Pineapple Mystery Box - Amy Vansant - ebook
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When a giant inflatable Halloween witch goes missing in the Pineapple Port retirement community, Charlotte’s eager to nab the culprit. Before she can lift a fingerprint, someone threatens to kill a new neighbor who looks like an adorable Pomeranian but possesses a disturbing talent for revenge. Moments later, a stranger demands the return of a mysterious wooden box… or else.Charlotte's boyfriend, Declan, isn't having a great morning either. His calculating ex-girlfriend has returned to claim she's the rightful owner of his pawn shop. She’s livid he’s found a new lady, too.Eh. Things could be worse. At least Charlotte doesn’t know that a mojito-swilling killer who fed his grandmother to a cat is on his way to Pineapple Port…

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PINEAPPLE MYSTERY BOX

Amy Vansant

PRONOUN

Thank you for reading. If you enjoy this book, please leave a review.

All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.

Copyright © 2017 by Amy Vansant

Interior design by Pronoun

Distribution by Pronoun

ISBN: 9781537858661

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Pineapple

Mystery Box

A Pineapple Port Mystery: Book Two

Amy Vansant

©2015 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.

ISBN-10:0983719187

ISBN-13:978-0-9837191-8-2

Library of Congress: 2015916300

Vansant Creations, LLC / Amy Vansant

Annapolis, MD

http://www.AmyVansant.com

http://www.PineapplePort.com

Cover art by Farik Osman

Copy editing by Carolyn Steele.

Dedication

To Mom. The original Charlotte who’s had the dubious distinction of having to read everything I’ve ever written since day one. Love you! (Not just for the reading, you fed me and whatnot, too.)

CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Epilogue

Bonus: Pineapple Puzzles

Chapter One

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Other Books by Amy Vansant

CHAPTER ONE

He didn’t mean to kill her.

Well, he did, of course, but not that way. Not with a knife and not so soon. Now there was ooze all over his hand. The blood slipped down the back of the blade like a kid at a water park. His lip curled with disgust.

What a mess.

He’d spent a week researching sleeping medicines. A week. He hadn’t spent that long studying for his GED exam. He’d spent hours driving to three different counties to buy the pills. Real sleeping pills, not capsules. Capsules would have been easier, crack them open and pour—but something in his gut told him she’d be able to taste whatever came out of a capsule. It must taste terrible or why stuff it in a gel cap?

He was half way home from the drug store before he realized he’d forgotten to wear the ball cap with the blond mullet flowing from the back to hide his mug from the cameras. Idiot. He pulled over and pictured his face on all those videos, like watching a tiny episode of Dateline in his head. After stressing for a good five minutes, he decided that returning with the mullet cap to buy new pills didn’t make any sense.

He’d hit the gas. Nothing to do but hope he reached South America before the cops pieced together the mystery of Bobbi Marie’s death. If his plan worked, the cops wouldn’t even begin work on the outer edge of the puzzle. If his plan only half worked, he’d still be long gone before they completed the edges, started the center, and realized the picture was of him.

When he committed a crime it was like a puzzle of the sky. Sky puzzles were the hardest to solve. All blue, maybe some wispy clouds…

Yep.

I’m a sky puzzle.

Back at his apartment, he’d mashed his cache of sleeping pills with a mortar and pestle usually reserved for crushing mint leaves to make mojitos. Girls loved mojitos. His original plan had been to run to Mexico but he’d decided that was too predictable. Everyone ran to Mexico. And Brazilian girls probably liked mojitos, too. He’d started watching the Spanish television channels to learn the language. He’d be good either way.

After smashing half a sandwich bag of light blue powder, he rinsed his tools. Reaching to return the mortar to the cabinet, he paused, staring at the stone bowl. He’d crushed sleeping powder into every pore of the thing. Could he still take it to South America with him? He knew he’d knock the South American girls’ socks off with his mojito recipe, but he didn’t want to knock them—or himself—out. Did they have mortars and pestles in South America?

Dang. I should have done more research on South America.

He drove to a nearby strip mall, threw the bowl into a dumpster with a reverberating clang, and stopped at a store to buy a new set. This time he wore the mullet cap. It felt good to get some use out of it.

Back at home, he stirred the entire bag of sleeping powder into a pot of milk on the stove. He tasted it several times, adding a bit more milk here and a dash of sugar there until he found it drinkable. Bobbi would never notice a thing.

Sleepy-milk in a thermos, he drove to the old lady’s apartment at Casa Siesta, letting himself in with the key he’d had cut while she napped one afternoon. She’d never noticed that he let himself in or that the woman assigned to her assisted living apartment had stopped visiting. He’d told the lazy nurse that he’d be taking over daily visits and she’d been more than happy to check Bobbi off her list.

“Hola! Ready for your warm milk, Bobbi?” He liked to practice his Spanish when he could.

Bobbi Marie glowered at him from her threadbare yellow sitting chair. She was a willful old broad, but her mind had been on vacation since he met her. She still puttered around the apartment and fed her ratty old cat, but the comfy chair absorbed most of her time. A small stroke had made it difficult for her to talk, so she barked everything in short staccato sentences that made him jump.

He was doing them both a favor by putting her out of her misery. Anyway, if anyone came around asking questions, the last thing he needed was her barking his name at the cops. If she even knew his name. He wasn’t sure she knew her own name anymore. She only seemed to remember the dumbest things.

His eye fell on Friskie, napping in the window. The tabby’s patchy fur looked worse than Bobbi’s chair. The only thing friskie about that cat was its bladder.

I should send the cat with her. A nice bowl of sleepy milk for kitty…

“I’m practicing Spanish,” he said, setting Bobbi’s mail on her sofa table. “Thinking of moving to Brazil.”

“Porch geese.”

“What’s that?”

“Porch geese. Not spansch.”

He looked at the woman and noticed her misbuttoned dressing gown. It drove him crazy when she did that. “What are you moaning about now?”

She huffed and then barked again. “Brazil.”

“What about Brazil?”

“Speak Port-chu-geez.”

“Portuguese? Wait… You’re saying they speak Portuguese in Brazil? Not Spanish?”

She nodded with one hard jerk of her head.

“Woman, you’re crazy. You can’t even button your dang housecoat. It’s South America. Of course they speak Spanish. It’s right next to Mexico, land of mojitos.”

“Cuba.”

“Right. Now they speak Cuban. Whatever.”

Tucking the thermos under his arm, he patted her on the knee as he passed on his way to the kitchen. It had been a long four months, trying to get the information he needed out of the old cow. He’d threatened, cajoled, and finally discovered that adding a bit of booze to her milk loosened her tongue. Unfortunately, the only thing he was sure of was that his father had given Bobbi a box. The old man mentioned it in the last conversation they’d had before he died. He didn’t know how big or what it looked like, but it had to be worth a fortune. He knew it. Why else would Pop give it to her to hide?

His father had bragged about the box, then went and got himself shivved by another inmate before he’d had a chance to share any details about his treasure chest.

Pop never did have any luck.

By the time he found his grandmother Bobbi, she’d lost her mind and didn’t seem to know what was in the box or what she did with it.

Some days she remembered leaving it at the old house. Other days she thought she sold it or gave it to someone.

That theory just about made him sick to his stomach. The idea that someone else might have the goods his father had worked so hard to steal…

Once Bobbi claimed Indiana Jones stole the box. That’s when he gave up trying to get a straight answer out of her.

“Tea.”

He was unscrewing the thermos when she said it.

“What?”

“Tea.”

“What about tea?”

“Tea.”

He poked his head out of the kitchen.

“You want tea?”

She grunted.

“But you always have warm milk.”

“Tea after church.”

“After—”

She turned her head away from him and crossed her arms against her chest.

He rubbed his temple with one hand. The crazy old bird thought it was Sunday. Probably thought it was nineteen seventy-six, too, because she hadn’t been to church in all the time he’d known her.

He looked at the thermos, sitting there with all his hard work inside. He yawned.

What a day for her to switch to tea.

“Do you want milk in your tea?”

“Yes.”

Fine. At least he could put his sleepy milk in the tea. Maybe it would be enough. If not, he’d just have to keep slipping it into everything he could until it did the job.

Yawning again, he reached into the kitchen cabinet and found a box of tea still sealed in plastic wrap. He picked at the edge of the box with his short fingernail. Frustrated, he pulled a long knife from the butcher’s block and stabbed at it until it tore open.

He opened another cabinet in search of a teacup but found none. He opened another and another, finding nothing but yellowed Tupperware containers warped by the microwave and enough cat food to keep a pride of lions alive for a year. He whirled and stormed back into the front room.

“Dang it, Bobbi, where do you keep—”

Oh…

His face was inches from Bobbi’s.

She’d gotten out of her chair and they’d almost run smack into each other. Only the knife in his hand—the knife he hadn’t realized he was holding—kept her from hitting him.

He looked down and watched as a rivulet of blood rode the blade from where the tip pierced her midsection.

Her height had done her in. A shorter gal would have taken it in the ribs. The knife might have bounced off the bone. But Bobbi was nearly six feet tall.

He considered pulling out the weapon, but it was too late now.

Instead, he pushed.

Bobbi Marie barely made a sound. Just sucked in a little wind. Her face fell slack as the knife in his hand reached the wooden hilt. He froze and they stood that way, eyes locked on each other. He could feel her lean against the blade and his wrist trembled with the strain of holding her weight. Her legs buckled and he withdrew. She fell to the ground in a curled clump.

Standing over her, he watched the blood drip from the knife to the floor. He sidled past her and sat in the chair where she’d been only a moment before.

He didn’t mean to kill her.

Well, he had, of course, but not that way. Not with a knife.

His eyelids felt like they weighed a thousand pounds. In a situation like this, having just stabbed a woman to death, he felt as if he should be more awake. Wired, even. Instead, he wanted to sleep. Let his mind rest for a bit.

He closed his lids.

Maybe he’d taste-tested a little too much of the sleepy milk.

A moment later he was snoring.

CHAPTER TWO

CHARLOTTE’S PULSE QUICKENED AS SHE walked the final block to her destination. She was running the gauntlet. Succeeding against all odds. Soaring like a hawk full of helium with tiny rockets strapped to her talons.

Or…

…she was failing like a rainy Fourth of July.

It was hard to tell.

The sun reflected off the back of a molded plastic squirrel sitting at the edge of Mrs. Mann’s garden. The rodent eyed her, preparing to gnaw his plastic acorn, a treat destined never to reach his squirrelly lips.

Hm. That’s one.

Charlotte’s gaze moved to Mann’s mailbox. One of the yellow Rudbeckia flowers beneath it had lost its head. Not a single golden petal of the missing bloom remained; the executioner had carried it off whole.

Strange… Let’s say two.

A peculiar alligator-shaped patch of dead grass marred the Sykes’ otherwise perfect square of turf.

Three.

Two pugs guarded the steps of Mrs. Maggliozi’s porch like chubby little pagodas, their bulging eyes following her as she strode the last few feet.

Four?

Charlotte stopped at the end of the block where Seamus stood waiting for her, his muscular arms crossed against his chest. He peered down his nose at her, one bushy black eyebrow hiked higher than its twin.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

She met his steely gaze with a metaphorical metal squint of her own.

A titanium stare.

“I am.”

He nodded. “Go.”

She took a deep breath.

“At Mann’s you faced the squirrel in the opposite direction and yanked the head from one of her mailbox flowers—she’s going to kill you for that, by the way. You stole the Sykes’ alligator, Snappy, and one of Mrs. Maggliozi’s three pugs went missing. I don’t know if you had anything to do with that or if he just wandered inside, but there you go.”

Seamus’ serious demeanor cracked into a million-watt smile. “Beautiful!”

She grinned, preparing to accept his praise with great humility.

“Too bad you’re dead,” he added, slapping her on the shoulder.

The smile melted from her face.

“What?”

He looked past her and barked a single word.

“Jackie!”

Charlotte followed his gaze to a pile of brush tucked behind a plastic storage box on the side of Maggliozi’s lime green modular home. The pile of grass grunted and stood to assume a humanoid shape. It looked like Big Foot covered in Spanish moss.

“Gotcha.”

The monster pushed brown netting from its head to reveal a human face hidden beneath the nest of weeds. Jackie, Seamus’ girlfriend and a fellow resident of Pineapple Port, looked as if she’d rolled in a swamp and the whole thing had stuck to her. In her grassy paw, she held a two-inch wide, foot-long wooden dowel, painted black.

Charlotte grimaced. “Jackie, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you need a wax.”

“It’s a ghillie suit. Isn’t it cool?” Jackie bowed her legs and bobbed from her left foot to her right, weedy fringe dangling from her outstretched arms.

“It looks pretty hot, actually.”

“You’re right. I’m dying in here.”

“What’s with the black stick in your hand?”

“I gave her that to simulate a rifle,” said Seamus. “You noticed all the changes I made but you didn’t see the woman on the ground in the ghillie suit with the rifle, the one thing that could have killed you.”

“She was there when we started so I didn’t notice any change. That shouldn’t count.”

“She wasn’t aiming at you when we started.”

“Well I wasn’t expecting an armed pile of brush.”

“But that’s just the thing. Nobody ever expects an armed pile of brush. That’s why you have to notice everything.”

He pulled a small pad of paper from his pocket.

“Observational skill tests number one: I’m going to give you a C-plusfor noticing the missing flower—”

“Right before I was shot to death by a pile of hay.”

“Bingo.”

Charlotte sighed. When she asked her boyfriend’s uncle to train her to be a top-notch investigator, she hadn’t expected the man to be so diabolical.

Her boyfriend. The phrase sounded funny; part grade-school label, part serious romance. She assumed Declan was her boyfriend. It wasn’t like he’d given her a ring or a varsity letter or anything, but they’d gone out a few times in the weeks since solving the mystery of his mother’s disappearance and their courtship seemed to be blossoming. Still, Declan was difficult to read and romance was hard anyway. So many things could make a relationship awkward: jealous exes, disapproving friends, the fact that she’d found his mother’s bones in her backyard…

Offering Declan a cocktail and then casually strolling to her lanai where they could overlook his mother’s former grave definitely qualified as awkward. But maybe finding his mother had nothing to do with the fact that their romance was moving at the pace of a snail cattle drive. Maybe it had more to do with the facts that Uncle Seamus was living with Declan and her own house was under constant surveillance by her mother-hen neighbors Mariska and Darla. At twenty-six, she was the youngest person in Pineapple Port and the subject of some local fascination.

When people asked how she lived in a retirement community, she told them she’d been grandmothered-in.

Ha!

Nobody ever got the joke, but in all fairness, it didn’t make sense until she explained. Her parents had died, forcing her to move in with her grandmother in the retirement community. Then her grandmother had died. Rather than ship her off to an orphanage, Pineapple Port unofficially adopted her, pulled some strings, and enabled her to grow up amongst them, like Jane Goodall with the apes.

The residents didn’t like that joke either.

Charlotte had lived there long enough to grow accustomed to the scrutiny, but it was a whole new world for Declan. Dating in Pineapple Port was like trying to make out in a basement while your parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and a hundred or so aunts or uncles mingled upstairs.

Not sexy.

Then again, maybe the less-than-whirlwind nature of their romance was her fault. She’d been busy. She’d never felt so alive as she had while trying to unlock the mystery surrounding Declan’s mother’s death and now that it was over, she wanted to solve more puzzles. That’s where Seamus and his fiendish training came in handy.

“I hear your flyers didn’t turn out so well,” said Seamus.

She threw her head back and huffed. Declan must have told him she’d slipped flyers into her neighbors’ mailboxes to advertise her investigative services. She’d thought she was being enterprising. Aware of her potential clients’ proclivities, she’d even included a clip-and-save twenty-percent off. coupon. She wasn’t an idiot. Some of the Pineapple Portians would buy a wet suit in the Sahara if they had a coupon for it.

After a week of waiting for clients to come rolling in, only one crime had been committed: Someone put unstamped detective agency flyers in people’s mailboxes.

“Come on. Who knew it’s a federal offense to put mail in people’s mailboxes?”

“Mr. Caslin, apparently. The better question is: who knew you had a retired postman in the neighborhood?”

“Tell me about it. He felt duty-bound to lecture me on the dos and don’ts of mailbox laws for an hour.”

“Is he going to turn you in?”

“No. I begged Mariska to help me make a pie for him. She said he’d only threatened to report me in the hopes of getting a pie in the first place, but she helped me anyway.”

“He’s a notorious food grubber,” said Jackie, trying to unzip the ghillie suit. “I’ve seen that man eat an entire pie by himself. He ate it one slice at a time so people wouldn’t notice, but I noticed.”

“Maybe I should be training you,” said Seamus with a wink.

Charlotte tried not to take his comment as personally as it was probably meant and continued to whine about her failed marketing campaign.

“In hindsight, I did think it was a little weird that Mr. Caslin mentionedlemon meringue pie four times in a speech about mailboxes.” Charlotte lowered her voice to mimic the retired postman. “Say someone sends you two lemon meringue pies…you find one in your mailbox in a temperature controlled box with postage, and the other—this one with those little dollops of whipped cream around the edge—you find without postage…”

She’d only been operating a freelance detective agency for a few days and she’d already lost money on flyers, lemons and Crisco and committed two crimes herself. Turns out, she needed a license to be a private investigator, too. Crime number two. At this rate she’d be in prison by the end of the month.

“Maybe being a detective is a stupid idea. What’s the point? I can’t be a private investigator without a license, and to get a license I need at least forty hours of experience as an intern for a real private investigator and there aren’t any around here.”

“Yes there are,” said Seamus, grunting as he helped Jackie out of the ghillie suit. The zipper had stuck in her fringe.

“Where?”

“About two feet away from you.”

“Huh?”

Jackie let out a little scream. “I swear, if you don’t get me out of this suit I am going to freakout.”

“Shush, Jackie, you just shot me dead. You don’t get to complain. Seamus, what are you talking about?”

The zipper gave away and Seamus took a step back as Jackie thrashed. He ducked to avoid her flailing grassy arms. She dropped to her knees and collapsed sideways, squirming from the suit like a snake shedding its skin.

The sight was so pathetic Charlotte couldn’t help but pity her pretend-murderer. “Aren’t you going to help her?”

Seamus held a hand in Jackie’s direction as she squirmed across the lawn. “And miss this?”

Jackie rolled to her back, kicking her feet in the air as best she could with her ankles bound together by the suit.

Charlotte shrugged. “Okay, so what are you talking about? Who’s a private investigator?”

Seamus tapped his chest. “I am.”

“You are? Licensed?”

“Licensed.”

“Really? Or are you a private investigator in the same way you said you were a cop in Miami when you were really a glorified informant?”

“Oh, you cut me to the quick, lass. I thought we were friends…you know I only fibbed to appear an upstanding citizen to my nephew.”

“So you’re really an investigator?”

“Sure. I did the paperwork while I was still in Miami right before I came up here. I even took a few side jobs. The cops didn’t pay all my bills.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“Can I be your intern?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Unpaid, of course.”

“Naturally. All right.” She saluted him. “What’s my first assignment, sir?”

He jerked a thumb behind him.

“Locate a glass of water for her.”

Jackie’s face was flush and her shirt soaked with perspiration. She stood and began stomping on the ghillie suit with her right leg as she strained to yank away her left ankle.

“Jackie? Would you like some water?”

Jackie glared at her. “You two can play cops and robbers all you like, just leave me out of it from now on. This thing is some kind of alien…” She stomped on the suit one last time and then pounded toward her house, one leg dragging the deflated ghillie suit behind her.

Seamus chuckled.

“I couldn’t believe it when she agreed to wear that thing. This is going to give me material for weeks.”

He clapped Charlotte on the back and jogged after his girlfriend.

“Your shadow’s looking a little furry there,” he called.

“Shut up!” screamed Jackie.

CHAPTER THREE

CHARLOTTE HEARD THE WAILING FROM her bedroom, even with one ear pressed against her pillow and her soft-coated Wheaton terrier’s chin resting on the other.

“She’s gone! Someone stole her!”

She tried to rise but Abby fought her, pressing her furry face against Charlotte’s in an attempt to pin her human pillow to the mattress. She slipped out from under the Wheaton, who grunted and rolled onto her back, legs falling open to expose her pink belly. Charlotte offered a conciliatory tummy rub before throwing on shorts and a tee and heading for the door.

Outside, she looked down her street and saw a small crowd gathering in front of her friend Darla’s house. Charlotte felt her stomach lurch. In a retirement community, curious people outside someone’s home rarely turned out to be a good thing. At least she didn’t see an ambulance. Not yet.

Mariska burst out of her own home the moment Charlotte’s foot hit the asphalt. Mariska lived directly across the street from her. She wore a thin housedress and slippers.

“Uh…bra?” suggested Charlotte.

“Oh, phooey,” said Mariska, slapping an arm across her breasts to still the impression of puppies in a laundry bag. “We have to hurry.”

“What’s the ruckus? Do you know?”

“No, I don’t know. That’s why I’m rushing.”

“Is it Darla?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well come on. You’re supposed to know everything.”

“I know, I know.”

The two of them wove through the crowd until they spotted Darla standing in her front yard. She wore a black tee shirt with Sea Hag scrawled in white letters across the chest. Her husband, Sheriff Frank, had bought it for her after she insisted he take her on a fishing trip. She didn’t catch anything except a sunburn and never asked to go again, but she loved the tee.

“Darla, what is it?” asked Charlotte.

Darla shook her fist, the grimace on her face making her lips thin and white.

“Someone stole Witchy-Poo.”

She thrust an accusatory finger at the roof as if it was the culprit.

The giant inflatable witch that always perched on Darla’s roof during the Halloween season had disappeared. Charlotte kicked herself for not noticing. She’d done well spotting tiny changes during Seamus’ test and then failed to notice the absence of a seven-foot-tall witch with striped socks and a wart the size of a blueberry muffin on her nose. Clearly, she still had work to do.

“They switched my flag,” said someone else deep in the crowd. “I’m not a Raven’s fan. They’re in my division for crying out loud. I’m from Pittsburgh.”

“My gazing ball is gone,” said another. “Now I’ve got gnomes.”

Mariska tittered. “That sounds serious.”

“Does the gnome have a hoe?” asked someone nearby.

“I’m not touching that,” mumbled Charlotte.

“I have a frog where my ducks used to be,” said another voice.

“A frog?” roared Darla’s husband, Frank. “Lil’ Frankie. I was so mad about the witch I didn’t even notice Lil’ Frankie was missing.”

In the spot where Frank’s fishing frog, Lil’ Frankie once sat, the fishing pole string no longer floated in the tiny manmade pond. Now, Mrs. Mann’s plastic squirrel struggled to nibble his acorn while standing tail-deep in water.

“Someone switched all the lawn decorations?” asked Charlotte.

Mariska gasped and grabbed her arm. “It’s a mystery. You’ve got your first case.”

Charlotte shook her head. “All we have to do is switch them back.”

“Yes, but who did it? And what about Witchy-Poo? I don’t see anything in her place. And what’s to stop these vandals from doing it again?”

“I suppose Frank should do something—” began Darla, who had moved to take her usual place beside Mariska.

Mariska elbowed her.

“Ow. Oh… Right. Frank’s busy. He doesn’t have time for this. We need a detective. Like Sherlock Holmes. Only maybe cuter.”

She winked at Charlotte.

Charlotte suspected the ladies were patronizing her, but Mariska had a point. No one would hire her to find out who switched the lawn decoration, but if she solved the case, it would prove to the whole neighborhood that she had skills. It would be like handing out freebees in the hopes of selling more in the future.

“You’re right. I’ll take the case.”

“Go get ‘em,” said Darla. “Find Witchy-Poo and arrest the heartless jerk who stole her.”

“I don’t think I can arrest anyone.”

“Then just beat ‘em up.”

“I don’t think she should beat up anyone…” said Mariska.

“Well, maybe just rough them up.”

“What’s the difference?”

As the two women bickered over what constituted a beating, Charlotte gazed at Darla’s empty roof. “Hey… does anyone else have a big decoration like Witchy—er, the witch?” She hated the name Witchy-Poo and refused to say it.

Darla stopped arguing long enough to look at her. “Only I have Witchy-Poo. She’s one of a kind.”

“And only I have to climb my old butt up there once a year and blow her up,” said Frank. “I’m going to go get Lil’ Frank from Sally’s house.”

Darla rolled her eyes. “You do that, hon. That frog is probably homesick and panicky.”

Frank glared at her, hitched his belt and wandered off.

“Charlotte’s going to figure out who did this,” said Mariska.

“Yes. Go get ‘em Char,” said Darla. “Just make sure you concentrate on Witchy-Poo.”

Charlotte patted Darla on the shoulder and jogged back to her house to grab a pen and paper. She wanted to let Abby out for her morning bathroom break and then note the switched items so she could search for any patterns.

She let the dog out the back and grabbed a notepad and a pen. She considered hopping into her golf cart to begin her investigation, but worried she might miss a clue by speeding by it. No, she would walk the neighborhood and knock on every door.

Wait—time to start using official investigator language.

She wouldn’t walk. She would canvass the neighborhood. Canvass for clues.

She felt very official, until she realized the pen she’d grabbed looked like a palm tree, with green, plastic fronds flopping from the top.

Sherlock Holmes would never use a palm tree pen.

She grabbed another, much more official-looking pen, and the game was afoot.

Well…she was afoot, anyway.

Someone had to have seen something. People couldn’t wander the streets of Pineapple Port with gnomes and giant inflatable witches tucked under their arms without someone noticing. The Port had more busy-bodies per capita than any other place in the United States. At least according to her own unofficial statistics.

An hour later, as Charlotte climbed the steps to old Dottie’s house, she knew solving the caper wouldn’t be as easy as she’d hoped. Her notes said she’d discovered precious little.

Two Republicans turned into Democrats and vice versa.

Politically motivated?

Three flowerpots switched with birdbaths.

Theme? Or just too many flowerpots and birdbaths?

George Sambrooke’s golf cart half off the curb and pressed against his wife’s sedan.

Had a few too many last night?

The last item probably had nothing to do with her case. Things hadn’t been great at the Sambrooke’s lately, but that was gossip, not a crime.

She knocked on Dottie Parson’s door. She waited a minute and then knocked again. She was about to leave when the door jerked open and slammed against the interior wall of the home. Dottie caught it with the side of her walker and elbowed it back into the wall repeatedly until she’d wedged the walker tight enough to keep the bouncing to a minimum. Charlotte sneaked a peek behind the hinge and saw a pre-formed hole in the drywall holding the doorknob. That explained the strange metallic ding of the door’s bounce; it had been striking a metal joist inside the wall.

“Hi Dottie, sorry to bother you.”

The old woman grunted. “I was busy.”

Charlotte took a deep breath and decided it would be unwise to start an argument. Dottie was probably “busy” lifting small trucks off the ground. Her arms were freakishly strong, as if the strength in her legs hadn’t so much left her as packed up and moved to her biceps. She wished the old woman would invite her in so she could peek in the back rooms, see what sort of workout equipment she had, and sell the secret to an NFL football team.

“Sorry. I just wanted to know if you’ve noticed any of your lawn items missing or replaced?”

Dottie glowered at her. Charlotte calculated how long the woman’s arms were and took half a step back to be safe.

“Why should I tell you?”

“You don’t have to tell me. I could arm wrestle you for it.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Just kidding. You don’t have to tell me, but I wish you would. I’m trying to find out if anyone saw anything suspicious last night. A bunch of people had their lawn decorations stolen.”

“I don’t have any lawn decorations. Lawns are for grass. Grass is the decoration.”

“And you didn’t see anything?”

“No. Someone stole the tennis balls off my walker a while back. I didn’t see you here then.”

“Really?” She looked down and saw Dottie was sporting brand new Wilsons, sliced down the center so they could cuddle the feet of her walker.

Who would steal an old lady’s walker balls?

“I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t know.”

“Uh huh. That it?”

“Um…yep. Thank you.”

Dottie took a wobbly step backwards and then slammed the door so hard the house shook.

Charlotte stared at the door until it finished vibrating.

I pity the person who stole those balls.

Charlotte wiped her brow and realized how hot it was. As the first flush of investigative excitement began to melt from her bones beneath the Florida sun, she understood why people said police work was mostly drudgery. She’d hoped being a private investigator was all grand discoveries and foot chases. Foot chases after very slow, small, weak criminals ready to turn themselves in at the slightest provocation.

Maybe I should have become a grade school truant officer.

She knocked on the edge of Gloria Abernathy’s screened porch door. On a flag hanging from a wooden pole beside her, a bright red parrot held aloft a coconut with a festive drink umbrella hanging from its shaved rim. Neon pink script along the bottom of the flag announced It’s Five o’Clock Somewhere. She wasn’t sure, but she thought Gloria had a different flag. Gloria was new to the neighborhood, and didn’t seem like the drunken-parrot-flag sort. Of course, in Florida, parrots drinking rum concoctions from coconuts were as common as sunglass-wearing lizards tanning on the beach. Maybe everyone who moved to Florida received a parrot flag at the border.

Both Gloria’s car and golf cart were in her driveway, but no one answered. Charlotte tugged on the screened porch door and found it open. She moved to the inner door and knocked again. Nothing.

Leaning to the right, she peeked through the window. A flash of movement caught her eye, something moving low to the ground.

Did Gloria have a dog?

“Gloria?” she called, rapping on the window.

A head popped up from behind a floral-patterned sofa and then disappeared. It was like peering in on a life-sized game of whack-a-mole.

Was sixty-six-year-old Gloria Abernathy crouching behind her sofa?

Charlotte pressed her face against the window. “Gloria—It’s Charlotte. Are you okay?”

Gloria’s face popped into view like a meerkat on high alert.

“Charlotte?”

“Yes. I came to talk to you for a second. Are you hurt? Can you get up?”

Gloria stood and opened her door.

“Are you alone?” she asked, peering past Charlotte.

“Yes. Are you okay?”

Gloria took a tentative step onto the porch.

“Look around outside there. Do you see anyone?”

Charlotte walked back to the outer edge of the porch and looked left and right, beginning to feel paranoid that somehow she wasn’t alone.

“I don’t see anyone…am I looking for anyone in particular?”

Gloria moved to the screen door and latched the hook.

“Okay. Come in, quick.”

She grabbed Charlotte’s arm, tugging her into the house, through the kitchen, down the hall and into a spare bedroom. Charlotte flipped on the light. Gloria lunged to shut it off.

“Don’t.”

Charlotte snatched away her hand and studied Gloria’s face. The woman’s bottom lip had swallowed her top and nearly touched her nose. Her eyes were wide. She looked worried.

No, she looked terrified.

She’d known residents in the community who had fallen to dementia. Gloria seemed too young but…something had to be wrong.

“Gloria…can I ask what’s wrong?”

“They’re trying to kill me,” she whispered.

“Who?” Maybe she saw someone swapping her flag and thought they were trying to get in her home? “Did you see someone? Was it someone swapping out your flag?”

Gloria’s expression flashed from fear to annoyance. “Swapped my flag? My granddaughter gave me that for my birthday.”

Gloria’s top lip remerged somewhat less neon pink after its manhandling by the bottom. It made Charlotte wonder how much lipstick the average woman swallowed in a lifetime.

I’ll Google that later.

Right now, she had to divine what had upset Gloria. The woman seemed much less confused. Now she seemed peeved, and about something that made sense. That was a good sign.

She pointed toward the front of the house. “The parrot drinking cocktails. Is that your flag?”

“What? No. Why would my daughter let my sweet seven-year-old granddaughter buy me a flag with a boozehound parrot on it?”

“Fair enough.”

“My flag is a pair of flip flops and underneath it says Life’s a Beach.”

Charlotte smiled. Ah. A flag with a cutesy swap-out for a curse word. Much better seven-year-old material. She touched Gloria’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about your flag. I’m pretty sure I can find it. Did you see them take it?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

“Vandals switched a bunch of decorations last night and you ended up with a parrot. Someone else in the neighborhood has your flag. That’s why I’m here; trying to find the culprits and Darla’s witch.”

“Witchy-Poo is missing?”

Charlotte sighed. “I refuse to call her that, but yes.”

“Oh that’s terrible.”

Gloria put her hand on her chest and took a deep breath. In her Hawaiian flowered shirt she had more in common with the drinking parrot than she knew. She was an adorable woman; the human equivalent of a Pomeranian puppy with soft, tawny hair and large brown eyes. It made Charlotte want to cuddle her and tell her everything would be fine.

“So everyone got death threats?”

Charlotte straightened. “What?”

“Follow me.” Gloria tiptoed back to her kitchen, retrieved a piece of paper from her island and handed it to Charlotte.

Colorful letters clipped from magazines covered the lined yellow sheet, arranged to spell Give me whats mine or your dead. The good news was Gloria wasn’t losing her mind. Someone really had threatened her.

“You’re dead,” mumbled Charlotte.

Gloria gasped. “What?”

“It says your dead, y-o-u-r. Should be you’re dead, apostrophe r-e. They forgot the apostrophe in what’s, too.”

“Will any of that make me less dead?”

“I suppose not. I guess it just means they couldn’t find apostrophes to clip out.”

“What do they want?”

“I have no idea. Do you?”

Gloria shook her head. “I can’t imagine.”

Charlotte read the note several times and then picked at the edge of one of the pasted letters. “I thought only movie people cut letters out of magazines…and even then, only for ransom notes.”

“Nobody told me this neighborhood was so dangerous.”

“I wouldn’t worry. It must be kids playing a prank. Hey, did they put it in the mailbox? If they did it’s a federal offense.”

“No, it was slipped under my porch door.”

“Hm.” Charlotte noticed a partial fingerprint pressed into the glue. “Looks like there’s a—shoot.” She dropped the paper to the counter as if it had burned her fingers. “I shouldn’t be touching it; it’s evidence. We have to give this to Frank so they can dust it for fingerprints.”

She rapped herself on the side of the head with her knuckles. Rookie mistake.

Gloria scowled. “Why do you need fingerprints? I thought you said it was kids playing a prank?”

“It probably is. This and the flags being switched and whatnot…”

“So they aren’t targeting me?”

“No…but…so far you’re the only one who received a death threat.”

The blood drained from Gloria’s face and her eyes grew even larger. Clinging to a tree she’d pass for a bush baby.

“So it is just me.”

“As far as I know. I haven’t talked to half the residents yet.”

Gloria nodded, pushed past her and slipped into the spare bedroom. The door shut with the soft click of a lock turning. Charlotte followed and called through the door.

“Gloria, you can’t stay in your spare room for the rest of your life.”

“There are fewer windows in here.”

“So?”

“Snipers.”