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A Pineapple Port Mystery: Book Four
©2017 by Amy Vansant. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by any means, without the permission of the author. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Library of Congress: 2017902954
Vansant Creations, LLC / Amy Vansant
Cover art by Farik Osman
Copy editing by Carolyn Steele - http://carolynsteele.ca
To my dad, the original Captain Ron, who loved the idea of a guy stuck to the end of a mast, and I love that about him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Other Books by Amy Vansant
WILLIAM “BUCKY” BLOOM LEANED AGAINST the roof deck railing, staring down at his enormous sailboat in the marina below. He liked to enjoy his evenings away from home with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a glass of Scotch.
Arms encircled his waist and he jumped with surprise, sloshing a mouthful of Scotch twenty stories down to the decks below.
His girlfriend, Shawna, moved like a cat. He found it unnerving.
“Where are we going for dinner, sexy?” she asked.
He twisted his neck to glare at her. “Don’t sneak up on me, you’ll give me a heart attack.”
“You’re not going to have a heart attack. You’re as strong as a bull.” She reached down and rested her cupped hand on his little bull and he offered her a wistful smile.
She was lying about his sexual prowess. At sixty-seven years old, he was lucky to feel anything stirring down there but the urge to pee. He needed help from pharmaceuticals to achieve much more, but he did appreciate her flattery. That was their unspoken agreement after all—he provided material gifts, she made him feel young again.
He shooed her away. “All right, enough of that. We’ll go to the Sundowner for dinner. Go get ready.”
She stepped beside him and leaned over the railing, arms outstretched. The diamond bracelet he’d bought her a week before glimmered beneath the setting sun.
“Look! I’m queen of the world!”
“Get down off of there.” He jerked the waistband of her yoga tights and she stumbled back, giggling, before scampering off to dress for dinner.
Bucky took the last sip of his Scotch and closed his eyes.
The younger my mistresses, the more annoying.
Maybe it was time to find someone closer to his age.
Maybe twenty-somethings were fine. He just needed one with a little more sophistication. Like that feisty blonde he was still determined to get—that one was a tease.
“Go mind the bow line.”
Barb glared at her husband as he motioned to her from behind the wheel of their forty-two foot Farr cruising sailboat. The Farr was too much boat for Lyle. Barb told him as much two or three times an outing. Yet here they were, screaming at each other again, as he frantically attempted to dock the damn thing.
A relaxing end to an equally relaxing day of wrestling with sails and jibs and whatever the rest of the crap hanging off this stupid boat is. Barb gritted her teeth and vowed to sink the thing, an oath she swore at the end of every trip.
She shimmied toward the bow as the dock loomed into view. I should be somewhere sipping a cocktail, if it wasn’t for this—
A low boom! cut short Barb’s thought. Something flashed in her peripheral vision. She swiveled her attention toward the marina apartment building and squinted, but whatever she’d seen was gone. Probably a bird. All she saw now was the bobbing sailboat docked adjacent to the residence tower, the aptly named Landlubber. It was always docked, she’d never seen it leave—
Something odd was mounted at the top of the Landlubber’s mast.
Had a heron swooped in and perched there?
No...the object appeared connected to the side of the mast.
Some sort of sonar? But so oddly shaped. Something about it—
That’s not a sonar. That’s a—
Her husband plowed their sailboat into the pier. Distracted by the Landlubber’s mast, the sudden jolt tossed her forward without resistance, her face narrowly missing a piling as she tumbled, legs and arms akimbo, grasping for anything that might stop her fall. Her hip clipped the edge of the dock and she ping-ponged from the dock to the boat to the water.
A moment later she surfaced, sputtering.
“Barb!” Lyle stared down at her from the side of the boat, his face twisted with anger. “What the hell are you doing? You have to pay attention—”
“The sailboat,” she said, pointing with a broken nail.
Lyle rolled his eyes. “Oh, right. It’s the boat’s fault you fell.”
She slapped the water in frustration and swam to the ladder at the end of the pier. Scrambling to the top, she continued to jab a finger in the direction of the Landlubber, eyes locked on its mast. She needed to know she hadn’t dreamt it. Rubbing her bruised hip, she spotted the object that had distracted her from her duties.
She turned to Lyle and snapped her arm like a whip, pointing. “Not our sailboat, you jackass; the one by the residences. Look at the mast.”
Lyle tracked her gesture, his gaze tracing the line of the Landlubber’s mast upward.
Something of interest caused his chin to cease rising. His head tilted to the right, eyes narrowing and neck craning forward like a zoom lens.
“Do you see it?” asked Barb.
Lyle’s jaw fell. “Is that—?”
She nodded. “You do see it.”
She wasn’t crazy. Those were legs, bent at the knee, arms splayed on either side, head lolled back, mouth opened wide as if the man were trying to catch rain.
She hadn’t dreamed it.
A man was impaled on the top of the Landlubber’s mast.
“But how—” Lyle stopped short as his chin began to rise again.
Barb’s gaze shot to the tower’s rooftop deck as a young woman with long dark hair appeared at the railing and stared down at the skewered man.
Lyle looked at Barb. “Did she push him?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. But makes you think maybe you should be nicer to me, doesn’t it?”
The young woman shrieked.
“Did you hear?”
Penny threw her swim bag onto a lounge chair and wrestled out of her hibiscus-print cover-up, elbows poking everywhere.
“You missed water aerobics,” said Darla, climbing the pool stairs with Mariska and Charlotte on her heels.
“Yeah, it was a good one, too,” said Charlotte. They’d done water aerobics to the same tape for three years. Her comment was sarcastic, but the chances anyone would notice were slim.
“Oh, it was a good one,” said Mariska.
Case in point.
“Forget that nonsense,” snapped Penny. Penny’s distain for water aerobics bordered on pathological. It was as if her whole family had been killed in a freak water aerobics accident. The only time she participated was when she felt like she’d fallen behind on neighborhood gossip, because Pineapple Port aerobics involved a lot more yapping than swimming.
“You look like you’re bustin’ at the seams to share something,” said Darla, squinting at her.
Penny nodded. “I am. Bucky’s dead.”
The others stared at her with blank expressions.
“I knew someone with a cat named Bucky,” said Mariska after a moment.
“Bucky’s your cat?” Charlotte asked Penny.
Penny’s expression twisted with what appeared to be disgust. “Why would I get a cat?”
“Bucky would be a good name for a hamster,” said Darla.
“Or a rabbit,” chimed Mariska.
Penny huffed. “You idiots. Bucky Bloom is dead.”
Mariska gasped. “No. How?”
“Probably overdosed on Viagra, horny old dirtball,” said Darla, reaching for her towel.
Penny shook her head so violently Charlotte feared she might lift off like a helicopter. “No. That was my first guess, too, but he fell onto the mast of a sailboat. Can you believe it?”
“You mean he hit his head on it?” asked Darla.
“No, he fell on it. Fell off the rooftop deck of his marina sex pad right on to the mast.”
“On to it?” echoed Charlotte, poking her finger into her flattened palm.
“Like a cocktail olive.” An enormous grin spread across Penny’s face.
Charlotte immediately knew something was up. Penny was never that happy about anything.
As the owner of the Pineapple Port fifty-five-plus retirement community, Penny had been kind enough to allow Charlotte to remain after her grandmother—who’d served as her guardian after her parents’ death—had died. Other than that unusual stroke of benevolence, Charlotte couldn’t think of a single thing the community’s matriarch had ever done to warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.
Still, the sheer width of the smile plastered on her face as she told the sad tale of a man impaled on a sailboat mast...that was warped, even for her. Penny’s ears were about to shake hands on the back of her head.
“Why do I get the impression Bucky’s death benefits you somehow? Or do you just have a thing for a good skewering?”
Mariska winced. “Skewering. Oh my. What a word. This is terrible.”
“Bucky owns Cow Town,” said Darla before Penny could answer. Penny nodded and clapped her fingers together with glee.
Cow Town. That explained it. Cow Town was a piece of land on the outskirts of Pineapple Port that Penny and her husband, George, had wanted to buy for as long as anyone could remember. The owner—who Charlotte now knew was Bucky Bloom—rented it as grazing land for cows, probably waiting for the tract to become even more valuable.
If the owner of the land was dead, Penny finally had a chance to grab it.
“Have you talked to Cora?” asked Darla.
Penny snorted with disdain. “That idiot. I’m not worried about her. Her husband’s body was found by his twenty-seven-year-old mistress, last in a string of who knows how many. Everyone knew what a cheater he was except her. She’s a moron.”
“How did he fall?” asked Mariska.
“Who knows? Probably drunk.”
“Does Pussy Galore know yet?” asked Darla.
Charlotte watched the blood drain from Penny’s face.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Penny grabbed her cover-up, shimmied her collection of bones back into it and snatched her swim bag from the chair. She ran from the pool area without another word.
Charlotte turned to Darla. “Does she always run away when people mention James Bond girls? Isn’t that something you should have told me a long time ago? It could have come in handy.”
Darla wrapped her towel around her waist. “Pussy Galore owns Silver Lake. She wants Cow Town every bit as much as Penny does for all the same reasons...expansion.”
“They’re slum lords,” said Mariska. She giggled, and then slapped her hand over her mouth, eyes darting toward their water aerobics leader, Jackie, whose late husband had been an actual slum lord. “Whoops.”
Charlotte chuckled. “I’m going to hate myself for asking, but is this woman’s real name Pussy Galore?”
“No. Her name is Tabitha and she goes by Tabby, like the cat. Somewhere, years ago, Penny started calling her Pussy Galore and it stuck.”
“Does she know about this nickname?”
“She knows, but she doesn’t like it.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
Charlotte had an odd feeling and paused to put her finger on the cause of it.
Chatter, growing to a healthy din around the pool since the beginning of water aerobics, had stopped as if someone had cut the gossip faucet. She peered down the line of the Olympic-sized pool and found all gazes pointed behind her.
She turned to find her boyfriend, Declan, walking towards her, towel casually thrown over his square shoulders. His swimmer’s body was visible, broad-chested and tapering at the waist. He had abs like the underside of a turtle shell. He smiled and she swore she could hear the retired ladies sigh in unison behind her.
“Hello everyone, how are you?” he asked.
“Surrounded by a bunch of randy old ladies, apparently,” mumbled Charlotte as he pecked her on the cheek and shook hands with Mariska and Darla.
“What brings you here?” asked Charlotte.
Before he could answer, Darla interjected.
“I’m so glad you decided to take me up on my invite to use the pool.”
Charlotte scowled. “Hey, I’ve invited you a million times and you’ve never come.”
He shrugged. “I decided my lap pool can get pretty boring.” He strolled toward a chair to set his towel on it and called back to Charlotte. “Darla said today was the day to come.”
One of the ladies who had been on the opposite side of the pool a moment earlier, bumped into Darla as she passed. Charlotte spotted her slide cash into Darla’s hand as she passed, grinning at Declan with eyes so flirty Charlotte thought her lashes might flit away and mate with the nearest butterfly.
Charlotte gasped. “Darla! You pimp!”
Darla’s mouth contracted into the shape of an O. “Missy, I’m sure ah don’t know whut you’re talkin’ about.” Her Southern accent always became more pronounced when she was lying.
“What’s in your hand?” Charlotte demanded to know.
Darla held out an empty palm. “Nothin’?”
“The other one.”
She unrolled her clenched fist, revealing a crumpled five dollar bill. “Oh that? Patty owed me money from the, uh, last bake sale.”
Mariska cocked her head. “From the last bake sale? You said Patty offered you five dollars to get Declan here without his shirt—”
Darla cut Mariska short, nearly shouting to drown out her friend. “That’s right I did talk to her about a darling shirt that I thought would look good on Declan.”
Charlotte shook her head. “You ladies are awful. And as for Panting Patty—” She turned and saw Patty had moved to the fence, studying Declan from a new angle.
“Did I miss something?” asked Declan, returning his attention to the group.
Charlotte sighed. “Maybe. But Patty isn’t missing a thing.”
“Charlotte!” Penny came pounding back into the pool area, grabbed Charlotte by the wrist and began dragging her toward the parking lot.
Charlotte planted her feet to stop the momentum. “What are you doing?”
“You’re coming with me.”
“Because I have to go talk to Cora before Pussy gets to her and—”
“I really wish you would stop saying that—”
“—and I just remembered she loves orphan kids. Cooks orphan kids porridge in her free time or some such crap.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“You’re an orphan.”
“But I’m twenty-six years old.”
“Close enough. Plus, I want you to suss out my best angle. Maybe help me find some dirt on Pussy.”
“Ew.” That was even more horrific.
“You don’t understand. I need you there from the get go. I’m hiring you.”
“Oh.” Charlotte flashed a smile back at the group and allowed Penny to lead her toward the gate. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“JUST SO YOU KNOW, I don’t have my detective license yet,” said Charlotte, as Penny pulled up in front of a large ranch-style home on the outskirts of Cow Town.
Penny scoffed. “So what? Just keep your ears and eyes open for opportunity.”
Charlotte straightened the colorful, frilly-edged shirt tickling her neck. Penny had dragged her into her own home and picked out the most juvenile thing in her closet. At least the frantic woman had given her time to change. For a moment she thought her first conversation with the widow Cora Bloom would be in a wet bathing suit.
“Don’t you think I should have worn something a little less festive to visit a new widow?”
Penny shook her head. “No. I want you to look as orphan-y as possible.”
“Orphan-y? You should have said so. I would have worn my curly red Annie wig.”
“You have one?”
Penny slithered out of her white Cadillac as gracefully as possible in the form-fitting and more appropriate black skirt-suit into which she’d changed. She opened the back door to retrieve a large flower arrangement.
As she struggled with the lilies, Charlotte stepped out and watched another large, white Cadillac park behind them. A tan, bony, older woman in an identical black skirt-suit emerged and opened the back door of her car. She leaned in and jerked a huge colorful flower arrangement into the sun, like a never-ending parade of clowns spilling from her car.
Penny straightened, lilies in hand, and closed her back door with her foot. As soon as her gaze fell on the other woman she froze and the two of them stood that way, arms wrapped around impossibly large flower arrangements, staring through the foliage like rival gorillas.
Each possessed similar helmet-shaped hair, hawk-noses and bodies like x-rays.
“I always wondered what the twins from The Shining looked like all grown up,” mumbled Charlotte.
“Hello, Penelope,” said the woman after several seconds.
Penny’s lip twitched. “Hello, Pussy.”
The woman snarled. “I told you not to call me that, youmiserable—”
“Uh, do you want me to take that, Penny?” offered Charlotte holding out her arms.
Penny’s attention snapped to her, returned to Tabby, and then swiveled toward the front door of the rancher. Tabby, too, pointed her gaze to the Bloom residence. They both took one last glance at each other and began powerwalking toward the house, identical low-heeled, dark pumps wobbling on the uneven pavers as they shifted and re-shifted their flower arrangements to keep from veering into the shrubbery.
Charlotte scurried after them.
The women jockeyed for position at the door, sword fighting with their flowers. Petals abandoned hope that they might spread joy, and fluttered to the ground to die.
A small woman in a dark navy Mumu opened the door. She craned her neck to see the faces behind the flower.
“Penny, Tabby. What a surprise. How are my favorite twins?”
Charlotte looked at the two women with fresh eyes. They really are twins. That explains a lot.
“Cora, you dear thing. I was so sorry to hear about your loss,” said Penny.
“So sorry,” echoed Tabby.
“It was quite a shock. Please, come inside.”
Both women jostled forward, bouncing between the door jamb and each other’s arrangements. Tabby grunted and shoved forward into the foyer with Penny on her heels.
Charlotte spotted a flash of red as someone wearing Louboutin shoes slipped out of the hall and into what looked like the kitchen beyond. Another person sharing sympathies, no doubt. She felt bad that someone who had just lost their husband would have to field so many guests and tried to look as small as possible.
It didn’t work. Cora’s gaze fell upon her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“She’s my orphan!” yelped Penny as she set her flowers on the floor. Her bony spine poked at the back of her suit like that of an underfed Stegosaurus.
“Your orphan?” asked Cora, taking Charlotte’s fingers in her own soft, crêpey hand.
“She found me in a box of Cracker Jack,” said Charlotte.
Penny made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a growl. “Isn’t she funny? Her grandmother lived in Pineapple Port and I let her stay after she died. The grandmother that is, not Charlotte. Charlotte’s still alive. Of course. She’s right here. I practically raised her.”
Penny’s eyes flashed, daring Charlotte to contradict her.
Cora’s hand fluttered to her heart. “Why that’s wonderful, Penny. I had no idea. You know, I work with the orphans in Tampa.”
Penny released a surprised gasp, securing herself The Oscar for the visit. “Do you? Isn’t that wonderful. Though certainly not a surprise to hear. You’ve always been so kind-hearted.”
Tabby stood behind Penny, staring laser holes through the back of her head. “Penny, I forget—was that before or after they found that woman’s bones in Pineapple Port?”
Penny’s face drained of color.
“What’s that now?” asked Cora.
“Nothing, nothing dear—”
A woman in a maroon, utilitarian housekeeper’s dress appeared in the hallway. “Ma’am, can I get anything for you and your guests?”
Cora’s eyes darted to the kitchen. “Uh—”
Tabby and Penny looked at each other as Cora stalled. Charlotte knew each wanted to corner the widow alone in order to state their case for buying Cow Town. Neither wanted to broach the subject with the other there. Sharing food together would be a waste of time.
“We don’t want to take up any more of your time—just wanted to offer our condolences. We’ll get out of your hair,” said Tabby.
Penny agreed and the housekeeper wandered off with a nod.
“Well, it was lovely of you to stop by. Especially since I’ll be leaving soon.”
The sisters’ eyes grew large and the women stopped their progress toward the door as if they’d smacked into a wall.
“Leaving?” asked Penny.
Cora nodded and opened the front door, ushering them through it. “I’m going to live with our son in Connecticut.”
Tabby smiled. “How wonderful for you. So, you’ll be selling this lovely house?”
“Yes. And all the land.”
“To whom?” said Penny before she could stop herself.
Cora positioned herself inside the door and blinked at the women now standing on her porch.
“That depends on you two, doesn’t it?”
The twins drew a collective gasp.
“You want our best bid?” asked Tabby.
The widow Bloom’s eyes narrowed and a smile slithered across her lips, instantly transforming her from the kindly old widow-lady, into a crone offering tasty apples to Snow White.
This just got interesting.
Charlotte felt like an innocent victim about to die along with the intended targets.
“Oh, I don’t want your best bid,” Cora said, pausing for dramatic effect before continuing. “But I do want you to pay.”
“I don’t understand. Are you saying you’re not selling to us?” asked Tabby.
“I’m definitely selling to one of you. Nobody wants my land more than you two vultures.”
“But you don’t want bids?” asked Penny.
“Sixty-nine and eighty-eight.”
The twins looked at each other to see if the other understood Cora’s cryptic message.
Penny took the lead. “What’s sixty-nine and eighty-eight? Your price? I don’t understand.”
Cora’s smile faded. “Not a price. Years. Those are the years you had affairs with my husband.”
The sisters again gasped in unison. Charlotte slapped her hand over her mouth to keep from yelping with surprise and delight.
“It was the Summer of Love,” whined Penny.
“Yikes,” said Charlotte. The image of Penny enjoying the Summer of Love curled her toes.
The others glanced at her and she realized she’d spoken aloud. “Oh. Sorry. Go on.”
Tabby thrust out two downturned palms and bobbed them up and down as if she was trying to calm a hysterical child. “Cora, dear, for my part, I have to say, it was the eighties. There were drugs. So many drugs. We didn’t know what we were doing. And my husband had just died. I was in a strange place—and, Cora—you know your Bucky. When it came to women he was always like a man fresh out of prison. He probably sneaked a twenty-three-year-old waitress into his own coffin.”
Charlotte recoiled, stunned that Tabby would offer such a blunt assessment of Bucky’s moral fiber.
Strangely, Cora’s anger didn’t double. Instead, she offered them a sweet smile.
“Yes. I knew Bucky. But it’s too late to make him pay, isn’t it?”
She slammed the door and they heard it latch.
“But what do you want us to do?” whined Penny.
“You figure it out,” trilled Cora from inside.