN. “Mr. Sullivan is indisposed at the moment,” she said. “I’ll wait,” I told her, heading for the sofa near the windows. “He won’t like that,” Heather told me. “He’s in a foul mood.” She paused, leaned closer and whispered. “On account of he’s got diarrhea.” “On account of what?” I asked. “Food poisoning?” She pushed out one hip and planted a hand on it. Then she sighed loudly and said: “On account of being out all night with his guests from Detroit. They started with tequila and quesadillas at that Mexican place in the mall. Then they did Jägermeister shots and ate Buffalo wings at some trucker bar. And then they went to the Waffle Hut this morning at six.” She sighed again, shook her head and checked her lipstick in the mirror behind the desk. “All that liquor and grease, what do you expect, right?” “Of course,” I said, trying to read the phone number that was written on the back of her hand. “A guy Tripp’s age should be more careful about what he puts in his—” “What about my age?” I looked at the door. Tripp Sullivan stood in the threshold, a can of ginger ale in one hand and The Wall Street Journal in the other. He looked pale and green and much older than his sixty-six years. “Oh, Mr. Sullivan,” the redhead gushed. “I was just telling…” She looked at me, realizing that she’d never asked for my name. “Ruby Wisdom,” I said, extending my arm toward Sullivan. “Would you have a moment for a couple of questions?” He scowled at my hand. Then he looked at the redhead. “Heather?” She gave him a watery smile. “Why don’t you make yourself useful? Go get me some antacid tablets out of the first aid kit.” “Right away, Mr. Sullivan.” After she’d vanished into the hallway, Tripp dropped the newspaper on the coffee table and sat on the edge of his desk. “How can I help you, young lady?” I just about fell off of the sofa when I noticed that he was rubbing his crotch. “I’m a private investigator, Mr. Sullivan. I’m working a new case. It’s a rather delicate situation. I’m not sure how to dance around the elephant in the room, but my client seems to think your marriage may be in jeopardy.” He laughed. “What are you talking about?” “I know it’s a bit awkward for me to come here,” I said. “Particularly with the subject matter. But I have it on good authority that my source is correct.” He scoffed, rearranged his man baggage with a muffled grunt and said: “Violet put you up to this?” I gave him a vague shrug. “I’m here on behalf of a client,” I said. “And I’d prefer to protect their identity.” “I know it’s my wife got you to come here,” Tripp sneered. “That lazy heifer is—” I held up one hand. “Excuse me, sir?” “What for?” “Did you just call your wife a heifer?” “Shoe fits,” he said. “She’s gained forty pounds since we got married.” I managed a smile. “Bigger can be better, you know.” “That’s what the ladies tell me.” He winked and touched the front of his pants. “If you know what I mean.” “You seem like a pretty frisky guy,” I said. He raised one eye. “As I said, that’s what the ladies tell me.” I thought I was going to vomit. Between his offensive comments about Violet, his misogynistic attitude and the pungent taint of stale alcohol in the air, Tripp Sullivan was making me both uncomfortable and queasy. “I’ll tell you what, sunshine,” he said. “I’m a busy man. I’ve got things to do. If you want to discuss any of my personal business, I suggest you contact my attorney.” “And who might that be?” I asked. “Dewey Kincaid,” Tripp answered. “His office is right upstairs from the donut shop there on Bishop Avenue. Unless you want to talk about you and me getting horizontal, this meeting is over.” I felt my stomach lurch. I’d heard the stories. And I’d seen his face on the television commercials and billboards. But meeting Tripp Sullivan and experiencing his piggish ways firsthand was even more revolting than I could’ve ever imagined. While he plopped down behind the desk and started clipping his fingernails, I shuffled out of the office and into the corridor. “I hope you’ll forgive Mr. Sullivan,” Heather said, scurrying toward Tripp’s office with a green plastic bottle and a glass of water. “He’s having a real bad day.” I smiled. “More like a real bad life. That man is more of a jackass than anybody I’ve ever met.” “You haven’t met my daddy,” she said sweetly. “He’s even worse.” “Are you kidding me?” She shook her head. “He and Mr. Sullivan were college fraternity brothers,” Heather explained. “Two peas in a pod.” “More like two penises in a vise if there’s any justice in the world,” I said under my breath. Before either of us could say another word, Sullivan barked from behind his desk. “Heather” he screeched. “Where are those damn antacid tablets?” “Coming, sir,” she called toward the door. Then she leaned closer and lowered her voice. “If you can wait outside, I want to tell you something.” I nodded and went toward the showroom. Over my shoulder, I heard Tripp grumbling about how long he’d been waiting. He threatened to deduct an hour of pay from Heather’s check for the alleged offense. “You’re a snake, Tripp Sullivan,” I muttered as I reached the door. “A snake and a pitiable excuse for a man.” Ten minutes later, while I chatted on the phone with Clint about plans for the evening, Heather appeared around the corner of the building. She whistled to get my attention and waved me over. I told Clint that I’d meet him at my place at seven after I stopped by my mother’s house. Then I dropped my phone back into my purse and headed across the parking lot. When I came around the corner of the dealership, Heather was pressed against the building, glancing nervously over her shoulder. “Why the subterfuge?” I asked. She looked at me like I’d just insulted her outfit. “Why the what?” “Subterfuge,” I said, lowering my voice. “You asked me to meet you outside. You’re hiding behind the building. And you’re whispering like we’re in church.” She glanced over her shoulder again, leaned back into the shadows and gestured with her head. I stepped around the corner and slid in beside her. “What gives, Heather?” “I need this job,” she said. “I don’t want anyone seeing us together.” “Okay, I kind of figured that out. But I don’t understand why.” “Because of the death threats,” she whispered. “They want to kill him.” “You mean Tripp Sullivan?” She nodded and gulped. “I need the job,” she said again in a breathless rush. “But I don’t need it so much that I want to die.” “Why would your life be in danger?” “Because the threats also mention me by name.” “I’m confused,” I said. “I thought you just told me that Tripp Sullivan has been getting threatening letters.” “They’re actually post cards,” Heather told me. “And a couple of emails. They say that me and Tripp are going to pay with our lives because we’re having an affair. But we’re not I’m engaged to Ty Caldwell. And Mr. Sullivan is, I don’t know, like eighty or something. I’d never have an affair with someone old enough to be dead” I let her logic sink in for a moment. Then I smiled and asked my next question. “Is that waterproof mascara?” She nodded. “It’s holding up really well,” I said. “Considering how upset you are.” “Well, I’ve got every right to be upset,” she stammered. “Somebody wants me dead for no good reason.” I patted her arm and murmured a few words about taking a deep breath and counting to ten. She got to six and stopped. I wasn’t sure if she was confused about what came next or my advice had helped her relax. While I was thinking about which option might be correct, Heather smiled. She seemed calm enough for my next inquiry. “Do you know who sent the threats?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not their name,” she said. “But I think it’s probably the person that wants us dead.” “Good guess,” I said. “Lucky for you and Tripp, the alleged murderer hasn’t made good on their threat yet.” “It’s only a matter of time,” Heather said anxiously. “I know for a fact that Mr. Sullivan is carrying on with at least two or three women besides his wife. The killer obviously has me confused with one of those other girls.” I considered what she’d just told me. Then I suggested we go back inside and talk to Tripp about the threats. “Oh, my word” Heather blurted. “He’ll kill me if he finds out I told you someone’s threatened to kill us” I couldn’t help myself. I giggled. Then I apologized for it. “Can you get me a copy of the post cards and emails?” I asked. She made a face. “I suppose so,” she answered. “But I’ll have to do it secretly.” “Right,” I said. “Subterfuge.” “There’s that word again.” She fluttered her eyelashes and frowned. “I still don’t know why you keep saying it.” “Don’t worry about that,” I said. “Can you meet me in the morning at Rolls with Holes?” “You mean the bagel place by the library?” I nodded. “I don’t eat carbs,” she said. “Well, that’s fine. It’s just a place to meet. I’ll buy you a cappuccino.” She smiled. “Seriously?” “You bet, sister. If you’ll bring the death threats, I’ll buy the java.” Her smile bent into a frown. “Java?” she said. “I thought you were buying me a cappuccino.” I reached over and patted her arm again. “Don’t you worry about it, okay? Just be careful and meet me in the morning. Does eight o’clock work for you?” “Sure, that’ll be fine. We open here at nine, so I can meet for a few minutes and then come on over to the dealership.” “That’s perfect,” I said. “Now, you better get back inside before Tripp sends the cavalry out to track you down.” Heather nodded briefly before she turned and tottered back toward the side entrance. She had trouble navigating the gravel in her heels, so she kept one hand on the cinderblock wall. When she reached the door, she gave me another smile and a frail wave. “Oh, dear child,” I said softly. “You’re just a filet mignon walking right back into the lion’s den.”CHAPTER 5 My mother was on the front steps of her house when I pulled into the driveway at five that afternoon. She was cradling a glass of red wine in one hand and a roll of duct tape in the other. “Uncle Boom and Aunt Dot are here,” she said. “You’ll need a cocktail.” Besides their renowned contemporary art gallery in downtown Wormwood, Uncle Boom and Aunt Dot are known for their raucous and often alcohol-fueled disagreements. They’ve been married forty years, and the decades have given them ample time to perfect a particularly expressive form of bickering. The last time we all went to dinner, Aunt Dot threw a whole wheat roll at Uncle Boom that caused a server to spill a tray of food onto another table of diners. My mother pledged that night to seal their mouths if they ever caused another scene. I pointed at the tape in her hand. “Which one is that for?” She made a face. “They’ll probably both go off before the night is through. They’re in the kitchen arguing about where they had dinner on the last night of their honeymoon. I decided to get some work done while they squabble. I was packing some old dishes when I saw you pull in.” “Packing dishes?” I asked. “You and Jack thinking about moving again?” She smiled. “No, but I told your stepfather that I was going to clean out the attic while he’s on the fishing trip.” “Including his collection of old hiking boots?” “Oh, those muddy relics are long gone,” my mother said. “I got rid of all them when he went skiing last winter.” She turned and went inside. I followed her up the steps and into the house, coming through the door just in time to hear Uncle Boom screaming something about his iPhone. “He’s inebriated,” Aunt Dot said when I walked into the kitchen. “Lovely,” I said. “And hello to you, too.” “What did she say?” Uncle Boom asked. “It’s lovely to see you both,” I said, raising my voice and leaning closer to his ear. He frowned and told me not to yell. “I’m d-e-a-f,” he said. “Not d-e-a-d.” “Not y-e-t,” Aunt Dot said. “But the way you’re acting tonight, you may not see the sun come up tomorrow.” “Why the jolly mood?” I asked, pulling out a chair from the table. “I can’t imagine that being tipsy would be enough to make you so cranky.” Uncle Boom scowled and grumbled. “Allow we to interpret,” Aunt Dot said. “We had a visitor at the gallery today, a man we met years ago in Manhattan when we opened our first space in Soho.” “And the putz is just as rude now as he was back then,” Uncle Boom snarled. “He called me a lowlife huckster. Said the art we sell is counterfeit crap. Told me that the last great artist in the world was Al Capone.” “Who was the guy?” I asked. “Some putz,” my uncle said. “Convicted felon by the name of Lou Storto.” “Glass of wine, Ruby?” my mother asked. “Hey” Uncle Boom said. “I’m telling a story here.” My mother gave him a look. “And I’m asking my daughter if she wants some wine,” she said, holding up the roll of duct tape. “You have a problem with that?” “No problem,” he said. “Carry on.” Aunt Dot shook her head. “The two of you,” she said. “Just like an old married couple.” “He’s your husband, Dorothy.” My mother leaned down and kissed her brother’s bald head. “The two of you are an old married couple,” she said. “But you’re a big old teddy bear, aren’t you Boomski?” “Don’t call me that,” he said. “Call me Boom or Robert.” She pinched his cheek. “Okay, Boomski. And you can call me her royal highness.” She put the tape on the counter and turned to me. “So? Glass of wine?” “Yes, please,” I said. “Okay then, Boom,” my mother said. “Tell us about the visitor.” My uncle shrugged. “Nothing to tell really. The guy’s a putz.” “More like the guy’s a criminal,” Aunt Dot said. “He tried to shake us down as part of an organized protection racket back in the old days.” “Like I said,” Uncle Boom added. “A putz.” “We were young and naïve,” Aunt Dot continued. “Figured we’d have to pay him to avoid trouble, so we borrowed the cash from our parents and friends.” “But then the putz went up the river the day before he was coming to get our money,” Uncle Boom said. “Twenty years in prison for some other nonsense he pulled.” “We figured that we’d never see him again,” Aunt Dot said. “But then here he comes today, waltzing into our gallery like some kind of—” “Putz” Uncle Boom said. “The guy’s still a putz. When he recognized me, he started laughing and stomping his feet. Like it was the funniest coincidence in the whole damn world. And he still smells the same as he did back then.” “What was that?” I asked. “The stench of the putz” Uncle Boom said. “Twenty years ago, when he came to pressure us, he smelled like that mentholated goo you rub on your chest when you have a cold.” He looked over at Aunt Dot. “What’s that crap called, Dorothy?” “VapoRub,” she answered. “It’s an unmistakable odor, and he smelled the very same way when he came to the gallery today.” “The putz” Uncle Boom yelped. “Fouled the air with that mentholated stench and made me about sick to my stomach with the smug little smirk on his face.” “You want me to look into him?” I asked. Uncle Boom swiveled his head in my direction. “What?” He cupped one hand to his ear. “Did you say something about a book?” Aunt Dot reached over and rubbed his arm. “You old fool,” she said. “Did you forget that Ruby’s working now as an officer of the law?” “Actually, I’m a private investigator,” I said. “I changed careers about four years ago.” “He’s just being difficult,” my aunt said. “I’ve explained to him more than once that the reason you moved back home from the city was because the company where you were working got bought out by the communists.” “That’s partially true,” I said. “The brokerage firm that I joined after college merged with another company that’s owned by a Russian billionaire. When my position was eliminated, I decided to try something completely different, and coming back to Wormwood made perfect business sense because there wasn’t another PI in the area.” “But why a private detective?” Aunt Dot asked. “I’ve never quite understood why someone with an MBA would want to snoop around in the bushes or dig through a stranger’s trash.” I smiled. Some people got it. Others didn’t. I’d always loved solving puzzles and reading mysteries when I was a little girl. The skills I’d honed during college and a few torturous years on Wall Street were ideal for the life of a PI. Explaining that to my family, however, wasn’t always an easy thing to do. “I like being a detective,” I said. “It suits me well.” Uncle Boom frowned. “How’s that?” he shouted. “Did you say you’re defective?” “Not defective, you old stump,” Aunt Dot screamed. “Detective Like Sherlock Holmes.” “What’s that about Rome?” Boom muttered. “Oh, somebody bring me a valium and a martini,” Aunt Dot groaned, shaking her head. “Just pretend he’s not here. That’s how I’ve survived the last forty years of marriage.” My mother glanced at me and smiled. “Speaking of marriage,” she said. “I ran into your husband this morning.” I gave her a look. “Please don’t do that,” I said. “You know that Hank and I are divorced. And that makes him my ex-husband.” “Why on earth you divorced the county sheriff is beyond me,” my mother said. “He’s got a good job, a steady paycheck and the ability to speed through town when you need to get somewhere fast.” “Yes,” I said. “And Hank’s also got a penchant for sleeping with women he meets in the line of duty.” “You talking about that hitchhiker?” Aunt Dot asked. “Or maybe she’s referring to the witness in that double homicide a couple of years ago,” Uncle Boom added. “Although there was also the—” I held up one hand to stop the litany of my ex-husband’s record as a womanizer. “Well, Uncle Boom,” I said. “It’s nice to see your memory and hearing working flawlessly.” “What’s that?” he said, putting his hand by his ear again. “You say something about someone lawless in the clearing?” I sipped my wine and smiled. Then I said: “So should I look into the guy that came to the gallery?” “Lou Storto?” Aunt Dot asked. “Yes,” I said. “If he was bad news in the old days, there’s a chance he might be bad news now.” Uncle Boom waved one hand in the air. “No need,” he said. “I got the skinny on him. Seems he met some tramp that lives in Wormwood. They’ve been bumpin’ uglies for a few—” “Robert, we’ve talked about that” Aunt Dot said. Her face was candy apple red and her dentures were clattering like castanets. “You need to refrain from saying naughty things in mixed company.” Boom laughed. “Mixed company?” He looked around the kitchen. “We’re all family here, Dot.” “Not for long,” she said. “I got the name of a good divorce attorney from Muriel Spratt. I’m not afraid to make that call.” “Oh, c’mon,” Uncle Boom said. “You’ve been making that same threat for forty years.” He got up, shuffled around the table and kissed my aunt on the mouth. “You know I love you, right?” “Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it,” Aunt Dot muttered. The room went quiet for a few minutes. I sipped my wine. Aunt Dot twisted a dishtowel into a bowline knot. Uncle Boom plopped into his chair and crunched his way through a handful of

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